Undefeated Moeller basketball team understands the challenge against Pickerington Central

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Moeller basketball coach Carl Kremer doesn’t schedule the regular season with the idea of his team being undefeated. That would be too unrealistic most seasons.

But the Crusaders have that distinction and are in the state Final Four with an opportunity to complete a rare feat Saturday night.

Moeller (27-0), ranked No. 15 nationally by MaxPreps, is trying to become the first Division I boys’ basketball team to win a state title while going undefeated since Zanesville (26-0) in 1995.

Moeller has already set a new program record for most wins in a season. This is the sixth state tournament appearance for the Crusaders and the first trip to the Schottenstein Center since it was state runner-up in 2010.

The thing is, Moeller isn't even thinking about Saturday night. They have a very formidable challenge with Pickerington Central (26-2) in a Division I state semifinal at 5:15 p.m. Friday at the Schottenstein Center. It's a battle between the top two teams in the final Associated Press poll. 

Riley Voss of Moeller cuts down the net after beating La Salle 38-32 in last week’s Regional Final. (Michael Noyes/WCPO Contributor)

And don’t start to think Moeller is actually getting caught up in its undefeated record or national ranking.

“It certainly doesn’t mean anything Friday night when we line up against this great team,” said Kremer, who has 518 career wins.

Top to bottom Pickerington Central is likely the most talented team Moeller will play this season.

“It’s going to take our best effort by far of the year to have a chance to defeat them,” Kremer said.

Pickerington Central is led by senior 6-foot-11 center Sterling Manley, a North Carolina signee who averages 15.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.6 assists.

Manley is efficient from the floor, can handle the ball for a player his size and is solid from the free-throw line.

“He’s just a freak of nature, particularly at the high school level,” Kremer said. “He is going to change a lot. He’s the ultimate rim defender. That’s something we are going to have to deal with.”

The Tigers, ranked No. 2 in the season’s final Associated Press state poll behind Moeller, are also led by sophomore point guard Jeremiah Francis, who is a potential high major college player with scholarship offers from Ohio State, Purdue, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Nebraska and TCU, among others. 

Francis was the Ohio Capital Conference Player of the Year and averages 15.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists.

Francis, the son of former Pickerington Central coach and Ohio State player Jerry Francis, can score in transition and has an excellent mid-range game.

“He’s really the engine that makes us go,” Pickerington Central coach Eric Krueger said. He pushes the tempo for us. He shoots the ball extremely well. He’s still very young as a sophomore but has grown in his leadership.”

Krueger, who played high school basketball at Chaminade Julienne, is familiar with Moeller and the Greater Catholic League.

Pickerington Central’s only losses came to New Albany and to Wheeler (Georgia) in the Flyin’ to the Hoops tournament in Kettering in mid-January. The Tigers average 68.2 points and allow 51.7 points per game.

“I would say looking at (Pickerington Central) they will be the most physically impressive team we will play all year,” Kremer said. “There is no question about that.”

Krueger said Moeller is 27-0 for a reason. He expects the Crusaders will aim to slow down the game.

“Moeller has obviously been good for a long time,” Krueger said. “They are well coached, tough and physical. They have high IQ kids that do a lot of things right. They’ve had a great season.”

Moeller is used to adapting to different styles. It won’t likely a methodical, slow-down style of the regional final game like La Salle.

The Crusaders must slow the Tigers’ transition and rebound well.

Moeller outrebounded its opponents in the regional tournament and had the double the amount against La Salle. Krueger noticed those aspects when he watched the regional final at Wright State March 17.

“They’ve always done the right thing on the basketball court,” Krueger said. “They make the right pass and take charges. They don’t turn the ball over and they rebound well.”

The Crusaders will continue to rely on the players who’ve helped them reach the regional final.

Those include the likes of junior point guard Isaiah Payton, senior guard Caleb Canter, senior forward Riley Voss (Cornell signee) and senior guard Keegan McDowell (Liberty signee) along with sophomore guard Miles McBride.

Moeller guard Miles McBride shoots a lay up against La Salle Friday night. (Michael Noyes/WCPO Contributor)

Payton has been very solid at the point all postseason and Voss is capable of extending the defense with his perimeter game. McDowell had 10 points, eight rebounds and two assists against La Salle.

McBride had a career-high 22 points on 7 of 8 shooting including three 3-pointers against Mason March 15.

The Crusaders have also received solid minutes from junior 6-5 guard/forward Jeremiah Davenport, whose athleticism was key in the regional tournament.

"We call ourselves 'in the fish bowl,'" Davenport said after the regional final. "Everybody is outside and we're inside. We're not letting anybody inside. Get rid of all the hype and staying focused on what we need to do and what we need to accomplish - that's pretty much it."

Kremer said it will take a great deal of preparation and execution for Friday night though his players have risen to the occasion multiples time this postseason.

“We’ve really had a charmed year,” Kremer said. “We really don’t schedule here at Moeller with the idea of going unbeaten. We schedule aggressively. We have a nice blend of players and versatile players. We just have solid kids everywhere.”

The winner plays either Lakewood St. Edward or Massillon Jackson in the state final at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

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