Indiana's oldest conference basketball tournament is back for its 97th year next week, as the first round of the ACAC Tournament starts Tuesday.
Nobody stands well ahead of the pack on the boys side – in the regular season or for the tournament – and with the random-draw bracket, plenty of outcomes seem possible heading into the first round.
Woodlan: The Warriors (4-3, 2-0 ACAC) are one of two teams without a conference loss two games into the ACAC regular-season slate. Their three losses so far have come against New Haven, Bellmont and Angola. But Woodlan has won two in a row against Adams Central and Wayne Trace by a combined five points, a welcome development for a team that last season went 0-8 in games decided by less than 10 points.
Bluffton: Picked to finish lower down in the conference standings heading into the season, the defending sectional champ Tigers are off to a 6-2 start and have yet to lose to a conference opponent. But defense will be key. Bluffton is giving up an average of just over 41 points in their six wins, while they've given up 70 and 71 in their two losses to Blackford and Norwell. The Tigers and Warriors will play each other on Saturday night, putting one of the teams into the driver's seat heading into the tournament.
South Adams: The Starfires have already eclipsed their two wins from last season, jumping out to a 4-3 record with a double overtime win over Winchester and victories over defending ACAC tournament champion Heritage and Churubusco.
South Adams vs. Bluffton: Two teams on the rise will meet in the first round Tuesday. The Tigers won the first meeting, 44-32 in December (it was the third game of the season for Bluffton and the first for the Starfires), where Bluffton's 14 made free throws essentially accounted for the margin of victory.
Heritage vs. Adams Central: This first-round meeting will be a rematch of last year's tournament finals, which the Patriots won 44-30. This time, both teams are looking for a pick-me-up to jump start the rest of the season, as Heritage has opened the season 1-7 and Adams Central is 2-6.
Woodlan vs. winner of South Adams-Bluffton: A first-round win is hardly a guarantee for Woodlan, especially when paired against a proud Jay County program that hasn't finished the season with a losing record since 2000-2001, even if the Patriots have lost eight in a row. But if the Warriors do reach the next round, that semifinal game will likely be the most competitive of the entire tournament.
4 players to watch
James Arnold, South Adams: The Starfires have been aided by an extra year of maturation across the roster, but Arnold has played a huge role in the team's improvement since last season. The junior missed last season with an ACL tear, but is averaging 16.6 points so far.
Hayden Nern, Bluffton: Like Arnold, Nern is an quarterback who has announced his arrival in the ACAC basketball scene as a junior. He appeared in just eight games last season, but is now the Tigers leading scorer at 18.8 points per game.
Tanner Cooley, Bluffton: Cooley, a senior, is averaging a double-double with 12.5 points and 10.6 rebounds. He's third in the area in rebounds, trailing only Blackhawk Christian's Caleb Furst and Norwell's Will Geiger.
Joe Reidy, Woodlan: The sophomore burst onto the scene last season, averaging 16.4 points and 6.4 rebounds as a freshman. Of course, he's not the Warriors' only weapon, as senior Aiden Bayman scored 20 on Wayne Trace in the Warriors' last game of 2019.
What: 97th edition for the boys, 46th for girls
When: Girls games start at 6 p.m., followed by boys. Bracket is the same for boys and girls
First Round, Jan. 14
Heritage at Adams Central
Jay County at Woodlan
South Adams at Bluffton
Second Round, Jan. 17
Southern Wells vs. winner of Heritage-Adams Central (held at boys' winner school)
Winner of Jay County-Woodlan vs. winner of South Adams-Bluffton (held at boys' winner school)
Consolation Round held Jan. 18 at Bluffton, starting at 10 a.m.
Finals: Jan. 18 at South Adams, starting at 6 p.m.