Coming into the 2016-17 season there was plenty of hype around the Plymouth Whitemarsh boys basketball team. And why not? The team was coming off a district championship and returning some key players who helped earn it.
But there was something else everyone was talking about — a new guard.
That guard is transfer Ish Horn.
Before the season head coach Jim Donofrio compared Horn to Xzavier Malone — the Division I college player who starred for last year’s district championship team.
At first glance it’s an easy comparison. They both transferred to Plymouth Whitemarsh from Martin Luther King going into their junior seasons. But the similarities go beyond that.
“Ish is very similar in abilities like Xzavier Malone,” Donofrio said back in December. “Very similar in skill level and athleticism. In an open floor game, he may end up being our most natural scorer and may end up potentially leading the team in scoring … He’s very, very gifted as a player.”
Horn didn’t get too much playing time during the season. He was one of the first guys off the bench behind starters Ahmin and Ahmad Williams and Cheo Houston. But when Ahmin Williams suffered a foot injury in the regular-season finale against Upper Moreland, it became clear that Horn would be taking on a bigger role.
He’s averaged 15.6 points per game since taking over a starting role. In the Suburban One League Tournament he scored 18 points against Pennsbury and 10 against Abington and he scored 19 points in the District 1 Class-6A second-round game against Central Bucks East Tuesday.
Winning the SOL Tournament wasn’t the most important thing to Donofrio, but he saw the value in Horn getting experience before districts.
“We’re not going to have our heart crushed over not winning the Suburban One League postseason tournament,” Donofrio said after they lost to Abington less than two weeks ago.
“You get to play Abington in a good, high-paced game,” Donofrio added about how it helped Horn. “Get a feel for each other. You have guys on the floor who have to learn fast. (The team) just changed (its) style. You went fast but what you lose in Ahmin Williams is an unbelievable physical competitor.”
The No. 2 seeded Colonials host No. 7 Conestoga at 7 p.m. Friday night.
They will need to play their best basketball of the season if they want to reach the district semifinals at Temple University for the third consecutive season.
And Horn will need to be a big part of that.
Perk Valley vs. Cheltenham
No. 1 Perk Valley hosts No. 8 Cheltenham at 7 p.m. Friday night.
The Vikings beat Garnet Valley in overtime in the second round and Cheltenham knocked off Spring-Ford. The wins secured PV its first state title berth ever and Cheltenham’s first since 2006.
This matchup should showcase a contrast of styles.
Perk Valley — the Pioneer Athletic Conference champs — rely a lot on shooting. It goes as senior Justin Jaworski goes. And lately that’s been very good. The guard has scored 30 or more points in each of the last three games.
Cheltenham plays more of a physical brand of basketball with balanced scoring. Four different players — Ahmad Bickley, Trevon Pitts, Jack Clark and Rodney Carson each scored in double figures in the Panthers second-round win over Spring-Ford.
Last year in the first round of the District 1 Class-4A playoffs, No. 20 seeded PV upset No. 13 seeded Cheltenham.
Coatesville vs. North Penn
No. 4 Coatesville hosts No. 5 North Penn at 7 p.m. Friday night.
Both teams got here with 10-point wins after first-round byes. Coatesville knocked off Downingtown West and North Penn rallied past former SOL Continental rival Hatboro-Horsham.
The Red Raiders showed poise in their win over Downingtown West. With five minutes left in a one-point game, they turned up the pressure defensively to force turnovers and they went eight-for-nine from the free-throw line to seal the deal.
North Penn took over early in the third quarter against Hatboro and hit a couple key shots down the stretch to clinch a state title berth and advance in the district tournament.
The Knights have one of the most balanced teams in the area. The SOL Continental champs will put their athletes — Reece Udinski, Ricky Johns, Lance Ford and co. — against their opponent’s and expect to come out on top.
Abington vs. Penn Wood
No. 3 Abington hosts No. 11 Penn Wood at 7 p.m. Friday night.
The Ghosts topped Norristown in the second round and Penn Wood upset Pennsbury.
Abington has that “team nobody wants to face” feel to it. It’s coming off a perfect record in the SOL National Conference and its second SOL Tournament championship in the last three years.
The last time the Ghosts won the SOL Tournament, they won the District 1 championship in 2014.
Junior guard Robbie Heath — who started as a freshman on that team — has the ability to score at the perimeter or driving to the lane. Match that with sophomore center Eric Dixon’s 6-foot-8 from inside and you have one of the more difficult offenses in the area to defend.
District 1 Class-6A playback
The eight teams that lost Tuesday will have a chance to win their way into the state tournament. The two teams that get to the end of the playback bracket will qualify for states with the winner earning District 1’s ninth seed and the loser the 10th seed.
Spring-Ford vs. Garnet Valley
No. 9 Spring-Ford hosts No. 16 Garnet Valley at 7 p.m. Friday night.
The Rams are coming off a 66-52 loss to No. 8 Cheltenham and GV lost to No. 1 Perk Valley in overtime.
Both of these teams were recently in position to beat Perk Valley. Spring-Ford had a seven-point fourth quarter lead in the PAC championship game before losing by seven and Garnet Valley had an eight-point advantage in the fourth before losing in the extra session.
These two evenly matched teams should be in for a hard-fought battle.
Downingtown West vs. Hatboro-Horsham
No. 13 Downingtown West hosts No. 21 Hatboro-Horsham at 7 p.m. Friday night.
West is coming off a 10-point loss to Coatesville in the second round and Hatboro lost by the same margin to North Penn.
The Hatters held a lead in the second half against the Knights, but couldn’t keep up when the district’s No. 5 seed got going.
They will again lean on Clifton Moore to try to upset West and keep their state playoff hopes alive. The Indiana commit scored 10 points in the loss against North Penn and almost had a triple double in the team’s opening round win. He scored 20 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked nine shots in the Hatters 34-32 double overtime win over CB West.
Pennsbury vs. Norristown
No. 6 Pennsbury hosts No. 19 Norristown at 7 p.m. Friday night.
Pennsbury was upset by No. 11 Penn Wood in the second-round of the playoffs, 71-55, and Norristown lost to arguably the hottest team in District 1, Abington, 48-32.
Pennsbury finished second in the SOL National Conference this season — four games behind Abington. Norristown finished fourth in the Pioneer Athletic Conference.
The Eagles have been playing good basketball as of late. They are 4-3 in their last seven games, but each of the three losses were solid performances against the No. 1 seed in District 1 Class-6A Perk Valley twice and against No. 3 seeded Abington.
District 1 Class-2A
No. 2 seeded Dock Mennonite Academy faces No. 3 Delco Christian in the District 1 Class-2A semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday night at Dock.
The Bicentennial Athletic League Presidents rivals finished second and third in the standings, with Dock posting an 11-6 league record and Delco Christian 10-7.
The teams played each other once this season on Jan. 9. The Pioneers lost at home, 64-50.
The winner clinches a spot in the state playoffs and will face the winner of No. 1 Church Farm and No. 4 Bristol in the district championship game Saturday March 4 at Council Rock South.