It's win-or-go-home time.
The PIAA boys' basketball state playoffs begin this weekend, with 31 area teams bidding to reach Hershey and capture gold medals. Lower Merion (Class AAAA) and Imhotep Charter (AAA) are out to defend titles.
Here is a preview of the Class AAA and A tournaments, which begin Friday, and a predicted champion in each classification. We'll preview the Class AAAA and AA playoffs, which start Saturday, on Friday.
Imhotep comes in at less than full strength. The Panthers' top scoring threats, juniors Sean Lloyd and Devin Liggeons, are sidelined with wrist injuries.
"We're a little banged up, but no one is going to feel sorry for us," said Imhotep coach Andre Noble, whose squad was missing four players (also Deion Evans and Khalief Tinley) in last week's loss to Archbishop Carroll. "Playing good defense is going to be key for us."
In one of the best first-round matchups, Imhotep clashes with District 3 champ Susquehanna Township. Two months ago, the host Panthers, with Lloyd hitting two late free throws, nipped the Indians, 51-49.
Susquehanna is sparked by guards Nehemiah "Bud" Mack (17.6 ppg.) and Gabe Mack (10.6). The brothers have hit a combined 93 three-pointers.
Neumann-Goretti, with Ja'Quan Newton (21.7 ppg.) as its headliner, opens with District 3's Berks Catholic, which is powered by 6-foot-9 senior Nana Foulland and 6-7 junior Connor Jack. Foulland is headed to Bucknell.
Carroll, which fell to Imhotep by 54-45 in last year's final, takes on District 3's Manheim Central. Matt Walsh, a 6-4 junior, averages 16.9 points for the Barons.
Everyone is eyeing a possible semifinal meeting, their third of the season, between N-G and Carroll. If that materializes, Derrick Jones and the Patriots will be out to reverse a pair of losses, including a 67-62 defeat in the Catholic League semis, to the Saints.
Carroll, which we expect to easily handle Manheim Township, will likely face District 2 titlist Abington Heights in the second round. The Comets are fueled by 6-2 guard J.C. Show, who will join Foulland at Bucknell, and 6-10 senior Evan Maxwell, a Liberty signee.
Our predicted quarterfinalists: N-G, Allentown Central Catholic, Carroll, Philadelphia Electrical, Imhotep, Chartiers Valley, Central Valley, and Farrell.
We have N-G (eliminating ACC), Carroll (taking out PET), Chartiers Valley (dethroning Imhotep), and Farrell (upsetting Central Valley) reaching the semis.
In the semis, the Saints survive a major tussle with the revenge-minded Patriots, and Chartiers Valley, paced by savvy guards Matty McConnell and Jerrad Tuite, ousts Farrell.
Our winner? With Newton continuing his late-season tear, N-G captures its fourth state title with a 53-49 win at the Giant Center.
Church Farm, which bagged its fourth straight District 1 crown, and Distinct 12's Math, Civics & Sciences, more imposing than its 11-14 record indicates, are the area's top contenders.
The Griffins, led by senior guard Aondofa Anyam and Joey Shelton, last season reached the quarterfinals before losing to Rysheed Jordan and since-closed Vaux.
The Mighty Elephants, who are trying for their first state title since 2011, are sparked by guard Samir Doughty and 6-9 center Mike Watkins.
We have MC&S beating Church Farm in the quarterfinals, but losing to St. John Neumann, District 4's undefeated champ, in the semis. In the West, District 7's Lincoln Park makes it to Hershey by knocking off District 6's Bishop Carroll.
In the final, high-powered Lincoln Park, which features sophomore guard Maverick Rowan and 6-8 senior forward Elijah Minnie, blasts St. John Neumann, 83-57.