The West Memphis Blue Devils are done with non-conference play having won 10 of their 13 games. Now, it's time to get serious.
5A-East Conference play starts Friday, and the Blue Devils travel to Marion to take on the defending state champion Patriots in a game that could either propel the West Memphians to a strong start or find them playing catch-up.
Despite a late December loss to defending 6A state champion Fort Smith Northside, the Blue Devils find themselves in lofty ranking positions statewide. The West Memphis boys are ranked No. 2 overall in the state by MaxPreps and they are ranked No. 3 in the initial Arkansas Sports Media Poll.
Although the Patriots own a 4-8 record, that mark is skewed by their stout non-conference schedule that saw them lose three games in a national tournament in Las Vegas over the holidays.
Still, Blue Devils head coach Marcus Brown likes the way his team is playing as league play begins.
"We played some tough teams, some we beat, some we lost," said Brown. "But we got a chance to leave town to play in some tournaments, which gave us the opportunity to gel as teammates. I think the kids feel good and I think all of them understand their roles."
As has been the case in each of the last four seasons, the Blue Devils are led by superstar Chris Moore, an Auburn signee. Moore was named the Most Valuable Player in the Neosho (Mo.) Classic after Christmas. The 6-foot-7 forward scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the finale against Bentonville West.
In all, Moore hit 27 of the 32 shots he took from the field during the tournament.
"To me, the best thing to come out of the non-conference was to put the kids out on the road in some hostile environments," Brown added. "We went to Texas (two losses in Duncanville) and that was an eye-opener for our kids. The style of play and pace was off the charts. We turned it all around, though, by the time we got to Neosho."
With the departure of point guard Cavin "Big Daddy" Paige from last year's team, the Blue Devils don't have the facilitating capabilities this season, but with junior Jordan Mitchell running the show most of the time, Brown's club has played a noticeably faster pace this season.
Plus, it appears the team is a little deeper than it was last season when they finished second to Marion in the 5A-East Conference standings and made a run to the semifinals of the state tournament.
"We have some guys who can come off the bench and fill some voids," the Blue Devil chief said. "And I think where that is most visible is on defense. We may be a little better defensively this year than last year."
Marion's record belies its offensive potential with senior guards Detric Reeves and Makyi Boyce. Reeves is widely recognized as one of the top players in Arkansas. In five career games against West Memphis, Reeves has not scored less than 20 points in any one of them.
He could be a problem again for the Blue Devils.
"(Marion) has the title," said Brown. "It's always a big game, always a huge crowd and the atmosphere is just electric. We just gotta stay focused and do what we do best. Most likely, Reeves is going to get his points. Again, we have to be more concerned about what we do."
On the girls leger, the Lady Devils are flying high in the return of head coach Shelia Burns. They hold an 11-3 record and are ranked No. 23 overall in the state by MaxPreps and they are ranked No. 6 in Class 5A in the Arkansas Sports Media Poll.
The guard tandem of senior Aryah Hazley and ninth-grader Taniya Tucker has been powerful for the West Memphis girls. Plus, the inside defense from Tiera Bradley has been noteworthy.
Marion comes in with a 7-8 record under head coach Shunda Johnson, a former Lady Devil player.
Tipoff for the girls game should be approximately 6 p.m. at Patriot Arena.