The last week of the regular season is fast approaching and league play is coming to an end. This article provides an updated ranking of the Top 15 Teams in the Central Section, as updated from my previous Section rankings from mid-December. The top 3 teams in the Central Section have created some distance from the rest of the field, with Clovis West sitting alone at #1. Although other state rankings have St. Joseph and San Joaquin Memorial ranked #2 and #3 respectively, I have them tied at #2. I provide an analysis of why I have them tied at #2, as the Knights have played a solid out-of-state schedule, whereas the Panthers have played better competition within California, which has more depth than any other state in the country. After the top 3 teams, there is not a lot of separation between Clovis North at #4 and Central of Fresno at #8. Although Clovis North holds its fate at the #4 spot in its own hands, Mt. Whitney is close behind as the only undefeated team in the Central Section. I provide a more detailed breakdown of how three of the next five teams could still contend for the 4th and final spot in the Open Division. The remaining seven teams (#9-#15) are either at the top of their league or are likely to make strong runs at Sectional Championships in Divisions 1 and 2. For these rankings, I have taken into consideration the strength of schedule, wins and losses against common opponents, and head-to-head match-ups. I have spoken with coaches, media outlets, and others in the basketball community in the Central Section in putting these rankings together. We begin with the top team in the Section, the Clovis West Golden Eagles. 

1. Clovis West Golden Eagles (25-1): 

The Golden Eagles have been dominant throughout TRAC league play, as they have handed each opponent a double-digit loss and improved to 7-0 with a 97-87 win over the Central Grizzlies of Fresno Tuesday night. Clovis West has lost only one game this season, to Pleasant Valley of Chico in the 2nd round of the Modesto Christian Holiday Hoops Classic, where the Golden Eagles were missing 4 starters due to Covid protocols. It is not a guarantee that the Golden Eagles would have won out at the Holiday Hoops Classic, as the host team played extremely well en route to winning the tournament, but Clovis West would have been a likely presence in the championship game if at full strength. Although the talent in the TRAC league is not as deep as it has been in recent years, it is still the toughest league in the Central Section and the dominance that the Golden Eagles have shown throughout league play, as well as in the preseason, is why I have them at the top of these rankings for the Central Section. The Golden Eagles have secured key wins over San Joaquin Memorial, St. Francis of La Canada, Canyon Springs of Las Vegas, Shadow Hills of Indio, Clovis North, Centennial of Bakersfield, Bakersfield Christian, and Central of Fresno. CalHi Sports currently has Clovis West ranked #11 in their team state rankings for California and assuming they win out, the Golden Eagles are likely to earn the top seed in the Central Section Open Division, where the road to the championship would go through the Eagles Nest.  

T-2. St. Joseph Knights/Santa Maria (22-2): 

The defending Central Section Open Division Champs have backed up last season’s success with another season of successes winning tournaments, and dominating in the Central Coast Mountain league play with Arroyo Grande being the only team to hang close, as the Knights beat the Eagles 75-69 in overtime. The Knights have suffered only 2 losses this season, both coming in the Mission Prep Christmas Classic to CalHi Sports #20 Heritage Christian and Sagemont of Florida. Despite the impressive 22 wins this season, I have the Knights tied with the Panthers at #2 in these rankings because, although the Knights have defeated some quality teams out of state, the Panthers have better wins over teams in California. Given the level of depth and talent of teams in California high school basketball, this is an important factor to take into consideration. The Knights’ quality out-of-state wins have come against the #1 ranked team in Colorado in ThunderRidge, and the #1 ranked team in Alaska in East Anchorage at the Alaska Airlines Classic. Although these wins are very impressive, the Knights lack a quality win over a California team, as the game against Sierra Canyon on January 5th was canceled due to Covid protocols. The best win over a fellow California team for the Knights this season was against the Clovis North Broncos, which is why I have them tied with the Panthers. CalHi Sports currently has the Knights ranked #13 in their updated team rankings on California. Given the lack of real competition in league, I would have the Knights winning out and as it sits now would likely end up with the #2 seed in the Open Division Sectional Playoffs.

T-2. San Joaquin Memorial Panthers/Fresno (16-6):

The Panthers main storyline this season has been the monster scoring performances put on by the Central Section’s top overall prospect in senior guard and Fresno State bound Joseph Hunter. Hunter has been the reason that the Panthers have played in top divisions in some of the best tournaments and showcases in the Western Region, which has led to San Joaquin having 6 losses on the season yet still being a top 3 team in the Central Section. I have the Panthers tied with the Knights at the #2 spot in these rankings because of the teams they have beat in California, and even some of the losses they have suffered at the hands of nationally-ranked teams. The Panthers have earned wins over fellow California teams outside the Central Section in Rancho Christian of Temecula, Los Altos of Hacienda Heights, and JSerra of San Juan Capistrano. The Panthers have played the following ranked teams in California in #11 Clovis West, #12 Modesto Christian, and #14 Rolling Hills Prep, and although they all ended in losses, they have played a more rigorous schedule compared to the Knights and the Golden Eagles. Clovis West has the head-to-head win so that gives them the edge over the Panthers, but I am confident that San Joaquin Memorial’s record would be better than 16-6 if they had played in the lower divisions or the same tournaments as the teams ahead of them. Nevertheless, CalHi Sports has the Panthers ranked #19 and they will likely go undefeated in league play, and if seedings stay as is currently configured by MaxPreps, they would end up with the #3 seed in the Open Division Section Playoffs. I would argue it is a toss-up between the Knights and the Panthers for the #2 and #3 seeds, but either way it looks like we will get a rematch of last year’s Open Division Championship Game in the semifinals this year. 

4. Clovis North Broncos (15-9):

The Broncos round out my top 4 seeds, although there is a lot of debate around the Section as to whether or not the Pioneers of Mt. Whitney deserves a shot if they finish the regular season undefeated. However, after looking at the body of work, I would keep the Broncos at this spot if they win out through the rest of TRAC league play. The Broncos got off to a hot start this season, with the apex being the shocking win over current CalHi Sports #12 Modesto Christian, who at the time was ranked #6, at the Clovis West Nike Invitational. The Broncos continued their solid play at the Mission Prep Christmas Classic, going 3-1 with the only loss coming at the hands of the Knights of St. Joseph. However, after the strong start, the Broncos had a tough go at The Classic at Damien, as they were without their best player and head coach due to Covid protocols. As TRAC league play got underway, the Broncos suffered a tough loss to Clovis West, and fell to the Central Grizzlies a week later. However, the Broncos seem to be getting back into form as the season winds down and if they run the table in league play, I would have Clovis North as the #4 seed in the Open Division. If the Broncos were to fall into Division 1 Sectional Playoffs, they would be my favorite to win a Sectional Championship. 

5. Mt. Whitney Pioneers/Visalia (25-0):

The Pioneers are the only undefeated team left in the Central Section, as they have won multiple tournaments, and got a signature win over the Bakersfield Christian Eagles to solidify some of the doubt as to whether they could hang with the larger programs in the Section. The Pioneers have key wins over Dinuba, Bakersfield Christian, Lemoore, Kingsburg, and have dominated West Yosemite League play winning each game by double digits. Although the Pioneers have not played the most rigorous schedule in the Central Section, they are an experienced team that moves the ball well, shoots the ball with efficiency from beyond the arc, and does not get phased when the game gets tight. Although they are undefeated and there has been discussion of Mt. Whitney being in the Open Division depending on how Clovis North finishes league play, the Pioneers would be best served as the #1 seed in Division 2, where the road to the Section Championship would go through their house. 

6. Clovis East Timberwolves (16-10):

The Timberwolves have been one of the biggest surprises of the season in the Central Section, as they have accumulated some impressive wins after a rough start. Similar to the other Clovis schools, the Timberwolves are very well coached and they have gotten the most out of their roster this year, which has been led by senior guard Camden Thompson. The Timberwolves have earned key wins against Bakersfield Christian, Gregori of Modesto, Liberty of Bakersfield, Central of Fresno, and are currently tied for 3rd place in the TRAC league with Clovis North and Central. The Timberwolves move the ball very well, execute their offense with precision, keep the pressure up on defense, and leave it all on the court. Depending on where the Timberwolves are placed with the new format for the postseason, if they were to end up in Division 2, I could see them making a run at the Section Championship and will be a tough game for any opponent. 

7. Bakersfield Christian Eagles (13-9):

The Eagles are coming off back-to-back Central Section Division 3 Championships and have played another rigorous schedule this season, which has led to some impressive wins, as well as some tough losses. The Eagles have been led by senior guards Jackson Tucker and Erick Chaney, who have been one of the most productive duos in the Central Section on both ends of the court. The Eagles have earned key wins against Central of Fresno, Weston Ranch of Stockton, St. Francis of La Canada, and Independence of Bakersfield. Despite some tough losses, the Eagles have played a tough schedule and currently are tied for 1st place in the South Yosemite League, with the Independence Falcons. The Eagles have a great one-two punch, yet have been the victim of slow starts throughout the month of January. Bakersfield Christian has been a team that can light it up from the 3 point line, but when they are off that has led to struggles to score offensively. Currently, the Eagles are slated to be in Division 2 for the playoffs, and when they are on their game they have a real chance at winning their 3rd straight Sectional Championship. 

8. Central Grizzlies/Fresno (14-9):

The Grizzlies have had some bright spots this season, which almost led to the biggest upset of the season in the Central Section on Wednesday night, as they were up by 22 points on Clovis West. The Eagles rallied back in the 4th quarter and ran away with it in overtime. That win would have catapulted the Grizzlies into the top 4 for these rankings, but with the loss I have Central at the #8 seed in the Section. The Grizzlies are one of the most athletic teams in the Section, with great length and size to impact the game on both ends of the court. The Grizzlies have key wins over Edison of Stockton, Clovis North, Compton High, and Folsom. The loss to Clovis East and Bakersfield Christian is why I have them ranked at #8, but next Tuesday’s match-up against Clovis North will have huge implications for the Open Division and the TRAC league. If the Grizzlies can sweep the season series against the Broncos and win out, they would have a good case for being the #4 seed in the Open Division, but it is more likely they end up in Division 1. 

9. Centennial Golden Hawks/Bakersfield (15-7):

The Golden Hawks have been one of the most consistent and predictable teams in the Central Section this season. They have won games they were supposed to win and lost games they were not favored to win. The Golden Hawks have played some quality competition throughout California, but lack that signature win to move them up these rankings. The Golden Hawks had an 8-game winning streak this season before suffering back-to-back losses at the Clovis Elks Tournament, but resumed their winning ways as Southwest Yosemite League play got started in early January. Centennial is 5-0 in league and sits alone at the top after back-to-back wins over Liberty of Bakersfield this past week. The Golden Hawks are currently in Division 2 for the Central Section playoffs, but if they win their league outright I would prefer to see Centennial in Division 1. They have the depth and versatility to make a deep run in Division 1, but if they were to stay in Division 2 they would be one of the favorites to win a Section Championship. 

10. Independence Falcons/Bakersfield (11-9):

The Falcons have played one of the toughest schedules of any team in the Central Section and got a huge win last week over SYL rival Bakersfield Christian, which put them in a 2-way tie with the Eagles for 1st place in league. The Falcons have been led by senior guard Cameron Brown, who has really upped his level of play the past month and has been a leader on both ends of the court. The Falcons, similar to the Golden Hawks, have defeated the teams they were expected to beat and have lost to teams they were underdogs against. Their signature win this season was against Bakersfield Christian, as the Eagles have dominated league play the last few seasons. The Falcons are currently in Division 2, and the last full year of high school basketball before the pandemic hit, they won the Division 2 Sectional Championship. If they stay in that division, they would be one of the favorites to make a run at a 2nd championship in 3 years, but if they win out and end the season tied for 1st place in the SYL, that may shoot them up to Division 1, which would make the task much more difficult. 

11. Bullard Knights/Fresno (13-11):

The Knights have had moments where they look impressive, and other games where they struggle to produce offensively. Despite the ups and downs of the season, the Knights are currently in 3rd place in the County-Metro League, after suffering a close loss to Sanger Wednesday night. Bullard typically gets it going as playoffs ramp up, as was the case last season when they won the Central Section D1 Championship after multiple changes to the roster. This season is not about roster changes as much as it is about the youth of the roster and a bulk of the scoring and rebounding falling on the shoulder of senior guard/wing/forward Lejuan Watts. If Bullard were to land in Division 2, they would be a tough out for any team and likely be a favorite to win the Championship. Division 1 would be a tough road for the Knights but again, they have been a team of surprises the past few seasons. 

12. Sanger Apaches (13-11):

The Apaches suffered some tough losses early in the season, but since the return of senior forward Jonathon Dillon, Sanger has looked much improved, as was evident by the big win over Bullard Wednesday night to remain in 2nd place in the County-Metro League behind San Joaquin Memorial. The Apaches currently would be in Division 3 for Sectional playoffs, where they have the size and skill to be a threat to win the championship. If they were to move up to Division 2, they would still be able to make some noise, but the lack of depth at the guard position could be a problem in making a run. 

13. Liberty Patriots/Bakersfield (14-6):

The Patriots have been one of the top teams in the South Valley this season, with a lot of success against the teams on the Central Coast. The Patriots have size and length to be an effective team on the glass, which has given them advantages over most opponents this season. However, offensively, sophomore Deshaun Usochu has had to carry the load scoring the ball, but there has been a lack of offensive contribution from more than 1 or 2 players beyond Usochu. The Patriots are currently in 2nd place in the SWYL, after suffering back-to-back losses to 1st place Centennial. If the Patriots get a Division 2 bid for the playoffs, they could have a shot to make a run, but anything above that would be difficult given the lack of scoring diversity. 

14. Sunnyside Wildcats/Fresno (20-5):

The Wildcats have continued to get better as the season has progressed behind the leadership of senior wing/guard Dea’Shaun Bias and a host of young talent. The Wildcats have earned some solid wins over the last month against Hanford, Roosevelt, and Hoover. The Wildcats are in 1st place in the North Yosemite League at 7-0, but the league has been hit hard by Covid protocols and led to multiple forfeits. Nevertheless, Sunnyside could pose some problems for teams in Division 2, and if they were to be placed in Division 3 they could have a shot at the Section Championship. 

15. Dinuba Emperors (22-3):

The Emperors round out my Top 15 as they have had an impressive season with tournament wins and currently hold the top spot in the Central Sequoia League, with their only loss coming to Selma behind junior guard Nic Esparaza’s 37 point performance. The Emperors played Mt. Whitney closely, and fell just short to the Pioneers, 46-42. The Emperors are not likely to lose another league game, which would have them as the #2 seed in Division 2 Sectional playoffs. Dinuba is a solid team that plays very well together and keeps pressure on the defense all game long. Given the high seed they are likely to get for the playoffs, the Emperors will enjoy the luxury of being at home throughout the postseason, which will be tough for any opponent having to make that trip.