The Lakers have battled with the Cougars five times in the past two seasons and will square off for a sixth time today in the Class B regional semifinals at Grand Rapids West Catholic High School at 6 p.m.
Last season, Grand Rapids Catholic Central won two narrow contests during the regular season to edge the Lakers for an O-K Blue Conference championship. Spring Lake got the last laugh, however, as they upset the Cougars in the regional finals.
The 2017-18 season has been a different story between the two squads.
Other than a lopsided loss to Godwin Heights in December and a narrow loss to Class A West Ottawa in the regular season finale, the Cougars have breezed through their schedule to a gaudy 20-2 record.
In their two matchups with the Lakers, Catholic Central has outscored Spring Lake 139-79 and have made it clear they haven't forgotten about last season's loss in the playoffs.
The Lakers only other losses on the season were to Class A powerhouse Forest Hills Central and bitter rival Coopersville. They enter today's game with a six-game winning streak and have embraced their role as the underdogs.
"All of the pressure is on them," said Spring Lake head coach Bill Core on Sunday. "They're one of the top-ranked teams in the state, they've got the Division 1 athletes and they have to deal with all the pressure that comes with those accolades. We're just going to go out there and hopefully, play our best basketball."
Point Guard: Austin Braun (5-10)
Shooting Guard: Devon Boyd (6-foot)
Small Forward: Darrell Belcher (6-2)
Power Forward: Marcus Bingham Jr. (6-10)
Center: Jacob Polakovich (6-8)
The Cougars return as talented a frontcourt duo of any team in the state in seniors Marcus Bingham Jr. and Jacob Polakovich. Bingham, a Michigan State University commit, is averaging 13.5 points a game against the Lakers this season, while Polakovich scored 20 in the first matchup against Spring Lake.
The Laker defense has forced Bingham Jr. to be mostly a mid-range jump shooter in their matchups, while Polakovich has been a force in the paint. If Spring Lake is going to stick with the Cougars, contested Bingham's shots and keeping Polakovich off the offensive glass will be paramount on defense.
On the offensive end of the court, the Lakers will have to find a way to get the duo in foul trouble early. They accomplished that last year in the regional finals, and the end result was a subpar performance from both players. Bingham Jr.'s length at 6-10 will alter any shot at the rim, while Polakovich's size in the paint will make it difficult for the Lakers to get any offensive rebounds.
"We know what those two guys are capable of doing on any given night," added Core. "Bingham Jr. is a talented scorer, but he might be the most dangerous as a weak-side offensive rebounder. We have to make sure we keep a body on him at all times on the defensive end. Polakovich is another guy that has an assort of low-post moves he can go to, and we have to make sure he only gets one crack at it. If they get multiple looks at the basket, they will make you pay."
The Catholic Central backcourt might be the biggest reason for the team's uptick this winter. Junior point guard Austin Braun has continued to progress as a floor general, often setting up his teammates in an excellent position to score. Braun has already set a new school record for career assists with another season still coming up for the crafty point guard.
Darrell Belcher, a transfer from East Kentwood, has made a big splash for the Cougars this season. The 6-2 junior slasher has been a difficult assignment for the Lakers, scoring 19 points in the first meeting and 13 in the second.
Devon Boyd, a 6-foot sophomore guard, has also become a regular scoring threat from outside for the Cougars. Although, he has only scored a combined 10 points in his two games against the Lakers, his long-range accuracy and quick initial step off the dribble force the defense to take account of his whereabouts at all times.
"The big thing with Braun is that he doesn't make a lot of mistakes," added Core. "He's pretty steady with what he does and he knows the offense. Belcher is an athletic scorer that can get in the lane pretty easily. We have to make sure we beat him to the spot on defense, and be willing to take a charge if it's there. We had probably five opportunities in our second game against them to take a charge, and I believe Belcher was there on three of them."
5 KEYS FOR SPRING LAKE
Keep Belcher out of the lane
Keep Polakovich off the glass
Get Bingham Jr. in foul trouble
Take care of the ball
Knock down some 3s
3-Point Shooting: The long-ball is often a great equalizer in the game of basketball. In most tournament upsets, a red-hot shooting team and sometimes overcome their shortcomings by having an excellent night from outside. If the Lakers can knock down a barrage of three-point attempts and keep the Cougars' defense on their toes, that could open up the post game for Johnson and Lorimer.
"We realize that we are going to need some bounces to go our way Monday night," said Core. "We need to play our best game of the season and they need to have an off-night. That's just how talented they; if they play their A-plus game, there are not many teams in the state that can beat them."
Grand Rapids Catholic Central 62, Spring Lake 50
Last season, the Lakers hung with the Cougars in their two regular-season matchups. That wasn't the case this winter, and with the recent loss by Godwin Heights in the district finals, Catholic Central appears to be the Class B favorites moving forward.
I think Spring Lake keeps it close late into the contest, but there might not be a more dynamic team in the state this year than GRCC, and they aren't going to take Spring Lake lightly after last season.