(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
The Bulldogs will travel to play the Poplar Bluff Mules on their homecoming night at E.T. "Pete" Peters Gymnasium on Friday with junior varsity action starting at 6 p.m.
Poplar Bluff enters the game with perhaps its best team in school history.
The Mules are 20-1 and are ranked No. 2 in Class 5. The team's only loss came to Little Rock Mills 71-51 in the Poplar Bluff Showdown.
The team defeats its opponents by an average score of 73-52 and they are ranked No. 1 in the SEMO Regional poll.
"They're one of the great teams in the state," said Sikeston head coach Gregg Holifield. "Going there with their homecoming, it's going to be emotional and it's going to be a tough situation to play in. But it's games like this that will help us down the stretch. I feel it will get us more prepared for the district tournament."
But even with all of those accolades, Sikeston (8-10) may be the one area team that has the best chance of beating the Mules so far.
Poplar Bluff has already defeated the Bulldogs this year when they won 52-48 back in the Sikeston tournament in December.
But the Bulldogs have had uncanny success at Peters Gymnasium, winning eight games in a row since Feb. of 1993.
Four of those eight wins have come in district tournament play, the other four were regular season games against the Mules.
Poplar Bluff has a 16-game home winning streak going with its last loss coming to Sikeston in overtime (73-64) in Feb. 2001.
The Bulldogs also staged a huge upset of the Mules last season, winning 48-46 at the Sikeston Field House.
"Sikeston's always been a big rivalry for us," said Poplar Bluff head coach John David Pattillo. "It's homecoming for us and it's always nice to have Sikeston come over. When we go over to their place it's always going to be a big game and it's always going to be competitive. Coach Holifield does a wonderful job with his kids and I think the world of him."
Since taking over the head coaching position at Sikeston in the 1998-99 season, Holifield is 5-4 against Poplar Bluff.
But on Friday night, Holifield and his Bulldogs will probably be the biggest underdogs they've been in all the meetings he's had with the Mules.
Poplar Bluff has the total package.
They have budding superstar Tyler Hansbrough, a 6-foot-8 sophomore who is averaging 19 points per game.
They have a returning all-state guard in Tony Webb, who is averaging 13.2 points per game and is just 38 points shy of becoming the third Poplar Bluff to ever reach 1,000 points in a career.
And they have the deepest bench in Southeast Missouri as Coach Pattillo can go 12 deep.
"(Hansbrough) requires a lot of attention, but the problem is they have so many good players around him that if you focus too much on him those other guys can bite you," said Holifield. "They are the real deal. They've got several good players, they're very deep, they have great size, great quickness and they shoot the basketball well. It's just a well-rounded team. That's why they're 20-1, bottom line."
Holifield said that deep bench played a role in the Bulldogs' loss to the Mules in December.
"One of the big things in that game was our sixth man (Marcus McCaster) was out of the game and that made our depth shy," said Holifield. "We were leading with about four or five minutes to go but we seemed to wear down a little bit. The last three minutes of the game they out-played us basically and pulled away with a close win."
Poplar Bluff's other starters are seniors with Cheron Pearson (9.5 ppg), Desi Higgs (7.8 ppg) and Tyler Lance (3.7 ppg) all capable of having big nights.
Devon Brown and Anthony Gilberto are both outstanding shooters off the bench.
But even with all of that, Holifield feels his brutal schedule has his team well-prepared for what the Mules bring to the table.
"They're very comparable to a (Illinois top-ranked) Madison," said Holifield. "Madison's probably a little more athletic, but I feel like the schedule we've played up to this point will prepare us and put us into a position to compete with Poplar Bluff. It's going to be a very exciting atmosphere over there, I know it's going to be a packed gym and I know their fans are very excited. We just have to go in there with our game-plan and try to execute and do the best job we can."
Sikeston is led by returning all-stater Lontas McClinton, who averages 19 points and 10 rebounds per game.
McClinton eclipsed the 1,000-point mark in his career last week, becoming the first Sikeston Bulldog to do so since Bryan Ellitt in 2000.
The Mules contained McClinton last season, holding him to 10 points. But the senior pumped in 20 points in the Dec. meeting.
"I don't know that he necessarily has to be completely stopped, just the fact that we have to play well all the way around and not allow the other guys get second shots," said Pattillo. "We just have to do a good job of contesting him and denying him basketball. All in all we've done a pretty good job of that in the past. We've got to make sure that we do what we normally do and not let him get loose too much."
After McClinton, the Bulldogs have senior Lavar Morgan, who torched the Mules for a career-high 26 points in last season's win.
Morgan averages 14.5 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists per game.
Seniors Michael Colon, Lawrence Davis and Ben Anderson combine to average 17.5 points, 14 rebounds and six assists per game.
Anderson averages two blocks per game.
McCaster, a 6-1 sophomore, comes off the bench to average 6.5 points, third on the team.
"I think it's a tough matchup mainly because they're similar to us," said Pattillo. "They get out and pressure people, they work hard defensively. They don't allow you any easy things. You're not ever going to get too many easy things with them. That's what makes them tough and they're always challenging because of that."
The Mules are 5-0 in the SEMO Conference and will be looking to remain in a first place tie with Charleston.
Sikeston is 2-2 in conference play and has virtually no chance at a conference title.
So Holifield is trying to get his team prepared for the district tournament.
"The last couple of years we've played them very well and we just hope that we can go in there and play as well as we can," said Holifield. "In our last six games, I thought we played well in five of them, even in our losses to Herrin and Madison. We just have to continue to stay focused and try to improve. Our No. 1 goal and objective is to have as good a team as we can have come district tournament time."