SIKESTON -- The Sikeston Bulldogs boys basketball team has played several top teams this year, but they may get their toughest game yet tomorrow when they host the Poplar Bluff Mules on homecoming night.
Poplar Bluff enters the game as the top-ranked team in the SEMO area according to the media poll and they haven't lost a SEMO Conference game since 2003 against Charleston.
The Mules are 15-4 this season and 4-0 in league play. They haven't even lost to a Southeast Missouri team since that game with the Bluejays in 2003.
The Mules are also ranked 10th in the Class 5 state poll.
While 6-foot-9 All-American Tyler Hansbrough has taken his services to the University of North Carolina, there is still plenty of talent left over from last year's state championship team.
Including Hansbrough's 6-4 brother, Ben Hansbrough, who has signed to play at Mississippi State University.
"We know it's going to be a difficult game," said Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield. "They're playing really well and I've heard a lot of positive things about them. They have a great player in Ben Hansbrough. They have a great tradition over the last three or four years. We know they're going to come in ready to play. They've been in so many big games and they know how to approach big games. We're going to have to play well to beat them."
Hansbrough isn't alone. The Mules also have 5-9 sharpshooter Allan Spencer and 6-4 postman Rusty Bryant.
Ricky Taylor, a 6-foot junior, is one of the top rebounders and defenders on the team and Jack March, a 5-11 senior, and 6-0 junior Jimmy Dye can provide solid ball-handling for the Mules.
"They have so many weapons," said Holifield. "After Ben, they have Spencer, who I think is a really good player. They have guys that go with them that know their role and understand their role and they play well together. They run eight to 10 people in and out, they pressure the ball hard and they play extremely hard."
But the whole engine is fueled by Hansbrough, who pumps in more than 20 points per game and is one of the top athletes in the area.
"It's hard to stop him -- you just have to try to contain him and not let him go off for 40-plus points," said Holifield. "We just have to guard him well and don't let him get junk baskets. Just try to stay between him and the rim and make every shot difficult for him. Try to make him earn every basket he gets."
Sikeston is in the midst of a three-game winning streak, which followed a three-game losing streak for the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs are 12-6 on the season and 3-2 in league play. Holifield thinks the team is beginning to hit its stride and is ready for the stretch run of the regular season schedule.
"I think our intensity has been good," said Holifield. "We've been working on different things and trying to get better. I think we're going to see improvement. Friday night's going to be a big game for us because it will have a district tournament-type atmosphere with the big crowd and our players will be excited to play. Hopefully we'll come out and play well."
The Bulldogs don't have a Division I star such as Hansbrough, but they counter with depth and plenty of quickness.
The return of 6-3 freshman Michael Porter has spear-headed the team to its last three victories.
Porter had to sit out the Superman Classic due to MSHSAA eligibility rules. The Bulldogs went 1-2 in the tournament, losing two heartbreakers at the buzzer.
Porter has averaged 26 points in his last three games, including a career-high 35 in Saturday's overtime win against Portageville.
Porter is among the team leaders in nearly every statistical category for the Bulldogs.
He leads the team in points (14.3), rebounds (7.2) and blocks (3.0) per game. He also dishes out three assists on average.
Six-foot senior forward Rod Moore follows up with 12.8 points and 5.9 rebounds.
Julian Beard, a 6-2 junior, averages 11.9 points per game and senior guard Kash Bratcher chips in with 11.3 points and four assists per game.
Isaac Porter, a junior, is a stat-stuffer, averaging nine points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals per game.
Ray Rodgers and Blake Taylor come off the bench to average 6.5 and 5.5 points per game, respectively.
"They play pressure defense and they get up and guard you," said Holifield of the Mules. "We just have to be patient in what we're doing. If we have an advantage we need to take it. We've got to keep good spacing, set good screens and hopefully hit the boards and be extremely aggressive in what we're doing."
One thing working in the Bulldogs' favor is the Mules don't have a dominant post player or tremendous height, giving Sikeston a better chance to matchup well at each position.
The most difficult matchup will be on the 6-4 Hansbrough, who is capable of playing inside or outside.
"I think we match up better with them than we did Jackson, who was so big inside," said Holifield. "The two things that really give us problems are exceptional quickness and great overall size. Other than that I think our matchups with Poplar Bluff are better in that aspect.
"But they're going to come in here and play hard and they have probably a player that's as good or better than any in the area."