Third-year Bell City coach Brian Brandtner says one of the finest moments he has experienced while leading the Cubs came when his team won last year's Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament.
"Growing up in the area and being around the Christmas tournament as a small child on up, my whole life, the teams you watch only win it so often," he said. "So it's such a great honor to win it. That was absolutely a special moment."
Bell City, a Class 1 school that entered the 2006 tourney as a No. 5 seed with a 4-4 record, pulled off an impressive run. It included beating No. 1 Charleston, No. 3 Jackson and No. 4 Scott County Central en route to the title.
However, Bell City is in a different position this year, seeded No. 2 and one of the favorites.
The Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament begins Wednesday. In the first round, Bell City matches up with No. 15 Oak Ridge at 10:30 a.m. at the Show Me Center.
"This tournament is wide open and anything can happen on any given night," Brandtner said. "You always see something crazy at the Christmas Tournament. And a number of teams could win it this year.
"You don't want to look ahead to any of the teams you might be playing. Heck, the first team we're playing almost beat a team that almost beat us. You've got to take it one game at a time, and as you progress in the tournament, the competition gets tougher."
Bell City has a somewhat different style of play from last year, when it often passed the ball down near the basket to its big center Will Bogan, who now plays for Southeast Missouri State. Bogan netted 42 points in the tournament's title game against Jackson to help complete the Cubs' impressive run.
Instead, Bell City is led by a number of quick guards and forwards, including senior Nick Niemczyk, who averaged approximately 32 points in the Cubs' first eight contests.
Brandtner calls Niemczyk "the premier player in Southeast Missouri" and the senior should be one of the more exciting players to watch at the four-day tournament, which ends with a 7:30 p.m. championship game Saturday.
"Nick really means everything to the offense at this point," Brandtner said. "Obviously, we need to take some of the burden off him, but until now, he's done a great job. We've got other great players though."
Another strong player to watch from Bell City is its 5-9 senior point guard Ethan Watkins, a transfer from Scott City.
He passes the ball well and can also step out and shoot, nailing three 3-pointers in a 17-point performance last Saturday against Saxony Lutheran. It was his second game back after sitting out one year after transferring.
Phillip Gross, a 6-0 forward, is another quick player who Brandtner said has improved his athleticism and attacks the basket as well as anyone on the floor.
Brandtner also emphasized the strong play of Marty Dames, a 6-2 forward/center, who sets the tone defensively, typically guarding the other team's best offensive player. He also directs things on the floor at times.
"We felt fortunate to win it last year, and we're going to try everything we can to try to go get it this year," Brandtner said.
"We've got to be a lot better offensively," Brandtner said when asked what his team needed to do to repeat. "Defensively, we can still do some things better, but I like our intensity. I like the way we battle. Offensively, right now we've got to set a screen for Nick and get him the ball and go from there."
Many teams will be in contention, including Charleston, which again will be the top seed, but has not made an appearance in the title game in the past four years.
The Bluejays will begin their quest to capture the school's 16th Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament title when they play No. 16 Delta at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
"Charleston plays extremely hard and they've got a lot of quickness," Jackson coach Darrin Scott said. "Their guards are really athletic and [senior] Brian Parham inside has done a great job in the post.
"So really playing against them you've got to do a couple things. You've got to handle their quickness and pressure on the perimeter and not let them get you out of your offensive system and what you want to do. You've got to handle their penetration and keep their guards under control and keep them off of the offensive glass."
Scott and Brandtner both said that unlike past years, Charleston does not have as many well-known players, but their athletes play well together.
"They've got players who are not as well-known as the three who they lost from last year, but they've got some players who are some very good players who would start on a lot of high school basketball teams and be really good players," Scott said.
Charleston is led by Parham, who netted 16 points in the finals of the SEMO Conference tournament against Jackson a couple of weeks ago, and junior Donald Dixon, who poured in 18. Jerquawn Sherrell is another strong shooter for the Bluejays who can step out and knock down 3-pointers.
Jackson, which lost to the Bluejays in the SEMO Conference tournament finals by seven points, is the No. 3 seed and will look to make some noise.
Scott said because the Jackson football team, which included key basketball players, went deep into the playoffs, his team did not get to practice much at the start of the season. He said the Indians recently have practiced together more, which should help the team come together.
"We got all our kids back a couple of days before the Farmington tournament," Scott said. "We kind of threw them into practice for two or three days and we had the Farmington tournament backed with the SEMO Conference tournament. It has been nice to have three or four days of practice where we could work on some basic fundamentals."
Another team to watch for is Scott County Central, the No. 4 seed.
The Braves have a number of scoring options. In the team's first seven games, Drew Thomas, D.D. Gillespie and Caleb Johnson all averaged double figures in scoring.
Notre Dame coach Paul Hale said he has heard that the Braves could be the best team.
"Looks like Scott [County] Central looks pretty tough, and they may be the best team in the tournament from what people have said," Hale said. "I have not seen them yet. We know Charleston's good, Jackson's good, Bell City's good. There is a lot of good competition there.
"I know coach [Ronnie] Cookson and those kids are very experienced and they're all seniors just about. They were pretty good last year. I saw them last year and I'm sure they're better now."
Notre Dame, the No. 2 seed in last year's tournament, enters as the No. 5 this winter.
The drop might sound a bit surprising because the Bulldogs have two top players back -- Ryan Willen and Austin Greer -- and four of their five starters also return.
But Notre Dame started slowly with two losses in the SEMO Conference tournament, where the Bulldogs were without Willen and Greer.
Willen sat out the first five games of the season with a stress fracture in his ankle.
Hale said Greer suffered from stress fractures in his back and wore a back brace all summer.
"We would have liked to have been higher, but we were seeded where we deserved to be after losing two games in the conference tournament and we didn't play well at all during any of those games," Hale said.
Notre Dame lost to Charleston and Sikeston in the SEMO Conference tournament, but regained some of its form with Willen and Greer both back.
Willen, who has signed to play at Lafayette College, returned to the starting lineup last Tuesday and poured in 28 points. Greer is also back.
With those two healthy, it changes the look of the Bulldogs' offense and makes Notre Dame a threat at the No. 5 seed.
"[Willen] is going to mean a lot because everyone is going to have to guard him," Hale said.