Jim Mashek column/Given its options, Warren Central would rather be on the practice floor

GEORGETOWN, Kentucky — Good afternoon, y’all.

It’s about 2:45 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (that’s 1:45 at home) and it’s a glorious Friday afternoon, the opening weekend of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

Closer to Bowling Green, it’s the weekend of the KHSAA/UK HealthCare Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament, this time the boys’ tourney after Sacred Heart Academy repeated as the girls champion just eight days ago.

Basketball is on everybody’s mind.

You know, March Madness. March Sadness. Dr. Rick and the funny Progressive TV commercials. Buzzer beaters. Bracket monitoring. All basketball, all the time.

(Yeah, I’m a football guy, but I’m totally diggin’ it …)

Somewhere in the metro Lexington area, Warren Central High School coach William Unseld and his squad are practicing. In private.

The Dragons play tonight, mind you, in the Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals. They’ve drawn the Murray High School Tigers, from the KHSAA’s 1st Region. They’re 26-6 on the season. They’re coached by Dior Curtis. They knocked off Henry Clay on Thursday night, winning 57-53 to advance to tonight’s 7:30 p.m. CDT (approximate) showdown with Unseld’s Dragons.

I’m guessing a lot of you might have taken the day off work. Might be stepping into a sports bar during a “coffee break” to see what your favorite team might be doing in one of the eight first- and second-round sites.

I’m drinking my second large cup of Starbucks Pike Place, looking forward to relaxing at my hotel’s indoor swimming pool and wonderin’ about my sweet little dog Piper, back in Bowling Green wonderin’ about why her Daddy had to abandon her, leaving her care to my homeboy Juaun.

(Hang in there, Piper.)

What are the Warren Central Dragons doing, right about now?

They’re practicing.

Of course, they’re practicing.

That’s where the Dragons are in their element. That’s where they bond as a team. That’s their natural environment.

Mind you, they’re playing Murray in about six hours, under the bright lights at Lexington’s Rupp Arena. The stakes are high. The atmosphere will be intense.

Win tonight, and Warren Central will be two victories away from a KHSAA state championship. It would be the second state title in school history, as the Dragons cut down the nets at Rupp in 2004, when Tim Riley was the head coach and William Unseld was his young assistant coach.

There’s no rest for the weary in Dragonland, and there’s a lot of basketball to be played in the next 33, 34 hours.

A lot of basketball.

So the Dragons are on the practice floor. Going over the Murray game plan. Keeping the big picture in mind. Maintaining focus. One step in front of the other.

They’re by no means a Lone Ranger on this front, as I suspect Dior Curtis is busy with his Murray Tigers, knowing what’s at stake on Friday night.

Win, and it’s a four-team crapshoot for the state championship at Rupp Arena on Saturday.

Lose, and you can reflect on a splendid season, say good-bye to your seniors, and look forward to challenges well beyond the horizon.

Stay in the moment, as coaches like to say.

That’s what Warren Central did Thursday morning, in the first of four first-round Sweet Sixteen games.

The Dragons ignored an early 11-point deficit, fought back in the second quarter, and managed to squeeze out a 57-54 overtime victory over the Male High School Bulldogs.

It was an upset.

Not on scale with the Kentucky Wildcats’ overtime loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s on Thursday night, mind you, but it was an upset.

Warren Central has now won 15 consecutive games. The Dragons are 27-3 on the season. But outside South Central Kentucky, particularly in Louisville and Lexington, they’re a bit of an unknown.

These kinds of opportunities don’t come easily. Or often.

William Unseld knows that. Surely to God, his players know it, too. I’m guessing Murray’s Dior Curtis knows it, and his players are falling in line.

Upsets happen all the time in postseason basketball.

I’m guessing Warren Central would rate as a slight favorite over Murray tonight. Guessing being the operative word.

So the Dragons are back on the practice floor.

Thursday afternoon’s postgame press conferences were a study in contrasts, after Warren Central outlasted Male 57-54 in overtime.

It was clear to me that in some circles, Male was a prohibitive favorite over the Dragons. Players such as Warren Central teammates Jaiden Lawrence and Omari Glover told me on Tuesday that they like being the underdog, that they seem to respond to the challenge.

Now, they’re probably the hunted instead of the hunter.

This is good stuff.

Unseld went to bat for high school basketball in South Central Kentucky and the Jackson Purchase area after the Dragons turned back Male on the Rupp Arena floor.

“You’ve got Bowling Green, Greenwood, McCracken County … I think people will start taking notice now,” he said.

Of course, Warren Central and Murray are a big part of that equation, too.

They’ll be scrapping in a few hours with a Sweet Sixteen semifinal berth at stake.

I’m thinking Omari Glover opened some eyes on Thursday with his brilliant performance in the Dragons’ hard-fought victory over Male.

He scored a team-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting. He challenged the taller Male players on drives to the basket, and pulled down a team-high nine rebounds. He picked up his fourth foul in the final moments of regulation, but was careful to avoid his disqualifying fifth foul in overtime.

This is a kid with a really bright future in front of him.

But, every time I ask him about any college recruiters knocking on his door, he shakes his head and quietly tells me there’s nothing new on that front.

I’m beyond flabbergasted. I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong. The Dragons have plenty of talent, across the board. They defeated a very good Bowling Green High School squad, winning 58-50, in the KHSAA 4th Region championship game on March 8 at WKU’s E.A. Diddle Arena.

They’ve got steady senior forward Jaiden Lawrence, who had 12 points and five rebounds in the winning effort against Male. Fearless front-line player Chappelle Whitney, who has a lot of game to go with the coolest first name on record.

(Yes, he confirmed to me earlier this season that he was named after the brilliant comedian/actor/activist Dave Chappelle.)

Whitney had 14 points and six rebounds, all on the offensive end of the floor, before fouling out against Male.

You’ve got steely playmaker Izayiah Villafeunte, big-time defender Malik Jefferson and rugged guard/forward Damarion Walkup, too.

And you’ve got quiet sophomore Kade Unseld, the son of the Dragons’ head coach, who hit the critical two free throws in the game’s waning moments to account for the final margin.

They’ve got other role players and “program guys” ready to hit the floor and bust a hump if William Unseld needs them.

In this unusual format, where the Dragons would have to win three games in roughly 24 hours to win a state championship, they just might need them.

How good are the Murray High School Tigers?

Plenty good.

Senior guard Grant Whitaker leads the Tigers with 17.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Senior forward Trey Boggess checks in at 13.4 points and 4.8 rebounds. Murray shoots 53.3 percent from the field, and even more impressive, 39.2 percent from 3-point range.

If there’s a weakness, I’m guessing it’s that they shoot just 64.8 percent from the free-throw line. Not bad, but by comparison, Warren Central hits 74.5 percent of its foul shots. That’s a significant difference.

The thing to remember, though, in tournament basketball, there’s a lot of unknowns. Especially with this format, where the champion has to win two games against top-flight competition on the same day to cut the nets at Rupp Arena.

It’s gonna be awesome.

Stay tuned.