MOUNT VERNON — The top three teams in the league standings are separated by one game and the team in last place is the one nobody wants to play.
Welcome to the Ohio Cardinal Conference, where up is down and left is right.
The OCC has become the Wild West of north central Ohio boys basketball. In the past week, winless Wooster knocked off unbeaten Lexington and three-loss Mansfield Senior roughed up one-loss Ashland, which responded with a last-second victory over one-loss Mount Vernon.
The conference-wide parity ought to make for an entertaining final month of the season.
“No one is going to run away and hide and I don’t know who the bottom team is,” Ashland coach Jason Hess said after the win over Mount Vernon. “Where is the weak link? There’s not one of those this year. It’s extremely competitive basketball.”
There is recent precedent for this year’s OCC free-for-all. The 2017-18 season ended with Lexington and Mount Vernon sharing the title at 9-3. Mansfield Senior and Wooster both finished a game back at 8-4. Lex secured its share of the conference title that year with a 68-39 win over Mount Vernon in the regular season finale and parlayed it into a Division II Final Four berth.
While the league was top-heavy in 2018, the bottom teams were non-factors. That isn’t the case this year as evidenced by Wooster. After dropping their first four OCC games, the Generals pounded Lexington and Madison last week.
Both Wooster and West Holmes got off to late starts because of extended playoff runs during the football season. The Knights, who reached the Division III state semifinals in football, didn’t play their first basketball game until Dec. 17, but beat Wooster at Wooster two weeks later.
West Holmes is currently at the bottom of the OCC standings, but overlooking the Knights would be a mistake.
“There are no easy wins in our conference, not this year,” Mansfield Senior’s Marquis Sykes said last week. “Everybody is good. You have got to be ready to go every night.”
The second round of conference play begins Friday when Lexington hosts Ashland and Mansfield Senior visits Wooster. The Minutemen beat the Arrows 73-71 on Dec. 3, the same night the Tygers topped the Generals 59-48. West Holmes, which plays nine games in January, is at Mount Vernon.
“People always say, ‘Top to bottom the league is tough,’ ” Mount Vernon coach Nick Coon said after last week’s loss at Ashland. “When you say top to bottom, what is that? I don’t know what that is in our league this year. We’ve won some (OCC) games this year by a couple points here and there and the couple we’ve lost, we’ve lost by a couple possessions here or there.
“It’s a stressful league, I know that.”