It's not often a team of Dayton Dunbar's caliber plays the role of underdog. Especially when you consider two of the state's best three players play for the Wolverines.
However, come Thursday afternoon in the Division II state semifinals, that's precisely what will happen when Dunbar will meet up against the No. 1-ranked team in the state, Upper Sandusky (25-0).
For the Wolverines, this was how it was supposed to happen. Led by junior Daequan Cook, a 6-5 guard averaging 21.7 points and 12 rebounds per game, Dunbar has overcome many obstacles because of talent and embracing a new system.
"Well, we actually feel like we've been an underdog all season long," said Dunbar head coach Pete Pullen. "We feel like we haven't been respected enough, in some cases, by even our own fans. Either we haven't won by as many as we should have, or when we've lost, we shouldn't have lost to the teams we lost to. This really is a role we have felt like we've been playing under all year."
Pete Pullen, a former girl's head coach for Dunbar, took over in the off-season after long time coach Mitch Watterman, was terminated by the board of education. Although Dunbar was slow to adapt to a new man and a new style, they are playing their best team basketball of the season.
Dunbar isn't the only team in this game who had to adjust to change.
Under first-year head coach Keith Diebler, Upper Sandusky has won 25 consecutive games averaging 89 points a game with an up-tempo style of play and tenacious full court press. Led by his two sons, Jake (6-3 senior point guard ) and Jon (6-6 sophomore post), both committed to play basketball at Valparaiso University, Diebler left a successful program at Fostoria where he won over 20 games.
The three have taken over at Upper Sandusky and meshed perfectly with a group of talented scorers to become one of the elite teams in the entire state. In addition to both Dieblers, Upper Sandusky gets 15.5 points a game from 6-3 senior wing Greg Micheli and nearly 10 points a game (8.8) from 6-7 forward Miles Weaver.
The two teams share more than just first-year head coaches at their respective schools.
Division II shared player of the year honors with two starters in this game—Dunbar's Cook and Upper Sandusky's Jake Diebler.
Diebler averaged 18.8 points, 11 assists, and 7.5 rebounds a game for the Rams this season. His father Keith also won the Coach of the Year in Division II. Joining his brother and father receiving hardware, is the youngest Diebler, Jon, who was a second-team All-Ohio selection averaging 26.0 points and 6.3 rebounds a game while shooting 45.7 percent from 3-point range.
Despite all of their accomplishments and accolades, Diebler doesn't buy into being the favorite. He is treating Dunbar as the talented they that they really are.
"I think they are one of the top teams in the state," Diebler said of Dunbar. "They have one of the top players in the state, if not the entire country, and we know they are going to be a tough test for us."
Tough tests have been rather few and far between for the Rams this season. In their regional final game against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary's, Upper Sandusky rallied from three points down at the end of the first quarter to an impressive 85-55 victory, outscoring the Irish by 33 points in the game's final three quarters.
Between the two regional contests, the youngest Diebler, Jon, scored a total of 70 points (35 a game). It's a sign that Upper Sandusky is even better now than they were earlier in the year.
"We're hoping what we've done and been successful with all year will work for us this game," the elder Diebler said. "We just played on Saturday, so we don't have a lot of time to get ready for a game like this, so we will just plan on doing what has got us to this point."
Upper Sandusky will not only have to contain Cook, but they will have to remember 6-9 Aaron Pogue, a sophomore forward who is nearly 280 pounds.
Pogue is averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds on the season.
"They have a good team," Diebler affirmed. "Between Cook and the Pogue kid, they have some very good players, and you can't just take one guy out of the equation."
On the other hand, when Upper Sandusky begins pressing and tries to force the tempo of the game, Pullen knows his Dunbar squad will have to handle it.
"In our case, we definitely have to handle the pressure," Pullen acknowledged. "We have to play better than what we did in our regional final game against Taft and not have another 25 turnovers. They will really come at us, they are quick, and they like to score points off their defense. We have to control the ball."
"I would say I'd rather make them beat us offensively, and not turn the ball over because that means they are getting easy points," Pullen concluded as the keys to the game.
In the game against Cincinnati Taft, Dunbar committed 25 turnovers. The biggest feat, however, is the fact they survived in overtime (80-72), despite Cook fouling out with just a couple of minutes left in regulation.
It was an encouraging sign of where this team has come from, for Pullen, that they were able to survive with Cook on the bench.
"Our kids knew we weren't doomed without Daequan," Pullen said. "Mark (Anderson) said ‘Don't worry guys, this is on me', and I think the kids just sort of had confidence in themselves. Our kids believe in us, and we know who got us here and who leads this team, but it's not just one guy and I think they had to step up and show that."
With Upper Sandusky, it's all about team.
Diebler is impressed with how easy and quickly he's been able to make the transition to Upper Sandusky this season. He couldn't expect anything more from his team, school, or community than what he has got.
"These kids have made me look real good as a coach, and I couldn't be more proud of what they have accomplished," Diebler said. "They have a 3.9 GPA as a team. That's the sort of effort and attitude they have. They get a lot of credit for believing and maintaining our system making it work at a high level."
"I attribute everything to the community, the kids, and the school for accepting us with open arms. This group has really meshed quickly," Diebler added.
For both teams, this is what you practice and play for all season long. Arguably the two best teams will be doing battle come Thursday afternoon for the right to advance to the state championship.
Pullen tells his kids something even Diebler would concur with.
"I told our group that at this time of year, there's only 16 teams left practicing, and only four in our division," he explained. "That's what you work hard for—to be in this position. We couldn't be happier to be where we are."
On Thursday, there will be no underdogs—only two good teams giving it all they have got. Of course, if you consider Upper Sandusky the favorite or consider Dunbar the underdog, it's a mentality both teams are prepared to deal with.