Posted On: 02/13/18 11:40 AM

With the CIF-SS Open Division committee cutting the bracket in half this postseason from 16 to eight teams it makes for a much stronger field in Division I.

Teams like Oak Park, Harvard-Westlake, Pasadena, JSerra, Chino Hills and Corona Centennial now have the opportunity to compete for a Southern Section title.

The new format comes with a caveat, however, as not all teams that qualify for the Division I playoffs are guaranteed a spot in the state playoffs like those of the Open.

The Division I playoffs begin Wednesday and here are some things to watch for in the field.

The Favorites

Oak Park earned the top seed in Division I after being the “last team out,” per se, when it came down to the Open Division selection. The Eagles are loaded with talent and experience led by Utah-signee Riley Battin and Dartmouth-bound Wes Slajchert. Clark Slajchert, one of the top sophomore prospects in the state, provides much of the offensive firepower from the perimeter, but the x-factors for Oak Park will be the play of recent Santa Clara-commit Ezekiel Richards and upstart freshman forward Justin Ebor. The Eagles have a first-round bye and will not play until Friday.

Harvard-Westlake, the second-place finisher in the difficult Mission League, is the No. 2 seed in the Division and will open with Heritage Christian Wednesday. The Wolverines are youth-laden, but don’t lack in experience as many of coach David Rebibo’s players have played big varsity minutes as freshmen or sophomores. Johnny Juzang is one of the best scorers in the state regardless of class and Harvard-Westlake will go as far as he can take them. The keys to a deep run for the Wolverines will be the play of sophomores Spencer Hubbard, Mason Hooks, Brase Dottin and freshman Truman Gettings.

Pasadena could be primed for a deep run led by one of the premier scorers on the west coast, UNLV-signee Bryce Hamilton. The 6-foot-4 senior closed out his season with a 35-point, 19-rebound performance against league rival Muir and will surely want to close out his high school career with an exclamation point. Hamilton is a stone cold scorer from all three levels of the floor and there’s really no stopping him if he gets going. Hamilton has plenty of help by way of fellow seniors Darius Brown and Tavian Percy along with junior Darius Mason. The Bulldogs have a first-round bye.

Okongwu is arguably the best prospect in So-Cal regardless of class.

Chino Hills comes in sporting a less-than-impressive 16-11 overall record, but credit coach Dennis Latimore with sticking with the tough schedule he was dealt in his first season at the helm. The Huskies have some good wins on the season, including two Baseline League victories over Damien and an 18-point decision over Foothills Christian (San Diego). Junior center Onyeka Okongwu is one of the best big men on the west coast and will see a steady diet of post-entry feeds against Inglewood Wednesday. Andre Ball, Ofure Ujadughele and Nick Manor-Hall will dictate just how far Chino Hills can advance. The Huskies open at home against Inglewood.

Damien is probably the best team to have a first-round road game in any division outside of the Open. The Spartans open at Temecula Valley Wednesday and are hoping their high octane offensive attack makes the long bus ride with them. Northern Arizona-bound Cameron Shelton is the engine of this Damien attack and he’s got plenty of shooters to find if he’s seeing timely help-side defense in Sacramento State-signee Elijah McCullough and sophomore Austin Cook. Freshman Malik Thomas could be a vital component to how far the Spartans advance, as he’s a capable playmaker on both sides of the ball.

Corona Centennial is another young, upstart team to keep an eye on. The Huskies 18-10 record isn’t indicative of its talent, but more of coach Josh Giles’ opting to play a difficult schedule. Centennial plays an uptempo style on offense with plenty of 3-pointers going up led by sophomores Jaylen Clark and D.J. Davis. The defensive side of the ball is where the Huskies can make the most noise. They put a lot of strain on the opponent with a suffocating full-court pressure. Centennial opens at home against Los Alamitos.