By FRANK CASH
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
Southeastern boys basketball coach Todd Fox admits the Mississippi Valley Invitational Tournament is an appetizing part of the holiday season.
"It's a great three days," Fox said. "For our fans, it gives them a chance to watch some great basketball and then go to Quincy to eat."
This year's tournament, which tips off Thursday at Unity, should tantalize everyone's taste buds.
All four area teams -- Payson Seymour, Liberty, Unity and Southeastern -- enter the tournament with records above .500 and are considered the teams most likely to challenge for a championship.
"It's something we always look forward to, especially this year," said Liberty coach Andy Douglas, whose team is 6-3. "We'll have had more than a week off since our last game, which has given us some time to rest and work on some things. Playing three games in three days against the level of competition we'll see will help us figure out what else we need to work on."
Payson Seymour's 7-1 record is the best in the eight-team field. Unity is 8-5 and Southeastern is two victories shy of its combined record for the past two seasons with a 6-5 record. Southeastern and Unity both have narrow victories over Biggsville West Central. West Prairie, Bushnell-Prairie City/Avon and the Quincy Notre Dame junior varsity round out the field.
Unity advanced to the championship game last year for the first time since 1997. The Mustangs realize some things will have to go their way for that to happen again.
Lane Davis has emerged as Unity's offensive leader with 15 points and seven rebounds per game, followed by Alex Blickhan (10 ppg) and Andrew Doyle (9 ppg).
"Some years, there is one team that has outdistanced itself from the rest of the field," Mustangs coach Keith Carothers said. "That's not the case this year. It's competitive on both sides of the bracket. We're going to have to fight a little bit."
Fox took the reins of the Southeastern program during the offseason following a three-win season in 2010-11 and a five-victory campaign last year. Fox feels the progression is on pace while Matthew Ramsey and Shea Flesner are both scoring a team-high 14 points per game.
"Our main focus has been to play hard and to play the game the right way while being competitive," Fox said. "We're in a pretty difficult situation. If we don't play well the first game, we'll get beat by QND."
If there's a tournament favorite, it would likely be Payson. The Indians are scoring 68 points and have won five straight since its only loss -- a 60-43 setback to Pleasant Plains on Nov. 23 at the Pittsfield Tournament.
Kody Hildebrand averages 27 points per game for Payson, while Jake Voss follows with 17 points and Lance Buhlig adds 11 points.
Payson coach Brian Rea knows there are several challenges ahead for his team to repeat as tournament champions, including surviving the schedule.
"It's tough playing back-to-back-to back nights," Rea said. "You're playing teams you're familiar with which can be a challenge in itself. It's tough to repeat in any tournament, especially this one."