Each time, Ben Probst knew what the question would be even before it was asked.
But the Madison La Follette senior certainly didn’t mind providing the answer.
Inquisitive minds wanted to know: When were Big Eight Conference rivals La Follette and Madison East, two of the state’s top boys basketball teams, scheduled to play this season?
“It’s really special seeing the whole side of town there; pretty much everyone is at that game,” said Probst, a 6-foot-1 guard. “Even in preseason you will talk to people you see around town and all they ask about is the East game. It’s never even about any other game. It’s a big deal to other people, which makes it special to us.”
A packed house is anticipated at 7:15 p.m. Thursday at East for the season’s first meeting between the teams. Bragging rights on the city’s East Side and leadership in the conference standings will be on the line.
Led by seven seniors, undefeated La Follette is hoping to make each day count and put together a memorable season after reaching a WIAA Division 1 sectional final last season, before falling to eventual state runner-up Sun Prairie.
The Lancers (9-0 overall, 7-0 Big Eight), ranked second in Division 1 in The Associated Press poll, lead sixth-ranked Sun Prairie (8-1, 6-1) by one game and ninth-ranked Madison East (6-2, 5-1) by 1½ games in conference play.
“Even though you have returners, it’s a different year,” Lancers coach Curtrel Robinson said. “You have new guys coming in, so you are worried about chemistry and flow. It wasn’t until now that I can see us going to that next level.
“They are a good group. They show up every day. Our motto is `Every Day Matters.’ That is not just basketball. That also is in the classroom. Sometimes, your best `you’ might not be the best you, but the effort is there. We talk about that a lot. I think this group has really embodied that. I think these seniors have embodied that.”
The defensive-minded Lancers typically start five seniors — Probst, Isaiah Stewart, Dakovin Prather and twins Derek and David Gray.
They have enjoyed varying degrees of playing time during high school but now is their time, following in the footsteps of such players as Donneil Gray (older brother of Derek and David) and Troy Reeves.
“We get a chance to show what we can do,” Stewart said. “Once you are a senior, you are a leader on the team. For the younger folks, you are a leader to them.”
Probst (15.9 points per game), Stewart (15.6) and Derek Gray (11.2) lead the scoring, while Robinson said David Gray is the team’s Dennis Rodman, a mainstay rebounding and playing defense.
Sophomores K’Shawn Gibbs and Juok Riak (who is 6-6) and seniors Cyrus Lashore and Kavell Sims are among those providing contributions off the bench.
“These guys love to play together,” Robinson said. “They love to come to practice. They love to work hard every day. They look forward to it. That, as a coach, makes you look forward to it, as well. … I’m trying to cherish it as best as I can — each and every moment, because it doesn’t last long.”
Derek Gray said he knew since last summer the Lancers would have a strong team.
“I had a good feeling about this team,” Derek Gray said. “We’ve always talked about our senior year and what we were trying to do.”
Many of the Lancers have played basketball together for years, which aids their on-court communication and ability to share the ball.
“We all know how we play since we have been playing with each other for a long time,” Prather said.
“I think it’s a big factor,” said Probst, interested in playing NCAA Division III basketball in the WIAC. “We’ve spent so much time together and played so many games together that when we get into difficult situations we can depend on each other. It’s just that comfort of knowing they have your back.”
A three-point victory over Madison West in La Follette’s conference opener Dec. 6 served as a wake-up call, Robinson said.
“That’s when we realized how tough it would be every night because everyone is coming for you,” said Probst, also a standout quarterback for the Lancers’ football team. “We realized we had to lock in and play our best basketball every night.”
Said Prather: “Anybody can beat anybody. No one’s spot is secure and safe. We knew we have to get better every day.”
Then, La Follette’s 69-52 victory over defending state champion Brookfield Central, currently third-ranked in Division 1, on Dec. 28 told Lancers how good they could be.
“It wasn’t until the Brookfield Central game that I was like, `Wow, we can probably beat anybody in the state,’ with their size and their experience coming back, on the road, in a tough environment like that (at Concordia University),’’ Robinson said.
But David Gray preached words of caution.
“I just know we can’t let the hype get to us,” David Gray said. “We have to stick together as a team and keep everybody moving at the same pace.”
Robinson acknowledged the Lancers are even more excited to play when facing East, which defeated La Follette twice last year, including 66-64 at East. The Purgolders won the conference title, with the Lancers second.
The second game this season is Feb. 21 at La Follette.
“The boys know there will be a packed gym,” Robinson said. “Everyone has been talking about it all year long and now it is finally here. So, I think we’ll be ready to roll. We are ready to play.”