For Sheldon boys basketball coach Dan Clark, the game plan for tonight's playoff game against Canby is simple.

"Defend better," he said.

The No. 7-ranked Irish play at 7 p.m. today against the Cougars in the first round of the Class 6A tournament, and in the week since his team last played, he's gone fundamental in practices.

"We're always trying to improve defensively," Clark said. "This week was a chance to go back to the basics."

That meant a lot of shell drill for Sheldon (18-6), winners of the Special District 2. Last season, the Irish lost 92-83 at home against run-and-gun Tualatin. Clark said whether Sheldon wins or loses today will depend on the defensive effort.

"We've been reinforcing about 32 minutes," he said. "Can't have mental and physical breakdowns."

That could happen against Canby. Despite a 9-14 record, the Cougars are competitive, Clark said. He watched their play-in win Saturday against Sprague, looking for tendencies and the team's go-to shooters. What he found was a team with a tough mentality that fights for every 50-50 ball. Much like, in fact, the school's football team that defeated Sheldon in the 6A quarterfinals last November.

"Scrappy," he said. "The culture of Canby High School and all its sports is tough kids who are tough and grind."

Canby finished last in the Three-Rivers League, but they played competitive games against No. 1-ranked West Linn and No. 2 Clackamas. The Cougars also have wins against Grant and McKay, two teams that defeated the Irish this season. They also beat Thurston by nine points in the second game of the season and lost by nine at South Eugene in early January.

"They'll be battle tested," Clark said. "If we're not prepared, we'll get beat."

The Irish backed into the district championship after South Eugene lost back-to-back games to Thurston and Grant. Sheldon also lost its last district game to Lincoln, and the competitiveness among the five teams in the district showed when Grant and Lincoln -- the bottom two teams in the league -- made it through the play-in round.

"We beat up on each other this year," Clark said. "That shows the strength of our programs. You had to be ready to go every game in the league."

To illustrate his point, Clark brought up the Axemen (13-11), who are No. 23 in Class 6A by the OSAA RPI rankings and play at 7 p.m. tonight at North Medford. South played two close games with Churchill and also beat the Irish on the road in late January.

"I can't think of a 23rd ranked team quite like South Eugene," he said.

Clark, though, is more concerned about his players. His four senior starters have a well-rounded set of offensive skills. Jordan Alexander and Nick Nestell are good from three-point range, and Mitchell Herbert and Logan Davis provide solid post play. Herbert's sophomore brother, Justin, became a full-time varsity player in December and has been starting since January, providing length and more athleticism.

The bench is deep, too, and Clark specifically called attention to senior Nick Larson. Because tonight, the focus is defense.

"I've been impressed with Nick," Clark said. "He does a really good job providing that defense spark off the bench."

Follow Ben on Twitter @benschoz_RG. Email ben.schorzman@registerguard.com.

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