National champion could be crowned at inaugural NHSI tournament


This just in: The high school basketball universe has expanded.

With the addition of the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational, the inaugural tournaments which tip on April 3 and 4, another holiday weekend has been created for basketball aficionados.

The NHSI, a long-awaited concept, unveiled brackets Friday for its boys' and girls' tournaments which bring a new wrinkle to springtime ritual. Fueled by a demand for a postseason national high school basketball event, similar to the NCAA tournament, the NHSI delivers 10 must-see TV games, all live on the ESPN family of networks, over three days.

Two days removed from April Fool's Day, the NHSI is no joke. The boys' eight-team tournament boasts four top seeds who are among the top 10 teams -- including the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 rankings. Throw in a few ESPNU 100-ranked players and you have an awesome April.

Conceivably, the NHSI championship game on April 5 at Georgetown Prep's 1,200-seat Hanley Center in North Bethesda, Md., could crown the champion of the ESPN RISE boys' rankings.

The boys' tournament final could serve as a historic stage if the top two FAB 50 teams meet, marking the first time that the top two high school boys' basketball teams would finish a season in a single-elimination, winner-take-all format.

Talk about high stakes.

"It's a new and unique thing," said coach Steve Smith of top-ranked Oak Hill Academy, a national powerhouse from Mouth of Wilson, Va. "I view the tournament as a good thing; it's a big deal. That's the way high school sports are going; it's big business with basketball and football games on networks like ESPN and Fox.

"People are viewing games on the Internet, local television stations and cable networks," he said.

The four boys' first-round games to tip off on April 3 will be televised on ESPNU, beginning at 2 p.m. ET when Oak Hill Academy plays regionally ranked Pinewood Prep (Summerville, S.C.).

Other pairings include No. 2 Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) and Mountain State Academy (Beckley, W.Va.) at 4 p.m.; No. 9 St. Benedict's (Newark, N.J.) and No. 37 St. Frances Academy (Baltimore) at 6 p.m.; and No. 9 Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.) and No. 47 Friends Central (Wynnewood, Pa.).

The semifinals are April 4 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on ESPN2. The final is scheduled for April 5 at 3 p.m. on ESPN.

Mountain State Academy's Rob Fulford, who coaches the independent school located in West Virginia's coal belt, is excited about the opportunity.

Fulford created a "Selection Sunday" feel when he told his team about the NHSI's announcement.

"This is a huge honor for our school and team," Fulford said. "We dangled a carrot over their heads in anticipation of the announcement. The players are looking forward to the competition but might be a little nervous playing on ESPN."

With the pairings set, here's a closer look at the first-round games:.

No. 1 seed Oak Hill Academy vs. No. 8 seed Pinewood Prep
(Friday, ESPNU, 2 p.m. ET)
The No. 1 Warriors took over the top spot in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 last week after an impressive 69-63 win over Montrose Christian. The Warriors, who are on spring break until March 22, carry a 44-game win streak (over two seasons) into the NHSI. Five players are headed to Division I schools, including 6-foot-9, 293-pound post Keith "Tiny" Gallon, a McDonald's All-American who signed with Oklahoma. OHA's backcourt duo of junior Doron Lamb and Lamont "MoMo" Jones (Virginia Tech) is explosive.

The Pinewood Prep Panthers (29-5) won their fourth straight South Carolina Independent AAA championship and are 112-19 during the span. Six-foot-9 Milton Jennings is bound for Clemson and 6-4 Kenny Manigault has signed with Wichita.

No. 2 seed Findlay Prep vs. No. 7 seed Mountain State Academy
(Friday, ESPNU, 4 p.m. ET)
Findlay Prep (30-0) is loaded with talent and boasts several quality wins. The Pilots rely on the top-notch backcourt of 6-3 D.J. Richardson (Illinois recruit) and 6-2 Avery Bradley (Texas). Bradley, 6-3, was selected to play in the McDonald's All-American Game on April 1 in Coral Gables, Fla. Findlay gets a boost from big men 6-10 Carlos Lopez (UNLV) and 6-9 transfer Tristan Thompson (from St. Benedict's), who will sign with Texas. Findlay, an independent school, is 62-1 over the past two seasons. The Pilots' roster has included 18 international players from 13 different countries in the past three years.

Mountain State Academy, regionally ranked in the East, is stocked with foreign players, led by 6-9 Deniz Kilicli, a Turkish junior national team player and West Virginia recruit. Kilicli averages 15 points and nine rebounds. Noah Cottrill, a junior combo guard, averages 25 points and 6-7 junior Shaquille Thomas (nephew of Tim Thomas of the Chicago Bulls) contributes 10 points.

No. 4 seed St. Benedict's vs. No. 5 seed St. Frances Academy
(Friday, ESPNU, 6 p.m. ET)

The St. Benedict's Gray Bees (23-2) are deep with guards Tamir Jackson (Rice) and 6-1 sophomore Myck Kabongo (Texas) anchoring the up-tempo backcourt. Lamar Patterson, a 6-6 forward, will attend Pittsburgh. Sophomore guard Tavon Sledge, 6-4 junior Aaron Brown, 6-6 junior Mike Poole and 6-8 Gilvydas Biruta see plenty of action. The Gray Bees have lost only to No. 3 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) and No. 4 St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.), but did play in two in-season tournaments in Florida and Puerto Rico.

St. Frances (31-3) won the MIAA AA Conference and Baltimore Catholic League titles and will play three games at the Alhambra Catholic Invitational from March 19 to 21 in Frostburg, Md., against the likes of Washington Catholic Athletic Conference powers No. 8 DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) and No. 11 Gonzaga (Washington). Terrell Vinson earned ESPN RISE national player of the week honors earlier this month after scoring 20 points in a 44-41 win over Loyola (Baltimore) in the BCL title game. Vinson, No. 47 in the ESPNU 100, was the tournament's most valuable player but is undecided on college after de-committing from Loyola Marymount. The 6-7 Vinson transferred from Montrose Christian prior to the school year.

No. 3 seed Montrose Christian vs. No. 6 seed Friends Central
(Friday, ESPNU, 8 p.m. ET)
Montrose Christian (20-2), coached by Stu Vetter, is no stranger to big events, having placed second at the Iolani Classic in Honolulu. In fact, both its losses were to Oak Hill Academy, including a double-overtime loss in the Iolani final on Dec. 22. Montrose Christian's top players are Villanova-bound 6-9 Mouphtaou Yarou (No. 27 in the ESPNU 100) and 6-8 Isaiah Armwood (No. 36). Six-foot-6 junior Terrance Ross is from Portland, Ore. Freshman Justin Anderson (6-6, 180) reminds scouts of a young Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks.

Friends (28-2), a private Quaker school from suburban Philadelphia, won the Pennsylvania Independent Schools state championship last month and will have the longest layoff -- nearly six weeks -- of any competing school. The Phoenix captured the state title Feb. 22 when Travis Robinson's layup five seconds left in overtime edged Germantown Academy (Fort Washington, Pa.) 60-58. Junior guard Malique Killing scored a team-high 21 points and sophomore guard Devin Coleman added 17.

"We're thrilled with the tournament field; the true basketball fan should have three great days of games to end their season," said Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing, which coordinates the NHSI. "This is the first year, but we've accomplished a lot. We're looking forward to grow the NHSI, and one day, it would be good to have member state associations from coast to coast."

In addition to the boys' tournament, there's a four-team girls' bracket which begins April 4, featuring three teams from the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

The semifinal pairings at Georgetown Prep, both on ESPNU, are No. 1 Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) versus No. 4 St. Frances (Baltimore) at 4:30 p.m.; and No. 2 Seton Keough (Baltimore) versus No. 3 Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) at 6:30. The final is April 5 at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

Riverdale Baptist is 25-2, earning the top seed. Seton Keough, the IAAM state champion, ended St. Frances' six-year run on the circuit. The Seton Keough Gators won the AA title in a 58-38 victory as West Virginia-bound center Asya Bussie recorded a double-double, with 22 points and 17 rebounds.

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys' and girls' basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.