- Christopher Lawlor, High School Basketball
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Somewhere between Florida and Oregon, Westchester High of Los Angeles found itself.
After globetrotting during the December holidays, California's reigning Division I state champion regained its edge, the swagger befitting a national powerhouse.
Following a disappointing 2-2 showing at the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., the trip back to Los Angeles must have been quiet, save for the in-flight movie.
"I still can't explain it," Westchester coach Ed Azzam said. "We played well in Oregon and not bad in Florida but were trying to find a catalyst. We certainly were missing something."
Last month the Comets split four games at the City of Palms before Christmas, then won four games to capture the Les Schwab Invitational in Hillsboro, Ore., including a 52-47 victory over mighty Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) in the final.
Perplexed after the Florida trip, the Comets had little time to dwell upon it before leaving less than 24 hours later for Oregon.
What Westchester lacked was a leader. When Dominique O'Connor graduated last year, he took several intangibles to San Francisco. Enter senior guards Jordin Mayes and Denzel Douglas -- both of whom starred in Oregon -- coupled with the maturation of 6-foot-9 post Reggie Murphy, who is getting interest from Oklahoma and Marquette.
"Reggie is skilled under pressure," Azzam said. "He's been working hard, and it's beginning to show."
Westchester is back at it this weekend and headed back to the East Coast.
This time the Comets will travel to Springfield, Mass., for the 2010 Spalding Hoophall Classic. Azzam's club faces St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.) on Monday (1 p.m. ET, ESPNU) in one of five games televised over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend on the ESPN family of networks.
"In the eight years of the Spalding Hoophall Classic, we have been fortunate to have featured many future stars and elite programs in high school basketball," said John L. Doleva, president and chief executive officer of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. "This year's field is no different."
The 23-game, ninth annual basketball bonanza runs four days, tipping off Friday with three girls' games on the five-game card from Springfield College's Blake Arena.
Paul Biancardi, ESPN's national recruiting director and color commentator, knows the value of the event.
"This might be the premier event of its kind in high school basketball," he said. "There's so much talent under one roof; bringing all of it to one place is amazing. This caps off a busy event schedule. It gathers the best talent -- both players and teams -- in the country, but still lends well to the locals.
"Coming to the birthplace of basketball is always exciting and educational. I think coaches and players benefit from this experience; every time you go to the [Naismith Memorial Basketball] Hall of Fame it's like a history lesson. It's good to know about the beginnings of the sport."
The television coverage begins Saturday at 4 p.m. when No. 10 Oak Hill Academy plays No. 2 Northland (Columbus, Ohio) on ESPN.
The matchup pits Northland's inside power of Ohio State-bound power forward Jared Sullinger (No. 2 in the ESPNU 100) and J.D. Weatherspoon against Oak Hill's active perimeter trio of 6-9 Roscoe Smith (a Connecticut recruit), Doron Lamb (24 points per game) and Pe'Shon Howard (14 ppg). Keith Hornsby, a 6-2 junior from Williamsburg, Va., provides a spark as Oak Hill's sixth man.
OHA (18-1) might be rusty heading into this game after a 13-day layoff during which students went home for the semester break.
Coach Steve Smith said practices have gone well this week.
"We'll see what we're made of. I don't remember the last time an Oak Hill team lost two straight," he said. "We still have a lot of big games this season."
Saturday's game will likely be the final stern test for Northland, the favorite to win a second straight Ohio Division I title. In December, the Vikings edged Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) 52-51, vaulting the program on to the national stage.
OHA still has Dudley (Greensboro, N.C.) on Monday and a February date with current No. 1 St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.).
"They'll be a strong test," said Smith of Northland. "We'll either redeem ourselves or head in another direction."
Here's a closer look at Monday's four games on the Old Spice High School Showcase presented by Nike (all times are Eastern).
St. Benedict's (Newark, N.J.)-Bishop O'Connell (Arlington, Va.), 11 a.m.: This appeared to be a good matchup in the preseason, but the programs are headed in opposite directions. O'Connell is struggling, suffering three setbacks in December at the Beach Ball Classic in South Carolina, and is off to a rocky start in conference play. North Carolina-bound guard Kendall Marshall (No. 19 in the ESPNU 100) is the lone plus. O'Connell used stalling tactics at the BBC, but Massachusetts rules feature a 30-second shot clock.
St. Benedict's (10-1) is loaded with talent. The Gray Bees feature 6-7 Gil Biruta (Rutgers), 6-5 Aaron Brown (Temple), 6-5 Mike Poole, junior guard Myck Kabongo (Texas), 6-8 junior Sidiki Johnson (Arizona) and 6-10 J.P. Kambola. Poole has interest from several Atlantic 10 schools and Virginia, Providence and Rutgers.
"We've settled on an eight-man rotation," St. Benedict's coach Dan Hurley said. "If we defend and rebound on the defensive glass we're tough for anyone to beat."
St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.)-Westchester (Los Angeles), 1 p.m.: "We don't know much about St. Anthony, but one thing's for sure: They are well-coached," Azzam said of St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley, who is closing in on 1,000 victories.
Hurley is on the cusp of gaining enough votes for election to the Naismith Hall of Fame. He might get the nod in April.
St. Anthony (9-1), a perennial power, needs a big game from 5-11 Eli Carter, who orchestrates the offense. Richmond-bound forward Derrick Williams is consistent but Jordan Quick needs to contribute as he did Sunday, scoring a season-high 13 points, against NIA Prep (Newark). The front line is decimated, with 6-8 Devon Collier (Oregon State) and 6-9 Ashton Pankey (Maryland) sidelined with an injury and poor grades, respectively.
Westchester's 6-7 wing Dwayne Polee is the nation's No. 78-ranked senior. He recently decommitted from USC and is looking at UNLV, Washington, Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon.
St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.)-Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.), 3 p.m.: St. Patrick is playing lights-out and will receive a boost when do-everything junior Michael Gilchrist (No. 1 in the ESPNU Super 60) returns after missing parts of three games with a sprained knee. Duke-bound Kyrie Irving is making a case for the national player of the year.
No. 3 Findlay (20-1) won two games last weekend in Lexington, Ky., and continues its road-warrior mentality with a game Saturday in Ohio against Benedictine (Cleveland) before getting a crack at the Celtics. Senior point guard Cory Joseph is the catalyst, while Tristan Thompson clogs the middle. Senior guard Marko Petrovic is an emerging marksman from 3-point territory. Don't overlook senior Godwin Okonji, a steady player for the Pilots.
DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.)-Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), 5 p.m.: The fourth game is East meets West. Mater Dei's perimeter players Gary Franklin Jr. (California), Keala King (Arizona State) and Tyler Lamb (UCLA) are headed to Pac-10 schools while galvanizing the Monarchs. No. 4 DeMatha (15-0) -- which won the Gatorade Tournament in Puerto Rico -- is on a roll, having won 32 of its past 33 games. Junior Quinn Cook is the floor general, with 6-5 Victor Oladipo (Indiana) and 6-4 Jerian Grant (Notre Dame) on the wings. At 6-8, junior Mikael Hopkins legitimizes the Stags and has all the majors lined up for his services.
"There are two of high school basketball's most storied programs; both well-coached and have plenty of talent this year," Biancardi said.
Greg Procino, Hoophall Classic director, said the talent and the Hall of Fame are a perfect combination.
"We are lucky enough to feature many of the top teams and players in the country. Having the premier high school event in the country recognizes the Hall of Fame's purpose of honoring and highlighting the best of the best in the game. The roots of the game of basketball are in Springfield and we are proud to showcase the Hall of Fame to a national audience," he said.
More Hall hoopla
The televised games feature high-profile programs, but here are half-dozen games that will also likely pique fans' interest. Saturday's games include Sacred Heart (Waterbury, Conn.)-Half Hollow Hills West (Dix Hills, N.Y.), 12:30 p.m.; Kentwood (Covington, Wash.)-Kinston (N.C.), 2 p.m.; and Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.)-Winter Park (Fla.).
Winter Park flies into Boston on Friday in time to watch the Celtics play. Austin Rivers, a 6-4 junior and No. 2 in the ESPNU 60, and his teammates will head over to TD Banknorth Garden to watch his father, Doc Rivers, coach the Celtics. Sacred Heart (6-1), Connecticut's second-ranked team, features high scorer Josh Turner (23 ppg). HHH West's 6-7 Tobias Harris (Tennessee) is one of the event's top talents.
Sunday's top offerings are Simeon (Chicago) against Neumann-Goretti (Philadelphia) at 2 p.m. and Newton (Mass.) North playing St. Frances Academy (Baltimore) at 4 p.m. Newtown North is a last-minute replacement for Paterson (N.J.) Catholic, which has backed out of three events this season due to overscheduling.
Newton North (8-0) is thrilled to have received the late call. No doubt 6-7 center Greg Kelley, a Yale recruit, is looking forward to the big stage. Kelley (17.6 points), sophomore guard Michael Thorpe (16.9) and 6-8 Tevin Falzon (10.3) are double-digit scorers for the Tigers. St. Frances, the defending Baltimore Catholic League champion, has been tested playing at tournaments in Florida, West Virginia and South Carolina.
The Hoophall Classic isn't the only event this weekend. As you can see, the weekend is chock-full of showcases.
Here's a look at 11 events, some commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. King, a true American hero:
Alaska Airlines Classic, Anchorage, Alaska: The biggest name in the three-day event, which starts Thursday, is Anchorage West coach Chuck White, who won his 900th game last week. West is paced by 6-1 Tom Feeney (No. 55 point guard), who has interest from Pac-10 schools. Christian Life Center (Humble, Texas), Rufus King (Milwaukee), Westinghouse (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Coolidge (Washington, D.C.) are in from the Lower 48.
Bass Pro Tournament of Champions, Springfield, Mo.: Once again tournament director Mark Fisher is on top of his game, attracting top teams.
Thursday's opening-round matchups are at Missouri State's 11,033-seat JQH Arena: Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.)-Hillcrest (Springfield); Chaminade (St. Louis)-Milton (Alpharetta, Ga.); White Station (Memphis)-Sagemont School (Weston, Fla.); and Kickapoo (Springfield)-United Faith (Charlotte, N.C.).
Memphis-bound guard Joe Jackson of White Station is the top player here, but enters the TOC banged up. Brad Beal of Chaminade, 6-3, is the top junior and has already committed to Florida.
United Faith (15-3) is without 6-8 Kadeem Green, a Missouri recruit, who ruptured his Achilles tendon last week, but that means 6-9 Nemanja Mikic will do more. Mikic, of Serbia, is being courted by the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern, Long Beach State, Colorado, New Mexico and Winthrop. Florida State-bound guard Ian Miller remains the team's top talent and is a serious candidate for North Carolina state player of the year.
"The fans and the community support really make this tournament one of the truly special places to be," CTK coach Joe Arbitello said.
The semifinals are Friday and the final and consolations are Saturday.
McDonald's Classic, Erie, Pa.: The 27th annual four-team tournament tips Friday with Mount Vernon (N.Y.) against Penn Wood (Lansdowne, Pa.) and Cathedral Prep (Erie) versus Nichols School (Buffalo, N.Y.). At 6-9, Will Regan of Nichols is the top player, and headed to Virginia.
Coaches vs. Cancer, St. Louis: Saturday's seven-game event will be contested at Saint Louis University's Chaifetz Arena, beginning at 11 a.m. ET. The top game is Hazelwood Central (Florissant, Mo.) against Melrose (Memphis) at 8:30 p.m. Melrose's trio of 6-6 Adonis Thomas, 6-7 Nino Johnson and 5-10 Chris Jones will be a handful. Also check out Glenbrook North (Ill.) against Saint Louis University High.
Dan Finn Classic, Jersey City, N.J.: The sixth annual New Jersey-flavored event features six games, including a girls' game, at the renovated Jersey City Armory. The top games are Academy of New Church (Bryn Athyn, Pa.) versus St. Benedict's (Newark) at 6:15 p.m. and Jersey City rivals St. Anthony versus St. Peter's Prep at 8 p.m. Texas-bound junior guard Myck Kabongo of St. Benedict's is the top player. St. Anthony's offense is directed by St. Bonaventure-bound guard Eli Carter.
Big Apple Invitational, Manhattan, N.Y.: Several of the top teams from New York will play on Saturday and Monday at Baruch College. Saturday's four-game card is Peekskill (N.Y.)-Wing's Academy (Bronx), 1 p.m.; Impact Academy (Las Vegas)-Winchendon School (Mass.), 2:45 p.m.; Cardozo (Bayside)-St. Raymond (Bronx), 4:45 p.m.; and Long Island Lutheran-Boys and Girls (Brooklyn), 6:30 p.m. Winchendon is one of the nation's top postgraduate programs, coached by Mike Byrnes.
There are five intriguing matchups Monday, most notably Life Center (Burlington, N.J.) against Hotchkiss (Conn.) School at 3:30 p.m. and Half Hollow Hills West (Dix Hills) versus Bishop Loughlin (Brooklyn). Life Center features recent transfer LaQuinton Ross and Syracuse-bound guard Dion Waters, while Villanova-bound 6-6 Jayvaughn Pinkston of Loughlin battles 6-7 forward Tobias Harris of HHH West, a Tennessee recruit.
Flyin' to the Hoops, Kettering, Ohio: The three-day event opens Saturday at Trent Arena near Dayton with plenty of in-state talent to bolster the field. The top opening-day game is Princeton (Cincinnati)-Pine Crest School (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Ohio State-bound Jordan Siebert leads Princeton and Brandon Knight paces the Floridians. Knight, the No. 4 senior, has Kentucky, Connecticut, Kansas, Miami and Florida on his radar. Also appearing are Wheeler (Marietta, Ga.), Montverde (Fla.), Whitney Young (Chicago), Miller Grove (Lithonia, Ga.), Huntington (W.Va.) Prep and Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.).
MLK Dream Classic, Chicago: The event is a who's who of Chicagoland high school basketball, with 38 games on two live courts simultaneously over three days at Whitney Young High. Schools from Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Texas are also on board. Hometown hero 6-4 Wayne Blackshear of Morgan Park plays Westbury Christian (Houston) Saturday on Court 1 at 6 p.m. ET.
King Holiday Hoopfest, Seattle: Talent abounds at the Northwest's premier event Monday at the University of Washington's Bank of America Arena. John Gage of Vashon Island, 6-10, and Bellevue's guard Aaron Bright, both Stanford recruits, will play in undercard games, but the marquee matchup at 9 p.m. ET will feature 6-9 Terrence Jones of Jefferson (Portland, Ore.) against Federal Way. Earlier in the day, it's Grant (Portland) versus hometown Franklin in another appetizing interstate showdown.
MLK Classic, Berkeley, Calif.: Monday's four games at Cal's Haas Pavilion are Northgate (Walnut Creek)-Hayward; Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland)-St. Mary's (Berkeley); De La Salle (Concord)-Fairfax (Los Angeles) at 8 p.m. ET; and Salesian (Richmond)-Newark Memorial.
MLK Elite Eight Showcase, San Diego: Monday's event features San Diego-area teams playing at Hoover High. The most recognizable player is 6-9 junior Angelo Chol of Hoover, who is currently in the USA U17 National Team pool.
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.