Holiday Tournament Handicap!

Many of the nation’s top teams will compete in various pre-Christmas holiday tournaments beginning Wednesday. Between the City of Palms Classic in Florida, the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas and the Iolani Classic in Hawaii, there will be 24 FAB 50 ranked teams in attendance, and of course, many will do battle against each other. We give a quick rundown of what could transpire in the brackets and showcase games.

When many of the top teams travel cross country to play in holiday tournaments, often times it’s not the most talented team that advances. It’s the one that stays disciplined in its travel regimen and is rested and prepared to compete at the highest level.

That’s definitely the case for FAB 50 ranked No. 30 Archbishop Wood (Warminster, Pa.), which is coming off one of the craziest and most memorable regular season games involving highly-ranked teams in recent memory. Wood nearly had FAB 50 No. 2 Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.) beat, but gave up a big fourth quarter lead and fell in seven overtimes, 130-128. The game was played last Saturday evening in Philadelphia (Eastern Time) and finished after midnight. The Vikings had to be at the airport on Sunday morning at 4:30 am to catch their flight to the Iolani Classic in Hawaii all the way across the country. Wood landed at 8:45 pm (Eastern), 16 hours later. Those are the types of occurrences that often affect what transpires on the court.

Wood joins three other FAB 50 ranked teams in Hawaii: No. 10 Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), No. 18 Long Island Lutheran (Glen Head, N.Y.) and No. 21 Wasatch Academy. Interestingly, three of those teams are on the opposite side of the bracket as Oak Hill Academy, which should get to the championship game slated for Saturday evening December 21. LSU-bound Cam Thomas is playing terrific for the Warriors, and he perhaps could jump into the Mr. Basketball USA conversation with big outings in Hawaii and a tourney championship for Oak Hill.

Wood, on the other hand, will have its hands full by the quarterfinals, where it could face No. 21 Wasatch Academy. That quarterfinal game could pit Wood 2021 point guard Rahsool Diggins versus Wasatch Academy 2022 lead guard Richard Isaacs Jr. It doesn’t appear strongman Mady Sissoko will return for Wasatch Academy after an off-season hand injury, so if Wood’s underclass dominated front court can rebound it will have a strong chance to win the quarterfinal showdown. Also watch out for Wood’s Daeshon Sheperd, as the 6-foot-5 junior wing will have to score big for Wood to advance to the tourney semifinals. Long Island Lutheran will likely be awaiting in the semifinals, where another good point guard, Illinois-bound Andre Curbelo, would match wits with either Isaacs or Diggins. It should make for a terrific semifinal contest, as Long Island Lutheran rates as the slight favorite to reach the championship round.

The Tarkanian Classic boasts four teams in its main bracket, two on each side. It would seem No. 17 Neumann-Goretti (Philadelphia, Pa.) would meet No. 19 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) in one semifinal, with host program and No. 5 Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nev.) facing No. 27 Sheldon (Sacramento, Calif.) on the opposite side. However, don’t be too surprised if the seeds don’t hold up. There are plenty of dangerous teams capable of knocking off the top seeds and a few teams that have already defeated ranked clubs or were once themselves in the FAB 50.

Neumann-Goretti (Philadelphia, Pa.) has a super-tough test right off the bat against bubble club Centennial (Corona, Calif.), which despite its guard heavy lineup and losing three potential starters to transfer, has played terrific ball. The Huskies run their sets and harass ball-handlers into submission, so the Saints will have their hands full. The matchup to watch will be Goretti’s Hakim Byrd, one of the top uncommitted guards in Pennsylvania, versus Centennial’s Paris Dawson, who’s headed to Portland St. If Dawson has the outside shot rolling, Centennial could pull off the mild upset. Last Saturday, Centennial defeated previous No. 40 Coronado (Henderson, Nev.), 73-65, by speeding up the Cougars’ guards. Ironically, if Centennial defeats the Saints in the first round, it could meet Coronado again in the quarterfinals. Coronado has a tough first round game against Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland, Calif.), which is always a tough out in this tournament and boasts terrific 2023 forward Jalen Lewis. O’Dowd is another team that can really defend the ball, so Jaden Hardy and the other Cougars guards are going to have to take care of the ball and hit timely shots to give the team an opportunity to advance to the semifinals. On the other hand, Mater Dei, which won the first two Tarkanian Classics in 2012 and 2013, should advance to the semifinal contest, with St. Augustine (San Diego, Calif.) giving it a solid challenge in the quarterfinals.

Bishop Gorman always plays tough at home, so it would be the favorites in its quarterfinal contest between either Fairfax (Los Angeles) or Thomas Jefferson (Brooklyn, N.Y.), which is a pick’em game in the first round. Jefferson comes in ranked No. 8 in New York City at 6-3, while Fairfax is unbeaten and already owns a win over archival Westchester (Los Angeles). Fairfax has been getting some excellent scoring performances from San Diego St.-bound Keith Dinwiddie, so if he gets off to a good start it could carry over to the rest of the tournament. Westchester is actually on the same side of the bracket as its rival, but it’s doubtful the L.A. City Section powers will meet in the championship semifinals. The Comets have their hands full with Marion (Ark.), which started off FAB 50 ranked and could be a surprise on its side of the bracket. Marion has a terrific backcourt featuring 6-foot-3 2020 shooting guard Detrick Reeves Jr. and 6-foot 2020 point guard Makyi Boyce. In addition to Lewis, Marion has one of the top freshman in the Tarkanian in 6-foot-1 Jayden Forrest. Westchester is always tough defensively, but lacks scoring consistency thus far.

If Neumann-Goretti-Corona Centennial is not the best first round matchup, then it’s No. 27 Sheldon (Sacramento, Calif.) versus bubble club Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.). One-loss Riverdale Baptist is capable of an upset behind its terrific transfer backcourt of Devon Savage (6-3, 2021) and Guy Flauntroy (5-10, 2021). Sheldon has plenty of weapons and perhaps for the first time in recent memory is healthy and has all its players eligible early in the season. Arizona St.-bound Marcus Bagley of Sheldon could really stamp himself as one of the best players on the West Coast with a big tourney performance, while unsigned senior guard Xavion Brown will have to continue to make plays on both sides of the ball and pound the boards to offset Savage’s and Flauntroy’s production. A Sheldon-Marion quarterfinal could be a close game, and if Gorman doesn’t have the services of Stanford-bound Noah Taitz and transfer center Christian Bento is not ready for the intensity of this tourney, Gorman could be upset in the semifinals. The Gaels, however, usually shoot good and play well at home so they are the slight favorites by a whisker in its side of the bracket over Sheldon.

There will be two more FAB 50 ranked teams at the Tarkanian and they will face each other on Wednesday night in a showcase game: No. 47 Oak Ridge (Orlando, Fla.) and No. 6 Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.). Many local fans will come out to watch Sierra Canyon, particularly freshman Bronny James, but it will be senior wing B.J. Boston and sophomore guard Amari Bailey Oak Ridge has to worry about slowing down. Oak Ridge has a terrific 1-2 punch with 6-foot-5 Michael James (2021) and 6-foot-3 Jalen Smith (2021). James is one of the fastest-rising juniors in the country and comes in averaging 19.2 ppg, while Smith sports norms of 16 points and six assists. The following night, the Trailblazers will face Northeast (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.), a talented team featuring 6-foot-5 Wesley Cardet (2021), 6-foot-3 J.J. Harris (2021) and the highly regarded Bewley Twins, standout 6-foot-8 2023 prospects Matthew Bewley and Ryan Bewley. Sierra Canyon will have its hands full, with Oak Ridge a bit more battle-tested at this level.

Both Oak Ridge and Northeast will participate in the Tarkanian’s “The Eight” Bracket with Oak Ridge the slight favorites. Northeast will have a tough first-round game with Capital Christian (Sacramento, Calif.). Oak Ridge will likely have a tough semifinal contest on Friday with either Liberty (Henderson, Nev.) or Poly (Riverside, Calif.). Poly will have to slow down Liberty’s Julian Strawther, a Gonzaga-bound wing who is capable of 40 point performances against any team in the “The Eight” bracket. The other first-round game pits Mayfair (Lakewood, Calif.) and Desert Pines (Las Vegas, Nev.), the latter a talented team which could give Northeast fits. Mayfair is the type of team that could get upset or has the ability to win the entire bracket behind the spectacular play of senior guard Josh Christopher.

The City of Palms Classic boasts 10 FAB 50 ranked teams in its main bracket, with five on each side. On one side it doesn’t look like any team will have the horses to knock off No. 1 Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.). As we stated in this week’s updated FAB 50 rankings, it will take a special performance to knock off the Eagles.

The best first-round matchup is No. 20 Archbishop Stepinac (White Plains, N.Y.) vs. No. 34 Briarcrest Christian (Eads, Tenn.), with the winner likely facing No. 8 IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) in the quarterfinals. Stepinac can definitely make IMG work and its an excellent opportunity for Briarcrest Christian to show it’s a team to be reckoned with on a national scale. No. 15 Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.) is battle-tested, but taking down No. 23 O’Dea (Seattle, Wash.) to get to the semifinals won’t be an easy task. It would seem IMG would be the favorites on its side of the bracket, and if Stepinac could pull off the upset it would be our dark horse finalist against Montverde Academy.

As it that isn’t enough, the COP Signature Series is just as intriguing. In fact, the game we’re most looking forward to down in Ft. Myers is No. 4 Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kan.) versus No. 3 Saint Frances Academy (Baltimore, Md.). It’s a terrific opportunity for the Panthers to prove their rankings worth. Saint Frances Academy is a balanced club with no elite superstar, but the Panthers play hard, play together and are experienced. Sunrise’s Christian Brown is one of the fastest-rising players in the country and the Buffaloes would rate as a slight favorite in this game based on whom they beat so far. The other Signature Series semifinal pits No. 9 Hamilton Heights Christian Academy (Chattanooga, Tenn.)  and its fast-rising 2020 Samson Ruzhentsev versus No. 28 West Oaks Academy (Orlando, Fla.). West Oaks is battle-tested and whomever comes out of this min-bracket with two wins will clearly be one of the best teams in the country heading into 2020.

Ronnie Flores is the national Grassroots editor of Ballislife.com. He can be reached at ronnie@ballislife.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonMFlores




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