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Friday, July 19, 2019

2009 Nike Tournament of Champions Kicks Off Friday—No “Gimme” Games Here

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Photo Credit: Original Artwork Courtesy istockphoto.com©

By Clay Kallam

Every year, it’s the same. Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix is full of tall girls stepping into vans, and athletic-looking types wearing polo shirts with college logos picking up rental cars.

It’s the Nike Tournament of Champions, and as sure as Christmas carols get overplayed, the best high school teams in the country come to Chandler, Arizona, to decide things on the court.

This year, there are the usual highly ranked suspects scheduled to play in the Joe Smith Division, plus a few newcomers who are out to establish a reputation. The rookies, though, usually find it much harder than they expect to rack up wins – they’re used to the usual high school or summer tournaments where the first game is almost always a gimme, and if things do go wrong, and the loser’s bracket beckons, it will be smooth sailing to a few more wins.

But not in this tournament. There are four games in five days (starting Friday, ending Tuesday, with Sunday off), and all four in the Joe Smith Division will be flat-out wars. There are no easy games, no breathers, no blowouts that are guaranteed to get even the last player in the rotation on the floor for eight minutes. There are college-level players everywhere, and college coaches (the ones with the polos and rental cars) everywhere as well.

Most of those coaches will gather at Hamilton High School, where 16 of the nation’s top girls’ teams are scheduled to face off in the Joe Smith Division. Among the teams currently ranked in the nation’s Top 25 who will be playing there: St. Mary’s of Stockton, California; Mater Dei; Bolingbrook, Illinois; Long Beach Poly; Mt. Lebanon, Pittsburgh; St. Michael Academy, New York; Memphis (Tennessee) Central; and ThunderRidge of Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

But some of the coaches will always be found at the other five sites (and those who have never seen Arizona’s school facilities will be seriously impressed with the quality of the gymnasiums). Why? Because every one of the six brackets has top talent.

For example, 13 of the 16 teams in the Gray Division won 20 or more games last year, and eight of those 13 return four or five starters. (In the Gray Division, college coaches will be eyeing Bonnie Samuelson, a 6-3 junior from Edison High School in California, among others.) In the Blue Division, tournament director Steve Kozaki was only able to scrape together nine 20-win teams, while the James Anderson Division highlights Pinewood of California, which won 31 games in 2008-09.

Oh, and the eight-team Mike Desper Division has two defending state champions, plus the Nevada runner-up, Bishop Gorman, which features the electric Aaryn Ellenberg, who will attend Oklahoma.

On Tuesday, the final day, all the championship games from each bracket are played, one after the other, and the parade of talent is simply dazzling. Equally dazzling, though, is the level of sophistication at which most of these teams play. At the Nike TOC, as in each state’s postseason, it’s not enough to just have talent – there has to be team basketball as well, something that’s often lacking in the summer showcases, where it’s more about individual ability than it is about an all-for-one-and-one-for-all philosophy.

And speaking of state postseasons, that’s why most of these teams are in Arizona. Only one school will walk away from the Joe Smith Division unbeaten, and with a serious shot at a national title – but the rest, even the team that went 0-4, will go back home with four gut-check games to learn from, ready to take on whatever challenges the rest of the season has to offer. Each team, and each player, will be better for the experience, and the plan is to use that improvement as a springboard for the games that really matter, in league and in postseason.

Of course, there’s one other aspect to the Nike TOC: The fun. The players all stay in the same hotel, and many of them gather for the Joe Smith winner’s bracket semifinals on Monday at Hamilton (at 3:30 and 6:30 if you’re wondering). They’ll ooh and aah along with the rest of the fans at the high caliber of basketball on display, but they’ll also have time to get in their Christmas shopping at the many malls, and enjoy the Arizona weather (generally in the 70s with clear skies). The college coaches will chatter and text, as they always do, in a kind of mini-convention, and the high school coaches will shepherd their kids around the area, scout for upcoming games and psyche themselves up for four days of tough competition.

And, of course, the games themselves are fun to watch, fun to play, and sometimes just plain exhilarating. Especially with the national title at stake, there’s no reason for the players to hold anything back – and they don’t. They may limp a little when they get back to the airport on Wednesday, but, hey, they’re young. And most will never play in a tournament like this ever again.

Originally published Thu, December 17, 2009

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1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
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3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
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