By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Shane Marshall
It’s become one of the hottest tickets in town in early December, when the Orem High boys basketball team brings in some of the best teams from around the country for three days of hoops at Tiger Fieldhouse.
The Tigers are always a great draw in their own house, but this tournament has also fed off the presence of four-time defending state 5A champion Lone Peak, which is back for its third year in the event this weekend. The Knights will be one of five Utah teams participating in the tournament, which includes the most geographically diverse field to date.
In addition to the Utah teams – Orem, Timpview, Jordan, Lone Peak, Wasatch Academy and Timpanogos – the tournament will also feature Kahuku (Hawaii) and Richland (Washington), along with Overland and Denver East from Colorado.
“What we’re most excited about is the demand that we’ve had. We now have teams calling us and wanting to be a part of the tournament,” said Orem coach Golden Holt, who is the tournament director. “The tournament has a bright future. Our partnership with FreeTaxUSA.com has allowed us to brand the tournament and become an event that teams from all over the country want to play in.”
Holt and tournament director Paul Overly always look to set strong matchups that feature a Utah team against a team from outside the state, and they have done the same this year, but a late scratch by a team from Massachusetts has actually set up a couple of in-state battles that should generate a lot of interest.
After dominating the Utah 2A classification, Wasatch Academy, the Mount Pleasant based school that features players from all over the world, has received permission from the Utah High School Activities Association to play this season as an independent. Many of its games are at out-of-state tournaments, but the Tigers will actually play four games in this tournament, two of them against Timpview and Lone Peak.
Many people see Wasatch Academy as a 5A-level squad, and this is its chance to show what it’s made of against 5A’s best in the Knights and one of the top 4A teams in the state, a team the Tigers beat last year at the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas.
Denver East won the tournament last year and then went on to win the Colorado 5A state title, beating Overland along the way, after the Blazers knocked off Lone Peak in this tournament a year ago. This year, Overland is the preseason favorite as the best team in Colorado, and a projected Saturday night rematch between the Blazers and Knights would be a fantastic matchup.
Lone Peak features junior point guard Frank Jackson, who appears to be headed for a monster season. Jackson is ranked as the 31st – best player in the country by ESPN for the Class of 2016. Overland arrives once again with De’Ron Davis, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, who rates as the 14th best player in the nation by ESPN (class of 2016).
“This is one of the best tournaments in the West. Golden and his staff continue to bring in high quality out-of-state teams year after year,” said Lone Peak coach Quincy Lewis. “This year’s tournament offers some really fun diversity with teams from Hawaii, Colorado and Washington State. I think that makes it really interesting.”
Jordan is a newcomer to this tournament, and the Beetdiggers return all five starters from last year’s 9-14 team. Jordan has had a year to adjust to coach Trace Bevell’s philosophy and it are hoping this will be its breakout year.
The Beetdiggers are counting on a big year from Tanner Monson, a 6-4 senior forward who led the team in scoring with 12.9 points per game last season. Monson is a good shooter who focused on improving his outside shooting in the summer to go along with his post-up skills.
“I got into this tournament knowing that this will be a step up in our competition. I wanted our guys to experience what it is like to play on big stage against really good teams,” Bevell said. “I figured why not play in one of better tournaments that is in own backyard. We’re excited to be participating. This should be a good measuring stick for us.”
Kahuku High School is a national high school football powerhouse, but first-year coach Alan Akina took over the head basketball job with plans of creating a program that is on par with what happens on the gridiron. He has as many as eight Division I football players on the roster, but these guys are skilled on the court as well.
“We’re considered one of the top three teams in Hawaii. We like to run and use our athletic ability, speed and quickness to get up and down the court,” Akina said. “We like to shoot from the outside and use our tough kids inside.”
BYU fans may want to watch Kesi Ohoy, 6-0, sophomore guard, who verbally committed to BYU as a running back. Another player with BYU ties is Bradlee Anae, who is a 6-4 junior. He’s the nephew of BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae and is being recruited by the Cougars at defensive end.
“We’re super excited to play against different competition. We know basketball in Utah is at a superior level and we’re excited to see other national ranked teams,” Akina said. “We have a young squad but we’re full of athletes so we hope to be competitive.”
In the process of winning four straight 5A state championships, Lone Peak has compiled a remarkable 95-8 record. The Knights are also the only Utah basketball team with a national title and they return with Frank Jackson, a 6-1, junior, who is regarded as the best player in Utah.
Jackson was the leading scorer in the MPAC International Tournament in Dubai during the summer. He averaged 32 points while playing against three of the top high school teams in the United States. He also won the slam-dunk contest.
Another player who figures to make an impact this year will be sophomore Christian Popoola, a 6-2, guard who is a move-in from Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas).
“We have worked very hard this off-season and we have a good talent level,” said Lone Peak coach Quincy Lewis. “We are looking forward to competing at the FreeTaxUSA Shootout which has established itself as one of the top tournaments in the West.”
Under the direction of head coach Golden Holt, Orem High School’s basketball program has emerged as one of the top teams in Utah over the last five years. The Tigers have compiled a remarkable 72-26 record with one state title and three region titles during that run.
Orem lost four starters off last year’s team that came within a couple of free throws of a second state title, but if recent history is an indication the Tigers should once again be a force to be reckoned with.
“I may be as excited for this year’s team as any I have coached thus far,” Holt said. “If experience matters, we shouldn’t win a game this year. We have only one returning starter and no one else has played significant varsity minutes, but I like my chances and expect us to be where we want to be at the end February.”
The excitement around this year’s team begins in the post, where 6-foot-10 senior center Richard Harward could be Utah’s breakout player. Harward had a dominating summer and verbally committed to play at Utah Valley University.
“With that body and size, we’re all guessing on how good he’ll be,” Holt said. “He dominated this summer like no one I’ve ever coached. He’s really found his stroke and confidence. Richard could be an NBA player if he grows a few more inches and if he continues to improve.”
Holt believes the Shootout is one of the reasons his team has come so far during his run on the sidelines.
“We believe to be the best you have play the best. We commit ourselves to 12 months of basketball and we’re proud to have organized and host the FreeTaxUSA Shootout each December,” Holt said. “We have literally brought the basketball world to Orem High and it has definitely elevated our game and our program.”
Overland High School begins the season ranked No. 1 in Colorado (5A) and for good reason.
The Blazers feature the state’s best player in De’Ron Davis, a 6-foot-8 junior forward who is rated as the 17th-best player in the country for the Class of 2016 by ESPN.
Davis averaged 15.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots per game last year as he helped Overland to reach the state 5A semifinals. Schools such as Arizona, Indiana, Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon and Oklahoma State have offered Davis.
“We hope to build off of the success and experience we gained last season. This team should be very competitive,” said head coach Danny Fisher. “The key for us will be to get a heavy contribution from other people and if we have other guys play off the attention that De’Ron gets we could be pretty tough.”
“We’re pretty excited to be in the tournament again this year,” Fisher said. “We know there is pretty good basketball in Utah and we look forward to playing teams with a different style of basketball.”
With a record of 97-29 over the last five years, Richland has become one of Washington’s best programs. The Bombers lost in the state 4A championship game (highest classification) last year and finished the season with a 24-1 record.
Richland lost eight seniors off last year’s team that averaged 70 of the team’s 86 points per game last year but it has enough returning talent to make up for what it graduated.
Steven Beo, a 6-3, junior guard, is a player that head coach Earl Streufert calls the top player in Eastern Washington. Beo averaged 13 points, five rebounds and three assists last year. He will be moved from the wing to point guard this year.
“He’s a complete player. He can run the point and one thing that’s unique about him is he has a great mid range pull-up jumper, he shoots the three and can post you up,” Streufert said. “I think that makes him pretty attractive because he’s not just a guard but someone who can post up.”
“We have a very up-tempo team. We have a shot clock (35 seconds) but that’s usually not an issue because of our fast pace. We’ll definitely get up our shots,” Streufert said. “We don’t know a whole lot about the other teams in the tournament other than based on what we’ve read but we’re excited to get out of Washington and do something different.”
Timpview has won six state championships and has won 17 or more games in five of its last six years, but after winning a Region 8 title and posting a 19-5 record, the Thunderbirds were bounced in the first round of last year’s playoffs. This year they are intent on making sure that doesn’t happen again and they have three returning starters back to lead the charge.
Gavin Baxter is a 6-6 junior forward, who is emerging as one of the top players in Utah and Britain Covey is a 5-9 senior point guard who quarterbacked the football team to three consecutive state titles (two with him as a starter).
“I think the disappointment of last year will motivate our guys to work hard,” head coach Kevin Santiago said. “There are only so many minutes to go around so if we can develop our chemistry and stay healthy I think we can make a pretty good run at it.”
Wasatch Academy has won two straight 2A basketball titles in Utah but after dominating the 2A level the Tigers are looking for a new challenge, so they opted to pass up a chance to defend their title.
Instead of feasting on 2A talent, they have packed their season with tournament games. They participated in a tournament in Atlanta and were scheduled to play in a tournament in Las Vegas before participating in the FreeTaxUSA Shootout.
“We didn’t get any better from January through February of last year. It was hard for our guys to get motivated to get on a bus and go play San Juan after we just beat them by 35 at our place,” said Wasatch Academy coach Geno Morgan. ”We’re still part of UHSAA but we’re not part of a 2A region any more so we won’t be competing for a state championship. I would have liked to go 4A or 5A but I’m not sure they wanted us so we decided that this would be best for our program.”
Wasatch Academy returns two starters off last year’s team that was undefeated in Utah and finished the year with an overall record of 26-1. The Tigers will be led by senior guard Cody John, the reigning two-time Class 2A player of the year, who averaged 19 points per game. He will be joined by Koby McEwen, a junior guard, who averaged 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game.