By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography)
The end of high school football season brings one item of really good news – it means that basketball season is here. The 2015-16 Utah high school hoops campaign has been going for a couple of weeks, but this weekend it gets serious for those who love high school basketball.
It’s preseason tournament season, and if you’re looking for a sneak preview of what postseason basketball will look like in March, this weekend provides a great opportunity. Seven of the top teams in Class 5A boys basketball and one of 4A’s best come together at American Fork High for what the Utah Elite 8 tournament.
These eight high profile teams will combine in what tournament organizers like to call a “true tournament style” event. Eight teams, three days, one champion. Year 2 of the Elite 8 tourney is here.
A year ago, Jesse Wade and Davis knocked off Sky View in the Saturday championship game. At the time, the Bobcats were a 4A team and the Darts were one of the favorites in 5A. This year, Wade has graduated and Sky View has joined Davis is Class 5A. Layton, the eventual 5A state champion in 2015, struggled a bit in this tournament last year, but those matchups served the Lancers well come state tournament time.
And that may be the biggest draw of the Elite 8. It gives these eight teams a chance to see where they stand before they get to league play in January. For the rest of us, it just provides three outstanding days of basketball, four games each day, as a warm up for the first week in March.
Davis (2-1 so far this year) is back to defend its title, but has a whole new look under second-year coach Chad Sims. Wade is gone, and 6-foot-6 junior center Ben Rigby is taking on a larger role. Senior guard Jarett Gardner has scored more than 14 points a game so far and 6-1 sophomore Josh Sanders is approaching nine points per contest.
The Darts are waiting on the return of 6-3 senior forward Landon Swartz, who had an appendectomy a couple of weeks ago. Swartz was a key performer during last year’s run to the state semifinals and will be a key to his year’s team.
Sky View (2-1) is Davis’ opening night opponent as the Elite 8 matches last year’s finalists right out of the chute. The Bobcats are coming off a win over Orem in their first battle against an in-state opponent this season.
Jake Hendricks, a 6-6 senior forward, comes in as one of the state’s elite scorers, dropping 27 points per contest while also pulling down five rebounds a night. He provides a nice complement to 6-6, 220-pound senior forward Bryce Mortensen, who will be a tough matchup for almost any team in the tournament down low.
Bingham (2-0) has to be considered one of the 5A frontrunners this year, and one of the favorites in this Elite 8 tournament. The Miners are led by 6-8, 230-pound senior forward Yoeli Childs. who has signed to play at Brigham Young University. Childs can do damage inside and out and he is a dominant rebounder who is very good on the post.
Junior guard Lleyton Parker is the leading Miner scorer so far this season, with 14 points per game, as Bingham is a team that spreads the load around. Samuta Avea, a 6-6 junior and 6-4 senior Schyler Shoemaker are among the other players to watch.
Olympus (2-0) is the other team in the top half of the bracket and the only 4A team in the field. The Titans possess two blowout wins so far this year, so they will certainly be a strong test for Bingham Thursday afternoon.
With Jake Lindsey now playing at Baylor, it’s been a group effort thus far at Olympus. Isaac Monson is a 6-8 senior forward averaging 15 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game and Ryan Bell is a 6-7 senior center who scores 14 a night, so the Titans certainly have the size to challenge Bingham in the tourney opener. Miles Keller, Matt Lindsey and Travis Wagstaff provide perimeter support for Olympus.
American Fork (2-0) is the tournament host and has to be considered one of the favorites to win it. The Cavemen are led by the same perimeter duo that led the way a year ago – 6-5 senior guard Spencer Johnson and 6-9 senior Brendan Bailey.
Johnson, scoring 22 points per game thus far, will play collegiately at Weber State, while Bailey, at 16 points per contest, has signed on to play at Marquette. American Fork brings defensive pressure and turns up the tempo with the help of a pair of smaller guards – 6-foot senior Benji Judd and 5-9 senior Braden Condie.
Mountain Crest (2-1) gets the honor of facing the host on Day 1, but the Mustangs will be up to the challenge. Led by talented 6-4 junior guard Jaxon Brenchley (21 PPG, 5 RPG), Mountain Crest is coming off a pair of wins over last year’s 5A finalists – Layton and Brighton.
One thing the Mustangs and Cavemen have in common is the strength of their wing scoring. In addition to Brenchley, who is one of the premier scorers in the state’s Class of 2017, 6-2 senior guard Alex Dawson and 5-11 junior guard Landon Jensen figure heavily in the Mountain Crest game plan.
Layton (2-2) certainly knows how to challenge itself. The Lancers come into the tournament having already faced Lone Peak, Mountain Crest and Bountiful and now here they are for three more games against elite competition.
Missing is 6-2 senior guard Julian Blackmon, who broke his wrist during football season, and his absence is hurting this team thus far. That leaves more of the burden on a few other seniors – 6-5 forward Chandler Obrey (13.75 PPG), 6-1 guard Dallin Watts, 6-1 guard Boston Armitstead and 6-9 forward Jakoby Kemp.
Copper Hills (3-0) will be Layton’s opening round foe and it looks like a tough draw for the defending state champs, as the Grizzlies seem to be reaching the level of play many have been expecting of this group. Copper Hills is led by 6-foot senior guard Preston Sanchez and his 18 points per game, with 6-1 senior guard Charlie Olsen and 6-4 junior guard Stockton Shorts also scoring in double digits.
The key to success in this tournament and in the season overall could be the inside presence of 6-8, 240-pound center Porter Hawkins. He will be a player to watch this weekend and beyond.