By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Kevin McInnis
Is there some kind of karma associated with being part of the Utah Elite 8 preseason basketball tournament the second weekend in December?
The event is now in its third year and it has proven to be a pretty good predictor of success in the state tournament. A year ago, the championship game of the Utah Elite 8 featured a matchup of Region 3 rivals as Copper Hills knocked off Bingham.
The Grizzlies won that night, but when those two teams faced off three more times during the 2015-16 campaign, it was the Miners that came out on top. Those battles came twice in regular season play and then in a state title game rematch. Both teams are back in American Fork this week to attempt to capture the Elite 8 karma once again.
“Our tournament has proven to be a true indicator of what to expect in March,” said tournament director Rob Geertsen. “In each of the last two years, the 5A state champions have played in the UE8 and neither won our tournament. Last year we only had one 4A team (Olympus) and they were the 4A state champion.”
When Geertsen and American Fork High head coach Doug Meacham started this tournament in 2014, they placed it on the schedule head-to-head with the FreeTaxUSA Shootout that was already happening at Orem High. It gives fans a choice between formats and many teams prefer the true tournament format of the Utah Elite 8.
“Back when I spoke with tournament organizer Rob Geertson about this idea we both felt we wanted to make it a really competitive tournament where we could bring in some of the best teams here in the state,” Meacham said. “We wanted to make it similar to the state tournament where you win and you have 24 hours to prepare for your next opponent.
“I look at the preseason college basketball tournaments like the Hall of Fame Tip-Off or the Maui Invitational and those are the ones I like to tune into and watch because these teams are testing themselves against the best teams. I’m such a fan of March Madness why not have a little dose of it in December?”
The Cavemen are one of three teams that have played in this tournament all three years, with first-year champion Davis and last year’s runner-up Bingham as the other two. For the Miners, head coach Jake Schroeder continues the Utah Elite 8 as a critical piece of his early season preparation for the season and eventual state tournament play.
“The Utah Elite has been a great tournament for us,” Schroeder said. “With our situation at Bingham and our football team traditionally going deep into their playoffs, we do not get a lot of practice time before we start playing games, so we have used this tournament as a measuring stick, to play three games early and really see what we need to work on, what kind of team we could be. Once the games slow down after Christmas we will really focus on getting better as a team and prepare for region and state.”
Bingham’s successful 5A state championship run of last year benefited from its participation in this tournament. The same is likely true for last year’s 4A champion, Olympus.
“Probably the biggest reason we play in the tournament is that we treat it as a state tournament,” Schroeder said. “We always play the Tuesday of the Utah Elite 8 (week) so we can get four games in, just like the state tournament. It is a great way for our team to understand what it is going to take to win a state championship – being tired and sore, understand a scouting report and game plan in a short period of time, and there are many other similarities to the state tournament. That is the No. 1 reason that we keep coming back and plan on coming back as long as they will still invite us.”
Copper Hills won this tournament a year ago, and while the Grizzlies came up short in the region rematches with Bingham as well as the other head-to-head game for the state title, head coach Andrew Blanchard feels that playing in this event gets his team a chance to find itself and to believe in itself.
“We have really enjoyed playing in the Elite 8 tournament because it gives us the opportunity to simulate how the state tournament is designed,” Blanchard said. “From preparation of opponents, bus schedule, shootaround times, three games in a row with no rest days, film and the most important aspect, the talented teams we will face. Winning the Elite 8 tournament last year prepared us for our run to the state championship game and allowed us to build a huge amount of confidence leading into region play.”
Geertsen and Meacham have once again assembled a strong field, and this year’s tourney has a bit more Class 4A representation in the mix, as three teams (Corner Canyon, Bountiful and Olympus) join with five 5A squads (American Fork, Copper Hills, Bingham, Davis and Lehi). Tournament organizers take pride in the fact that anything can happen over the three days of competition.
“Once again we have a tremendous group of teams with some of the state’s best prep talent,” Geertsen said. “Each team in the tourney field has the ability to win it, and any one of them could go 0-3. Two years ago Brighton went 0-3 and played for the 5A title.”
That first year featured a Round 1 win by Layton over Brighton that was a preview of the eventual 5A state championship matchup. The Bengals did go on to lose all three games of the Elite 8 tourney that year but they were a state tournament tested team when March rolled around.
The Lancers finished third in the inaugural event before coming on strong later in the year to win the state tournament and that year’s Elite 8 champion, Davis, had a strong postseason run featuring Mr. Basketball Jesse Wade.
Thinking about waiting around for Saturday to see the “best” matchups? Last year once again produced a classic opening round battle as eventual state champions Bingham and Olympus locked horns Thursday. This year’s 8:15 contest pits Olympus against Copper Hills to wrap Day 1. That’s a tough draw for both teams.
8:15 p.m. – Copper Hills vs. Olympus
The Grizzlies bring back 6-foot-4 senior forward Stockton Shorts, a critical piece of last year’s 22-4 team. Add in the passing of point guard Callahan Blackham and outside shooting of Ben Baysinger and Blanchard’s team seems to be good once again.
“The tournament is well organized and in my opinion is the best basketball tournament Utah has to offer,” Blanchard said. “It is an honor for our players and coaches to be invited back to defend our Elite 8 championship.”
For Olympus, Matt Lindsey is back after an impressive state tournament performance a year ago. The 6-4 senior forward is a presence on offense and on the backboards, and he is an outstanding defender. Travis Wagstaff and long-range sharpshooting sophomore Jeremy Dowdell provide punch while sophomore point guard Rylan Jones is a presence as a perimeter playmaker.
3:15 p.m. – Bingham vs. Corner Canyon
The tournament opener Thursday gives fans a chance to check out defending 5A state champion Bingham, with returning starters on the guard line in Lleyton Parker and Dason Youngblood. Joining the mix in a more regular role is 6-11 senior center Branden Carlson, a University of Utah signee, who provides the paint presence to a great inside-out combination.
The Miners will deal with a guard-centric attack from Corner Canyon, a team that was 18-6 a year ago. A trio of high-scoring guards – 6-2 senior Michael Scheffner, 6-3 junior Zachary Wilson and 6-foot junior Ammon Jensen – set the pace for the Chargers.
4:55 p.m. – Lehi vs. Davis
Lehi is a first-time participant in the Elite 8 this year and it’s a chance for the Pioneers to showcase their new look after their roster was hit not only by graduation but by the opening of Skyridge High. Ethan Tuckett, Jake Thacker and Jaxon Treu provide steadiness at the guard position for Lehi, while Dallin Holker is a physical presence down low.
Davis won this tournament in 2014 with a team that leaned heavily on Jesse Wade, with a strong group of role players providing depth. This year’s team is very deep, with scoring coming from all over the place. Ben Rigby is a versatile 6-6 forward who can fill it up and get it done in the paint and Rich Stucki at 6-9 provides the Darts another big body to create open looks for guards like Cade Whicker, Josh Sanders and Braxton Taylor.
6:35 p.m. – American Fork vs. Bountiful
Last year was a tough one for Bountiful at 10-13 and the Braves are off to a slower start this year, but this tournament has proven to be a place where teams find themselves. Brig Willard, Jadon Chism and Cooper Ohlson will look to keep their team in games beginning with an opening-round matchup with the tournament hosts.
The Cavemen have to be excited to use this weekend as a chance to see just where their young team stands. Sophomore Isaac Johnson is a player that is getting a lot of attention from a whole bunch of places. At 6-10, he can shoot it from outside, put the ball on the deck and battle you in the block. He joins 6-5 senior veteran Jake Whitehead to give American Fork a tough-to-match presence in the paint and along with 6-2 junior Rob Crowther gives the Cavemen the ability to fill it up from deep.
There’s no telling what Friday and Saturday will bring, but the quality of teams in this tournament suggests even the consolation bracket battles will be good ones. After all, Brighton was an eventual state tourney finalist that did go 0-3 in the 2014 event.
“For high school coaches, it’s a balancing act of trying to grow your team’s confidence in pre-season scheduling but I feel the end of the day those big games early in pre-season prepare you for the tough region battles that can be grinders,” Meacham said. “We’ve had great support from some great coaches and programs and we are very excited about this field that has both the 5A and 4A state champions from last year. We look forward to another exciting three days of high school basketball.”
Get tournament information and follow the tournament online at utahelite8.com .