When the first National High School Invitational was held in 2009, no public school teams were in the field. The event, which morphed into the DICK’S Sporting Goods High School Nationals last year, was first seen as a chance for private school teams that didn’t have a state championship to end their season as a champion.
It wasn’t that public schools weren’t welcome. It was that no state associations wanted to have a national tournament that came after its own state championship. That changed the next year when Florida allowed its teams to compete and Winter Park, led by Austin Rivers, played in the tournament.
Since then, public school boys teams from Florida, New York, Washington state, Texas and Washington, D.C., have played in the event, but no public school boys team has reached the tournament final, let alone won the event, in its six years. Dr. Phillips, a public school from Orlando, won the girls title in 2011 and 2013 and Fremont (Plain City, Utah) reached the girls finals last season.
The 2015 DICK’S Sporting Goods High School Nationals begins Thursday in New York and this could be the year for a public school breakthrough on the boys side. While the top two seeds in the event are Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and Montverde (Fla.) Academy, two private school powerhouses, the Nos. 3, 4 and 8 seeds are public school teams with their own resumes of wins against private schools with Super 25 rankings.
Melvin Randall, the coach of third-seeded Blanche Ely (Pompano Beach, Fla.), said his team isn’t coming to New York just to see the Statue of Liberty. The Tigers are 28-0 and won their state’s 7A title. In two previous trips to the tournament, they came away with narrow losses. Blanche Ely opens with Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) in the event’s first game at noon ET.
“What I incorporate into my instruction to my players is that we can compete with anyone,” said Randall, named the American Family Insurance ALL-USA Boys Basketball Coach of the Year. “The only thing that can possibly hurt is if our opponents have four legs and four arms. I know we have to play close to a perfect game to compete against some of these powerhouse prep schools. I know size is a factor and I know the type of players that are really fed into those type of programs are Top 100 or Top 150 players. Some of the advantage they may have with size we can make up for with our quickness.”
Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said the depth of this year’s tournament makes him wary of all the teams, not just the private schools.
“I think any of these teams can win in the first round,” Smith said. “With Ely and Wheeler, two high-level public schools, I think they are coming here to win. These teams are good enough to win two games and get to the finals.”
Wheeler (Marietta, Ga.), the No. 4 seed led by American Family Insurance ALL-USA forward Jaylen Brown, is the only team to have defeated Montverde Academy in the past two seasons. Like Ely, and eighth-seeded Wings Academy (Bronx, N.Y.), Wheeler has a magnet program that allows it to attract players from outside its normal school boundaries. The growth of various types of open enrollment for public schools has narrowed the edge that private schools have of having a bigger talent pool to draw from.
All four of the best-known national basketball academies in this year’s DICK’S Nationals — Oak Hill, Montverde Academy, Findlay Prep and No. 5 seed Huntington Prep (Huntington, W.Va.) — have losses to public school teams this season.
While Oak Hill’s loss to Hamilton (Memphis) was later erased because of an ineligible player for Hamilton, both of Findlay’s losses were to public schools: Wayne of Huber Heights, Ohio, and Canyon Springs of North Las Vegas. One of Huntington Prep’s two losses was to Mississippi public school power Callaway (Jackson, Miss.), led by ALL-USA guard Malik Newman. Montverde lost to Wheeler this season at the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla. Last season, Montverde had a loss to Chicago public school power Curie at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., reversed because of an ineligible player.
Findlay Prep has won the event three times, more than any other school, but coach Andy Johnson said he sees little difference between any of the competitors this season.
“I definitely think all eight teams in the event could win this year,” Johnson said. “This is the best field the tournament has had. I think the way the game of basketball has gone, there are so many more good players and coaches than there were in the past. There are a lot more elite players.”
The biggest edge the so-called prep superpowers might still have is depth, with the tournament champion needing to win three games in three days at two locations (Christ the King High in Middle Village, N.Y., for the quarterfinals and semifinals and Madison Square Garden for the final).
“In about a 42-hour span, we have to play three nationally ranked teams to win this tournament,” Smith said. “We have gotten to the finals three times in this event without winning it and each time I felt like we were a player short. This year is the most depth we have and that’s good because you can’t go up there and win with five guys. Last year, we had to do everything we could to beat Findlay Prep and against Montverde in the final, we ran out of gas against a very good team.”