The DICK’S Sporting Goods High School Nationals are scheduled for March 30-April 1 in New York, but if the event was held today, for the first time it would include eight teams in the Super 25 boys basketball rankings, including five teams in the top 10.
All four girls teams would be in the Super 25 teams, led by No. 7 Miami Country Day (Miami).
The postseason event, which is showcased on ESPN networks, is slowly growing in acceptance. Only five primary state high school associations have signed off to allow teams to compete: Arizona; Florida; Georgia; Utah; and Washington. However, since the event began as the National High School Invitational in 2009, independent teams and independent state associations also have allowed teams to compete from Indiana, New Jersey, Nevada, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Texas.
On Wednesday, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) paved the way for the No. 1 Super 25 boys team, Nathan Hale (Seattle), to participate in DICK’S.
“I think the positives are the fact it gives teams some exposure and it gives them a chance to be involved in other opportunities” said Mike Colbrese, the executive director of the WIAA. “Paragon (Marketing, the event organizer) does a great job and the event is a really strong educational experience. The downside is it does extend the season for those players and for those involved in a spring sport, it can impact that.”
Nathan Hale still has to win its state title to ensure the trip. If not, another Washington team could take its place, if it were ranked highly enough. To approve the move, the WIAA’s executive board had to waive a few of its rules regarding length of season and out-of-season play, Colbrese said.
“We’ve had a boys basketball and a girls basketball team go to this event and two football teams that went to another Paragon event,” Colbrese said. “We’ve gotten very positive feedback from the coaches from those schools on those events.”
If held today, the boys teams invited would include: Nathan Hale; third-ranked La Lumiere (La Porte, Ind.), which was the DICK’S runner-up last season; No. 5-ranked IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.); plus three former event winners in No. 6 Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.), No. 7 Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), and No. 11 Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.). It would also include two other unbeaten teams besides Nathan Hale in No. 12 Shadow Mountain (Phoenix) and No. 16 McEachern (Powder Springs, Ga.).
There’s another intriguing potential team: No. 4 Memphis East (Memphis). While no team from Tennessee has ever played in the event, this would be the year for it. Memphis East has a high-profile coach in former NBA player Penny Hardaway and has played one of the country’s top schedules. Plus, on the girls side, the No. 1-ranked Super 25 team is unbeaten Riverdale (Murfreesboro, Tenn.). For either team to be cleared, however, it would take a push similar to what happened a few years back to allow Georgia teams to play in the event.
“We’ve had teams invited to the event before and our board has denied those requests,” said Bernard Childress, the executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. “It’s not likely they would approve a team to advance past state championship games because our bylaws say that once a team’s season is over once they have won a state championship or lost in earlier rounds of state play.”
For ESPN, the lure of having the No. 1 team and six McDonald’s All-Americans, including the No. 1-ranked ESPN player in the 2017 and 2019 classes (Michael Porter Jr. and R.J. Barrett), makes for plenty of interesting story lines, regardless of how the games turn out.
“I think, no matter how you slice this, there’s going to be an abundance of talent,” said Paul Biancardi, ESPN’S national recruiting director for boys basketball, who has been a broadcaster for every DICK’S (and NHSI) event. “When good players are matched up with each other, you find a lot out about them. And once in a while, kids emerge whom you didn’t know much about but they perform well on the big stage. Having all the ranked players elevates everyone’s intensity.”
Oak Hill has made the past three DICK’S finals and has been to every DICK’S event, except for one and the Warriors would like to be able to repeat as champions.
“It’s always a tournament you want to be in,” Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said. “It’s exciting for our guys and exciting for all the teams that are in it.”
La Lumiere coach Shane Heirman said his team is hungry to go one step more than it did last season in the event.
“There’s definitely a hunger to go back,” Heirman said. “Obviously (losing in the finals) left a bitter taste in our mouth but it also sparked a fire in us. I’m pretty excited to have a chance to get back and compete again.”
There are plenty of unique challenges to the event. Most of the teams will have a long layoff between their final playoff or regular-season game and DICK’S.
“It’s always a gap for us, we always have spring break right before the tournament,” Smith said. “This year, we come back to school on Monday and we fly to New York on Wednesday. Before that, our guys are at home for two weeks. I can’t keep them here because our school shuts down. The most practice we’ve ever had for this is a week and a half. That’s the only negative for us — the time of the year this is.
“I wish it was a little earlier, but I understand it’s on TV and I’m sure ESPN doesn’t want to go against the NCAA tournament. Now, (the championship) is on a Saturday and everybody watches it because it’s right before the Final Four games.”
Four of the likely teams: Nathan Hale, Oak Hill, IMG and Findlay Prep, will also have to prepare without a key player, or in La Lumiere’s case, two key players, who will be playing at the McDonald’s All American Games. Those players will then have to endure an early-morning flight the day of their team’s first game in the tournament.
But the biggest challenge is beating three ranked teams in as many days. That means teams can’t afford to take a quarter off.
“At that time of the year, a big thing we always try to articulate is limit the ‘my bads,’ “ Heirman said. “A team that doesn’t say ‘my bad’ as much has a great chance to win. It takes a pretty cohesive effort and togetherness.”
Boys possible first-round matchups: No. 1 Nathan Hale-No. 16 McEachern, No. 3 La Lumiere-No. 12 Shadow Mountain, No. 5 IMG-No. 11 Montverde, and No. 6 Findlay-No. 7 Oak Hill.
Girls possible first-round matchups: No. 7 Miami Country Day (Miami)-No. 17 St. Frances (Baltimore) and No. 8 Norcross, Ga.-No. 15 Central Valley (Spokane Valley, Wash.).
Other possible boys teams: Nathan Hale, Shadow Mountain and McEachern would have to win their state tournaments to enter the event, not a sure thing. Two Washington teams that could step in if Nathan Hale falters are Federal Way, which saw its 63-game winning streak end this season, and Rainier Beach (Seattle), which has played in DICK’S before. In Arizona, Basha (Chandler) is unbeaten in 6A and Corona del Sol (Phoenix) has the guards for a long tournament run. In Georgia, Newton (Covington) has only one loss and Wheeler (Marietta) and Pebblebrook (Mableton) have national resumes.
Other possible girls teams: Nevada could allow its state champion to play, which would pave the way for No. 4-ranked Centennial (Las Vegas) or Liberty (Henderson), which hasn’t lost to an in-state team this season. The next best team in Washington is likely Bishop Blanchet (Seattle), a 3A team that is 21-0. In Georgia, Collins Hill (Suwanee) has only two losses, both to Super 25 teams. In Florida, 7A defending champion Winter Haven is now the No. 1 team in 8A and the Chiefs have won three state titles. Another contender would be the Utah 5A champion. At this point, the most highly rated team in the state is Alta (Sandy).
ESPN Top 100 players, 2017: Nathan Hale: No. 1 Michael Porter Jr. IMG Academy: No. 4 Trevon Duval; and No. 59 Isaiah Stokes. Oak Hill: No. 20 Billy Preston; No. 27 Matt Coleman; No. 42 Lindell Wigginton; and No. 63 Ty-Shon Alexander. Findlay Prep: No. 14 P.J. Washington. La Lumiere: No. 12 Brian Bowen; No. 16 Jaren Jackson; and No. 57 Jordan Poole.
ESPN Top 60 players, 2018: IMG: No. 7 Emmitt Williams; and No. 20 Silvio DeSousa. Oak Hill: No. 35 David McCormack. Nathan Hale: No. 26 Jontay Porter. Montverde: No. 39 Rechon Black.
ESPN Top 25 players, 2019: Montverde: No. 1 R.J. Barrett; and No. 15 Andrew Nembhard. Nathan Hale: No. 23 P.J. Fuller. La Lumiere: No. 25 Tyger Campbell.