The story of this boys basketball season in Kentucky is as much about who’s not playing as who is playing, and the 35th annual Forcht Bank King of the Bluegrass Holiday Classic will be a microcosm of that narrative.
The KOB once again will feature a strong collection of Kentucky squads and out-of-state teams, but tournament director Lloyd Gardner said finalizing the field of 16 was a challenge as teams saw players come and go over the summer.
“In 34 years I’ve never had to replace a team, and I replaced three this year at the request of coaches,” Gardner said. “I’ve never kicked anybody out. They requested not to come.”
MORE COVERAGE | King of the Bluegrass bracket
The tournament will tip off at 4:30 p.m. Friday when Ballard faces North Hardin. First-round games will continue through Saturday, with quarterfinals on Monday, semifinals Tuesday and the championship contest set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The field includes 11 teams ranked among Kentucky’s top 25 in The Courier-Journal’s preseason poll of coaches — No. 1 Taylor County, No. 2 Bowling Green, No. 3 Paul Dunbar, No. 7 Waggener, No. 8 Bullitt East, No. 9 Ballard, No. 10 Trinity, No. 13 Central, No. 15 Owen County, No. 16 Fern Creek and No. 18 North Hardin.
But like many basketball fans in the state, Gardner wonders what might have been.
Apollo was set to be in the KOB before three NCAA Division I-level recruits — Eli Wright, Trace Young and Ben Moss — transferred out of the state to prep schools. Perry County Central asked out of the tournament after Miami (Ohio) commit Braxton Beverly transferred to Hargrave Military Academy.
South Warren also was in the field before losing Marquise Walker, a highly ranked freshman who transferred to Westchester (Ill.) St. Joseph.
“Everybody thinks we’re just jealous because they’re not coming to our tournament, but I think it’s ruining the high school game in the state of Kentucky,” Gardner said of the bevy of transfers. “Apollo probably had a chance to win the state championship, and Eli Wright was a good candidate for Mr. Basketball. …
“Overall I think the state is not as strong as it’s been in the past. But we have the best of the best.”
But even some of those best teams still aren’t at full strength.
Taylor County (3-1), which was upset by Adair County 75-62 last week, still is waiting for the Kentucky High School Athletic Association to approve the transfer of 6-foot-4 junior forward Dylan Gaines from Warren East. Gaines averaged 16.3 points and 4.2 rebounds last season.
Ballard coach Chris Renner is hoping junior forward Clivonte Patterson could be eligible for the KOB after missing the first six games of the season. Renner, whose team has struggled to a 3-3 start, said Patterson has the ability to become the team’s No. 2 scorer behind junior point guard Jamil Wilson.
Waggener (4-1) could be at full strength for the first time this season, according to coach Bryan O’Neill, when it faces Bullitt East (6-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Junior guard Jacquess Hobbs (12.0 ppg) missed Tuesday’s 53-49 victory over St. Xavier with a forearm injury but is expected to play Saturday, O’Neill said.
“We’re excited to have all of our top five healthy for the first time this year,” he said. “Bullitt East should be a really good test for us.”
After losing all five starters and eight seniors from last season, Trinity (6-0) has been a bit of a surprise to start the season. The Shamrocks are averaging 20 3-point attempts per game and shooting 45.5 percent from behind the arc.
Junior guards Jacob King (14.3 ppg) and Lucas Burkman (12.5 ppg) lead the way.
“I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I’m happy with the team’s effort,” coach Mike Szabo said. “One advantage we may have early in the season is that guys have already settled into their roles. That really helps, and hopefully it will continue.”
All four out-of-state teams feature talented recruits.
Miami (Fla.) Senior is led by 7-1 center Zach Brown, who is the No. 17-ranked junior in the nation by Rivals.com and is being recruited by Kentucky, Connecticut, Kansas, Memphis, Ohio State and several others.
Nashville (Tenn.) Brentwood Academy has one of the nation’s top sophomore guards in Darius Garland, who has a scholarship offer from the University of Louisville.
Junior guard Nojel Eastern of Evanston (Ill.) Township reportedly holds scholarship offers from Illinois, Missouri and Purdue. Senior guard D’Marcus Simonds of Gainesville (Ga.) has signed with Georgia State.
* Sunday will be an off day for the tournament, but there still will be basketball at Fairdale.
The King of the Bluegrass Overtime game will match Fairfax (Va.) Paul VI Catholic against North Bullitt. Paul VI Catholic features U of L signee V.J. King, a 6-foot-6 wing who is rated as a five-star recruit.
Tipoff is set for 4 p.m. Tickets are $10.
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and firstname.lastname@example.org.