It may have been hard to tell, considering his Rattlers continued to win their first 30 games of the season a year ago, but last year’s MaxPreps Holiday Classic took a toll on Rancho Mirage boys basketball coach Rob Hanmer.
Being one of the organizers for a four-day tournament involving 132 teams playing at eight different gyms across the Coachella Valley was just too much for Hanmer, and in the offseason, as he began preparing for the school to host a version of the tournament again, he made certain he’d be able to enjoy hopefully taking home a tournament title much more.
“I was just being stretched in so many different ways,” he said. “It was way too much work for our coaching staff to manage, while still coaching our team. I had a little mental breakdown after the championship last year, and it was just too much.”
In response, Hanmer made a conscious decision to downsize the tournament this year, capping the teams at 56, and though they lost MaxPreps as the title sponsor, the high school sports online site still remains as the sponsor for the Open Division, which promises to bring some of the best high school basketball talent in the country.
Defending tournament champions Chino Hills, who retained two of the three Ball brothers and their long-range shooting prowess, will return this year as the tournament favorites with an unblemished record, looking to again leave the valley unscathed. Chino Hills, runner-up Redondo Union and other newcomers will look to challenge them in the 16-team Open Division, one Hanmer said may have slightly less talent throughout, but shouldn’t be any less exciting.
“Everyone was so excited to see Chino Hills play last year, and that buzz is back,” he said. “They’re undefeated and still playing just a completely unique and fun style of basketball.
“We still have some really good high school teams at the top end, and there’s a place for the average high school team to come and be successful. I think we got away from that the last few years because the tournament got so big, but we’re really happy with how it looks.”
The tournament will have just two 16-team brackets instead of three, while cutting down significantly on the number of pool play divisions as well. Still, Hanmer was able to attract teams from Arizona, Washington, Nevada, Texas, Oregon and Utah, along with talent across the spectrum in southern and northern California.
For Hanmer, who has the luxury of hand-picking the teams he wants the Rattlers to face, keeping that variety is still great and is part of the draw.
“It’s really fun to get to play teams from all over the country,” he said. “There are such different styles of play, and it’s going to be really good to help us prepare for the playoffs … so we don’t get surprised.”
Four schools across the valley will play host to games throughout the week. Games will be played in both Rancho Mirage gyms each day. Tuesday through Friday, Xavier Prep will host a full slate of games, while Cathedral City will host a half-day. The Indio boys’ team will play all three of its pool play games in the Rajahs’ home gym Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
The tournament kicks off on Monday with an abbreviated slate of games that don’t factor into the two brackets or three pools but should be exciting nonetheless.
La Quinta kicks off action in the Rancho Mirage main gym at 3 p.m. against Harvard Westlake, with Rancho Mirage (4:30 p.m.), 2015 Open Division runner-up Redondo Union (6 p.m.) and defending Open Division champs Chino Hills (7:30 p.m.) following. Four games will be played in the Rattlers’ small gym, with Indio kicking things off at 4 p.m. against Godinez.
From there, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will consist of pool play and bracket games starting as early as 9 a.m. and as late as 9 p.m. before championship consolation contests on Friday.
Teams to watch
Chino Hills (Calif.) The Huskies return as, once again, one of if not the best team in the country, despite losing current UCLA star freshman Lonzo Ball. Chino Hills dominated this tourney a year ago, beating the country’s best by at least 16 points every game for the Open Division title, and Lonzo’s younger brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo have pulled up the slack, leading them to a undefeated record thus far.
Crossroads (Calif.) There can’t have been too many high school teams that got two better transfers than the Roadrunners in the offseason, who added Shaq’s son Shareef, one of the top juniors in the country, and Ira Lee, an Arizona commit, a top-10 power forward nationally. They could face Chino Hills in the finals.
Redondo Union (Calif.) After giving Chino Hills a relatively tough test in the Open Division championship game last year, the Sea Hawks did lose a solid crew of seniors. Still, they return their leading scorer, Ryse Williams, a guard headed to Loyola Marymount, who had his way at times in last year’s finals.
Woodcreek (Calif.) The Timberwolves bring one of the toughest players in the country to match up with in 6-11 center Jordan Brown, the top-rated junior center in the country. Woodcreek has scored at least 70 in all but two of their games this season and come in undefeated, looking to leave recognized as a national powerhouse.
Harvard Westlake (Calif.) Last year, the Wolverines won the California Division 4 state title but graduated six seniors. They come in much younger, but that youth is strong, with three stellar freshmen and sophomore star Cassius Stanley, a top-10 player nationally in his class. They’ve struggled to start the year, but have the firepower and length to give teams trouble.
Open division: Beyond these five schools, the 16-team Open Division is made up of Franklin (Ore.), Cantwell (Calif.), Archbishop Mitty (Calif.), Pleasant Grove (Utah), Westbury Christian (Texas), Bellevue (Wash.), Sheldon (Calif.), Saddleback Valley (Calif.)/Pinnacle (Ariz.), Capital Christian (Calif.), Foss (Wash.) and Desert Pines (Nev.).
Players to watch
LiAngelo Ball (6-foot-5, senior, guard), Chino Hills. Claim to fame: The senior is the next Ball brother headed to the Bruins next fall. He’s the brother of spectacular Bruin freshman Lonzo Ball, and the middle brother is built to battle in the paint with the shooting range of Steph Curry.
LaMelo Ball (6-foot-2, sophomore, guard), Chino Hills. Claim to fame: The youngest Ball brother who can do a little of it all, with lockdown defensive skills, the speed of older brother Lonzo and incredible shooting range. Headed to UCLA.
Ira Lee (6-foot-8, senior, forward), Crossraods. Claim to fame: Lee committed to Arizona back in October but hasn’t played yet this year due to shoulder surgery in August. He’s rumored to make his senior debut on Tuesday and is the No. 9 power forward in the Class of 2017, according to ESPN.
Cassius Stanley (6-foot-4, sophomore, guard), Harvard Westlake. Claim to fame: He’s rated as the No. 9 sophomore in the country and the No. 2 shooting guard with offers from Alabama, UCLA and USC. The leader on a young team this year, he helped Harvard Westlake win the Division 4 California state title a year ago.
Jordan Brown (6-foot-11, junior, center), Woodcreek. Claim to fame: Brown is the top-rated center in the country in his class, according to ESPN, along with being the No. 5 recruit in the Class of 2018. As a sophomore, he averaged 26.7 points and 15 rebounds a game and will be one of the top physical specimens in the valley this week.
Shareef O’Neal (6-foot-8, junior, forward), Crossroads. Claim to fame: Yes, with that last name, he’s the son of NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. The junior played for Windward Academy at this tournament a year ago but transferred schools and is averaging nearly 20 points a game. He’s the No. 18 junior in the country, according to ESPN, and the seventh-best power forward.
There aren’t any girls divisions, which included 11 valley teams last year, but there are still plenty local boys’ squads in the mix, including: La Quinta, Rancho Mirage, Indio, Cathedral City, Palm Valley, Xavier Prep and Palm Desert.
Slam-dunk contest: Possibly the most exciting 90 minutes, outside Chino Hills games, will take place Wednesday night in the Rancho Mirage High School main gym from 9-10:15 p.m.
Website: Visit http://www.desertsun.com for photo galleries, videos, stories, schedules and score updates throughout the tournament.
Twitter: Follow our main account (@DesertSunSports) as well as our reporters Nathan Brown (@TDSnathanbrown) Shad Powers (@shad_powers) and Andrew John (@Andrew_L_John) for score updates and other tidbits as we track the tournament.
Rancho Mirage main gym
3 p.m.: La Quinta vs. Harvard Westlake
4:30 p.m.: Rancho Mirage vs. Westbury Christian (Tex.)
6 p.m.: Canyon Springs (Nev.) vs. Redondo Union
7:30 p.m.: Chino Hills vs. Foothill (Nev.)
9 p.m.: Saddleback Valley vs. Pinnacle (Ariz.)
Rancho Mirage small gym
4 p.m.: Indio vs. Godinez
5:30 p.m.: Royal vs. Torrance
7 p.m.: Simi Valley vs. Pacific Hills
8:30 p.m.: Bell Jeff vs. Desert Pines (Nev.)