MIAMI – Marcos Molina, coach of Miami Palmetto High School, was counting on Ivan Thomas for Tuesday night’s game on the biggest of stages.
It was the third annual HoopHall boys basketball tournament played on the home court of the Miami Heat, but Thomas had something better to do, at least in terms of his future.
You see, Ivan Thomas, the 6-4 forward is also Ivan Thomas, the 6-foot-4 wide receiver, and, in South Florida, the latter almost always trumps the former.
And, as it happened, Thomas had a home recruiting visit scheduled for Tuesday night with Florida International coach Butch Davis.
Sorry basketball, football is calling, and it’s offering a scholarship.
“It’s a numbers game,” Molina said. “In football, they are offering 25 scholarships per year, sometimes more. In basketball, they are signing two or three.”
Without Thomas, Palmetto still beat Miami Norland 58-57 on Tuesday on a buzzer-beating layup by Noah Louis.
In other games at the HoopHall event, Florida Prep defeated South Miami 36-34, Westminster Academy defeated North Miami 72-69 on Zach Scott’s 60-foot shot at the double-overtime buzzer, and Miami Christian beat Coral Springs, 80-64.
Taken together, these games were a fine display of athleticism. And while football is still king sport on the southern tip of the U.S., basketball is improving,
Manny Bloom, who is from Pennsylvania and coached in North Carolina before taking over at Miami Gulliver seven years ago, said the style of play here could not be more different than what is run at his previous stops or what he has seen elsewhere.
“We played teams at summer camp that were from Ohio and Indiana, and those teams will shot-fake you and bore you to do death with some of the stuff they do,” Bloom said. “But then they will score on you.
“They will run back door, and we will lose sight of our man, and we will be left to ask how this 5-9 kid scored an uncontested layup against us.
“In North Carolina, you have teams with a couple of exceptional athletes, and they would surround them with a bunch of average players.”
South Florida teams have an identity, Bloom said.
“Down here, there is an overwhelming number of athletes,” he said. “My team is very athletic. But the other day, we played Miami Beach, which isn’t highly rated, and they were more athletic than us.
“It seems like every team in South Florida, if nothing else, can run, jump, rebound and dunk at a high rate.”
Norland coach Lawton Williams III, who has 10 of his former players competing in college – including five in Division I – points with pride to University School’s Vernon Carey Jr., who is the top-ranked junior in the nation.
Florida basketball doesn’t trail Florida football by that much, at least in terms of top-60 juniors. Eight Florida football players are in the top 60 in the nation and five basketball players are in that stratosphere.
South Florida has sent numerous players to the NBA, but generally they haven’t been huge names – Adonis Haslem, Brandon Knight, Jose Juan Barea and Alonzo Gee are among the active players. Past greats include Mychal Thompson, Steve Blake, James Jones, Mitch Richmond, Eddie Jones, Tim James, Keyon Dooling, Rickey Blanton and Chris Corchiani.
Carey could be part of the next wave. But Williams said that while there aren’t nearly as many “high major players, there are a vast amount of “mid-major” types to be found.
There’s a reason for that, Williams said.
“Five or six years ago, you would never have youth league basketball tournaments played during the fall,” Williams said. “That was football season. But now they are playing every weekend during the fall.”
Williams outlined the next step for South Florida basketball talent.
“College coaches are always telling me how tough and athletic kids are down here,” Williams said. “But I want one day to be known for also having smart players.”
How to get there is “the million-dollar question,” he said.
But Westminster Academy coach Ehren Wallhoff said he has seen a marked increase in college basketball coaches buzzing around South Florida.
“You are starting to see freshmen from down here making an immediate impact in college,” Wallhoff said.
For example, ex-Westminster Academy star Paul Atkinson is starting at Yale, and Sagemont’s Tyler Polley is starting at Connecticut, both as freshmen.
This year, Westminster has some significant prospects, including 6-5 forward Dudley Blackwell, who is regarded as one of the top sophomores in the state; 6-4 point guard Scott, a Florida Gulf Coast recruit who hit the aforementioned buzzer-beater, and 6-1 junior shooting guard Chase Johnston.
“We had 25 college coaches come to our gym this fall to check out our kids,” Wallhoff said. “That would’ve been unheard of 15 years ago. It’s an exciting time for basketball in this region.”
Even so, Molina said he hears one constant complaint from college coaches about South Florida kids.
“They don’t play enough basketball,” Molina said. “The kids in the Northeast live and die basketball. The kids in the Midwest live and die basketball. We live and die football.
“It’s getting better, but we’re not there yet.”