In the world of elite high school basketball tournaments, it’s generally been necessary to think ahead, sometimes a calendar year in advance. Locking in teams for the next year’s tournament and beyond before the current year’s event concluded is common.
And perhaps nobody thought more moves ahead than Culligan City of Palms Classic vice president Donnie Wilkie.
The always-changing landscape of high school basketball thanks to a transfer market that never seems to close has forced Wilkie to change his approach. While in past years Wilkie has teased a big-name team or two for the next year’s field following the City of Palms championship, he had no early Christmas presents to give following Powder Springs (Georgia) McEachern’s 68-47 win over Philadelphia Imhotep on Saturday at Suncoast Credit Union Arena.
Instead, he gave some insight into what his mornings look like between March and September each year. The first thing he does every morning after he wakes up is Google “high school basketball transfers.” And without fail each day there are always new nuggets about where a top player or two will land.
Locking in the 2019 City of Palms field too early would be a mistake.
“The list of teams we don’t have this year but did have at certain points is mind-boggling,” Wilkie said. “At some point, you just have to be a little more patient.”
So other than Sarasota Riverview and Montclair (New Jersey) Immaculate Conception, who were in Fort Myers this year on the first year of two-year arrangements, the 14 other slots for the 2019 main draw are wide open.
This year’s City of Palms featured seven programs ranked in the USA TODAY Super 25 with 16 of the top 100 seniors in the nation. Rankings mattered very little, though.
No. 2 Bradenton IMG Academy, No. 3 Mouth of Wilson (Virginia) Oak Hill Academy and defending tournament champion No. 4 Fort Lauderdale University School were tournament favorites that were knocked off in the quarterfinals and semifinals. It set up an Imhotep-McEachern final, featuring the 20th and 10th-ranked teams in the nation.
Watching 25 minutes of McEachern highly-touted junior guard Sharife Cooper (20 points, four assists, five rebounds) controlling the tempo of the game in a 68-47 McEachern win was enough for fans to forget they weren’t watching an IMG-Oak Hill final.
“Upsets are tremendous for the tournament,” Wilkie said. “I tell coaches all year round that this is the place that they can come where if they play well they have a chance to win. A chance. If they don’t play well, they will lose because there’s that many good teams there.
“My obligation is to set up a tournament for when the ball goes in the air we’re out of it. We play no role in the outcome. Oak Hill doesn’t win because they’re Oak Hill. Montverde doesn’t win because they’re Montverde. The team that wins is usually the team that deserves to win that night. Because of that, I think historically we’ve been proven to be one of the tournaments that’s probably the most prone to upsets, one of the most volatile. But I think that makes us one of the fairest tournaments. I want people to have to earn it.”
A controversy that arose during the tournament and threatened the championship game was Birmingham (Alabama) Mountain Brook’s inability to play Oak Hill due to an Alabama High School Athletic Association rule that member schools can’t schedule teams that are not members of their state athletic association. Oak Hill is an approved non-member of the Virginia High School League.
Imhotep’s upset of Oak Hill in a semifinal made it a non-issue as far as the championship was concerned. However, the third-place game between Mountain Brook and Oak Hill was canceled on Saturday.