With the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 teams, according to USA Today’s Preseason rankings, six of the top 11 teams, according to MaxPreps and 13 of the top 81, according to BallisLife.com, the 2018 Culligan City of Palms Classic has arguably its best boys’ basketball field ever.
That’s a dangerous debate.
Don’t just take teams into consideration.
Take players. And not just seniors, but juniors, sophomores and freshmen.
Maybe we just ought to just say, it’s another group of immensely talented players and teams coming to the 46th edition of the City of Palms at Florida SouthWestern Suncoast Credit Union Arena.
“(Executive director) John (Naylor) and I are pretty sure this is the best high school basketball tournament in the country,” said vice president and team recruiter Donnie Wilkie. “And we’re pretty sure that’s not close.
“What does that mean? How big of an impact it has on the community. Can we keep it going in the next one to 20 years?
“There’s a formula for building a tournament. Then there’s a feel for whatever you decide for it to be. There’s a little right with the left, a little up with the down.”
Clark Francis concurs. He’s been the editor and publisher of the Hoop Scoop since 1983 and is widely recognized as one of the foremost authorities on high school basketball and recruiting in the United States. He has missed just two City of Palms Classics since 1993.
“It’s the best tournament in the country,” Francis said. “Division-I college officials, this is the only high school tournament they’ll work. It’s well run, comfortable, warm. The people are nice and Donnie has an incredible ability of getting players. There’s atmosphere and something to play for for the winners and the losers get good matchups. Every game counts. One year, 11 of 16 teams won state championships.”
Comparing years of this event is like comparing fine wine. As Wilkie notes, these things take time before they can be fully critiqued.
“That’s an unwinnable comparison,” Wilkie said. “A lot of people have looked at the last couple of years and tried to compare with December 2015 the last year we had it at Bishop Verot. That already has produced nine first-round NBA draft picks.”
Lonzo Ball, Bam Addabayo, Tony Bradley, Jayson Tatum, Michael Porter, Jr., Mo Bamba, Anfernee Simons, Kevin Knox and Thon Maker were players who came here in 2015.
What has amazed Naylor in the five years he’s been involved is Wilkie’s ability to adjust when a player transfers from the school. Wilkie, who watches about 200 games a year, is given a budget to attend other tournaments, not just to watch the talent but to see what coaches are talking to what players.
“It allows him to keep his ear close to the ground,” Naylor said.
The years’ Big 3 are IMG Academy of Bradenton, Oak Hill Academy of Virginia, and University High in Davie.
IMG will feature senior Josh Green and junior Jaden Springer, two of the top-10 ranked players in their classes.
Oak Hill Academy has Cole Anthony, the No. 1 or 2 ranked senior in the country depending on the poll.
And University School in nearby Davie has senior Vernon Carey, Jr., and junior Scottie Barnes, ranked the Nos. 3 and 2 players in their age classes.
Other top teams and players coming will be junior Sharife Cooper of McEachern, Georgia; junior Jeremy Roach of Paul VI of Virginia; and Imhotep Charter from Philadelphia.
Alabama’s Mountain Brook had been a preseason top-20 team by USA Today but has lost two games.
This year, in a rarity, no Lee County team will be in the main draw.
The closest local team – Charlotte – has four players who are as good as any in Southwest Florida. Wilkie added while schools like Lehigh, Canterbury, Dunbar, Evangelical Christian, Southwest Florida Christian, Mariner and Oasis have turned into good programs, many are rebuilding, which makes it hard putting them in the field with some of the best prep teams and academies in the country.
“We’re always cognizant, aware of exactly where this tournament is played,” Wilkie said. “Sarasota Riverview has a really good, young team and Booker is good, too. But the tournament is not played in Sarasota.
“Two years ago, we had three teams in the Final Four (Lehigh, SFCA, Mariner). The last couple of years, there’s been incredible talent in Lee County if you count Emmitt Williams and Stef’an Strawder. But we can’t do that every year. This area has ups and downs and it’s only natural to take a year or two to regroup.”