Anfernee Hardaway wasn’t buying Fort Lauderdale University School’s underdog story at last year’s Culligan City of Palm Classic. The former Memphis (Tenn.) East coach scoffed at media when they called his team, then the No. 1 high school team in the country, “heavy favorites” against University in the tournament final.
“They’ve got a mini all-star team,” said Hardaway, now the coach at the University of Memphis, whose squad fell 77-72 in the championship game to highly-touted recruit Vernon Carey Jr. and company. “It’s a great team.”
In its return to the City of Palms this week at Suncoast Credit Union Arena, University was no longer the dark horse in the field. The defending champion, ranked No. 4 in the USA Today Super 25, while not the favorite, carried a large target on its back and reigning tournament MVP Scottie Barnes was right to have a skeptical mindset.
“We’re coming in like there are a lot of teams ahead of us,” Barnes said.
There were just two teams in the field ahead of it in the national rankings.
No. 3 Mouth of Wilson (Virginia) Oak Hill was a possible semifinal opponent on Friday. No. 2 Brandenton IMG Academy was taken down by No. 19 Birmingham (Alabama) Mountain Brook in a night full of quarterfinal upsets that also included University’s 57-54 loss to Philadelphia Imhotep Charter.
There was no question who the Fort Myers crowd favored the last few nights. In front of a near capacity crowd Tuesday night, nearly 3,500 fans rose to their feet as Barnes drove to the basket and dished off to Carey, who went up for a rim-rattling dunk in a dominant 96-69 first-round victory over St. Louis Vashon.
Two nights later a similar crowd fell silent for three quarters as the Sharks started flat and trailed by double digits. However, as Barnes got hot with three 3-pointers to get back into the game the decibel level at the arena rose.
“This is home,” University coach Jimmy Carr said. “It’s just a drive across the state.”
University nearly salvaged its chances at a repeat, coming close to forcing overtime when Barnes was fouled on a drive to the basket with less than five seconds remaining and his team trailing by two. The crowd again lost all of its energy after Barnes missed his second free throw after sinking the first, putting the team in the unfamiliar position of playing in a fifth-place semifinal against IMG in a matchup many thought would happen later tonight in a semifinal.
A lot has changed within the University program since it beat four nationally ranked teams at the City of Palms last year.
A talented backcourt moved on to play at the next level with Trey Doomes heading to West Virginia, Drue Drinnon to New Mexico and Levy Renaud to Central Florida.
The biggest change came on the bench as Adrian Sosa resigned after seven seasons and leading the Sharks to a 33-2 record and a Class 5A state title. Carr was promoted to head coach.
The team’s top draw remains for another few months, though. Carey, the 6-foot-11 powerhouse ranked the No. 1 senior in the country by Rivals and No. 3 in the USA Today Chosen 25, didn’t disappoint in his return to Southwest Florida, pouring in 35 points on an efficient 15-for-19 shooting night to go with 13 rebounds against Vashon.
His ability to overpower two and three defenders in the paint has always been a part of his game thanks to a chiseled frame which resembles that of a college defensive end, mostly the result of tireless work in the weight room helped by the strong athletic lineage of his father and former Miami Dolphins standout offensive tackle Vernon Carey and late grandfather and Oral Roberts basketball alumni Vincent Banks.
In the last year, Carey has refined his perimeter game and ball handling. He’s nowhere close to satisfied with his progress, but his play on the court suggests he’ll have all the tools in the next few years to be the hybrid-type player that thrives in today’s NBA.
Having verbally committed to Duke earlier this month, the five-star recruit chose the Blue Devils over Michigan State because he believed he’d be used better in Durham, North Carolina. Playing the type of role Zion Williamson, a top-5 recruit in the Class of 2017, now plays under coach Mike Krzyzewski, switching from the paint to the perimeter to bringing the ball up the floor, is appealing to Carey.
“Coach K told me I could be in a positionless role,” said Carey, who had 24 points and 13 rebounds but was in fould trouble most of the night against Imhotep. “That means playing off the ball if I need to. I’m willing to do whatever I need to do to win.”
Since Barnes put up 15 points and grabbed eight boards against Memphis East on the way to MVP honors last year, he moved up a few spots to No. 2 in ESPN’s Class of 2020 and No. 5 in the USA Today Chosen 25 recruiting rankings.
With the graduation of Drinnon, Carr is relying on Barnes to be flexible and handle point guard duties if needed.