West Valley Preps
Score one for high school basketball.
Typically, the Arizona summer is full of smaller leagues and weekend tourneys, with the lesser-known players toiling in local gyms, while the big name ballers and college recruiters barnstorm the country on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit and pick a prep school to play for.
But the Valley was the basketball epicenter of the western United States June 21-23, as the Section 7 Team Camp, a collaboration between the Arizona Basketball Coaches Association and Arizona Interscholastic Association filled local gyms with quality and quantity. In this case the term camp is a bit of a misnomer since the event was a collection of nine 16-team brackets featuring high schools from nine different states and organized by talent level.
“Section 7 has put forth a great tournament giving our boys an opportunity to play in front of those college coaches in a local setting, its all we can ask. It’s a blessing and an opportunity of a lifetime. They played their butts off and I hope it was enough to spark interest,” Valley Vista coach Ben Isai stated in an email.
After the wave of NCAA sanctions the body moved its live period to June, allowing high school teams into the fray.
While states like California, Nevada and Oregon declined to explore hosting a showcase tournament, ABCA and the AIA filled the void. While tweaks are inevitable in future years, the consensus from participants is that Arizona created an event that may serve as a template for recruiting-based high school summer basketball tourneys.
In the wake of federal bribery and corruption trials regarding college basketball recruiting that began last year and continue to this day, the NCAA created recruiting windows for June 21-23 and June 28-30 at events sanctioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“I thought that the tournament was a great experience for our guys and really for everybody involved. I had heard about the camp about midway through our season last year. I love the idea of colleges getting to watch guys play in a more structured setting and getting more guys opportunities to play in front of college scouts,” Dysart coach Keegan Cook stated in an email. “All of the people I talked to believed that the tournament was a great success and hopefully it will continue in the future.”
The AIA is the local NFHS representative and, with the state basketball coaches organization, jumped on the opportunity to host one of 28 such events in June. On that weekend the Section 7 camp had the west to itself, as the next furthest west event was in Minnesota.
This NCAA decision effectively took this signing period away from traveling AAU teams and basketball-driven prep schools and reintroduced high school teams to the world of big-time college hoops.
Phoenix Brophy Prep hosted the elite bracket where Arizona schools like Phoenix Desert Vista, Millennium and Mesa Skyline locked horns with elite West Coast programs Like Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman, Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei and Oakland (Calif.) Bishop O’Dowd. Predictably, major NCAA Division I head and assistant coaches on down to Division III and NAIA packed these games — capped by Bishop Gorman’s June 23 title game victory over Mater Dei.
However, a decent amount college recruiters from all levels made their way to the other Valley sites. All three coaches from Peoria schools taking part in Section 7 said their kids benefited from having greater visibility than previous summers — particularly players on the fringe of the AAU circuit.
For example, Paradise Honors was in a marquee bracket of its own. The “Cherish Your Health” bracket sent the Panthers around uptown Phoenix — with games at Xavier Prep, Brophy and Central — before a final game at Apollo.
Most importantly for coach Zach Hettel, the team faced tough opponents in games that went down to the wire.
“Our team did really well. We beat Santa Fe Christian, a team out of San Diego who actually made the open division in California. We won on a buzzer beater. Then beat (Tempe) Corona Del Sol on game winning free throws. We lost our third game to (Scottsdale) Chaparral by four in a really close game. Finished the weekend with a win over (Phoenix) Paradise Valley to go 3-1,” Hettel stated in an email. “Obviously by the scores the bracket was pretty competitive. We wanted to play up against as good of competition as we could. We ended up playing a lot of Arizona teams but the teams we played beat other out of state teams. Santa Fe Christian won the consolation side of our bracket. This level of competition is about as good as it gets in Arizona. Chaparral will be very good.”
For the three area coaches interviewed, this event was a chance to test their new-look teams against tougher competition.
Two of them are directly linked. Rising sophomore guard Nate Pickens transferred from Dysart to Paradise Honors in mid-June. Pickens averaged more than 16 points per game as a freshman and was the 4A Black Canyon Region player of the year last season.
Following his team’s 2-2 performance in Section 7, Cook focused on the players still at Dysart.
“Just like other summer tournaments it is a great time to see other players step up and play minutes at the varsity level. Santos Sanchez, Colton Jett, Damian Lua, Xavier Mendevil will all play a key role in our success next season,” Cook stated. “Getting guys experience and evaluating your team is the most important thing in summer games. I am really excited for the group that we have and will continue to work hard and develop every day.”
For the third straight year, Paradise Honors basketball is a revolving door. In addition to Pickens, junior-to-be Kiran Oliver transferred in from Shadow Ridge after leading the Stallions in scoring.
Meanwhile, senior power forward Roy Eze and junior center Matur Dhal left to join the new Phoenix-based PHH Prep school team. Hettel stated the Panthers will look a lot different, running more of a five-out, pace and space type of offense.
“Obviously our team looks a lot different. We lost Roy and Matur. Sucks, hated losing them but the prep thing was something they really wanted to try so really hope it works out for them. As for the new guys, they bring something we don’t have a lot of. Kiran and Nate both shoot the ball well and are high basketball IQ guys,” Hettel stated. “But Ky and Jerry both have the ability to be effective in the post. They can score it at all three levels and Nate is just a very good shooter and can score the ball at a high level. The games at Section 7 were equivalent to a state playoff game for us. Santa Fe Christian is a lot like Valley Christian. A lot of 6-3 or so kids that can really shoot the ball, very disciplined on defense.”
Last year, region rivals Paradise Honors and Valley Christian split their four games. But the Trojans won the 3A semifinal and claimed the state title and enter this year as the Panthers’ target in another title push.
Meanwhile, Dysart and Valley Vista will both be young teams looking to make some noise as they grow. The Monsoon reached the 6A play-in round and lost five of their top six players to graduation.
After an opening loss to Scottsdale Desert Mountain in triple overtime, the Valley Vista beat American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek, Queen Creek and Sante Fe (N.M.), a state finals team last year in New Mexico, Isai stated.
“(Junior) Dwight McKnight played great all weekend averaged 14 points per game and multiple assists. Dwight is learning to take on his new role as our lead point guard. Once his confidence develops he will be scary,” Isai stated. “Aadem Isai is very young incoming freshman but taking his role very seriously. He wants to step up and be the big dog. Aadem played a flawless first half scoring 20 points leading his team to victory with 28 points and multiple assists against Sante Fe.”
Both the Monsoon’s young guards gained exposure from the event. Isai said playing for the consolation championship against Santa Fe attracted more than 20 major college programs (Cal, Oklahoma, Nevada, Oregon, Oregon State, Oklahoma, BYU, USC, Utah State and many more).
While the name-brand programs are looking down the road, two Valley Vista seniors that played bit roles last season made themselves noticed to smaller schools.
“(Guard) Ka’Leb Connors will be a key part of our success this year. He injured his knee in open gym in beginning of May and played his first games this weekend,” Isai stated. “(Forward) Curtis (Nichols) had a tough job guarding big men all weekend. He is playing great and working hard. Curtis had to guard Santa Fe’s 6-6 small forward. Curtis came out with a double double 15 points 10 rebounds and six blocks that game.”
Dysart started against Compton (Calif.) with a six-point loss. Dysart then beat Mountain Ridge and Chandler Seton Catholic.
The Demons lost to Phoenix South Mountain in its finale. Cook stated his team got better from the experience and junior leaders Daryian Matthews and Riley Fornerette helped their profiles.
“At each of our games I would say there was at least three or four coaches watching. We played our games at Sunnyslope and Camelback. I think Riley and Daryian played well. They improved their recruiting stock and next year will be very important for them as they still have a couple years to develop and show college coaches they can play at that level,” Cook stated. “Raul Montoya, a 6-3 incoming junior, played great and put himself on the radar as well. Most of our players will be entering their junior or sophomore years next year. They understand that if they want to play at the next level it takes tremendous work and keeping up with your academics.”
Returning Paradise Honors senior forward Jerry Iliya and junior point guard Jalen Scott already had offers before the tourney. Oliver and Pickens are on the fast track and increased their exposure.
Hettel said all four of those players performed well. Paradise Honors rising sophomore guard Blessing Nwotite and forward Logan Pohl received some interest during Section 7, Hettel stated.
From that perspective, the coach said, the first of this type of tournament was a shining success.
“Obviously I was hoping this would happen after the NCAA changed the live periods for basketball. The event provided a lot of exposure for Arizona kids. Maybe even more than you see them get in club,” Hettel stated. “The calls I got from college coaches was overwhelmingly positive about them being able to see them with their high schools and just how structured it was compared to AAU.”