We attended three post-Christmas tournaments around Southern California and followed the other major ones across the country and these are our main take aways.
Is FAB 50 No. 1 Montverde Academy (Fla.) unbeatable? Is Rancho Christian (Temecula, Calif.) the team to beat for the CIF Open Division title?
Nothing Has Changed At The Top
FAB 50 No. 6 Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.) fell in overtime, 85-81, to Rancho Christian (Temecula, Calif.) in the title game of The Classic at Damien and No. 27 Sheldon (Sacramento, Calif.) lost to a good JSerra (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.) team in the finals of The Torrey Pines Holiday Classic in San Diego.
If the CIF state tournament started today, however, those two losing teams would still rate as favorites to win the open division in their respective regions.
Sierra Canyon went into that December 30 game knowing Ziaire Williams, a national Top 10 prospect, was going to be playing for the first time this season. It just so happened the date for transfers to be eligible fell on the same day as the title game against the last team to beat the Trailblazers during the 2018-19 season before they went on to win a second consecutive CIF Open Division state crown and begin this season 14-0.
Sierra Canyon got to The Classic finals using a lineup that included Kentucky-bound B.J. Boston off the bench and played its rotation a variety of minutes depending on the foe. Against Rancho Christian, it was figured Williams would be eased into the rotation, but what happened was Boston started and Williams played 27 minutes off the bench. We were a bit surprised to see Williams take 21 shots and between him and Boston, the forward duo took 46 of Sierra Canyon's 70 shot attempts. Regardless of how the game played out, that was 27 minutes and 21 shots that went to someone else for the team's first 14 games, so it had an impact.
Sierra Canyon will eventually settle into a rotation it will stick to, but to break in a player of Williams' caliber into an already successful lineup had to be tough and it still took 21 turnovers and overtime to knock off California's top-ranked team. Sierra Canyon will have to find its groove and iron out the kinks right away because it faces No. 13 Patrick School (Elizabeth, N.J.) on Friday evening in a nationally-televised game.
That game will also give us a good barometer of just how good California teams are this season because The Celtics lost, 77-32, in the title game of the John Wall Holiday Invitational on December 30 to FAB 50 No. 1 Montverde Academy. Ironically, Sierra Canyon's next game versus a California foe will be on January 11 at Pasadena City College (Calif.) against the very same Rancho Christian team it just lost to.
As for Sheldon, the Huskies advanced through the Torrey Pines Holiday Classic without the services of Marcus Bagley, it's 6-foot-8 senior forward who was playing so terrific at the Tarkanian Classic before being hurt in the second overtime of a third place win over No. 19 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.). Sheldon has terrific depth, as senior guards Josh Williams and Dontrelle Hewlett, along with senior forward Darren Tobias, really stepped up their games in Bagley's absence.
The loss to JSerra was Sheldon's first to a California team, and in both of its losses (the other was to Tarkanian host Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas), the Huskies had leads they blew because of unforced turnovers. If they can clean that up and Bagley remain healthy, Sheldon rates the heavy favorites to once again represent NorCal in the CIF Open division title game based on what we've seen so far. Sierra Canyon, meanwhile, could face Rancho Christian four times this season, so it has plenty of opportunity to find the lineup that will work best for another state title run.
We're Buying Stock In St. John's (Washington, D.C.) Now
In the preseason, the Cadets didn't get much national attention because there were three other teams from the powerful Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) that were worthy of FAB 50 acclaim: Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.), DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) and Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.). Well, based on the results of games played so far this season, St. John's has shown it will be formidable in WCAC play, will be FAB 50 ranked in the next update (January 6) and will be a dynamite team in 2020-21.
Ishmael Leggett, a 6-foot-2 point guard headed to Rhode Island, had a terrific showing at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where the Cadets advanced to the title game before falling to No. 24 Dorman (Roebuck, S.C.), 69-60. In the semifinals, St. John's downed No. 18 Long Island Lutheran (Glen Head, N.Y.), 53-51, and beat No. 36 Poly (Baltimore, Md.) in the quarterfinals. Coach Patrick Behan's best player was slowed a bit in the title game versus Dorman, as he didn't make a 3-point field goal attempt and finished with 14 points, but there are plenty of reasons to like this club and a majority of the pieces are underclassmen.
Six-foot-7 Amani Hansberry, a terrific 2023 prospect, had 15 points, made 6-of-8 shots from the field in the title game and is a terrific athlete with plenty of upside. Behan also has three other freshmen on his roster who will be big contributors in the future. Christian Watson, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, can shoot it and is versatile enough to excel at both the three and the four. Watson made two 3-pointers and in the big semifinal win over Long Island Lutheran, while Leggett had 17 points and five rebounds and made 3-of-5 3-pointers. The emergence of St. John's as a national level team means the road to the WCAC championship is even tougher than we anticipated and it was already the best conference in the nation.
This Season Is Not A Coronation, Yet
There is little doubt Patrick School (Elizabeth, N.J.) is a fine team, but when Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) beat them 77-32 in the finals of the John Wall Holiday Invitational in North Carolina, the high school basketball community was ready to anoint the Eagles as one of the best high school teams of all-time.
Based on the scores of their games so far and MVA's talent level, this unit could develop into the best team ever at Montverde Academy, the best high school team since the turn of the century and one of the best we've ever seen. To beat McEachern (Powder Springs, Ga.), and Mr. Basketball USA candidate Sharife Cooper, by a 99-48 margin speaks volumes, but against preseason No. 1 IMG Academy in the finals of the City of Palms Tournament the score was 63-55.
Should we have had Montverde Academy as preseason No. 1? Well, if we had to do it all over again we'd likely still have IMG Academy as preseason No. 1 based on beating the Eagles when it mattered at GEICO Nationals last spring and the roster it had in place in the fall. Remember, we ranked IMG Academy No. 1 assuming Duke-bound Jalen Johnson would be one of the Ascenders' leading players. He is not in the lineup and IMG Academy still played MVA closer than any other team. In fact, no other team has even been in the game against Montverde Academy.
OSU-bound Cade Cunningham and North Carolina-bound Day'ron Sharpe are two of the best players in the country and realistically Kevin Boyle's backups would be a FAB 50 ranked team. When this team added 6-foot-8 Scottie Barnes, and he fit in to what the Eagles already had back, it took this team to another level because he is so good defensively and brings so many intangibles to the floor. Most of all, Barnes never wants to be on a losing team and it's working magically so far for this team.
Last season, IMG Academy was the first team to produce three McDonald's All-Americans and Cunningham, Sharpe and Barnes should make it two teams all-time with three. We've been doing weekly national rankings for a long time and know it's hard to beat a really good team more than once in a season, but it's something Montverde Academy will have to accomplish to be mentioned alongside high school basketball's all-time best.
Montverde Academy will play IMG Academy on January 19 at the Hoophall Classic and could meet the same team twice more, at the St. James Invitational in Maryland at the end of the month and perhaps for a final time at GEICO Nationals.
Will a loss to IMG Academy (or anyone else) prevent this team from being considered one of the best of all-time? No, not if it's a regular season game, but a loss at the end of the season carries more weight. No team that loses its final game will ever finish No. 1 in the FAB 50 and on the flip side, a great team or one of the very best teams of all-time can have a loss on its resume. The 2019-20 MVA team has the makings of an all-time team, we're just not ready to crown it after 13 games because we've been doing this long enough to know things are not set in stone in the world of high school hoops.