NEWARK, N.J. – It has been more than a month – Feb. 26 to be exact – since the basketball team from Newark (N.J.) St. Benedict's Prep played an organized game. Because the Gray Bees play a national independent schedule, their season has traditionally ended without any postseason fanfare.
This year is different. St. Benedict's has something big – something real big – to play for this weekend.
While the Final Four is going on at Ford Field in Detroit, St. Benedict's will be one of eight teams competing in the inaugural ESPN RISE National High School Invitational, which will be held Friday-Sunday at the Hanley Center at Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, Md.
The tournament will showcase seven teams in the RivalsHigh 100: No. 1 Findlay Prep (Nev.), 30-0; No. 2 Oak Hill Academy (Va.), 38-0; No. 7 Montrose Christian (Md.) 20-2; No. 11 St. Benedict's (N.J.), 23-2; No. 30 St. Frances Academy (Md.) 31-3; No. 52 Friends' Central (Pa.) 28-2 and No. 99 Mountain State Academy (W.Va.) 23-6. Rounding out the field is Pinewood Prep (S.C.) 29-5.
St. Benedict's long layoff will only add to the Gray Bees' challenge.
"Purely from a coaching standpoint, it's about the hardest thing you ever had to do in terms of practice and preparation," said coach Dan Hurley, who owns a career mark of 202-19 in eight seasons at St. Benedict's. "It's adding six weeks in between games. Giving them time off and trying to recapture the effort and intensity of your season is about the hardest thing that you can do. It's incredibly difficult."
St. Benedict's will face St. Frances in the first round Friday and could meet undefeated Oak Hill in Saturday's semifinals. All the games will be shown on the ESPN networks.
"This is a historical event. It's the first time it's ever being done," said St. Benedict's senior guard Tamir Jackson, who has committed to Rice. "Everybody is excited to go out there and play their best."
The Gray Bees face the added challenge of having to play without their top player. Hurley booted Texas-bound junior forward Tristan Thompson from the team in February for "public insubordination," and he later resurfaced at Findlay Prep. The 6-8 Thompson was averaging 19.1 points and 9.1 rebounds.
"I would say we responded real well," Jackson said. "We could've lost the rest of our games, but we came back and won every single game after he left."
In the post-Thompson era, the team revolves around the 6-foot-2 Jackson, a strong outside shooter and two-year starter; sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo, a friend of Thompson's from Canada who also committed to Texas; senior forward Lamar Patterson, who is headed to Pittsburgh to play for Jamie Dixon; and Aaron Brown, an uncommitted junior guard.
After the season ended, Hurley gave his players 10 days off to recharge their batteries. Since they returned they've been working hard in the gym, even instituting a new offense, Jackson said.
"We changed our whole offense," he said. "We have a bunch of new plays."
The Gray Bees started the year 19-0 before losing back-to-back games to Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick and Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei. Led by North Carolina-bound guard Dexter Strickland, junior guard Kyrie Irving and sophomore forward Michael Gilchrist, St. Patrick went on to win its fifth New Jersey Tournament of Champions crown and third in four years.
"I've been just preaching to the guys, 'You get an opportunity to play the right way, to really play like a team,' " Hurley said. "The two games we lost, we didn't play a like a team. We played like individuals and we were unprepared."
Now, after six weeks off, the Gray Bees will go back on the court, with a championship on the line.
"I'm excited to play for this," Jackson said. "This is real big."