HOUSTON, TEXAS - The Academy National Invitational is always a must see event on the holiday hoops circuit and the first four games of action at the Campbell Aldine Center provided a number of noteworthy performances.
Happy Birthday coach
Wednesday is Aldine (Texas) head coach Zeke Smith's birthday. A year ago he wasn't sure if he'd see number 44.
Smith was in need of a kidney and pancreas transplant in order to make it to this year. Smith waited 10 months to received the double transplant on May 25. Since then, he's "feeling good, the best I've been," he says.
He has several reasons why to be in the best health he's been in for the last two years. After an 86-80 opening round win over Jesse Jones High School, Smith is feeling a little better.
Another reason is the play of his junior power forward. Maybe that is Gary Johnson plays as hard as he does; for coach Smith. Maybe that is why he never turns his motor off. Maybe that is why he plays his game, dominates the paint and never says a word.
The Aldine kids have something bigger to play for.
"We knew it was coach's birthday," Johnson said. "We want to win the tournament for him. That's the biggest thing we can give him. That's been our goal since we found out (he needed the transplant)."
Johnson and teammate Brandon Brown certainly made sure they did their part. Johnson poured in 37 points (16-22 FG) and Brown added a cool 33 (10-20 FG, 10-12 FT).
Last year at the Academy National Invitational, Johnson and the rest of the Aldine squad went to work. They advanced to the championship game of the Texas Division before losing to Fort Bend Marshall.
This year they are not only playing to return to the championship game, but playing for Smith. And they are doing a great job of it.
Big games from Texans
Harrison Smith, a 2006 Texas recruit, wasn't going to be hidden in Johnson's 37 points. The 6-foot-3 senior guard had 35 points of his own on 15 of 22 shooting from the floor.
The future Longhorn matched Johnson's points but won't get the acknowledgement that Johnson did. They have two different styles of play. Johnson is a workmanlike style while Smith is a guy that will get a lot of his points in transition and high percentage shots. Whatever the style, Smith was finding the bottom of the twine time and time again.
Larry Davis, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard from Alief (Texas) Hastings High School, came out strong in the opening game of the tournament. The class of 2007 prospect attacked the rim time and time again Davis said Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Stanford, North Texas, SMU, Texas and Texas State round out his list. The junior said Texas State is recruiting him the hardest at the present time. Davis put in 15 points in the victory over Cornerstone Christian.
B.J. Holmes, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound point guard from Alief (Texas) Hastings High School, always seemed to have the momentum-killer bucket against Cornerstone Christian in his team's 82-70 win on Wednesday morning. He's a quiet scorer and can get the scoreboard working in a hurry.
Holmes has great speed and loves to use it in the open floor but he can dial it up from deep as well. Holmes had a solid 23 points and eight assists in the victory.
"He knows the game," says Hastings head coach Johnnie "Hawk" Carter. "He plays as well as anyone in the country. He's just an old school guard."
Kentucky, Miami, Villanova, Oklahoma, USC, Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State but says Georgia Tech and Illinois are high on his list. Holmes says the two schools are recruiting him but "only at a medium interest," he said.
Key shots from Fairfax sparks victory
LeFlore (Ala.) came out firing from the tip and climbed to a 20-6 first quarter lead against Fairfax (Calif.) and it looked like the boys from Mobile where ready to show that they were for real at the national stage. Everything was clicking.
Then junior Chace Stanback helped Fairfax overcome that huge first half deficit against with a pair of quick three-pointers in the third quarter.
"That changed the attitude of the two teams," Fairfax head coach Harvey Katani said. "Those were big shots…He's been doing that for a long time. We always have different guys that can do that. That's the beauty of this team. We have three or four guys that can do that."
The Rivals.com four-star junior showed off a feathery touch from beyond the arc and finished with a team high 16 points and connected on four three-pointers and helped Fairfax pick up a 55-54 victory.
Stanback, a 6-foot-7, 173-pound wing, said UCLA, Arizona, Oregon and North Carolina are on his short list. The No. 73 ranked player from the class of 2007 said UCLA and Oregon have offered him.
This is our house
Houston is one of the best basketball towns in the country. That's evident with one glance at the USA Today top 25 poll. There are three Houston teams (public schools, no less) in the nation's most prestigious high school poll. Somebody forget to tell Bellaire that Philly's Neumann-Goretti team is pretty good, too.
Neumann-Goretti put a little Philly defense on Bellaire and knocked out the No. 17 ranked team in the country 59-41.
"Lucky for us we were able to get some good information on them from a guy in Texas," Neumann-Goretti head coach Carl Arrigale said. "I need make sure I send a thank you card to the guy."
The information was obviously good. Priority number one: lock down junior guard Jai Lucas. The speedy scoring point guard was held to 4 of 19 shooting from the floor en route to 12 points.
Future St. Joseph's guard Derrick Rivera was the mastermind of the defensive pressure. The 6-foot-3 guard played his traditional pesky defense and got it done on the offensive end as well to the tune of 22 points and nine rebounds. Rivera's style of play will be fun to watch in the Atlantic 10.
Also providing a big defensive effort was Earl Pettis, a 6-foot-5 unsigned senior guard. Pettis played a great all-around game, shining on both ends of the floor. Pettis ended with 15 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Pettis said he's keeping his options open, including prep school, Temple, Seton Hall, Miami, George Washington and LaSalle. If he can get his academics in order, Temple looks like the team to fend off because of it's proximity to home and John Chaney's style of play, he said.
Antonio Jardine and Richard Jackson are so far ahead of the curve in terms of having that oh-so-important point guard-big man relationship. Jardine, otherwise known as "Scoop", whips passes into Jackson like it is second nature. The two will be fun to watch at the Carrier Dome when they make it to Syracuse.
Arrigale said Jackson's improvement is one of the reasons why Neumann-Goretti is playing so well.
"He's come a long way," Arrigale said. "It's a shame that I can't get him a rest every once and a while. He just runs out of air because we don't have the bodies to give him a rest.
"But he's been big for him. He's a great rebounder and allows us to score in so many ways because of what he does down low. He's a lefty so that makes him a little bitter of a rebounder…Syracuse got a steal in him."
Cornerstone Christian School (Texas) center Beas Hamga will certainly catch a recruiter's eye with his imposing 7-foot frame and chiseled frame. But when coaches realize he's just a class of 2008 prospect, they quickly become intrigued. Hamga looks noticeably taller and stronger than what he did this summer. He's still a raw product overall and put up a modest 5 points and 7 rebounds in the early morning loss to Alief Hastings.
LeFlore (Ala.) graduated all five starters from last year's 35-1 squad. Finding experience early on this season has not been easy. So when 6-foot-6 sophomore Nick Williams puts in 22 points, six rebounds and sets the tone for his team, head coach Otis Hughley has to like what he saw from the 2008 prospect in the biggest setting LeFlore has played in this season. He'll be a guy to watch closely throughout the week.
Faces in the crowd
Coaches from Arkansas, Auburn, Baylor, Colorado State, Kentucky, Liberty, Miami, Rice, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas State, Tulane and USC were all on the sidelines on opening day.
Around the Aldine Campbell Center
You gotta love a team like Alief (Texas) Hastings. Why? Check every player on their roster sporting knee pads.
Dustin Hawkins, a 6-foot-4 senior wing from Aldine (Texas) High School, might be the most athletic player in the tournament field. He has incredible hang time and loves to play to the crowd.
All games on Wednesday, Dec. 28
3:30 p.m. - Eisenhower (Texas) vs. Westfield (Texas)
5:00 p.m. - Oak Hill (Va.) vs. Peabody (La.)
6:30 p.m. - Hightower (Texas) vs. Wheatley (Texas)
8:00 p.m. - Wheeler (Ga.) vs. Kingwood (Texas)
Rivals.com will have updates on the final four games on Wednesday later this evening.