There were surprising teams, up-and-coming players, shocking endings. It’s gearing up for what could be a wild open division state tournament, pitting 32 teams with nothing to lose and wanting to be the ones to make history.
This is the first year the Arizona Interscholastic Association has been doing what it has been doing with football since 2019, except with an expanded field. Also different: The teams that lose in the first two rounds jump back into their conference tournaments, whether 6A, 5A or 4A. The selection day for the Open takes place on February 4th.
With the regular season ending February 3 for big schools, we’re taking a deep look at what transpired and what to watch for in Arizona high school boys’ basketball the rest of the way.
Gilbert Perry (22-1), playing his last three games next week against Basha, Brophy and Hamilton, has been the only constant, a No. 1 team last season and outside of a 65-63 Jan. 3 loss at the Phoenix Pinnacle , the Pumas lived up to the hype. The 6-foot-8 towers of Cody Williams and Koa Peat have proven to be unparalleled in Arizona. Both have nearly identical stats, averaging more than 20 points per game.
They also have solid support players like Ben Egbo, D’Andre Harrison, No No Brown and Baron Silsby. Williams and Peat don’t need to be the center of attention. They are superstars without having the superstar ego. They put it away for the team and whoever scores a goal can handle it well. Coach Sam Duane Jr. knows how to win championships (four straight at Tempe Corona del Sol and another final year at Perry), and he knows how to build a culture of togetherness.
It really sucks perry shooting. Phoenix St. Mary’s has one of the best players in the state in 6-foot-2 junior point guard styles Phipps, who can fill it up and has that toughness quality his team keeps in games. He plays his best against the best competition. He lost to Perry that season by 40 points, a game that wasn’t decided until the last few minutes.
“I think our guys did a great job in embracing having a target on their back,” Duane said. “We believe it has helped us prepare for the challenges we face at the Open.”
If they fall in the Open, it would take a Herculean effort from an opponent.
Who closes the gap?
St. Mary’s is a team to watch. After Styles fouled Phipps Tuesday in the first two minutes of the last quarter with a 12-point lead over Gilbert Mesquite, the Knights were on fine form when 5-10 guard Kenny White scored the point. The Knights held on to a 62-50 win.
That team is 11-11, but Saturday’s trip to play Santa Ana (California) Mater Dei, one of 12 out-of-state opponents, will only toughen them up for the Open. Especially when 6-7 student Caspian Jones returns from an injury that has kept him out since mid-December. With Seydou Tamboura, a 6-7 senior coming on late in the season, the Knights would have a better chance against Perry when it comes to a rematch. At the last meeting (an 81-70 loss on January 7), St. Mary’s had no Jones.
What did we learn?
While 6A is the deepest conference for teams most likely to reach the finals, watch out for more than a handful of 5A teams, such as: B. Glendale Ironwood (16-5), Peoria Sunrise Mountain (12-9), Goodyear Millennium, Peoria Centennial, Scottsdale Deert Mountain and Scottsdale Notre Dame for an outside chance of reaching the semifinals of the Open if not even the final.
But at this point, as long as Davis Hester is fine when he comes back from injury, I think Peoria Liberty will be the toughest roadblock to come his way.
Parity is the word that best describes this season.
Watching the Lions (18-5) blow Pinnacle 91-76 on Brandon Wechsler Night on Jan. 6, this team looked better than anyone outside of Perry. Hester had 21 points in that game. Then, last week, Liberty fell to Pinnacle 62-59 without Hester. With a fully healthy team, Liberty will be a tough nut to crack for everyone, including Perry.
Never say never to Brophy Prep, though, especially now that senior wing Arman Madi is back after missing a significant time with an injury. Gilbert Highland and Basha are going to be tough. Of course Phoenix Sunnyslope, despite playing against four newcomers, is extremely tough during the tournament as coach Ray Portela knows how to push the right buttons.
What will happen in the conference tournaments?
In the first two rounds of the Open, every team should be relaxed, knowing if they lose, they still have lives. All of this depends on how the 32-team open bracket falls. But if American leader Gilbert North is seeded in the top four at the Open, he could stumble early, falling back to 4A and maybe going the distance. But the same could be said of St. Mary’s and Mesquite. And the 5A and 6A tournaments could be fun without a clear favorite once the first two rounds of the Open are complete.
What about the small schools?
There are many intrigues from 3A to 1A here. But 3A could be a four-team race between Chandler Valley Christian, Scottsdale Christian, Coolidge and Fountain Hills. Coolidge is 22-0 and boasts one of the most dynamic players in Brayden Gant, averaging 20 points and seven rebounds.
Valley Christian (22-1) lost his only game against a California school, Vista Murrieta (that’s 18-6), and has length and a versatile junior guard in Luke Shaw, who has averaged in the 14 games he’s played 26 points scored. Scottsdale Christian (13-6), last year’s 2A champion, has won his last three games by 22 points or more after freshman Elijah Williams recovered. The Eagles are still playing Fountain Hills (20-0) on February 2nd. The Falcons, led by Keaton Ort with 22 points, beat shorthanded SCA 56-34 in mid-December when Williams was out with a back injury.
The X factor in 3A is anyone set on the Navajo Reservation, such as Monument Valley, Chinle, and the Reservation Border School Holbrook. The fans who bring them to the gyms will be the sixth man no team wants to be associated with.
Gilbert San Tan Charter was one of the biggest surprises in 2A. It is 22-2 and has the longest active winning streak among the 2A schools with nine games. Phoenix Christian, led by the explosive 6-2 junior guard Tommy Randolph, and Surprise Highland Prep have a good chance of reaching the finals. Scottsdale Solano Pre’s tough schedule, playing an out-of-state team, will once again prove beneficial. But Pima, with his stature led by 6-6 Seth Russell, looks like the team to beat in 2A, especially after Bisbee suffered just his second loss this week, 60-57.
So many teams are playing well in 1A, but in the end I believe Anthem North Valley Christian (17-5), an experienced group led by second-year guard Bobby Rodriguez, will hold the gold ball for the second time in three years.