Eleven Arizona schools posted a combined 7-23 record against teams from other states over four days of play in the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions, the 72-team national girls prep basketball tournament that just completed its third consecutive year in the Phoenix area.
At first glance it might appear Arizona teams can’t compete with other states’ teams (aside from Tucson Salpointe, which won two of three games this weekend). But not taking part in the tourney, which ended Monday, were perennial Arizona powers Highland, Phoenix St. Mary’s, Chaparral and all of the schools from Indian reservations across the state.
"To be a little cruel," said Clay Kallam, the tournament’s director of media relations, "there’s a winner’s bracket and there’s the Arizona bracket."
Kallam, who also publishes Full Court Press magazine, wasn’t suggesting that Arizona is inferior when it comes to prep talent, but that he’s disappointed that Arizona’s elite teams have, for the most part, opted to stay away.
According to Kallam, elite Arizona teams have other obligations like finals and other tournaments that run simultaneously. Tournament founder and executive director Steve Kozaki pointed to twoyear commitments that Arizona schools have to give in order to compete in other state tournaments, something uncommon in the rest of the country.
A few Arizona coaches have suggested that the elite Arizona schools are more concerned with their overall records, which would likely take a hit when confronted with the Bishop McNamaras, the Christ the Kings and the Lynwoods of the prep basketball world.
Highland coach Miner Webster said the Nike tournament conflicts with finals at Gilbert high schools and the Gilbert district prohibits any athletic activity at that time. "I would have loved to play there last year," said Webster, whose team won last season’s 5A state title. "I am realistic that Arizona teams could not compete in the National Division, but it would have been fun to try."
Last year, Highland won the Santana Holiday Tournament in San Diego, beating La Jolla (Calif.) Country Day in the final. La Jolla entered this year’s Nike tournament as the 19th-ranked team in the country by USA Today. La Jolla reached the finals of the Black Division this season.
Highland will play at the Tucson Flowing Wells tournament next week.
Kozaki would like to see the best Arizona schools in his tournament and went as far as equating the effort to bring those teams to the tournament with that of securing as many of the top 25 schools across the country as possible. Both, he said, are the "highest priority" of the tournament.
"We’d like more Arizona school participation because it would generate more excitement in the area and increase attendance," Kozaki said. "Even though we have these (out-of-state) topranked teams, their fans don’t travel. If we were to get competitive Arizona teams involved, that, of course, would substantially increase the attendance. We had 186 Division I college coaches here this year. It would be great if more (student-athletes) could play in these situations."
Both Kozaki and Kallam say they would love to see many of Arizona’s reservation teams at the tournament, but annual holiday tournaments in Winslow and nearby New Mexico have drawn reservation teams for years.
Hamilton coach Tim Rutt, the coach of one of four host Chandler high school teams for the tournament, doesn’t think the addition of elite Arizona schools would make a difference in terms of attendance, and added that people from far away reservations wouldn’t likely travel to the Valley.
However, teams from Window Rock, Tuba City and Page, among others, annually bring in thousands of people to America West Arena during state tournament play.
"Most of the better Arizona teams are here," said Rutt, who values the experience of playing in the TOC and thinks Arizona can learn from other states. "California schools are head and shoulders above us. The shot clock — we need to get that out here so the teams can start getting that pace running. You get the experience of watching other people play — that’s what really helps."
Desert Vista coach Henry Bribiescas disagrees with Rutt, in part, and thinks the tournament would benefit from the Arizona elite schools’ participation.
"I think there are some quality teams in Arizona that could do well in this tournament," said Bribiescas, whose club went 0-3 against three defending state champions. "I think it would be good to get the best schools in Arizona to represent Arizona. It’s in our home state. It would be nice to see more teams."
Kozaki thinks that he’ll eventually get the elite Arizona teams and added that he has a verbal commitment from Phoenix St. Mary’s, the Tribune’s No. 1-ranked team in the state, to play next year.
"If we had St. Mary’s playing right now, we’d have 300 to 400 more people here," said Kozaki, who plans to keep the tournament in Phoenix, mentioning the climate, the large airport and his relationship with the Chandler Unified School District as reasons.
"Not only would the St. Mary’s fans come, other Arizona fans would come to cheer on their own. Ever since we’ve been here, there has not been an outstanding Arizona team in the tournament."
BONUS SHOTS: Nationally top-ranked Bishop McNamara (Md.) unseated defending tournament champion and seventh-ranked Christ the King (N.Y.), 57-48, in the National Division championship game at Hamilton. . . .
In a Black Division game at Chandler High School, Amy Rosenkrantz scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out five assists as Corona del Sol beat Mountain Pointe 55-50. Sy Janousek scored 16 points for Corona (11-5) and had eight rebounds and five assists. Lisa Helmers scored 11 points. Nicole Anders scored 16 points for Mountain Pointe.