"Bring Your Game, Not Your Name."
It's been the tag line for the iS8/Nike HS Classic for as long as one can remember.
With every blocked shot, game winning buzzer beater, nasty dunk, slick pass, turnover, air ball or bone head play, the player behind it has those words silk screened on the back of their jersey. The slogan reminds everyone in attendance that no player gets any more respect than another until he earns it, when you walk through the doors of the Jamaica Queens middle school gym, where you rank and what you've done outside of there can't buy you a Gatorade at the concession stand. Players with lesser known names can blossom into household ones, and players with hype and 20 foot long college offer lists can leave in a cloud of skepticism. That said, the Spring 2010 playoffs have seen many big names deliver not so big games and vice-versa, with the approaching semi-finals having a mixture of every team scenario possible. Let's take a look at the final four and where they stand.
The Sean Bell All-Stars: The Regional All-Star Team
Coach Raheem Wiggins has compiled what could be considered the iS8 version of a Jordan Brand Classic Team. If big Division I names are what you crave, the SBA have your fix. Jelan Kendrick (Memphis), Dominique Ferguson (Florida International), Bryon Allen (George Mason), Ryan Harrow (NC State), Eric Ferguson (Georgia Southern), Mike Parker (Maryland), Melvin Ejam (Iowa State) & Anthony Ireland (Loyola Marymount) will all be in attendance this weekend for the SBA. Simply put, they're stacked to the ceiling with east coast out of state talent, and just about the entire team towers over 6'5.
In recent memory, a handful of teams have taken the same route, but if we're using their fates in the playoffs as a barometer for the future success of the SBA, the big name juggernaut could be in for trouble. The Unique All-Stars brought in the big guns in the Fall Classic, before exiting to a tight knit Playaz Club team. The well-stacked Shooting Stars fell to an even more tight knit NIA Prep (who are in the semi-finals as well) last week, throwing the bigger is better theory out with the trash. The fact that both Unique and Shooting Stars were missing key players when they were eliminated can be considered, but the fact remains that the "bring in the big guns" teams haven't fared too well at IS8 since the Shooting Stars took it all in the spring of 2008. But there are a few factors that separate the SBA from their loaded counterparts of recent memory. For one, they've lived up to the billing, romping their way through pool play and overcoming close calls in the playoffs to remain alive for semi-final Saturday. But Coach Wiggins wants to make sure that he has enough ammunition in the chamber, and has made a statement by bringing in a secret weapon, Angel Nunez. If that isn't a dream team, you'd be hard pressed to state what is, but the one thing the SBA lack is the team chemistry of their three semi-final counterparts.
2010 NCAA underdogs Butler and Northern Iowa can say a thing or two about shutting up big names with the use of it, and the SBA's star power may meet its kryptonite in the form of the team power of their opponents.
NIA Prep: The "Team" Team
Save Seton Hall commit Jamir Hanner, New Jersey-based NIA Prep's entire roster is undecided. There are no big names that make hair stand on end upon mention, but NIA still has a solid mix of height, talent and most importantly, team chemistry. NIA is the only team of the four semi-finalists that is an actual school team, and Coach Rudy King's unit plays together all year round. They knocked off Shooting Stars -who many predicted would still be alive in the finals- and have shown they have what it takes to keep pushing. Hanner, Lowell Ulmer and Shaquille Thomas form the super-athletic 6'6 and over trio that can take care of business in the paint, and shooting guard Devon Gibson has a deadly stroke from outside and is as tough as they come. NIA have a system that reciprocates for what they lack in star power, and if they knock off one of iS8's "powerhouses", it really wouldn't be much of a surprise despite the lack of hype around them.
New Heights & The Panthers: The Local All-Star Teams
Nestled between the star power of the SBA and the team power of NIA Prep are Coach Kimani Young's defending champion New Heights team and Coach Nate Cadogan and Gary Charles' NY Panthers.
New Heights' Jayvaughn Pinkston (Nova), Aaron Brown (Temple), Gilvydas Biruta (Rutgers), Devon McMillian and Brandon Frazier (Fordham), David Coley (Stony Brook), Devon Collier (Oregon State), Harold McBride (undecided), Ashton Pankey (Maryland) and Frantz Massenet (Drexel) make up a pretty impressive who's who of tri-state area all-stars, and they're a powerhouse as far as AAU in the Metro Area goes. The same can be said of the Panthers, who lost to New Heights in the Fall Championship. The college commitments aren't as thick on the Panthers' end (Louisville-bound Russ Smith is on the injured list), but they're just as loaded in regards to talent. JJ Moore (Pitt), Jeffrey Short (undecided), Sterling Gibbs (Maryland), Stargell Love (Baylor) and Deshaun Wiggins (Seton Hall) offer a mass amount of firepower, and having Ryan Rhoomes, Derrell Robertson and Nemanja Djurisic in the paint is a plus.
The names aren't as big and plentiful as the SBA and they don't play together as frequently as NIA, but both the Panthers and New Heights have won, lost, practiced and grown together during AAU seasons over the years, forming a mix of formidable talent and team chemistry that makes them both very dangerous teams.
Will New Heights make it back to the big dance defend their trophy? Will the Panthers exact revenge on New Heights or someone else for the chip game loss in the fall? Will NIA sneak up and take it all while being the underdog in the eyes of many? Or will the Sean Bell All-Stars just have too much ammo?
The questions of team power vs. star power will begin to be answered on Saturday afternoon, as New Heights battle NIA Prep at 12:30PM and the Panthers take on the Sean Bell All-Stars at 2PM.
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