REGION — Every year since 1990, throngs of basketball players, coaches, scouts and avid hoops fans have converged on Torrey Pines High School for one of the most prestigious high school basketball tournaments in the nation.
This year, the tournament’s 25th installment, is no different, as the Under Armour Holiday Classic will again give San Diegans a chance to see some of the nation’s best prep basketball teams — and potentially a future NCAA or NBA star or two.
The tournament runs Dec. 26 through Dec. 30, with no games being played Dec. 28.
Over the years, tournament-goers have seen NBA stars Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Jennings, Michael Kidd-Gillchrist and Brandon Jenning before they became stars.
The five-division tournament is actually played at multiple sites, with Torrey Pines High School playing host to the prestigious “National Division,” reserved for the field’s 16 top-tier teams. This year, the National Division boasts four out-of-state teams, nine non-San Diego teams and three of the top local teams.
La Costa Canyon will host the second division, dubbed the “American Division”; Santa Fe Christian hosts the “Senators Division”; Carlsbad High School hosts the Governors Division and La Jolla Country Day hosts the “Mayors Division.”
“The thing that stands out to me is the high quality teams from different regions of the country,” said John Olive, Torrey Pines’ head basketball coach and tournament director. “The Northeast is well represented with two outstanding teams, one of the top teams in Texas is coming, the Los Angeles area is very well represented and we have a very good team from the Pacific Northwest.”
Headlining the National Division’s out-of-state contingent is Prime Prep of Texas, a charter school founded by former NFL star Deion Sanders, which boasts one of the nation’s top juniors, 6-foot-6 shooting guard Terrance Ferguson.
Ferguson is currently listed as the 8th best prospect in the nation in the 2016 class, according to ESPN. Ferguson, who has won two gold medals playing for Team USA’s U16 and U17 teams, has received basketball scholarship offers from more than two-dozen colleges, including the University of Arizona, the University of Louisville and Kansas University.
Ferguson is not the only talented player on Prime Prep’s roster. Fellow junior Mark Vital, a 6-foot-5 forward, has already committed to play basketball at Baylor University.
Prime Prep’s addition to the tournament field was somewhat of a surprise due to the school’s complicated and controversial status. The Texas Education Agency voted over the summer to revoke the school’s public charter, which would force it to shut down. Prime Prep officials have appealed that decision, which has allowed the school to remain open until it exhausts its appeal options or the agency reverses its decision.
Additionally, most prep schools are not allowed to play in California Interscholastic Federation-sanctioned events such as the Holiday Classic because of a statewide prohibition of CIF teams playing opponents not affiliated with the National Federation of High Schools.
Prime Prep, however, is a public charter school, and thus can participate in the tournament, Olive said.
Other out-of-state teams in the National Division include The Patrick School in New Jersey, which boasts junior point guard Bryce Aiken, who starred in the tournament last year; Bellevue (WA), which has one of the state’s top guard-forward duos, Kyle Foreman (signed to Boston University) and Gunther Klimes (verbally committed to Army); and Thomas Jefferson High of New York, which has junior point guard Shamorie Ponds, who already holds offers from several Division 1 universities, including Fordham University.
Among the field of non-San Diego teams, Redondo Union and Corona Centennial arrive as the most heralded. The Sea Hawks, coached by Reggie Morris, boasts no fewer than seven players receiving interest from Division 1 schools, including Billy Preston, widely considered one of the nation’s top sophomore players. Preston, a transfer from Beckman High in Irvine, averages 15.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He is flanked by junior guard Leland Green, who leads the team in scoring at 16.4 points per game.
Corona Centennial counters with senior point guard Sedrick Barefield, who has signed his national letter of intent with Southern Methodist University. Barefield is one of the state’s top guards, regardless of grade. The Huskies, ranked No. 20 in the nation by Maxpreps, also boast another Division 1 signee in the backcourt, Cal State Fullerton-bound Kahlil Ahmad, one of the state’s most improved players. Corona Centennial’s frontcourt is also loaded, with senior stalwart Kyle Hamilton, and underclassmen Jalen Hill and Ike Anigbougu, two of the most coveted players in their respective grades.
The other California teams are Fairfax, Westchester, Windward, defending champion Loyola, Santa Monica, Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary and Lawndale, each of which bring talented teams to the table.
“San Diego State fans will want to see Brodricks Jones, a 6-9 power forward from Lawndale, who is headed to State next season,” he said. “And Windward has a freshman named Shareef O’Neal, the son of Shaquille O’Neal, which is pretty cool.”
The local trio of teams include three of the region’s top teams, headlined by La Costa Canyon, which has a trio of players signed with Division 1 schools – Travis Fuller, Tommy McCarthy and Brady Twombly.
Perhaps the most talented of the local players is junior forward TJ Leaf of Foothills Christian, who recently verbally committed to the University of Arizona.
The host team, Torrey Pines, has an experienced roster that includes senior guards Dominic Hovasse, Timmy Saunders and Marek Sullivan.
But the basketball action does not stop at Torrey Pines. Olive said the tournament committee received 28 requests to play in the 16-team national field, which means that 12 other high-level teams would be playing in the lower divisions.
In other words, the talent runs deep: Each of the American Division teams has at least one Division 1 basketball prospect on its team, headlined by Kendall Small, a point guard from Lakewood Mayfair High School, who is already signed to play at the University of Oregon.
“Isn’t that amazing, it’s absolutely amazing when you think about it,” Olive said. “What that does is that it has a ripple effect of everyone moving down to a division and the talent is at quite a high level.”
In the Senator’s Division, fans will get a chance to see Mater Dei Catholic sophomore guard Jaylen Hands, who emerged onto the national recruiting scene during last season’s tournament when his team won the American Division championship. Hands received his first scholarship offer — from the University of Southern California — that weekend. He now boasts several offers, including the UCLA and Arizona.
The Governor’s Division has no fewer than two high-level talents, including Poway senior sharpshooter Dalton Soffer, who is signed with Seton Hall University, and Brandon Smith of Santa Ana Godinez Fundamental School, who is signed with UC Irvine.
“It is amazing the number of outstanding players at all levels that are going to be in the tournament,” Olive said.
Olive said the most rewarding them for him over the years is watching the tournament grow into a nationally recognized event that draws between 15,000 and 20,000 fans each year and teams from across the country vying for championship crowns.
“The local basketball fans in the community have embraced the tournament and have come out and supported it,” Olive said. “I think teams have come out for a number of reasons; our association with Under Armour certainly helps, the wonderful climte and allure that San Diego has is a big to-do as well.
“Plus, I think the tournament, now in its 25th year, has earned a national reputation and people know they will be treated well and will play some great ball while they are out here.”
For more information about the Under Armour Holiday Classic, visit theholidayclassic.org