This is my 39th year of covering the McPherson Invitational and I have to believe in all my time this is the strongest field from top to bottom.
There’s star power at the top with ranked teams McPherson High, Lawrence Free State and Derby, all potential state champions. And the bottom few teams could be playing in other tournaments and perhaps be among the best teams in the field.
The host Bullpups are seeking their fourth Invitational title in a row and they have beaten some tremendous teams to accomplish that. There’s a lot of sentiment for Lawrence Free State, which is loaded with tremendous athletes and like MHS has senior power, eight of them in fact.
Derby has the advantage of having played here already this year and that can come in handy. Even though it was a 15-point loser to the Bullpups, you can almost throw that game out the window because most of Derby’s mainstays had barely had any practice time before that game due to football.
Here’s how I see the order of finish:
1. McPherson — The seniors on this team have never been part of a losing game in this tournament. The Bullpups are going to have to beat three straight Class 6A teams and they’re going to be pushed like they haven’t been before as they won’t be able to coast in any of the three games.
2. Lawrence Free State – Some people I have talked with have told me the Firebirds are the real deal, they could be the best team in all the land, with apologies to Bishop Miege. They have size, depth and tremendous athletes. But there’s something that’s called “Roundhouse Magic” that is difficult to overcome.
3. Derby — While a lot of talk centers on the Bullpups and Free State, Derby is probably saying, “what about us?” Since losing their first two games of the season, the Panthers have won five of their last six. Tyler Brown is a candidate for top scorer in the tournament.
4. Shawnee Mission East — The Lancers’ first-round game with Wichita North will be the best on the docket on Thursday. That should be a barnburner. Coach Shawn Hair has been around the block a few times in the Invitational and knows what it takes to win it.
5. Wichita North — I’m really looking forward to seeing North freshman phenom Jackie Johnson III. Third is a will-of-the-wisp 5-10 guard who has created a lot of buzz in the metro area. He needs some help for the Redskins to get past Shawnee Mission East in the first round.
6. Bishop Carroll — I’m guessing that Carroll will frustrate Junction City with its tough defense and fundamentals on Friday. You know the Golden Eagles will have some of the toughest competitors in the tournament.
7. Blue Valley West — It’s not going to seem the same without Lyons native Donnie Campbell on the sideline, the only coach in the history of the program until this year. Not to mention his right-hand man Wayne Smith as they worked in tandem. Really interested to see 6-8 sophomore O’mari Stanley, a quality big man who’ll be able to watch develop over three years, kind of like Manhattan’s Jackie Carmichael for longtime followers of the tournament.
8. Junction City — As usual, the Bluejays will be physically imposing and athletic. A lot of underclassmen on the roster. Somebody has to finish last and I’d put Junction up against any other last-place finisher from another tournament.