This may have been the best Invitational ever

By Steve Sell
January 22, 2018

As far as McPherson Invitationals go, this one has to rank among the best of the 54.

And not just because the Bullpup boys won their fourth title in a row, their 24th overall and 11th under coach Kurt Kinnamon.

We knew going into the tournament it had the makings of being one of the best ever. You had the once-beaten Bullpups, along with Class 6A’s No. 1-ranked team in Lawrence Free State and also the No. 7 team in 6A Derby, which had showed loads of potential when it played last month at the Roundhouse.

The other teams in the field were worthy as well, though little mention was made before the tournament of Bishop Carroll, the No. 6 seed.

But Carroll sent tremors through the tournament by knocking off favored Derby in the first round and then pulled the shocker, defeating Free State in the semifinals.

Meanwhile the Bullpups were pushed for a half by Blue Valley West, then made a miraculous rally in the semifinals against a very quality Shawnee Mission East team, coming back from 9 points down for the victory.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the Roundhouse that loud. Kinnamon said as much on his postgame radio show that the crowd literally willed the team to the win. The seniors on the team had never lost a game in the Invite and they simply refused to give up against the Lancers, who in a lot of years were good enough to win the tournament.

Maybe with McPherson College and Central Christian College in town for games on Saturday, the crowd wasn’t as big as Friday or as loud. My theory was that Bullpup Nation was so exhausted from Friday’s game that it was recharging its batteries as it was quiet in the grand old building until the fourth quarter, when it came back in full force.

And the Bullpups needed it. Bishop Carroll was a team similar to MHS in the way it played, relying on precision on offense and getting after it on defense. I thought in both Friday’s and Saturday’s wins, the Bullpup defense was the difference, outscoring SM East 25-7 in the final period Friday and 21-11 on Saturday against Carroll.

The depth of the talent of players in the tournament was deep. McPherson had two All-Tournament selections in MVP Ben Pyle and Mason Alexander. Both were very deserving and Pyle is one of the most unique high school players I have ever covered. While he’s 6-8, he has tremendous ballhandling skills and unlimited range, but also great moves inside. He had some dunks that energized the crowd as he displayed his full arsenal. Alexander’s shooting was off and on, but he had a tremendous tournament from an assist and steals standpoint. He was at his best when it mattered most.

The Bullpups had to get along without Jake Alexander on Friday due to a sprained ankle, but where would MHS have been on Saturday without his 14 points? Drew Labertew and Thomas Diggs probably don’t get their due acclaim as they do a lot of the dirty work that doesn’t show up in the box score. Labertew amazes me with his defense as he’s one of the most cerebral players Kinnamon has ever had.

Jayse Alexander and Cody Stufflebean were immense, Alexander coming up big on Friday and Stufflebean became a big-time player the entire weekend. The others on the bench did their job when called upon.

I had a vote for the All-Tournament Team and I can honestly say I had it right. We vote on 10 and the player with the most votes is the MVP. I had Pyle first on my ballot and my 10 were on the team.

The tournament also featured Wichita North wunderkind Jackie Johnson III, the most breathtaking high school player I believe I’ve covered. The freshman led the tournament in scoring and showed big-time potential. I’ve never seen a player as fast with the basketball in the open court and some of his passes were eye-popping. I had to keep reminding myself HE’S A FRESHMAN. While he still needs to work on his shot selection, there’s no denying his remarkable talent. If he stays at North all four years, Conner Frankamp’s seemingly unbreakable scoring records will be shattered.

 Another player who caught my eye was 6-8 Blue Valley West center O’Mar Stanley, who is a star in the making. He has the skillset to be a dominant force as he’s only sophomore, yet was a double-double machine.

Other terrific players were Luke Evans of Carroll, Garrett Luinstra of Free State, Zane Meeks of Shawnee Mission East and Tyler Brown of Derby. Heck, I would take the McPherson All-Tournament Team on the road and play All-Star teams from other states and probably it would hold its own.

Finally, a big tip of the cap to Tournament Director Shane Backhus and all his workers, from Dave Larson to taking care of the Roundhouse to the scorekeepers and timers, and those who worked in the hospitality room (the lasagna was extraordinary). There might be some arguments from the folks in Dodge City, but from a pure organization standpoint the Invitational is, and always will be, the best high school boys basketball tournament in Kansas.

Now we turn around and do it all again this week, with the McPherson Optimist Club running the Mid America Classic that begins Thursday. It has a great field with some of the state’s best teams and I have no doubt it’s going to be a treat.