Here are thumbnail sketches of the McPherson Invitational teams, other than McPherson, compiled from information received from the coaches:
• Blue Valley West — Most of the coaches, if not all, are in agreement the Jaguars are probably the best 3-4 team in the state.
They’ll have two of the best players in the tournament in 6-8 Blaise Gammon (18 points, 10 rebounds a game) and 6-4 Ryan Ralston (9, 5). Ralston was one of the top football players in the state this past fall as he quarterbacked the Jags.
As usual, the Jags are flush with size. Connor Kaiser is 6-4, yet plays guard and averages 15 points a game. Other starters are 6-3 Parker Roy (10) and 6-2 Elijah Martin (5), while veteran coach Donnie Campbell can plug in 6-5 Matthew Birzer as a change of pace.
“We are a fairly young team with only two seniors,” said Campbell, a Lyons native. “We returned three players from last year’s team who had a significant amount of playing time (Kaiser, Ralston and Gammon). Our guard play needs to improve. We need to cut down on turnovers and shoot a higher percentage from the perimeter. Right now we are lacking depth on our team. We are eagerly waiting for some younger players to step up and give us some good production off the bench.”
Campbell is probably intrigued by playing Derby in the first round.
“We know that Derby has a good basketball program and represented themselves well in the Kansas 6A State Basketball Tournament last season,” Campbell said. “We know they lost a lot of seniors from last year’s team, but from the look of their current record they have replaced those senior with quality players.”
• Buhler — Denny Wahlgren’s Crusaders, who played in the Roundhouse earlier this month, are 5-3.
Buhler relies on Shawn Davis (15.4), Quentin Henricks (10) and Jace Williams (9.9) for its offensive firepower. Williams is one of the best athletes in the state, as he’s also a tremendous football and baseball player. The 6-5 sophomore can explode with some highlight-reel moves, finishing with resounding dunks.
Rounding out the starting lineup are Noah Webster (6.5) and Ethan Ricker (4.5).
The Class 4A Crusaders open with 6A Lawrence Free State on Thursday.
“Balanced scoring,” Wahlgren said of his first impression of the Firebirds. “They have a number of players who can and will step up in different games to help the team win. They’re an excellent 3-point shooting team. As a team in their last three games they are 9-20, 7-14 and 6-13 from 3-point range.”
“It has always been a very good tournament,” Wahlgren added. “Tough competition. High level of coaching and experience. Well run.”
• Carroll — It’s been a long time since Lonnie Lollar has brought a team into the Roundhouse, going back to his highly successful days at Derby.
He’s now at Carroll, which is a surprising 3-6 in his ninth year as it normally is highly successful.
There’s certainly no shortage of size for Lollar to trot out. In 6-6 Brett Bell, 6-5 Connor Evans and 6-4 Matt Price, the Golden Eagles can play volleyball on the backboard. A pair of 5-11 guards round out the lineup, Luke Hohl and Pat Carney.
“We are very excited to be a part of the 50th annual McPherson Invitational,” Lollar said. “There are some high-quality teams with excellent coaches and traditions. I’m looking forward to being back in the Roundhouse.”
Tournament officials certainly didn’t do the Golden Eagles any favors by putting them against Shawnee Mission East in the first round Thursday.
“Shawnee Mission East had a great team last year and is setting the pace again this season,” Lollar said. “They are very well coached, playing in a tough league and are very good shooters.”
• Derby — The Panthers are 7-3, relying heavily on the 1-2 punch of James Conley (18 points a game) and Jeremy Dunham (17).
Third-year coach Brett Flory, formerly at Valley Center, has turned to a freshman, Nyjee Wright (6.0), while other starters are Tevin Mitchell (7) and Devin Beal (3).
Firepower off the bench comes in the form of Keaton Steadman (8) and Josh Mark (6).
The Panthers’ opener with Blue Valley West Thursday is tournament championship-worthy.
“Anybody that knows basketball in Kansas knows that Blue Valley West's record (3-4) is extremely deceiving,” Flory said. “They have a lot of really good players back on that team that finished second at state last year and coach (Donnie) Campbell in one of the all-time greats. We will have to play one of our best games to even have a chance to win.”
Flory is excited about being part of such a tremendous field.
“This is one of the best fields for a tournament I have ever seen,” he said. “There are no easy games. You have five of the eight 6A state teams from last year, including three of the Final 4 teams. You have the No. 1 team in 4A hosting. You have two very traditionally strong programs in Carroll and Buhler. Whoever wins this tournament will have run a gauntlet.”
• Lawrence Free State — Chuck Law, perhaps more than any other opposing coach, enjoys coming to McPherson, as this will be the Firebirds’ eighth trip.
They come in 6-4 after making it to the 6A State Tournament last year. Balance has been a key, as Cole Moreano (13 points a game), Khadre Lane (11) and Blake Winslow (10) all average in double figures.
Lane has been bothered with injuries, but is an extremely explosive player and had a tremendous Invitational last year.
6-1 Keith Loneker (7.5) and 5-9 Reshawn Caro (6.5) complete the lineup. 6-2 Weston Hack (5.5) can ignite the Firebirds off the bench.
Law’s team opens with Buhler in the evening session on Thursday.
“Young, but very athletic,” Law said of the Crusaders. “They’re going to be well-coached for certain. We played a two-point game with them two years ago, so we know going in it will be a challenge.”
Law knows most of the teams in the field well, having seen all the other 6A schools at state last year and he’s also a big fan of the host Bullpups.
“Strong as always,” Law said of the tourney. “Blue Valley West was preseason Top 5 in Class 6A and they come in here the No. 6 seed. Wichita North has to be the best No. 8 seed in any tournament in Kansas this week. The host team is playing exceptionally well.”
• Shawnee Mission East — There could be some unfinished business for the Lancers this year.
They came into last year’s Invitational ranked No. 3 in the state and undefeated, but lost a classic championship game to the host Bullpups.
Shawn Hair has been around the block in the coaching ranks, as this is his 18th year at East. It is outstanding again this year with a 7-2 record, the only losses coming to Oklahoma power Bishop McGuinnes (40-37) and 6A power Olathe East (53-44).
Vance Wentz may finally be gone, but his brother Joey, a 6-6 sophomore, has taken his game to another level as he averages 14 points, the same as 6-7 Lucas Jones. Hair goes with three perimeter players to join his big men in 5-11 Luke Haverty, 6-1 Gunnar Englund and 6-2 Colin Burns. There’s more size on the bench in 6-4 Christian Blessen, while 6-1 Jay Guastello can score some in reserve, averaging 6 points.
“It’s a great field,” Hair said of the Invite. “Almost any team could win it. It’s always tough to play Mac at home. Blue Valley West has great size, could be a sleeper.”
The Lancers open with Carroll, a traditional 5A power.
“They’re a great team and very well coached,” Hair said. “We will have to play well. I’m very impressed by how hard they guard and how tough they are on the boards.”
• Wichita North — There’s no Conner Frankamp, but still a lot of good players even though the Redskins are just 4-5, including a loss to Carroll.
But coach Gary Squires has a team that could be a tough out for McPherson in the first round. Gage Loy, a 6-9 transfer from Carroll, recently became eligible and has averaged 10 points in his first three games with the team. He provides the inside presence, while guard Zach Beard is the outside threat with a 16-point average.
Tarius Williams is another weapon, averaging 15.1 points a game, while 6-3 Sean Bernard averages 8. Completing the lineup is Tristyn Villa (4).
Squires knows his team has its hands full with the top seed.
"You know what you are going to get when you play McPherson," Squires said. "A fundamentally sound, well-coached basketball team that doesn't make mistakes. We will have to be on our game to beat them in their gym. Coach (Kurt) Kinnamon has built a tremendous program at McPherson. Our friendship spans many years."