Only a few of days ago the field for this year’s GEICO Nationals was set. It will feature powerhouses from all over the country and take place in New York from April 4-6. The teams to made it and the matchups to be held are the following ones:
No. 8 University School (FL) vs No. 1 La Lumiere School (IN)
No. 7 Sunrise Christian Academy (KS) vs No. 2 McEachern HS (GA)
No. 6 Wasatch Academy (UT) vs No. 3 Montverde Academy (LF)
No. 5 Oak Hill Academy (VA) vs No. 4 IMG Academy (FL)
That is as stacked a tournament as it gets, not going to lie. The problem comes when you get to the details of the actual teams and rosters of players that will fly to New York and take Christ the King HS’ court in April. Most of all, those belonging to McEachern.
After the prep school from Powder Springs became state champs defeating Meadowcreek on Saturday the rumors vanished and a clear as water response was given by McEachern’s coach regarding the roster he will have to work with during the short national stint the team is about to participate in.
Every year there are missing players at the greatest of stages due to personal decisions. Of late, and most notably, Michael Porter Jr. opted to not participate in the 2017 GEICO Nationals while being fully fit and ready for it. This year, though, it won’t be a player here or there, but the actual five starters from the McEachern Indians who will miss the tournament. This comes as a low blow to everyone wanting to see the best possible teams competing at the highest stakes this level of basketball has to offer excluding the summer AAU circuits.
After finishing the season unbeaten and with a 32-0 record, McEachern ranks 2nd in USA Today’s last board, only trailing La Lumiere (28-0) and ahead of GEICO’s also-participants Montverde Academy (21-2) and IMG Academy (28-1). What the Indians achieved by winning those 32 contests during the high school season up to the state title game was based mostly on the performance of their five starters. Forget about playing systems like that of the Clippers in the NBA, based on constant rotations without superstars in place. Teams at this level rely on their top-heavy guys to carry them places.
The 2019 class of prospects has up to three players (Isaac Okoro, Jared Jones, and Alyn Breed) from McEachern among the 200 best in the nation per 247Sports Composite rankings. The 2020 one features Sharife Cooper, the 18th-best player nationally per said system. That makes it four players that will be out of the tourney come next month, with the fifth one being unranked 2019 SG Quentin McElroy.
The players themselves have given their reasons for absence, those varying from one to another. Okoro will be showcasing his abilities a week after the Natty takes place at the Nike Hoop Summit in front of NBA gents. Cooper committed to attend USA Basketball’s camps this summer during the same week, and he will honor his word. Breed and McElroy will turn their attention and put time on their recruiting process, and Jared Jones just quit the team because his teammates did so and he doesn’t feel it’d be right to play without them.
I’m not here to blame or judge the players, their decisions, and whatnot. But we all have to acknowledge that what the committee picked to feature on the GEICO Nationals is far away from what we will see.
McEachren was this close to entering the field as a No. 1 seed, and its record sure would have made a case for it had it happened. Sadly, the team that got to those winning numbers is not the one will see in a bunch of days competing against great teams full of great players that will indeed attend the national tournament. The organizers could well change the name of the Indians for whatever they can come up with, no one will truly notice because the change will be absolute in terms of the players seeing on-court playing time.
Winning the state is fine, and in some cases, it could even represent quite an achievement for those getting the gold in that scope. But getting crowned as a national champion is another thing, and nobody can deny that.
The happiest of all this situation will indeed be those belonging to Sunrise Christian Academy, slated to face the depleted Indians on the first game of the GEICO Nationals and surely primed to take advantage of all the absences from McEachern. And that is what is wrong with those decisions and that of the national committee picking the Powder Springs-based school. The competition should now be marked with an asterisk at the end.
With the McEachern’s players decisions up in the air, it’d have been best to clarify the situation before making any calls on the tournament participants. Again, this high school fully deserved to see its name on the eight-team bracket, but only because of what those who won’t attend the final tournament did during the season.
This is not a case of “historical context”, let’s say, where the selection of one or another team is based on past times accolades. This is a selection made out of what happened during this season, during the past few weeks and months, not years or decades. And that is the problem with it. If it was based on historical record, maybe we won’t complain because a whole heritage would be rewarded, but what is rewarded here is only the work of the current season.
To the teams that were left out of the competition, this must feel like a joke, given that the roster they could have potentially put in play would have been assuredly stronger than that McEachern will play with. For those that made the tournament, depending on their seed and matchups, it will feel like a favor (they will have an easier path to the final) or a complete injustice (they will face stronger opposition than those rivaling the Indians).
There are enough issues and not-so-intelligent caveats on high school hoops as to get into more trouble, but some seem to keep playing the trailblazer role with stuff like this. The same thing that happens with eligibility problems and concerns for some teams of different states, with players and their amateur-status issues, and so on and so forth, is taking place with a selection here of a school that won’t be that school come playing time.
Something as easy as forcing players to clarify their situation and commitment for a tournament as big as the national one could have solved the problem. It would have been a massive disappointment for the high school to miss the tournament after the work they have put on during the season and the coaches and rest of stuff that made it possible would have been undoubtedly upset about it, but it would have been fair given that the players (who are the ultimate game-changers and performers) to get there won’t feature on the national stage.
Any opinions and positions are understandable on this topic, I acknowledge though. One solution to a problem probably causes others to pop up anywhere else. There is no perfect scenario. It is only that this, as is now, just doesn’t seem fair and definitely doesn’t represent the real best basketball that could have featured on the greatest of tournaments in the US around the best high school talents.
March 16 Update: Just minutes after this post was published, McEachern announced its withdrawal from the GEICO Nationals final tournament due the absence of the aforementioned players during the competition dates and their inability to be part of the team’s roster. McEachern, the No. 2 seed, has been replaced by Bishop Gorman (NV). Every seed from No. 2 down the ladder has been lifted up one spot, with Bishop Gorman being assigned the No. 8 entry.
This makes for the final bracket, which features the following matchups:
No. 1 La Lumiere School (La Porte, Ind.) vs No. 8 Bishop Gorman High School (Las Vegas)
No. 2 Montverde (Fla.) Academy vs No. 7 University School (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
No. 3 IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) vs No. 6 Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kan.)
No. 4 Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) vs No. 5 Wasatch Academy (Mount Pleasant, Utah)