March Madness in early December?
Not quite in terms of what's at stake, but the talent level of this weekend's high school boys and girls basketball tournament rivals - maybe even surpasses - that of the B.C. boys Triple A championships held each March at the Langley Events Centre (LEC).
The best in B.C. high school hoops will hit the LEC hardwood Saturday night and all day Sunday (Dec. 1-2) during the first annual Tsumura Basketball Invitational.
The tourney features the top ranked boys and girls teams from The Province's Big 10 pre-season rankings. It also offers the first chance for fans to see the top teams play in what will likely be a preview of the respective B.C. Triple A tournaments taking place at the LEC in March 2013.
Howard Tsumura (high school sports writer at The Province since 1990), a longtime supporter of all amateur athletics in B.C. and a respected figure on the boys and girls hoops scene, is the centerpiece of the tournament.
"Such an incredible honour," Tsumura said, when asked about the competition being named after him. "When I got the call in the summer, I didn't know what to say. Truly, I didn't have words and what do you say when someone wants to name something after you?"
Tsumura said he was impressed by the efforts of everyone at the LEC to "reach for the stars and bring in a team like Findlay Prep."
Las Vegas' Findlay Prep Pilots are ranked second in America in the USA Today boys high school rankings, and has produced NBA players.
The team finished the 2011/12 season 32-1, and is the Powerade Fab50 No. 2-ranked boys team in the U.S., behind Virginia's Oak Hill Academy.
In the past three years alone, Findlay Prep Basketball has produced first-round NBA draft picks in Boston Celtic Avery Bradley (19th overall, 2010), Cleveland Cavalier Tristan Thompson (fourth overall, 2011), and San Antonio Spur Cory Joseph (29th overall, 2011).
"More than anything else they are bringing something to these parts that people in B.C. just don't get to see," Tsumura said. "Really, they [Findlay Prep] are the most recognized high school-aged basketball program in the world right now and they are coming to Langley."
Findlay Prep assistant coach Andy Johnson said the team is looking forward to participating in the tourney. He also expects the competition to be tough.
"We think the calibre of play will be at a very high level," Johnson said. "Canada basketball is definitely on the rise. A lot of great players have been coming out of Canada. Walnut Grove and White Rock Christian Academy both have great programs with very good players and coaches."
The American squad is entering the tournament with a simple goal: to be the best it can be.
"We always focus on one game at a time and try to give ourselves the best opportunity possible to win each game," Johnson said. "We always want to defend, rebound, limit turnovers, and run."
Assessing his players, Johnson said Findlay Prep is a very balanced and deep team, boasting five players averaging double figures in points per game.
The program starts with Findlay Prep's point guard and leader Nigel Williams Goss.
"Nigel is our program's first four-year player," Johnson noted.
Other key players include wings Stanford Robinson and Allerik Freeman.
"Stanford is very athletic, can get to the rim, and is a great rebounder for his size," Johnson said. "Allerik is a strong wing who can really shoot it."
Adding to the arsenal is Chris Wood, described by Johnson as a very versatile post who can score inside and step out and hit the three-point shot.
The assistant coach added that Gavin Schilling is "a strong post player that can score on the block and really rebound," and that "Benas Griciunas, Braian Angola, Dion Wade, Fallou Ndoye, Kinglsey Okoroh, Lucas Antunez, and Jalen Poyser have all given us great production and energy off the bench this season, too."
Two teams that will face Findlay Prep this weekend, B.C.'s top-ranked Walnut Grove Gators and No. 2-ranked White Rock Christian Academy Warriors, are expected to be in the mix for the 2013 Triple A provincial championship at the LEC this March.
When the tournament was first announced, Gators' head coach George Bergen said he looked forward to the opportunity.
"Obviously, these are some of the top players in all of high school basketball," the veteran Walnut Grove Secondary teacher/ coach said. "This is very exciting news for the B.C. basketball community, to get a glimpse of what ball south of the border looks like at its highest level. It'll be a great challenge and one that I'd like to thank the LEC for organizing."
On the girls' side, it will be an early season test for the defending provincial champion and No. 1-ranked South Kamloops Titans, as they will face the second-ranked Brookswood Bobcats.
Opening tip-off is Sunday at 3: 30 p.m.
Both teams feature a strong core of returning players from last season, and are expected to vie for the B.C. title when the Triple A girls provincials comes to the LEC for the first time this March.
Speaking of the LEC, Tsumura said the venue will gain character as the seasons pass, just as the PNE Agrodome did.
The Agrodome was home to the B.C. boys Triple A tournament for many years, before the event shifted to the LEC for the 66th annual championships in 2011.
"What the LEC has right now is the best possible experience for the high school basket-ball fan, and nothing else is even close," Tsumura said, citing sightlines, concessions, parking, and most of all atmosphere as the facility's main attributes.
"And that is just for the fans in the building. They have also incorporated all of their technical wizardry to provide ways to promote the game that the old building simply couldn't."
At the 2012 B.C. championships Tsumura had the opportunity to sit courtside to call the games, including what he considered to be one of the most amazing finals he had seen in 25 years (with a late game-winning basket, the Terry Fox Ravens edged Walnut Grove 75-74 to win the provincial title).
Now that the B.C. Triple A girls championships are coming to the LEC in 2013, Langley will become something of a home for the sport, in Tsumura's opinion.
"The Walnut boys will contend for everything this season, but more than anything, having the tournament in such a fertile athletic area will eventually take hold in all of the high school basketball programs in the Township," he added. "It's a huge plus."
Looking ahead to the weekend, Tsumura can't wait to see the Findlay/Walnut Grove game Saturday at 8 p.m.
He considers Walnut Grove's Jadon Cohee to be one of the best guards on the West Coast.
"Getting a chance to gauge one of B.C.'s most special [teams] against a U.S. powerhouse is something no hoops fan should miss," Tsumura said.
Tsumura knows a little bit about assessing basketball talent. He started covering high school hoops in the fall of 1983 in Houston, B.C., following the Houston Wolverines.
He reported on his first B.C. championship 25 years ago (1987) when Richmond won its first of two straight titles with a near-exclusive Grade 11 team that featured Putzi-Tait-deWit and Bill Disbrow as coach.
From 1995 to 2003, he shifted to pro sports and major junior hockey as a beat reporter covering the Vancouver Grizzlies, then for two years covering the Vancouver Giants and Vancouver Whitecaps.
But his love for high school basketball remains. "The thing that hasn't changed is how great the game is because of the kids that play. Any gym, any day, anywhere in the province is still my first choice sport from December through March," Tsumura said.
The schedule for this weekend's tournament is:
Saturday, Dec. 1
6: 30 p.m. - Sir Winston Churchill vs. Terry Fox
8 p.m. - Walnut Grove Secondary vs. Findlay Prep (Las Vegas)
Sunday, Dec. 2
2 p.m. Oak Bay Secondary vs. Riverside Secondary
3: 30 p.m. - GIRLS: Brookswood Secondary vs. South Kamloops Secondary
5 p.m. - BOYS: White Rock Christian Academy vs. Findlay Prep (Las Vegas)
6: 30 p.m. - BOYS: Walnut Grove Secondary vs. WJ Mouat Secondary
Tickets are on sale on the LEC website, www.langleyeventscentre.com, inside the LEC this week, or at the facility's box office on Saturday and Sunday.