5 Thoughts on Millard North at Bellevue West
Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Padding the Stats: Trio of NU Targets Set for Heartland Hoops Classic

September 06, 2019

The final game of the 2020 Heartland Hoops Classic is set and it’s one basketball fans aren’t going to want to miss.

Tino Martinez, the head boys basketball coach at Grand Island Central Catholic and the mastermind behind the annual Heartland Hoops Classic, announced on Thursday that he will be bringing prep powerhouse IMG Academy (Bradenton, Florida) to Grand Island to take on Millard North in the showcase event of the classic.

The Heartland Hoops Classic is set for Feb. 15 at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island.

Over the last couple of years, Martinez has opted to bring in a pair of prep school powerhouses to face off against each other in the day’s showcase event. Last year, Wasatch Academy knocked off Sunrise Christian Academy and the year before that, Sunrise beat Oak Hill Academy. Those have been great games and its fun to see blue chip talent on both ends of the floor.

Before 2017, however, the Classic paired one of the best teams in Nebraska’s top class against one of those out-of-state powerhouses, and the Nebraska kids held their own every year. Papillion-La Vista (featuring the likes of Ed Chang and Ayo Akinwole), Omaha South (led by Aguek Arop) and Omaha Central (with Tre’Shawn Thurman) have all played in the showcase game in past years.

This year’s event has the best of both worlds with two showcase games, one featuring two out-of-state teams and one including an in-state team in the Mustangs.

IMG Academy won the 2019 GEICO Nationals and returns a star-studded roster featuring a number of highly-touted recruits. 

Jalen Johnson is a 6-foot-8, 5-star wing ranked No. 5 in the country in 247Sports’ composite rankings for 2020. He’s committed to Duke. Mark Williams is a 7-foot, 4-star center ranked No. 28 overall with offers from Duke, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford, UCLA and many others. Matthew Murrell is a 6-foot-4, 4-star shooting guard ranked No. 44 overall with offers from Auburn, Florida, Ole Miss, Texas, Vanderbilt and several others.

Moussa Diabate is only a junior but stands at 6-foot-9 and is a 5-star prospect ranked No. 11 overall in 2021. He has offers from Arkansas, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Memphis and others.

IMG boasts a long, athletic, talented lineup that will be tough for the Mustangs to match up with. However, if there’s any team in Nebraska that has the talent and size to do so it’s Millard North.

The Mustangs have three players who hold offers from Nebraska and added a fourth player getting Division I interest via summer transfer.

Max Murrell (yes, this match-up will feature both a Matthew Murrell and a Max Murrell; that won’t get confusing at all) is a 6-foot-9 power forward who has skyrocketed up the rankings after a strong summer with Team Factory and is now a 4-star prospect at No. 87. He is a tremendous shot-blocker, a great lob finisher in the pick-and-roll and can even step out to the 3-point line and knock down shots. Nebraska doesn’t currently have any open scholarships for 2020 but they saw enough talent in Murrell to offer him regardless.

Hunter Sallis is one of Nebraska’s top priorities in the 2021 class. The 6-foot-4 wing with a 6-foot-6.5 wingspan and a 31.5-inch standing vertical is a 4-star prospect ranked No. 53 overall. Sallis averaged 18.2 points on 58% shooting as a sophomore and holds offers from Creighton, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas State, California, Ole Miss, Missouri and Drake in addition to the Huskers. Sallis plays summer ball with the OSA Crusaders.

Rounding out the trio of Husker recruits is Jasen Green, a 2022 forward who averaged 7.1 points and 4.8 rebounds while starting for the Mustangs as a freshman. Green is 6-foot-7.5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan and his skill set has continued to expand. He played on the Nike EYBL Circuit with MOKAN Elite this summer.

Jadin Johnson is a late transfer from Abraham Lincoln in Council Bluffs who makes a talented lineup even more dangerous. Johnson is a 6-foot-3 junior point guard who averaged 11.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists for the Lynx last season. He’s a great defender and a good playmaker, and his presence means Sallis won’t have to play point guard and will be able to focus on doing what he does best: getting buckets.

Beyond their core four, the Mustangs have plenty of size, length and athleticism. Tyler Sandoval is a 6-foot-8 junior center who had a breakout summer with Team Factory playing alongside another Nebraska target in Bellevue West point guard Chucky Hepburn. Saint Thomas is a 6-foot-3 wing who crashes the glass hard and can make plays for others while Noah Erickson is a 6-foot-4 senior forward who adds a lot of defensive value.

By mid-February, the Mustangs will have had plenty of time to settle in as a team and find their identity. Win or lose, the game against IMG Academy will be a valuable measuring stick for the team and for its Division I recruits in particular. Do Sallis and Murrell show their rankings are deserved and that they belong with the nation’s best? Or will IMG’s overall talent be too much for the Mustangs to keep up with?

Here’s the full schedule for the 2020 classic:

  • 8:30 a.m. – Falls City Sacred Heart vs. Fullerton
  • 10:10 a.m. – Yutan vs. Elm Creek
  • 11:50 a.m. – Elkhorn Mount Michael vs. Kearney
  • 1:30 p.m. – Hastings vs. BRLD
  • 3:15 p.m. – Ogallala vs. Auburn
  • 5 p.m. – Bishop Walsh (Cumberland, MD) vs. Sunrise Christian (Bel Aire, KS)
  • 6:45 p.m. – IMG Academy (Bradneton, FL) vs. Millard North
  • 8:30 p.m. – Grand Island vs. Grand Island Central Catholic

The Big Ten also revealed tipoff times and TV designations for conference games on Thursday and Nebraska also has a game on Feb. 15 against Wisconsin. Fortunately, though, tipoff for the Huskers and Badgers was set for 1:15 p.m. so if there are any Husker fans who want to double-dip that day, there should be plenty of time. Trust me, I made the drive back and forth between Lincoln and Grand Island for the 2018 Heartland Hoops Classic and that was after a blizzard. It’s not that bad of a drive.

One other tie-in for Husker fans is that former Nebraska guard Cookie Belcher is an assistant coach for IMG. Nebraska’s career steals leader, Belcher played professionally overseas for a decade before joining the staff at IMG where he’s been since 2012.

Tickets will go on sale Dec. 1, and will be available at the Heartland Events Center box office and ticketmaster.com. General admission, good for the full slate of games, is $16 for adults and $10 for students.

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