The 2020-21 high school boys basketball season set the bar extremely high, with a spectacular state tournament featuring some of the best players to ever lace ‘em up in this state.
The likes of Chucky Hepburn and Hunter Sallis and so many other seniors that made last season special are now playing at the next level, but there’s still a lot of talent left in this state and those players will get the chance to show what they can do starting on Thursday.
Here’s a look at what you can expect to see in gyms across the state this season.
The state championship game between Millard North and Bellevue West was one of the best high school games I’ve ever seen, and the semifinal between Bellevue West and Omaha Creighton prep the night prior might have been even better. All three of those teams lost significant pieces from those squads, but I expect to see all three in the mix again this season.
Millard North lost four starters from last year’s title team, but Creighton commit Jasen Green, a versatile forward who can make a big impact on both ends of the floor, is back and ready to show what he can do as the No. 1 option.
Millard North will rely on a breakout year from seniors David Harmon and Nick Dolezal, who played small roles off the bench last year. Harmon in particular had a great summer and looks poised to be one of the team’s leading scorers. The Mustangs also added a transfer point guard from Omaha Central in sharp-shooter Jakson Page, and they had one of the best freshman classes in the state last year. Look for Neal Mosser, Elijah Gaeth and Isaiah McMorris to play big roles this year.
The Thunderbirds lost a four-year starter at the point in Chucky Hepburn (starting at Wisconsin) and one of the Metro’s best scorers in Frankie Fidler (starting at Omaha), but they also brought a lot back and added depth via transfer. Junior Josiah Dotzler will slide over to the point with Hepburn gone and should have a huge year. South Dakota State commit William Kyle III is one of the best defenders in the state. Senior wing Evan Inselman, junior wing Jaxon Stueve and sophomore sniper Jaden Jackson will all play bigger roles this year, and newcomers TK Barnett (Bellevue East), John Mitchell III (Creighton), Jacob Arop (Omaha South), Jadyn Cascio Jensen (Fremont) and Robby Garcia (freshman) will provide significant depth.
Creighton Prep lost four starters including Nebraska freshman tight end AJ Rollins, but Omaha commit Luke Jungers will look to take a step forward and the backcourt of Martel Evans and Casey O’Malley is arguably the most athletic in the Metro. Like Harmon at Millard North, Evans belongs near the top of any breakout candidates list. Injuries have hurt Prep’s depth, but Josh Luedtke always finds a way to field a deep and disciplined team.
No team brings back more than Omaha Westside. The Warriors returned 95% of their scoring from last year including all five starters and will look to turn that continuity into wins this year. The Warriors have a terrific backcourt led by seniors Reggie Thomas and Chandler Meeks plus talented scorers on the wing in senior Payson Gillespie and junior Tate Odvody. Sophomore Caleb Benning is coming off a state title on the football field and is arguablely the best on-ball defender in the 2024 class.
Lincoln Pius X and Omaha Central both feature Division I recruits as well and will look to crack that top five.
The Thunderbolts go 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, 6-foot-7 across the frontline in D-II Washburn commit Brady Christiansen plus the Hastreiter twins in Sam, committed to North Dakota State, and Jack, committed to South Dakota State. Lincoln Southwest transfer Jared Bohrer adds some scoring pop to the backcourt.
Loyola-Chicago commit Jayden Dawson will likely be one of the Metro’s leading scorers this season and should put together quite a highlight reel this season between his perimeter shooting and above-the-rim play. His running mate on the wing, PJ Davis, will give the Eagles a tough one-two punch while transfers Raheem Briggs and Zion Bang Hendon (Omaha South) add size int he frontcourt.
The biggest show in the state outside of the Metro lies in Grand Island with Virginia commit Isaac Traudt. He’ll averaged 25.3 points per game as a junior and will look to build on that this season with transfers Barrett Olson (York) and Andy Poss (St. Paul) adding some additional firepower to keep defenses honest.
Gretna and Omaha South were two of the youngest teams in the state last year, and they could be two of the most improved this year based on the experience their players gained last year. Gretna’s Landon Pokorski was one of the most productive freshmen in the state last year while the Packers added a couple of impact transfers in guard JoJo Foard (Omaha Northwest) and T’Andre Perkins (Omaha North).
The city battles in Lincoln should be fun this year. In addition to Pius, Lincoln Southwest looks poised for a leap behind the backcourt of junior Rylan Smith and senior Ben Hunzeker, and coach Alex Bahe also added arguably the best freshman in the state in Chuck Love, the son of Nebraska women’s basketball assistant coach Chuck Love. Lincoln Northeast has some nice pieces to build around in senior Zander Beard and Porter Bazil while Lincoln North Star has a young but talented team featuring junior big men Brennon Clemmons Jr. (son of former Husker Brennon Clemmons) and Antallah Sandlin’el and sophomores Jake Hilkemann, Kajuan Sidney and KG Gatwech.
Some of the other stand-out seniors to keep an eye on are Papillion-La Vista South wing Daniel Brocaille (committed to NAIA Morningside) and the Papillion-La Vista duo of Kyle Ingwerson (Division II Sioux Falls commit) and Luke Lindenmeyer (a Nebraska football walk-on commit).
Class B lost a lot of firepower from last year’s contenders as reigning champion Elkhorn Mt. Michael, runner-up Elkhorn and state qualifier Norris all graduated very talented senior classes.
The most prolific player int he class will be Platteview junior guard Connor Millikan who stuffed the stat sheet with 26.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.4 steals per game last year. Millikan by himself should make the Trojans a contender, and he has a sharp-shooter on the wing in junior Alex Draper to keep defenses honest.
Omaha Skutt might have the most talented starting five with seniors James Gninefou and Grant Dvorak and juniors JJ Ferrin, Jake Brack and Mitch Scholl.
Waverly lost its leading scorer in Andrew Heffelfinger but brought back its other four starters from last year’s state tournament team led by Cole Murray and Preston Harms.
If Millikan is the most productive player in Class B, No. 2 might be Omaha Roncalli senior wing Jake Orr. Between Orr and senior Quincy Evans, Roncalli boasts a long and athletic duo not he wing. Bennington transfer Lucas Brown adds even more athleticism in the frontcourt.
Fresh off winning a state title in football, Bennington could be in the mix for another title this winter. The Badgers’ entire projected starting five also suited up for the football team, led by sharp-shooting senior guard Austin Holtz. Junior Isaac Conner is a high-motor forward while seniors Seth Wempen and Cayden Bluhm add experience on the wings.
Out west, Scottsbluff aded a key transfer that gives the Bearcats one of the to senior duos in Class B. Tyler Harre, a 6-foot-4 wing, committed to Division II UNK and is one of the best 3-point shooters in the senior class. Mitchell transfer Austin Then is a heady do-it-all point guard who can also really shoot from the perimeter.
Elkhorn North brings back all five starters from last year’s team, the first in school history as it opened its doors last year. The elves will look to make a leap this season behind seniors Brandon Orgilbold, one of the top scorers on Class B last season, and Jack Lusk, the son of Purdue (and former Creighton) assistant coach Paul Lusk. Junior Ryan Harrahill, a Nebraska baseball commit, adds size inside.
Best of the Rest
The C and D classes bring a lot of talent back as well, and the race for the title in C1, C2, D1 and D2 should be fun to watch.
Ashland-Greenwood senior guard Cale Jacobsen is back after tearing his ACL last season and should be one of the best players not only in C1, but in the state.
Class C1 will be as tightly contested as any in the state with Ashland-Greenwood, Auburn (led by sophomore guard Maverick Binder), Kearney Catholic (led by senior Brett Mahony), Omaha Concordia (three of their top six back led by Karsten Mathsen and Zac Kulus), Wahoo (led by junior Owen Hancock and sophomore Marcus Glock, the son of former Husker Jason Glock), Milford (led by Jaxon Weyand and Seth Stutzman) and others.
Class C2 received a boost as the two teams who faced off for a D1 title last year — champion Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family (led by Jason and Jacob Sjuts) and runner up Howells-Dodge (led by prolific senior Blake Sindelar) — made the leap. C2 reigning champion Grand Island Central Catholic also returns three of its starters in seniors Marcus Lowry, Isaac Herbek and Gil Jengmer.
Some of the top players in D1 and D2 to watch include Loomis sniper Quinn Johnson, Nebraska City Lourdes senior wing Blake Miller (a Nebraska football preferred walk-on commit), Lincoln Parkview senior guard Jaheim Curry, O’Neil St. Mary’s wing Aidan Hedstrom, Humphrey St. Francis wing Tanner Pfeifer and the Osceola duo of junior Isaiah Zelasney and sophomore Kale Gustafson.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.