On Thursday, what will sure be a very strange high school basketball season begins in Nebraska.
Day one hasn’t even arrived yet and we already have a couple of schools (one on the boys’ side, one on the girls’) who had to cancel their opening games because of COVID-19 concerns while every school in Lancaster County awaits the OK from the mayor in Lincoln to begin team activities once again.
Still, the vast majority of teams will begin play this weekend, and the NSAA and its member schools are hoping that despite things being worse now than they were back at the beginning of the fall, basketball will follow a similar path to football and volleyball. Those spots got a chance to crown their state champions, and the march toward Lincoln (assuming state basketball will happen at Pinnacle Bank Arena again come March) begins now.
Last season, Millard North became the hottest ticket in the Omaha Metro as the high-flying Mustangs packed the Stable every game with fans and college coaches alike as Hunter Sallis and his teammates put on a show each week. Sadly, attendance will be limited to and the recruiting dead period stretches through April, so Division I coaches are going to have to settle for live streams just like most everyone else this season.
Even so, there’s a lot to be excited about.
Currently, there are nine players in the state who have received Division I offers. Three of them are already off the board — Bellevue West senior point guard Chucky Hepburn (Wisconsin), Bellevue West senior wing Frankie Fidler (Omaha) and Millard North point guard Jadin Johnson (Old Dominion).
Hepburn has been captivating audiences since middle school and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for his senior year as he looks to lead the Thunderbirds to a second straight Class A state title. His running mate Fidler broke out as a junior and the skilled 6-foot-6 bucket-getter should only build on those numbers as a senior.
Johnson runs the point for the stacked Mustangs who will look to make it back to the championship with a lineup that features four Division I recruits.
Sallis is the biggest name in the state right now. After receiving more than 30 offers, he cut his list down first to 12, then to eight. Those eight schools are Creighton, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon and UCLA. The 5-star guard is an incredibly smooth scorer and an explosive athlete and after coming up short last year, he’ll be on a mission to cap of his prolific career with a state title.
Sallis won’t be able to do that without a big senior year from 6-foot-6 wing Saint Thomas. The stat-sheet stuffer impacts the games as a scorer, a rebounder and distributor, which is why he earned offers from 13 schools (mostly mid-major, a few high-major) since the end of his junior year. At one point, Thomas cut his list down, but he’s since said his recruitment is 100% open.
Jaren Marshall is the final member of the 2021 class who earned a Division I offer. The point guard showed the coaches at Bryant enough to pull the trigger while playing with the Iowa Barnstormers back to August. He transferred from Omaha Burke to Omaha Central for his senior season.
Looking at the 2022 class, the fourth fourth returning starter for Millard North is Jasen Green, the 6-foot-7 forward who holds offers from Nebraska, Kansas State, TCU, Stanford, Wake Forest and Iowa State. The Mustangs will need even more of him as a junior and he has the skill set to deliver on both ends of the floor.
The hottest prospect in the state not named Sallis is Isaac Traudt, the 6-foot-9 wing from Grand Island who now holds 25 offers (including ones from both Nebraska and Creighton) and he’s been hearing from some blue bloods recently as well. Traudt is a skilled scorer who had a monster summer, and he’ll need that to carry over to the season as he’s the only Islander back who scored more than three varsity points last season.
The crop of skilled forwards is pretty strong in this class as Sam Hastreiter, a junior at Lincoln Pius X, shot up a couple of inches after his sophomore season and received an offer from Idaho over the summer.
The final player in this group is Luke Jungers, the 6-foot-9 stretch-big for Omaha Creighton Prep who picked up his first offer from Tennessee Tech.
Class A looks to be really strong at the top once again as both finalists last season return quite a bit from a year ago.
For the second straight year, Millard North is the only team in the state with four Division I recruits, and their fifth starter holds a Division II offer. Tyler Sandoval will step into the lineup in place of the departed Max Murrell (Stanford). He doesn’t quite have Murrell’s shot-blocking prowess, but Sandoval stands at 6-foot-7 and has the ability to space the floor as well as finish inside. With Sallis and Thomas leading the way, the Mustangs will be a handful once again.
As for Bellevue West, Hepburn and Fidler are back but the Thunderbirds lost their other three starters. Doug Woodard’s program is deep in talent, however, and he has plenty of guys ready to step in and replace the departed production, most notably sophomore Josiah Dotzler, junior forward William Kyle II and senior wing Greg Brown (an Omaha Burke transfer committed to Des Moines Area Community College).
Beyond those two, Omaha Creighton Prep, Omaha Westside and Omaha Central will all look to earn their place as top-five teams.
The Junior Jays lost Spencer Schomers (now a freshman at Northwest Missouri State) but return five players with starting experience led by Nebraska football commit AJ Rollins, a talented post player. Seniors Justin Sitti (a Morningside commit), Brenden Buckley and Mai’Jhe Wiley will all look to step it up while Jungers settles into a full-time starting role.
Both the Warriors and Eagles will play a lot of five-guard lineups this season.
Westside should be one of the best shooting teams in the state led by the dynamic junior backcourt duo of Reggie Thomas and Chandler Meeks while Elkhorn South transfer Tate Odvody should provide extra firepower after leading all Class A freshmen in scoring last season.
Central added Marshall and Denim Johnson (Omaha Benson) as transfers to go with returners Faisaun Germany, Jay Dawson and PJ Davis. The Eagles will have some big shoes to fill after the departures of Latrell Wrightsell Jr. (Cal State Fullerton) and Max Polk and they don’t have much size, but if Dawson and Davis can take a step forward they should be able to score plenty of points this season.
Conversely, Papillion-La Vista South has one of the best front courts in the state in seniors Danair Dempsey and Graham Cassoutt and junior Daniel Brocaille, but they’ll have to replace dynamic point guard Jared Mattley, who is starting at Hastings College as a freshman.
Beyond that group I could see any number of teams round out the top 10 — Lincoln Pius X, Papillion-La Vista, Lincoln Southeast, Lincoln North Star and Kearney should all have strong seasons with what they return, and I think Millard South and Lincoln Southwest both could be ready to make a leap into that group after sub-.500 seasons a year ago.
B4 We Wrap Up…
I see a strong top four in Class B and a wide open field beyond that.
Elkhorn Mt. Michael brings back the most with seven of their top eight returning led by Kaleb Brink, one of the most fundamentally sound post players in the state. Concordia commit Brad Bennett is one of the better shooters in the class while point guard Airan Lopez and wing Joe Chouinard both bring a lot of experience.
Omaha Skutt lost one of the best athletes in school history in Tyson Gordon as well as two other senior starters, but the inside-out duo of senior post Luke Skar and senior guard Charlie Fletcher will be tough to deal with and the SkyHawks have a lot of young talent that should improve as the season goes on.
Elkhorn drops back down from Class A after making the State Tournament last season and will look to carry over its success from football led by Nebraska baseball commit Drew Christo in the post and Midland commit Colton Uhing on the wing.
Norris returns its top two scorers from a 2020 state tournament qualifier in forward Trey Deveaux and guard Izaiah Pankoke-Johnson (a Doane commit), and the Titans also bring back point guard Cade Rice and wing CJ Hood (a Nebraska baseball commit) who both started in the state tournament last season.
The COVID-19 pandemic will rob the 2021 class of the kind of experience those kids deserve during their senior season. Gyms won’t be full, but I’ll try to bring you the same kind of coverage this season as we here at Hail Varsity did throughout the football and volleyball seasons.
Good luck and good health to everyone. Let’s have some fun.