Eight years ago, Omaha Central sent waves through the basketball world when the Eagles — led by Akoy Agau — knocked off prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in the 2013 Heartland Hoops Classic.
In addition to Agau, that Central team featured four others that went on to play at the Division I level: Tra-Deon Hollins, KJ Scott, Nick Billingsley and Tre’Shawn Thurman. That team put itself on the radar earlier in the season when it competed at the City of Palms Classic, an annual tournament for some of the best teams in the tournament. The Eagles only went 1-2 but showed well with a blowout in the first round and two three-point losses to really good teams.
However, the Eagles really put Nebraska on the map against Oak Hill. That team featured 10 Division I players including a couple of NBA players in Sindarius Thornwell and Troy Williams. Central pulled out a 70-63 win in Grand Island on that day.
There were obviously plenty of really talented basketball players and teams that came through Nebraska before the turn of the century, but for most of the people I know, that Central team is the gold standard for Nebraska high school basketball in the 2000s.
On Saturday, two teams did Nebraska — and Omaha in particular — proud as Bellevue West and Millard North both had strong showings at the 2021 Heartland Hoops Classic.
Just like the legendary Eagles eight years prior, Millard North took down Oak Hill Academy, improving to 21-1 on the season. The Mustangs have four Division I players (Hunter Sallis, Saint Thomas, Jadin Johnson and Jasen Green) and their fifth starter (Tyler Sandoval) has a D-II offer.
Sallis, the 5-star senior who will choose between a handful of the best programs in the country on his birthday in late March, and Thomas, the 6-foot-7 senior who has seen new schools enter the mix for his services thanks to a terrific senior season, were spectacular against Oak Hill, combining for 61 points in an 80-76 win.
It must be noted that this Oak Hill team wasn’t nearly as talented as the one the Eagles knocked off eight years ago, but Oak Hill is still a perennial power and one of the biggest names in high school basketball, and the Warriors did feature a five-star junior in M.J. Rice, a powerful wing who put up 26 points in the first three quarters before fouling out in the fourth. That was a quality win, and it shows the Mustangs belong among the best high school teams in the country this season.
Before Millard North took down Oak Hill, Bellevue West — the team that went on a 16-0 closing run against Millard North to claim the 2020 Class A State championship — went toe-to-toe with one of the three best teams in the country in Sunrise Christian Academy before falling 75-68.
Sunrise was without 5-star point guard and Tennessee commit Kennedy Chandler, but the Buffaloes were still stacked with Division I talent including 5-star Baylor commit Kendall Brown, 4-star Kansas commit Zachary Clemence, 4-star Michigan State commit Jaden Akins, 3-star Minnesota commit Kenny Pohto, uncommitted 3-star senior Willie Lightfoot and 4-star top-50 2022 prospect Gradey Dick.
Led by Wisconsin commit Chucky Hepburn and Omaha commit Frankie Fidler, the Thunderbirds (20-2) held a third-quarter lead, but Sunrise’s size and talent proved to be too much down the stretch. Still, with that senior duo plus a pair of intriguing future prospects in junior forward William Kyle III and sophomore guard Josiah Dotzler, Bellevue West showed it belonged on that floor with one of the best in the country.
After this weekend’s results, Millard North jumped up to No. 16 in MaxPreps.com‘s national rankings. Bellevue West comes in at No. 22. In ballislife.com‘s Fab 50 rankings, Bellevue West is at No. 22 and Millard North is at No. 25.
Like Omaha Central before them, these two squads have earned Nebraska respect from the hoops community on the national stage, and it couldn’t be more deserved. These are two fantastic teams that are a joy to watch play, and I’m very much looking forward to the possibility of a rubber match during the state tournament after they split their two meetings earlier this season.
Sallis is already a 5-star recruit ranked sixth nationally in the 247Sports Composite, which is by far the highest ranking for a Nebraska player since the advent of the recruiting websites like 247Sports and Rivals. Hepburn is currently 119th in the 247Sports Composite and 129th in 247Sports’ own rankings, but 247Sports National Basketball Director Eric Bossi highlighted Hepburn as one of the 10 2021 players he feels are most deserving of a ratings bump in the next update.
Thsi 2021 class has been spectacular to watch. Sallis is a tremendous story and it’s been fun to watch his rise from someone who didn’t even start for his teams as an eighth grader and freshman into one of the best prospects in the country. On the other hand, Hepburn has been terrific from the jump and has put together one of the best careers in recent state history as a four-year starter, a 1,600-point scorer and a state champion with numerous clutch plays and big moments on his résumé. They’re both incredibly easy to root for and it’s awesome to see what they’ve accomplished and the futures they’ve set up for themselves.
But this isn’t a one-hit wonder. Sallis and Hepburn weren’t the only high-profile Nebraska talents who took the court at the Heartland Events Center on Saturday. Earlier in the day, Grand Island junior Isaac Traudt led his team to a 47-40 win over one of the best teams in Class B in Elkhorn Mt. Michael.
The 6-foot-9 Traudt scored 108 points in three games last week including a school-record and Class A record-tying 57 points in an overtime win at Norfolk. Traudt is currently ranked 53rd in the 2022 class according to the 247Sports Composite, but like Sallis before him, he looks like he’s going to continue to rise as blue blood programs show more and more interest.
Millard North’s Green is a top-150 prospect as well, sitting at No. 145 in the 247Sports Composite while holding a handful of high-major offers (Nebraska among them). Green will get a chance to prove himself with a big summer and senior season as he takes on a larger role with Sallis and Thomas off to college.
It’s a shame the pandemic prevented this season from being as hyped up as it should have been as far as crowd sizes and average fans getting a chance to see these high-level athletes compete, but this is still a special collection of talent that deserves recognition, and they’re starting to get that nationally as well as locally.
Nebraska kids can play. If you didn’t know that before, you should now.
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.