The Columbia boys basketball team is spending two weeks at the beach over the Christmas holidays. But there isn’t likely to be much fun in the sun.
The Eagles are playing a demanding schedule that includes a trip to Hawaii for the Iolani Prep Classic Dec. 17-23, and the Beachball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Dec. 26-31.
The Eagles also will travel to the Best of the Midwest Shootout in Marion, Ill., Dec. 11-12 and to the Primetime Shootout at the University of West Virginia, Jan. 22-23.
Five teams in those events are nationally ranked in the USA Today Super 25 poll. Columbia, which lost to South Atlanta last year in the Class AAA state championship game, is ranked No. 21 in the nation by USA Today. Only one other Georgia team (Milton, in north Fulton County) is nationally ranked.
“This is by far the toughest schedule, with the most nationally ranked teams that we’ve had,” said Eagles’ coach Phil McCrary.
While Columbia’s schedule is very ambitious, it is part of a trend that several schools in the country are riding to get their programs and players maximum exposure. Of the 24 schools that play basketball in the county, 15 will participate in at least one tournament other than the DeKalb County tournament, and five will travel out of state.
Miller Grove will attend three tournaments out of state. The girls programs also are seeing the benefits. Both Stephenson and Columbia are traveling out of state to two tournaments this season.
“It’s great exposure for the kids, and it’s an opportunity to put the program on a national level,” said Miller Grove boys coach Sharman White. “Each year, try to get a little more exposure.”
The Wolverines participated in two tournaments last year and will travel out of state to four events this season.
“The exposure part is good because we’re playing against teams from different parts of the country,” White said. “It gives us a chance to be seen on a national level. But the biggest benefit is that it helps us get prepared come tournament time. When you play a schedule as challenging as ours, it can only be beneficial.”
Although McCrary said he is concerned he may have “overscheduled,” McCrary knows that the travel comes with the territory when you’re trying to maintain a program that has reached national status. Columbia has been sponsored by Nike for several years and most of McCrary’s players are accustomed to travel from their participation in AAU basketball.
“If you want to continue to be nationally ranked and continue with the sponsorship, then you have to play a schedule like that,” McCrary said. “I’m fortunate that DeKalb County and people like Ron Sebree and our principal, had the foresight to allow us to go with their support to these events. Without their support we wouldn’t go.”
The county does not pay for teams to travel, so they rely on sponsors and booster clubs to help make the trips a reality. For Columbia, the Iolani Classic in Hawaii is a Nike event, so the company provides certain amenities once the Eagles arrive, McCrary said. In some instances, the hosting tournament or team pays for travel.
The top tournaments are by invitational only and invitations usually go out a year in advance, McCrary said.
Both Columbia and Miller Grove have some of the top players in the state who also are veterans on the AAU circuit. At Miller Grove, sophomore Tony Parker was instrumental in the Wolverines AAAA state championship last season. Parker, who plays AAU ball for Lithonia-based Southern Kings, is rated the No. 1 sophomore in Georgia and No. 4 nationally by Scout.com.
Columbia guard Jershon Cobb, who has signed with Northwestern, is the No. 8 senior in Georgia and ranked 50th nationally by Scout.com.
“The kids go through all this AAU stuff and they travel all over,” McCrary said. “They look at the high school season like ‘where are we going?’ To keep the kids competing at a higher level and to keep the interest in the program up, you look for tournaments like the one we are going to in Hawaii.”
Columbia begins its journey Dec. 11-12 at the Best of the Midwest Shootout in Marion, Ill. The Eagles will play two games in the event, including one against Whitney Young, a Chicago team that is ranked No. 14 nationally by USA Today.
“The exposure the kids can get at tournament is wonderful,” McCrary said. You look in the stands and you’ll see (Kentucky coach) John Calapari, (Minnesota coach) Tubby Smith, (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski. You can’t beat that exposure. I’m hoping they’re mature enough to handle the situation we putting them through.”