Arizona high school boys basketball: Which teams are emerging at right time?

Perry is in the best shape to rise for the title in the first 32-team Open Division tournament

Richard Obert
Arizona Republic
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Perry Pumas' Koa Peat (10) dunks the ball over Basha Bears' Jordan Howard (33) at Basha High School on Jan. 16, 2023, in Chandler.

There have been surprising teams, emerging players, shocking endings. It is setting up for what could be a wild Open Division state tournament, 32 teams coming in with nothing to lose and wanting to be the one that makes history.

This is the first year for the Arizona Interscholastic Association to take what it has done since 2019 with football, except with an expanded field. Also different: Those teams that lose in the first two rounds get to bounce back into their conference tournaments, whether it's 6A, 5A or 4A. Selection Saturday for the Open will come Feb. 4.

With the regular season ending Feb. 3 for big schools, let's take a deep dive look at what has transpired and what to watch for in Arizona high school boys basketball the rest of the way.

One hiccup

Gilbert Perry (22-1), which plays its last three games next week against Basha, Brophy and Hamilton, has been the one constant, a team ranked No. 1 in preseason and outside of a 65-63 loss on Jan. 3 at Phoenix Pinnacle, the Pumas have lived up to the hype. The 6-foot-8 towers of Cody Williams and Koa Peat have shown they have no peers in Arizona. Both have nearly idential stats, averaging more than 20 points a game.

They also have solid supporting players, such as Ben Egbo, D'Andre Harrison, No No Brown and Baron Silsby. Williams and Peat don't need to be center of attention. They are superstars without having the superstar ego. They put that away for the team and whoever scores, they're good with it. Coach Sam Duane Jr., knows how to win championships (he got four straight at Tempe Corona del Sol and another last year at Perry), and he knows how to build a culture of togetherness.

It's really a crap shoot after Perry. Phoenix St. Mary's has one of the best players in the state in 6-foot-2 junior point guard Styles Phipps, who can fill it up and has that toughness quality to him that will keep his team in games. He plays his best against the best competition. He went for 40 in the loss to Perry this season, a game that wasn't decided until the final few minutes.

"I think our guys have done a great job embracing having a target on their backs," Duane said. "We think it has helped prepare us for the challenges that lay ahead in the Open."

If they fall in the Open, it would take a herculean feat by an opponent.

Who's closing the gap?

St. Mary's is a team to watch. After Styles Phipps fouled out in the first two minutes of the final quarter Tuesday with a 12-point lead over Gilbert Mesquite, the Knights were in fine shape with 5-10 guard Kenny White running the point. The Knights held on for a 62-50 win.

This team is 11-11 but the trip Saturday to play Santa Ana (California) Mater Dei, one of 12 out-of-state opponents, will only toughen them for the Open. Especially when 6-7 sophomore Caspian Jones returns from an injury that's kept him out since mid-December. With Seydou Tamboura, a 6-7 senior, coming on late in the season, the Knights would have a better chance against Perry if there is a rematch. In the last meeting (an 81-70 loss on Jan. 7), St. Mary's didn't have Jones.

Jan 24, 2023; phoenix, az, usa; St. Mary’s Knights guard Kenny White (3) celebrates after defeating the Mesquite Wildcats at St. Mary's high school gym in Phoenix, on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Mandatory Credit: Alex Gould/The Republic

What have we learned?

While 6A is the deepest conference for teams most likey to reach the finals, watch out for more than a handful of 5A teams, such at Glendale Ironwood (16-5), Peoria Sunrise Mountain (12-9), Goodyear Millennium, Peoria Centennial, Scottsdale Deert Mountain and Scottsdale Notre Dame to have an outside shot at reaching the Open semifinals if not the final.

But at this point, as long as Davis Hester is fine once he comes back from an injury, Peoria Liberty, I believe, will be the toughest road block to get in Perry's way.

Parity is the word to best describe this season.

When I saw the Lions (18-5) blow out Pinnacle 91-76 on Brandon Wechsler Night on Jan. 6, this team looked better than anybody outside of Perry. Hester had 21 points in that game. Then, last week, Liberty, without Hester, fell to Pinnacle 62-59. With a fully healthy team, Liberty will be a tough out for anybody, including Perry.

Never say never, however, to Brophy Prep, especially now that senior wing Arman Madi is back after missing signifcant time with an injury. Gilbert Highland and Basha will be tough. Of course, Phoenix Sunnyslope, even though it plays four freshmen, is extremely tough come tournament time with coach Ray Portela knowing the right buttons to press.

Peoria's Calvin Windley (5), dribbles to the basket while guarded by Verrado's Sam Chabala (30), and Verrado's Lorenzo Lizarraga (2), during a Thanksgiving boys basketball tournament at Millennium High School on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in Goodyear. The game finished 81-34 to Peoria.

Battling adversity

Almost every team this time of year battles through injuries. But one team is rising through, despite being without its top player through the second half of the season. Peoria is 19-3 and 6-0 in the 4A West Valley Region with senior guard Andrew Camacho sidelined for 13 games with an injury. He was averaging 29.1 points.

Coach Patrick Battillo has built such great team chemistry and depth that the Panthers have been able to absorb the loss of Camacho with guard Calvin Windley (17.7 points a game) and sophomore Caden Bass (18 points a game) coming through.

Since losing to American Leadership Gilbert North 80-67 on Jan. 6, the Panthers have won seven games in a row, including beating rival Glendale Cactus twice. Peoria, if it falls out of the Open early, is definitely in the mix for the 4A title.

What will happen in the conference tourneys?

The first two rounds of the Open should have every team loose, knowing if they lose, they still have life. All of this depends on how the 32-team Open bracket falls. But if American Leadership Gilbert North gets a top-four seed in the Open, it could stumble early, fall back into 4A and maybe go the distance. But the same could be said of St. Mary's and Mesquite. And Peoria won't be an easy out for anybody. The 5A and 6A tournaments could be fun with no real clear favorite once the first two rounds of the Open is done.

January 13, 2022; Mesa, Ariz; USA; Valley Christian guard Austin Wallace (11) blocks a shot against Scottsdale Christian guard Michael Fan (24) during a game at Mesa Community College.

What abut the small schools?

There are lots of intrigue here from 3A through 1A. But 3A could be a four-team race among Chandler Valley Christian, Scottsdale Christian, Coolidge and Fountain Hills. Coolidge is 22-0 and features one of the most dynamic players in Brayden Gant, who is averaging 20 points and seven rebounds.

Valley Christian (22-1) lost its only game to a California school, Vista Murrieta (which is 18-6), and has length and a versatile junior guard in Luke Shaw, who is averaging 26 points in the 14 games he has played. Scottsdale Christian (13-6), the 2A champion last year, has won its last three games by 22 points or more now that freshman Elijah Williams is back healthy. The Eagles still play Fountain Hills (20-0) on Feb. 2. The Falcons, led by Keaton Ort's 22 points, beat short-handed SCA 56-34 in mid-December when Williams was out with a back injury.

The X factor in 3A is anybody who plays on the Navajo reservation, such as Monument Valley, Chinle, and reservation border school Holbrook. The fans they bring to gyms will be the sixth man no team wants to deal with.

Gilbert San Tan Charter has been one of the biggest surprises in 2A. It is 22-2 and has the longest active win streak among 2A schools at nine games. Phoenix Christian, led by explosive 6-2 junior guard Tommy Randolph, and Surprise Highland Prep have good shots at getting to the final. Scottsdale Solano Pre's tough schedule, playing out-of-state team, will once again become beneficial. But Pima, with its size, led by 6-6 Seth Russell, appears to be the team to beat in 2A, especially after handing Bisbee only its second loss, 60-57, this week.

So many teams are playing well in 1A, but, at the end, I believe Anthem North Valley Christian (17-5), an experienced group led by sophomore guard Bobby Rodriguez, will hold up the gold ball for the second time in three years.

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at[email protected] or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter@azc_obert

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