After last season’s thrilling state championship basketball game between Bishop Gorman and Clark, the two are getting a lot of attention heading into the 2017-18 season.
Rightfully so, as the two are runaway favorites to compete for the state title again next February. But first they’ll have to survive the toughest league in the valley.
The Southwest, made up of six schools, has five teams that could arguably win any other league in town, but only four can qualify for the playoffs. Bishop Gorman and Clark are known commodities, but Sierra Vista, Durango and Desert Oasis have talented squads as well. The new season begins today.
Of the Las Vegas Sun’s Super Seven preseason team, only one player doesn’t come from the Southwest League: Foothill’s Marvin Coleman.
“I’ve been coaching here in the valley for 17 years and (this division) is pretty brutal,” Durango coach DeShawn Henry. “It’s really easy for me because every day in practice you talk about these teams and these players and the guys get excited because they want to see the best. It’s really good for us to have good practices because you’re always talking about night in and night out in league play there are no nights off.”
Bishop Gorman graduated seniors Chuck O’Bannon Jr. and Christian Popoola, but returns three-star Washington commit Jamal Bey, who will lead the Gaels as they go for a seventh straight state championship.
“It’s the same thing we’ve done every year,” Bey said. “We have to stay focused and stay true to what we do. We flipped the page. It’s a new team, new us. It’s not the same players so we have to have a new plan.”
Bey will be joined by sophomore guard Noah Taitz, who scored 19 points in the state semifinal as a freshman, and senior D.J. Howe.
Clark, on the other hand, returns nearly every player from last year’s team that fell just short of the state title.
“They’ve been through it before,” Clark coach Chad Beeten said. “They’ve been through winning state championships and the heartbreak of losing a state champ game. That experience will help.”
The Chargers have three members of the Sun's Super Seven preseason team in UNLV commit Trey Woodbury, James Bridges and Jalen Hill, and also return big man Antwon Jackson and junior Ian Alexander and added Gonzaga commit Greg Foster, who transferred from Milwaukee.
Possibly most important, Beeten is back on the bench. He led the Chargers to three straight 3A state titles from 2014-16 before coaching in California last year.
“We have presumably the top two teams in town and the rest of the teams are all very good and capable of beating anybody on a given night,” Beeten said. “We have to stay on our toes but I think that will help us come playoffs when we don’t have many games that we can cruise.”
Sierra Vista and Desert Oasis may not have the overall talent of Bishop Gorman and Clark, but they have two of the top three scorers in town in Maka Ellis and Jacob Heese.
Ellis, a 6-foot-5 forward, is committed to Columbia and will be looking to lead Sierra Vista further after a disappointing 13-14 record last season. The Mountain Lions have one of the best backcourts in the state with Ellis and third-year varsity starter David Howard, but could struggle just to make the playoffs in the stacked Southwest.
“You come out real battle tested,” Sierra Vista coach Keith Ulrich said. “The problem is when you get to playoffs you’ll have to play those teams again. Our league challenges you every night. There are no nights where you can feel confident that you can have a bad game and still win.”
Super Seven selection Heese hopes to lead the Desert Oasis Diamondbacks to the playoffs after just missing out last year. They added transfer Kamari Burnside, who adds speed and defense.
“The situation is there are five really good teams in our league and only four are going to get to go on so it’s a battle every night,” Desert Oasis coach Joseph Bedowitz said. “The basketball is going to be good for us, good for Las Vegas and I can’t wait to see the games because there will be battles every night.”