Basketball might be down at the Sunflower State Games, but don't count it out.
Although SSG officials say that the number of participants isn't as high as it has been in the past, basketball should continue to be a fan favorite when the Games begin today in and around Lawrence.
"It's a little down from last year," said Cody Clem, the senior sport coordinator and director of basketball. "But we still have a number of good teams back and defending champions. The College Men and Women's divisions are usually the most competitive and the most interesting for fans and the community to come out and watch.
"There's a number of teams with players that are highly recognizable."
Among those teams are Kansas Pride, the defending champion in Men's College coached by Hap Eiche.
Playing for the Pride will be Iowa State senior forward Paul Shirley, of Meriden, and Washburn University junior guard Shannon Kruger. Also on the squad are Shirley's younger brothers and All-State high school selections, Dan and Matt.
Mortgage Plus features former KU swingman Nick Bradford and is coached by Craig Butler. Butler is the father of Aaron Butler, who played for Lawrence High's 1995 Class 6A state champion team.
Mortgage Plus also includes the three Alexander brothers from McPherson Todd, Chad and Josh.
Todd Alexander, 29, who played at KU before transferring to Washburn, has competed in every Sunflower State Games to date; Chad Alexander, 25, was part of three state championships at McPherson High before playing at Oklahoma State for four years; and Josh Alexander, 23, was part of two high school state championships and recently was a first-team All-America selection at McPherson College.
"Those are the two teams I look for to be playing in the championship," Clem said.
Kansas Pride opens against Haskell at 6 p.m. today at Haskell, while Mortgage Plus will take on Prompt Care Bomber at 7 p.m. at Lawrence High.
The Women's College division is showcased by the defending champions from Emporia State, which features Wellsville's Emily Bloss, the Sunflower State Games' 1999 female athlete of the year. ESU opens at 6 p.m. today against Rockhurst at Southwest Junior High.
KU junior Kristin Geoffrey, former Jayhawk Heather Fletcher and senior- Jennifer Jackson also are participating the Games albeit as coaches instead of players. The trio will lead the Hawk Squad in the Women's Ninth and 10th grade division, starting at 4 p.m. today against the Bobcats at KU's Robinson Center.
Lawrence High and Free State High both are fielding teams in the Men's 11th and 12th division playing at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. respectively at Robinson Center and FSHS senior Katie Rhodes will suit up for Topeka Bauersfield in the Women's 11th and 12th division.
Bauersfield begins play against the Kansas Starzz at 8 p.m. at Free State High.
"They were just getting back from nationals in Tennessee this week," Clem said of the Topeka team. "I'm looking forward to seeing them play. They're usually competing for the championship."
Speaking of the championship, that is one of two upgrades the Games has made this year. All 10 championship games will be played at KU's Allen Fieldhouse, a move that has been a long time coming.
"It's something we've always tried to get done," Clem said. "In the last few years coach (Roy) Williams and Marian Washington have had camps at the same time. This year we got lucky.
"I think that's something special for basketball players growing up in Kansas who always dreamed of playing in Allen Fieldhouse, especially the younger kids."
Also new this year is a four-game guarantee for each of the 123 teams.
The first championship is slated for 10 a.m. Sunday with games running throughout the day until the Women's College final at 6 p.m. and the Men's College title tilt to close the day at 7 p.m.
"Hopefully a lot of basketball fans and people throughout the community will want to come out," Clem said. "It should be exciting and I look forward to seeing everyone out there."