The Topeka Invitational rarely is an easy tournament to win, and this year will be no different.
If Lawrence High’s boys basketball team wants to improve upon its seventh-place finish last year at the invitational, the Lions will have to get past some talented squads. Five top-10 teams from classes 6A and 5A will be in action at the three-day tournament, which begins today at Highland Park. Three of them — Wichita Northwest (No. 8, 6A), Topeka (No. 6, 6A) and Kansas City, Kan., Washington (No. 9, 5A) — are on Lawrence’s side of the bracket. LHS (5-4) opens the first round this afternoon at 3:15 against WNW (7-1).
“With our path to the championship, we’ll have to play really well,” Lions coach Mike Lewis said. “It’s a great basketball tournament.”
Topeka Highland Park (No. 5, 5A) and Olathe South (No. 5, 6A) are the other ranked teams, while Topeka West and Bel Aire Sunrise Academy round out the field.
Lewis said Topeka (5-2) might be the favorite, but it would be hard to count out Highland Park (6-3), or anyone else.
“It’s really like a state-tournament feel, where whoever is playing well right now, whoever can put it together for the three days, has a chance of winning it,” the coach said.
With a second-place finish at the Topeka Invitational in 2010, the Lions are no strangers to success at the tourney. Seniors KJ Pritchard, Logan Henrichs and Anthony Buffalomeat played on that team, and the coach is counting on them.
“We really need and expect the seniors to provide that leadership and step in and play well,” Lewis said.
The coach is expecting much from the rest of his rotation — senior Troy WIlloughby, juniors Jake Mosiman and Shane Willoughby and freshman Bryce Montes de Oca — as well, especially after the Lions’ loss Friday at Olathe South. Lewis said there were too many gaps when LHS didn’t live up to its ability, and the Lions have been watching film to critique and dissect their play.
“If we start doing a few things better,” Lewis said, “and really focus in on our opponent, we feel like we can play with anybody.”
The Lions know their tournament opener against Wichita Northwest will be challenging.
“They have momentum, and they’ve been playing well,” Lewis said of the Grizzlies, “so we really have a tough opponent.”
At one point, the Lions thought they might have a mid-season addition to help them out in Topeka. However, LHS learned this week that junior Brad Strauss will sit out the entire season after suffering a left ankle injury during football season. Lewis said he was disappointed to learn the news and felt bad for Strauss.
Still, the Lions are looking forward to the challenge that awaits them at Highland Park.
“The team that ends up winning it will sleep pretty good Saturday night and feel like they’ve earned it,” Lewis said.
FSHS heads to McPherson
The field at the McPherson Invitational, where Free State’s boys will spend their next three days, is no cake walk, either.
The Firebirds’ first-round opponent is Buhler, ranked No. 4 in Class 4A. FSHS coach Chuck Law said a lot of the best teams in Kansas this year are in 4A, and Buhler falls into that category.
“They’re ranked right behind Basehor-Linwood and Ottawa,” Law said of 7-0 Buhler, “and I don’t know a lot of teams that want to play Basehor or Ottawa.”
When Free State last played the Crusaders two years ago at McPherson — a 54-50 Firebirds victory — four of Buhler’s sophomores played, Law said. Now they’re experienced seniors.
Last year, BHS coach Dennis Wahlgren’s first on the job, Buhler was 19-5 and went to the 4A state tournament.
“Obviously they’re doing a lot of things right,” Law said, noting Buhler has two “really good” shooters and a team full of players who can dribble, pass, catch and shoot “really well.”
Regardless of how Free State (2-7) does against BHS — one of three ranked teams at the tournament, along with McPherson (No. 6, 4A) and Derby (No 10, 6A) — the Firebirds will face Blue Valley West (6-3) or Wichita North (6-3) on Friday, either in the semifinals or the consolation bracket.
Wichita North is home to Kansas University basketball commit Conner Frankamp. A 6-foot junior guard, Frankamp is rated a four-star recruit by Rivals.com and is averaging around 30 points a game.
“He could lead that team to three wins and win the tournament pretty easily,” Law said of Frankamp.
The McPherson Invitational, Law added, could be void of a heavy favorite.
“The field might not be as strong across the board as it has been in the past,” he said, “but it is probably about an even as a field as it’s been.”
The Firebirds have lost seven games in a row, and Law said they need to use this three-day stretch as a chance to improve.
“We need to do a better job of putting a whole game together,” the coach said.
While most of Free State’s rotation players — seniors Brett Frantz, Cameron Dabney and Gabe Patterson, juniors Kyle McFarland and Logan Bannister and sophomores Blake Winslow, Cole Moreano and Reshawn Caro — will be ready to play at McPherson, seniors Shawn Knighton and Tyler Self have had injury issues that will keep them off the court. Both are suffering from ankle injuries, and Self will be out for the tournament, Law said. Knighton is going to try to play, but Law didn’t know how much he would be able to play the senior point guard, who just returned to practice Wednesday.
Seabury at Classic
Seabury Academy’s boys basketball team will be busy with a three-day tournament, too. The Seahawks (2-4) are playing at the Indian/Viking Classic, hosted by Shawnee Mission North and Shawnee Mission West.
Seabury’s first-round game — 7 tonight at SMN — is against co-host Shawnee Mission North (2-6).
Coach Ashley Battles said senior guard Thomas Diaz has a bad ankle sprain and could miss one or more games at the tournament, which features the No. 4 team in 6A, Blue Valley North (8-0). The Seahawks will play either BVN or Kansas City, Kan., Wyandotte on Friday at the classic.