It’s time to launch our winter basketball content on CalHiSports.com and Chino Hills has the best player and is the preseason No. 1 team for the 2015-16 season. Mater Dei of Santa Ana is gunning for its sixth straight SoCal regional title in California’s highest classification, but No. 2 Sierra Canyon and the top-ranked Huskies loom large over the rest of the state. Go inside here for teams No. 1 through No. 15 in our preseason State Top 35.
For a look at the teams we’ve ranked from No. 16 to No. 35 plus more on the bubble (Gold Club members), CLICK HERE.
For last season’s final state rankings, CLICK HERE.
To see the list of major tournaments and showcases involving California’s best teams, CLICK HERE.
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California boys hoops is entering its fourth year of CIF Open Division playoffs at the regional level.
The concept creates a scenario for the best team in Northern California and Southern California to meet in the final game of the season. It also creates more opportunities for public schools in the lower divisions (I-V) that probably wouldn’t have a realistic chance to compete for a CIF state title if the open divisions teams were in their normal divisions.
That’s because private schools continue to dominate the boys basketball landscape in California, not to mention the academy-type programs across the country that don’t play for traditional state titles and are plucking elite players at a growing rate.
In addition to creating opportunities for public schools, the open division ensures that its winner will be the top-ranked team in Cal-Hi Sports’ final rankings — and that’s a good thing.
It’s the path to that final game that’s been a source of contention. It’s been a bit confusing to some fans because teams can win a state title without winning a section title and are sometimes placed in different divisions in the regional playoffs than it was in during its respective section playoff. It’s also no secret that SoCal has more depth in terms of quality teams, which means the CIF Open Division can gut NorCal of teams that would give the region its best chance to win a state title in the other five divisions.
It’s a work in progress to make the CIF state playoffs the best product it can be and at the Fall Federated Council meeting held in October, a two-year pilot proposal passed which changes the parameters of the CIF open division in SoCal only.
In the North, CIF member schools are required to participate in the CIF division that has been established by its respective CIF section — unless selected for the open division. In the South, a two-year pilot has been implemented with the following amendments:
•Teams selected for the SoCal regional playoffs may be moved to a different division than the one in which they participated in the section playoffs.
•In SoCal Division V, there is no enrollment cap (previously could not exceed 600).
•And lastly, divisional placement of teams in the SoCal regionals will be determined by rankings by each of the four SoCal sections (San Diego, Southern, L.A. City, and Central) at the conclusion of their respective section playoffs.
One rule that made complete sense to alter was the four-team limit per section for the CIF Open Division playoffs, which has been anywhere from a six to eight-team bracket. The rule was changed with some provisions.
It made sense to change because the CIF Southern Section’s top teams have dominated its Central and San Diego Section counterparts in recent SoCal regionals, with state powers Fairfax (2015 open regional finalist) and Westchester (2014 open regional finalist) holding down the fort for the L.A. City Section.
The CIF Southern Section is now pre-designated to fill four open entries, with the open champions of the L.A. City, San Diego, and Central Section filling three spots. The eighth spot is expected to be filled by a L.A. City, San Diego or Central Section team, but if it’s determined no team from one of those sections is strong enough to take on SoCal’s top seeded open team, a CIF Southern Section team will be considered. In other words, last year Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth would have been a fifth CIFSS Open Division team instead of being in Division V.
Some of the teams selected for the open division in its first three years had little shot of advancing to the CIF open division state final and lifting the four team per section rule will alleviate a team with no shot that should stay in its original division. The CIF would also like to avoid byes in the open regionals.
The Southern Section’s top teams have traditionally dominated the weekly Cal-Hi Sports Top 20 and this year the preseason state rankings show five Southern Section teams at the top. There are more quality teams in NorCal this year, but is there a dominant team like Bishop O’Dowd last season?
Only the Dragons and No. 3 Mater Dei have won the CIF open state title so far. Will either top-ranked Chino Hills or No. 2 Sierra Canyon, the two clear-cut top teams entering the season, become the third?
2015-16 CAL-HI SPORTS PRESEASON
BOYS BASKETBALL STATE RANKINGS
(This is the 36th consecutive season that CalHiSports.com will provide state rankings for California high school boys basketball; Last year’s final rating in parentheses with 2014-15 won-loss record)
1. (13) Chino Hills (Chino Hills) 24-8*
After Bishop O’Dowd defeated Mater Dei in overtime in one of the most electric atmospheres California has ever had for a CIF state final, the first question we rhetorically asked was, “Who’s No. 1 to open next season, Chino Hills or Sierra Canyon?” Mind you, we just got done watching Chino Hills lose in overtime to San Ramon Valley of Danville in the CIF D1 final and Sierra Canyon romp on its way to the D5 title. The first thing that dawned on us was neither team has won the coveted CIF Southern Section open division title and many other of the state’s top ranked-teams still have a lot to prove coming into this season. We decided to go with the Huskies because they return the state’s best player, point guard Lonzo Ball (6-6, Sr.), and his supporting cast is stronger and more athletic this season. Li’Angelo Ball (6-4, Jr.) can get hot from the outside as few players in the state can and the third Ball brother, La’Melo Ball (5-9, Fr.), is as confident and fearless as any first-year player we’ve seen in recent memory. It’s not as if the Ball brothers are the entire show, either, as Elijah Scott (6-4, Jr.) was the difference in plenty of Chino Hills’ summer league victories. No team was more impressive this fall, and players such as Andre Ball Jr. (6-3, So.), the cousin of the “Run GMZ” gang, and Onyeka Okongwu (6-8, Fr.), the younger brother of the late Nnamdi Okongwu, gives coach Steve Baik plenty of depth and lineup options.
2. (6) Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) 26-4
The defending CIF Division V state champions have all the ingredients to be a CIF Open Division state champ and one of the top teams in the final FAB 50 National Team Rankings. The Trailblazers are big, fast, and have good basketball skill and experience. The only things missing are a dominant center and a CIFSS Open Division title on the resume. If the Southern Section’s top 16-team bracket goes to form, a Chino Hills-Sierra Canyon final could be even better than the CIF State Open Divisional final. Of course, those two could conceivably meet a second time in the SoCal Open regional playoffs and the outcomes become more unpredictable when good high school teams have to play each other more than once or face the same group of teams in a second go-around. Coach Ty Nichols has done a solid job of managing egos and has kept his team together since they came in as ballyhooed middle school players three years ago. It’s now up to the veterans to put aside individual accolades to make a run at the open division and mythical national title. The dynamics of the team is different this year with Ira Lee (6-8, Jr.) returning after missing last season with a shoulder injury. He’ll have to compliment the ability of frontcourt mate Cody Riley (6-7, Jr.), Sierra Canyon’s most consistently productive player and last year’s Cal-Hi Sports State Sophomore of the Year. Nevada-bound Devearl Ramsey (5-10, Sr.) is a four-year standout and is complimented in the backcourt by one of the fastest players in the state, Remy Martin (5-10, Jr.). Adam Sieko (6-3, Jr.) and Terrence McBride (6-2, Jr.) would easily be 18-22 ppg scorers at other schools, but there is only one ball and Sierra Canyon is going to have to find out who needs it at what spot in the big games on its schedule, beginning with No. 11 Moreau Catholic at the Prep2Prep Tip-Off Classic.
3. (2) Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 29-5
Steve Fryer of the Orange County Register joked on social media that he was sure the Monarchs were going to be in our preseason rankings. Of course, he’s already seen Mater Dei at No. 19 in the FAB 50 National Team Rankings on Ballislife.com and even if he hadn’t, it’s not hard to pencil in the Monarchs in our top 10. After all, they have been SoCal’s top team five years running and came within in whisker of capturing the program’s fifth consecutive CIF state title in the highest classification. The Monarchs do have to replace one of California’s best players (Notre Dame freshman Rex Pflueger), but keep in mind last year’s team had to replace the best player in Mater Dei history (Detroit Piston Stanley Johnson) and still almost beat Bishop O’ Dowd. Gary McKnight (1,024-90 career won-loss record) likes his inside-outside combination with center M.J. Cage (6-10, Sr.) and Bailey Stout (6-2, Sr.). Cage, bound for Oregon, had a much-maligned summer, but we can’t remember a time he played poorly in one of Mater Dei’s big games. Stout stepped up big-time in last year’s playoff run and is capable of running the point or sliding to the off-guard. Santa Monica transfer Spencer Freedman (6-0, So.) is a true lead guard and his new teammates will find out quickly he’ll feed them the ball at the right spots and the right time. The key to Mater Dei’s season will be the development of juniors Miles Brookins (6-9, Jr.) and Justice Sueing (6-7, Jr.) and sophomores Harrison Butler (6-6, So.) and Michael Wang (6-8, So.). If two of those young talents step up as graduated K.J. Smith and Stout did in last year’s playoff run, Mater Dei will be a tough out in the CIFSS Open Division playoffs because the Monarchs’ coaching staff always has its personnel prepared for its toughest opponents.
4. (3) Bishop Montgomery (Torrance) 31-2
During informal coaches’ polling of the state’s top programs, Bishop Montgomery was the team most often mentioned as one opposing coaches are really impressed with. Veteran coach Doug Mitchell does a great job of getting his team cohesive on offense, playing tough defense and finding the opposition’s weaknesses. Compared to the state’s other elite programs, Bishop Montgomery is a bit undersized, but the Knights had the same issue the last two seasons when it compiled a 59-8 record. It won’t be a problem because Montgomery will be in shape and tough around the glass, led by Jordan Schakel (6-5, Jr.). In addition to his work on the boards, Schakel is a good all-around player and in more than one big game last season was Mitchell’s best player. The scoring ability of all-state guard Stephen Thompson Jr. (Oregon State) will be missed, but his younger brother Ethan Thompson (6-4, Jr.) is quickly developing into one of the state’s best scorers and he also has the ability to play the lead guard position. He’s also bigger and stronger than his brother and as he continues to mature, that will help Bishop Montgomery because through the gauntlet that is the CIFSS Open Division and the SoCal regional playoffs, the Knights seemed to tire a bit more than the other elite teams last season. The mental toughness of David Singleton (6-3, So.) is on par with his skill level and that’s saying something because he’s an old-fashioned player who can get it done on both ends and at multiple positions. The defending CIFSS Open Division champions will be formidable again, but do they have enough firepower to take down Chino Hills or Sierra Canyon potentially more than once?
5. (14) Centennial (Corona) 25-6
Last year, coach Josh Giles’ club was SoCal’s top-ranked team in the preseason and never seemed to find its groove. The Huskies looked like world-beaters in spurts, but struggled at times with lethargic stretches where they turned it over too much or couldn’t score. With the expectation level lowered this season, it could play to the Huskies’ advantage because their roster has talent both inside and out. Ike Anigbogu (6-9, Sr.), bound for UCLA, is one of the best shot-blockers in the state and powerful around the rim. Jalen Hill (6-10, Jr.), also bound for UCLA, has a lot of potential and has to show he can complement Anigbogu while on the court at the same time. Last season the duo didn’t play a lot together, but Giles is going to need Hill to step up his production if Centennial is going to remain nationally ranked (it opened No. 43 in the FAB 50). Isom Butler (6-0, Jr.), one of the state’s most talented JV players last season at Etiwanda, will give the team a lot of what graduated Chris Famous did as a ball-hawking defender. Gio Nelson (6-2, Jr.) will play a much larger role after coming off the bench last season while Long Beach State-bound Jordan Griffin (6-3, Sr.) is the go-to scorer. If this team has balance offensively and doesn’t rely on Griffin to carry the scoring load, it could find the result more fulfilling than last year’s up-and-down campaign.
6. (26) Foothills Christian (El Cajon) 25-7*
The Knights barely missed the preseason FAB 50 rankings and could be the team that seriously challenges one of the CIF Southern Section powers for the SoCal open division title. Foothills easily captured the CIF San Diego Section D2 title, ranked as the county’s best team overall and will be a lot better this season. It all starts with recent UCLA signee T.J. Leaf (6-9, Sr.), a Mr. Basketball finalist as a junior and likely the second best player in the state behind Chino Hill’s Lonzo Ball. What can take this team to the next level are the role players around Leaf. Omajae Smith (6-4, Sr.) is an excellent athlete and D1 player and Luis Salgado (6-4, Sr.) is one of the SoCal’s best outside shooters. The tandem of Jordan Starr (6-5, So.) and T.J. Lowery (6-5. So.) have made strides since last year and their production will be key. Foothills Christian will have an opportunity to move up in the state (and national) rankings as it plays No. 1 Chino Hills at the Sierra Canyon Showcase in January, No. 3 Mater Dei at the Nike Extravaganza and Paul VI of Fairfax, Va. at the Hoophall Classic. In the end, however, the season will be defined by how well the Knights do in the SoCal regional playoffs.
7. (10) Modesto Christian (Modesto) 30-4
This is the first spot in the rankings where we could have gone in a couple of different directions. We decided to go with the Crusaders as the top-ranked team in NorCal over De La Salle (strong players, new coach) and Moreau Catholic (best personnel, poor finish). Coach Richard Midgley has three starters and eight lettermen returning, led by all-state underclass guard Christian Ellis (6-2, Sr.) and fast-rising big man Robinson Idehen (6-9, Sr.). Darrian Grays (5-11, Jr.) is a talented guard who can run the point and opens up scoring opportunities for Ellis. The development and production of newcomers such as Tsotne Tsartsidze (6-6, Fr.) will ultimately decide if the Crusaders can take it one step further than last season and advance to the CIF open division title game.
8. (31) Crespi (Encino) 29-7
You have to like a team with veteran talent and good coaching that is coming off a CIF state title and the Celts have all three of those ingredients. Coach Russell White returns four starters off his CIF D4 state title team, led by USC-bound De’Anthony Melton (6-4, Sr.). He’s one of the most versatile guards in the state and can defend multiple positions. Melton is a clutch player, while Brandon Williams (6-1, So.) is a big-time shot-maker. The best player in the frontcourt is underrated Mitchell Mykhaylov 6-6, Sr.). Williams is arguably the best sophomore guard in SoCal, but it was the improvement of another 10th-grader, Taj Regans (5-10, So.), that spurred Crespi’s run to a state title. Crespi looked great during the summer (it lost in the finals of the Fairfax Tournament to Chino Hills in a close game), but its improvement ceiling may not be as high as some of the other elite teams as the Celts looked in mid-season form back in June. Crespi avoided Bishop Montgomery and Orange Lutheran in its state title run, so it will still have to prove it can navigate through the CIFSS Open Division playoffs to move up in the rankings.
9. (17) De La Salle (Concord) 27-5
It was tricky to rank the Spartans at the end of last season, as it lost to Woodcreek in the NorCal D1 regional semifinals, but also went 3-0 against the San Ramon Valley team that beat Chino Hills in the D1 state final. The same dilemma exists because De La Salle has good returning personnel and a winning tradition, but a new coach, as three-time state champ Frank Allocco has joined the college ranks. The new coach is A.J. Kuhle, who was a college assistant for 11 years after playing at Air Force. He was a member of Allocco’s 2000 D1 state title team, so the adjustment period shouldn’t be too great. He inherits an excellent team led by San Francisco-bound Jordan Ratinho (6-4, Sr.), one of the state’s best outside shooters, and Nikhil Peters (6-5, Sr.) an athletic all-around talent who can play in the backcourt or frontcourt. Emeka Udenyi (6-5, Jr.) is another veteran who Kuhle can count on during his transition. De La Salle is similar to Crespi in that we’re not sure how high their ranking ceiling is compared to some others ranked lower.
10. (25) Poly (Long Beach) 26-5
The Jackrabbits played at a state top 20 level a majority of last season, but a home loss to Torrey Pines of San Diego in the SoCal D1 regional playoffs bumped them down a few notches in the final rankings. Coach Shelton Diggs will miss the clutch ability of all-state guard K.J. Feagin (Santa Clara), but Hawaii-bound Drew Buggs (6-1, Sr.) will be counted on to pick up the slack left by Feagin’s graduation and he’s more physical on the defensive end and contributes on the boards to boot. Zafir Williams (6-5, Jr.) was a super sixth-man last year and is one of the best scoring forwards in the CIF Southern Section. We like Poly’s long-term ability because of the improvements point guard Darrell Polk (5-9, So.) and Harrison Bonner (6-3, Sr.) displayed over the summer. If Venice transfer John Duff (6-9, Jr.) is eligible after the 30-day period and Myles Johnson (6-8, Jr.) returns from injury later in the season, Poly could develop into a legitimate CIFSS Open Division title contender.
11. (29) Moreau Catholic (Hayward) 23-7
Mariners’ supporters are surely fired up about their team’s placement in these rankings, but there is a double-edged sword to it. Moreau Catholic has the best personnel in NorCal, but this is no longer a team looking forward to next season. This is next season. The Mariners are ranked behind De La Salle because of a 79-51 loss to Serra of San Mateo in the opening round of the NorCal open playoffs. That was a bit of a shocker for a team with Moreau’s talent level and with aspirations of a CIF Open Division state title. Moreau did beat Modesto Christian, but the Crusaders beat Serra when it mattered and that’s what Moreau is going to have to do — close strong. All the pieces are in place with Cal-bound Oscar Frayer (6-7, Sr.) as the go-to scoring option and Damari Milstead (6-2, Jr.) manning the controls. Milstead is complimented by Terrell Brown (6-3, Sr.), the team’s best outside shooter and one of NorCal’s most underrated players, and Brandon Lawrence, a veteran guard with D1 ability. Depth is provided by Hadari Darden (6-5, Sr.), Armond Simmons (6-0, Sr.), Dvan Molden (6-5, Sr.) and Richard Hampton (6-4, Sr.). This is the season coach Frank Knight and his coaching staff has been pointing to for two years and it has plenty of opportunity to move up (starting the season with No. 2 Sierra Canyon at the PrepToPrep Tip-Off Classic), but on the flip side Moreau has the bulls-eye on its chest.
12. (32) Westchester (Los Angeles) 21-13
Last season, the Comets’ longtime Western League rival, Fairfax, had better personnel, but we had a hunch they would split in league play and that’s exactly what happened. Fairfax did go on to win the L.A. City Open Division title over Westchester, but the Lions suffer heavier graduation losses and veteran coach Ez Azzam feels his club will be much improved so the Comets get the nod this time around. Azzam (796-248, 6 CIF state titles), who will surpass Crenshaw coaching legend Willie West (803 victories) as the all-time wins leader in L.A. City Section history early in the campaign, has depth, length and a group he feels practices to his standards. It starts with San Jose St. recruit Keith Fisher (6-7, Sr.), one of the best forwards in the state who works hard on the glass. Evan Council (6-5, Sr.) is the Comets’ best wing while L’Kielynn Taylor (6-6, 195, Sr.) has untapped potential. In recent seasons, no program has developed a better feeder JV team and last year Azzam’s younger programs went a combined 45-1, so you know he’ll be able to utilize waves of defenders to wear opponents down. The best of the newcomers are Marquis Moore (6-6, Jr.), Luis Rodriguez (6-5, Jr.) and Chris Simmons (5-10, Jr.), who compliments Terrell Waiters (5-10, Sr.) in the backcourt.
13. (9) Cathedral (Los Angeles) 22-8
Even though the Phantoms lost three times to De Rey League rival Bishop Montgomery last season, they were on the verge of a FAB 50 ranking until losing to eventual D3 state champ Damien of La Verne in the SoCal regional final. Cathedral has a similar talent level and outlook this season even though UCLA-bound Kobe Paras has exhausted his eligibility per the “eight-semester” rule. Filling in his spot will be Alemany of Mission Hills transfer Daron Henson (6-8, Sr.), who has many of the same outside shooting-baseline scoring skills as Paras. Lucas Siewart (6-9, Sr.) is another talented scoring forward, while Semaj Shepard (6-2, Jr.) is a great utility player for coach William Middlebrooks. The key to Cathedral’s season will be the health of returning all-state underclass point guard Milan Acquaah (6-2, Sr.). He’s nursing a high ankle sprain and those can be tricky; he’ll likely miss the early portion of the season. Middlebrooks will side on caution in order for his catalyst to be ready for the league portion of the season.
14. (15) Folsom 28-5
As long as the Bulldogs have Jordan Ford (6-0, Sr.) in the lineup, they will be a formidable club. The St. Mary’s recruit will likely be a three-time all-state selection this season. The defending CIF Sac-Joaquin Section D1 champs were in the D2 state title game two years ago with Ford leading the way, but how they take the next step up with a senior-laden team remains to be seen. Tre Finch (6-1, Sr.) and Jared Wall (6-1, Sr.), the son of coach Mike Wall, gives the Bulldogs one of the best and most experienced backcourts in the state. The key for Folsom will be developing some frontcourt punch to go along with the talented backcourt. We see Folsom remaining competitive with the state’s elite, but that frontcourt punch (or lack of it) will key its season.
15. (18) Redondo Union (Redondo Beach) 25-8
The Seahawks are in a similar boat to Folsom — they have talented veterans in the backcourt and we know they can compete at the elite state level, but do they have the size to beat those teams? Coach Reggie Morris Jr. will devise good game plans in the big games, and the Seahawks will be a tough out in the CIFSS Open Division playoffs. All-State guard Leland Green (6-2, Sr.) is the go-to offensive player and if he has a big start to the season, Redondo’s other players will gain confidence. Ryse Williams (6-3, Jr.) is one of the better juniors in the Southland and Cameron Williams (6-4, Sr.) brings a lot to the table of both sides of the ball, while Elijah Nesbit (5-3, Sr.) disrupts offenses and has loads of experience. The development of Quinn Collins (6-7, So.) will be big because he’ll be needed in a big playoff game down the line. Last season, Redondo basically had two teams, one with and without Billy Preston (one of the nation’s best juniors) and not having to re-shuffle the deck mid-season will be a welcome relief for Morris as he seeks to have his team peaking at playoff time.
For Part II of these preseason state rankings, CLICK HERE.
Mark Tennis, the publisher of Cal-Hi Sports, also contributed to this post. Ronnie Flores is the managing editor of CalHiSports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonMFlores