The boys basketball season in California is now getting underway, thanks to a lawsuit that made protocols for indoor sports feasible with restrictions a bit tougher than outdoor sports. We’re glad there is a season, but it will still be fragmented with NorCal sections already cancelling post-seasons and for the second straight year, no CIF state championships. We break it down and offer our preseason State Top 25 rankings plus some early, early highlights, including one 47-point outburst from a player in Orange County.
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It’s been a tumultuous year since CIF sanctioned high school hoops was last played in our state. It’s been just over a year since Ziaire Williams (now at Stanford and soon to be in the NBA) drained a shot at the buzzer to give Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth an improbable comeback win over Etiwanda to capture the SoCal Open title. That was on March 10, 2020 and the NorCal open final between Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland) and Sheldon (Sacramento) never took place. That very next day, the world was turned upside down by COVID-19 and on March 12, the CIF cancelled its state championships set for that weekend (March 13-14) at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
What we do know is, Sierra Canyon will remain the defending champions for another year. For the second consecutive season, the CIF will not conduct state championships and there will be no regional playoffs. This decision was made to give programs the most flexibility to get as complete a season in as possible.
A month ago, things looked bleak for a California high school basketball season. Basketball was in the yellow tier (most restrictive) of the California Department of Public Health guidelines. It seemed the best hope was a change in the tiers or for them to be removed, while a plan for the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine was successfully promoted and distributed.
That all changed when a lawsuit spearheaded by the #LetThemPlay organization was successful. The settlement allowed CIF indoor sports to happen in advance of color tiers, as long as strict testing protocols were followed. What the lawsuit did, in reality, was take the pressure off the CIF and the CDPH and put the onus back on school districts to make indoor sports happen. The CDPH created the indoor sports guidelines, and now it’s up to school districts to execute them.
Some programs and school districts, such as the Moorpark Unified School District and Moorpark High School in Ventura County, were prepared. Coach Ryan Moore (who was instrumental in the #LetThemPlay movement for basketball and indoor sports) and his team was involved in the first CIF sanctioned game since March 10 of 2020, when on March 16 Moorpark visited Santa Clara of Oxnard. Santa Clara came away with a 55-50 victory.
Not every school district and program is in the same boat as Moorpark. It’s still quite fragmented with various start dates for school districts and leagues across the state. Cal-Hi Sports reached out to a handful of L.A. City Section coaches and they have received very little instruction or input on the start of the season. Others noted things will start up after spring break, which is set for next week in the nation’s second largest school district (LAUSD).
In NorCal, the start dates are quite different than the majority of SoCal. Many leagues begin practice April 12 and start games April 19. In the Delta League of the Sac-Joaquin Section that includes regional powers Sheldon of Sacramento and Jesuit of Carmichael, among others, the tentative start date is May 3 with the first games slated for May 11. Some school districts have already cancelled sports, some will be weary of executing the indoor sports protocols and in some economically disadvantaged regions programs might be unable to meet them.
There were some games on the slate for Thursday of this week (see below for two highlights) and next Tuesday we’ll have our first matchups of state ranked teams: Windward of Los Angeles visiting St. John Bosco of Bellflower in Los Angeles County of the CIF Southern Section.
With that Windward-Bosco game and others in mind, we wanted to present our annual preseason state rankings for boys basketball. This will be our 41st consecutive season compiling state rankings, state record updates and all-state teams in basketball. We’ll have our usual post-season honors even though the season will be fragmented. We’ll also decide how to conduct our weekly state rankings at a later time, but for now we wanted to give our followers at look at the top returning teams.
This is a snap shot based on returning talent, last year’s performance and the usual pecking order we create for the FAB 50 National Rankings published on Ballislife.com in the fall. Currently, Sierra Canyon, Mater Dei, Bishop O’Dowd and Ribet Academy are in the FAB 50 at 0-0.
Sierra Canyon, the CIF open champ in both 2018 and 2019, is the preseason No. 1 team by Cal-Hi Sports for the third consecutive season. We’ll have more on top returning players and a preseason all-state team next week, but one Trailblazer who is missing this spring is Bronny James, the sophomore son of NBA superstar LeBron James. He is out with a torn meniscus. We look forward to following Bronny when he returns and hope to evaluate many of the top underclassmen this summer, which we weren’t able to do in 2020.
CAL-HI SPORTS PRESEASON
STATE TOP 25 RANKINGS
(last year’s final record listed in parentheses;*team was unable to complete 2019-20 season because of statewide cancellation of sports)
1. (1) Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) 30-4*
2. (4) Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 25-8
3. (9) Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland) 23-7*
4. (8) Ribet Academy (Los Angeles) 29-3*
5. (12) Windward (Los Angeles) 28-8
6. (6) Centennial (Corona) 27-5
7. (11) St. John Bosco (Bellflower) 23-9
8. (10) Archbishop Mitty (San Jose) 23-5
9. (27) Chaminade (West Hills) 26-9
10. (11) Harvard-Westlake (North Hollywood) 25-7
11. (17) Archbishop Riordan (San Francisco) 23-5
12. (19) Damien (La Verne) 26-9
13. (NR) Long Beach Poly (Long Beach) 17-13
14. (2) Etiwanda 30-4
15. (24) Campolindo (Moraga) 25-6*
16. (13) Fairfax (Los Angeles) 26-6
17. (36) Heritage Christian (Northridge) 26-5
18. (25) Cathedral Catholic (San Diego) 24-8
19. (14) Westchester (Los Angeles) 22-9
20. (32) Capital Christian (Sacramento) 25-9
21. (NR) San Joaquin Memorial (Fresno) 24-7
22. (NR) Modesto Christian 20-11
23. (31) De La Salle (Concord) 24-8
24. (26) Torrey Pines (San Diego) 27-6
25. (20) St. Anthony (Long Beach) 26-6
NorCal Bubble (Listed Alphabetically): (NR) Bakersfield Christian 26-6*, (NR) Clovis West (Fresno) 26-6, (15) Dublin 24-7, (NR) St. Francis (Mountain View) 15-12, (NR) St. Joseph (Santa Maria) 25-8, (NR) Vanden (Travis AFB) 27-7.
SoCal Bubble (Listed Alphabetically): (NR) Bishop Montgomery (Torrance) 19-11, (NR) Fountain Valley 21-9, (NR) Mater Dei (Chula Vista) 22-7, (7) Rancho Christian (Temecula) 22-8, (NR) Shadow Hills (Indio) 29-4, (NR) West Ranch (Valencia) 14-13.
Cal-Hi Sports Breakdowns:
If we did our usual comprehensive preseason state rankings package, this order would look a bit different, but we wanted to get a pecking order out because the season has already begun. The state rankings will also have a different feel this season because there won’t be many, if any, inter-sectional or cross-regional matchups. The only major showcases we know of that are on the docket are the State Preview Classic set for May 8 and the Nike Extravaganza the following weekend.
Already, the Sac-Joaquin, Central Coast Section and North Coast Section have cancelled their playoffs. The CIF San Diego Section will have a post-season while the CIF Central Section and the CIF Southern Section will decide in the near future. The massive CIFSS will decide by April 13 and unless the CDPH’s neighboring county restrictions are removed, there may have to be a geographical based playoffs. Considering the size of the massive section, it will be welcomed by many CIFSS coaches. It may also help interest if two teams from relatively close neighborhoods are playing instead of a team from Santa Barbara County traveling to Barstow or another rural location in San Bernardino County or vice versa.
All CIF competition for the 2020-21 school year must be complete by June 12.
These rankings were also done with the assumption that the scholarship-worthy players who participated in the Grind Session in Arizona during the fall and winter would eventually be eligible. Those eligibilities were confirmed on Friday by the CIF state office. Some of the state’s better players, including last year’s state Junior Player of the Year, USC-bound Malik Thomas, participated in the league designed to give players a platform while other state’s winter seasons were shut down. The Grind Session is a loose conglomerate of independent schools and travel ball teams who add players to their roster with no restrictions. Many of the California natives who played in the Grind Session remained enrolled in their original CIF based school and made the decision to play not knowing whether there would be a California season. If it wasn’t for a lawsuit, there likely wouldn’t have been one. It is great that the CIF has now ruled these players as eligible based on all the other exceptions that have been made for student-athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to Thomas, other players who participated on Grind Session teams include, but were not limited to, San Joaquin Memorial’s JoJo Hunter (the best junior in the CIF Central Section), Daniel Esparza of La Habra Sonora, T.J. Wainwright of L.A. Westchester, Jaylen Thompson of Alameda St. Joseph and Donjae Lindsey of Stockton Weston Ranch.
In headline generating games in just the last few days, preseason state-ranked Damien of La Verne opened its season by playing on an outdoor court at its school, preseason state-ranked Heritage Christian of Northridge opened its season with an impressive win over Simi Valley, and a Servite of Anaheim player nearly broke a school record with a 47-point explosion.
For Damien, longtime head coach Mike LeDuc had the outdoor court constructed just outside of the gym when it was more uncertain about indoor sports in the state. The Spartans played his former school, Glendora, and won 54-31. According to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, there was a 15-minute rain delay. Spivey Word and Chris Nickelberry both scored 10 points to lead Damien. Thomas, who hadn’t yet been granted eligibility, did not play. The Spartans also won their second game on Thursday over Sierra Vista of Baldwin Park.
Heritage Christian debuted freshman Isaiah Elohim in its 75-43 triumph over Simi Valley. Elohim, a 6-foot-4 guard with offers from Arizona State and Arizona, poured in 27 points and added six rebounds and five assists. Another player on the Warriors’ roster, small forward Justin Rochelin, who already has signed with Arizona State, also had a strong first game with 20 points.
The Servite player turning heads was senior Andrew Cook. He had 47 points to lead the Friars past La Habra, 71-60. Cook nearly broke the school record of 49 points. As a junior, Cook, who also is shown with a 4.02 GPA, averaged 15.8 points with a listed high of 33.
We’ll have more updates on the state’s top players in the coming days and weeks.