(This story has been updated)
The Rock is returning.
So is Central Park.
The Rock and Central Park each went 3-0 in the 2013 Scenic City Showcase.
Also back are two local teams Hamilton Heights and, of course, East Hamilton, the host team for the 2014 Showcase.
Those teams will be joined by newcomers Tyner, Prominence Academy, of Creedmoor, N.C., north of Durham, and New Hope Christian, which is located in Thomasville, N.C., southwest of Greensboro.
In January 2013, teams played a round robin format and had three days of action crammed into two after the opening day was wiped out by inclement weather, with no champion – boys or girls – being crowned.
This time around there is something new about the Showcase that starts Thursday and concludes Saturday afternoon at East Hamilton Middle/High School on Ooltewah/Ringgold Road.
Boys teams are playing for championship hardware.
The Showcase is based on an eight-team tournament bracket and a champion will be crowned and take home a title trophy in tow.
“Last year we pre-scheduled everything,” East Hamilton boys coach Michael Stone said. “We decided to make it a true tournament this year. Some teams, like The Rock (out of Gainesville, Fla.) mentioned that if they were going to commit to a trip to Chattanooga they wanted an opportunity to bring home some hardware for their trophy case.”
In just its second year of existence, the Showcase is on track to become – sooner rather than later – Chattanooga’s premier basketball event at the high school or college level.
Where else could you see 7-footer Joel Embiid perform? Nowhere except on the East Hamilton campus, unless you want to drive to Manhattan – Kansas. Embiid, who two months before the signed with the University of Kansas, played with the powerful Rock Lions and was the main attraction at the first Showcase.
Embiid did not disappoint.
The 250-pound Embiid scored a combined 48 points in three games and helped The Rock draw good crowds to the Hurricanes’ gymnasium each time he played, including twice on Saturday.
Fans wanted to see what he would do next – rattle the building’s foundation with a thunder dunk, hit a fade-away, bank shot, block a shot six rows into the stands or lead a fast break.
Embiid, a native of Cameroon, did all those things in Chattanooga and led The Rock to an independent school state championship before taking his talents to Kansas.
As a Jayhawks freshman, Embiid is averaging 10.5 points per game and has 36 blocks and 78 rebounds. He has played in all 15 Kansas games and scored 18 and 17 points in back-to-back games against New Mexico and Georgetown.
After the 15th-ranked Jayhawks' 77-70 win over No. 8 Iowa State on Monday night, Myron Medcalf, of ESPN.com, called Embiid "the most important player on the Kansas roster." Against the Cyclones, Embiid finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, five blocks, two steals and seven turnovers in 28 minutes.
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg was quoted as saying Embiid is "the best player in America."
And the Showcase exposed Embiid to Chattanooga a year ago.
“I don’t have the team I had last year,” Lions coach Justin Harden said in a telephone interview from Gainesville on Monday. “That was a pretty special team. We had three other guys sign scholarships off that team.”
Alain Chigha signed with Quinnipiac University. Glenn Feidanga signed with LIU-Brooklyn, and Christian Benzon is now at the University of Evansville.
Four players from last year’s squad will be back in Chattanooga and Harden said he’s excited about the future of sophomore Troy Baxter, a 6-7 forward who transferred from Tallahassee late in the 2012-13 school year.
“Honestly, he’s got NBA potential,” said Harden, whose Lions are 12-6 this season, “but he’s still learning how to put it all together. Troy can shoot and rebound and fly up and down the court and get oohs and aahs with big dunks.”
Harden said he is happy the Showcase format has been switched to a tournament bracket.
“To compete for a tournament championship in the middle of the season is a pretty neat opportunity,” he said. “You have to commit three days to the Showcase and to play for a title intensifies it for all the teams making the trip.
“I loved our time in Chattanooga last year. Michael and Duke Stone have done a great job putting it all together and the people of Chattanooga were great. It was easy for me to come back this year.”
Duke Stone is a former coach, currently headmaster at Hamilton Heights and Michael’s father.
Last January, The Rock defeated Hamilton Heights (82-31), East Hamilton (76-38) and McCallie (66-54) in a collectively superb performance. Central Park, located in Birmingham, Ala., beat Cleveland (71-69), Hamilton Heights (58-42) and East Hamilton (63-51).
Harden will return with four players who were on the roster last season, led by Mitchell Wilbekin, the No. 5-rated point guard in Florida, who has signed with the University of Tulsa. Wilbekin’s brother, Scottie, is a senior at Florida this season. The Wilbekin’s father, Svend, formerly coached at The Rock.
Harden took over for the elder Wilbekin following the 2008-09 season.
Harden also said 6-7 forward Pape Diatta is being recruited by several schools, including Dayton, Rhode Island, Temple, Appalachian State, Louisiana Tech and Georgia Southern.
“It’s just a matter of where he decides to go,” Harden said.
The Rock’s first game will be against the once-beaten Tyner Rams, who played two weekend games in Memphis – beating John L. McClellan (Arkansas), 82-76, and losing to Whitehaven (68-46) before capturing the local Best of Preps tournament title by knocking off McCallie (59-49), Notre Dame (72-52) and Boyd-Buchanan (56-40) – all in a span of eight days in December.
Like many other coaches, the Rams’ Gerald Harris believes playing strong competition will bring out the best in his players and, at the same time, expose weaknesses they can correct before the postseason grind begins.
“I know The Rock is a good team because I saw them last year,” Harris said. “The big kid (Embiid) is gone, but they’ll bring a top-notch team up here. They’re usually in the national picture and will give our kids a great opportunity to face a team like that and play against kids who have either already signed or will sign with colleges.”
The Rams, coming off an impressive 75-36 rout of rival Howard in District 6-AA play and sporting an 11-1 record, had hoped to play in last year’s Showcase, but couldn’t work out an agreement to move a regular-season game against Brainerd.
That game was successfully switched this year and enabled the Rams to grab a spot in the Showcase.
“When things didn’t work out last year, I told Michael I definitely wanted in the 2014 Showcase,” Harris said. “Playing three good teams in three days will mirror what we’ll face later in our (TSSAA) tournaments. This will really help us get ready for the postseason.”
Harris agreed with other coaches that playing for a mid-season tournament title is also appealing.
“Whether you call it a classic, a showcase or whatever,” he said, “this tournament is good because there is no drop-off in competition. These are good teams we’ll be facing. Every game will be tough. This will bring out the best or worst in us and all the other teams.
“Good teams can expose the things you’re doing bad. And if you don’t make adjustments to those things they’ll make you worse.”
This week’s main big-man attraction just might be Hamilton Heights’ 6-11 center Abdulhakim Ado, a 15-year-old sophomore from Nigeria who already has a scholarship offer from Vanderbilt
Earlier this year Ado lit up Bradley Central for a triple double – 41 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks – in a 72-54 win over the Bears.
Through 21 games, Ado was averaging 11.3 points, 12.6 rebounds and 7.4 blocks per game. His two-point field goal percentage is a whopping 71.8 (102-142). Throw in the lone 3-pointer he’s attempted and made, the percentage climbs to 72.0.
Hawks senior Aleksa Jugovic, a 6-3 dead-eye shooting point guard, has signed with Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville. Jugovic came to America with a plan to earn a college scholarship and it took only two months for the Eagles to afford him with one to play in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Jugovic scored a career-high 34 points in a 68-42 win over New Faith Christian Academy and pumped in 27 in a 64-51 victory over McCallie last week. A night later the Hawks, now 22-1, blistered Lancaster Christian, 75-41, in Smyrna.
Jugovic is averaging 14.3 points per game. He shoots 53.4 percent from two-point range and 38.9 behind the 3-point arc. At the free-throw line, he has made 83.8 percent of his attempts.
The Prominence headliner is 6-7 guard Markell Lodge, a St. Joseph’s University signee known for his “ferocious dunking and shot-blocking ability.” Lodge chose St. Joseph’s over Murray State, Ole Miss and Stephen F. Austin.
According to Stone, there will be 35 Division I players who have either have signed scholarships or received offers, playing in the Showcase. Several college recruiters are expected to attend.
Those numbers are likely to rise as the Showcase gains more and more widespread stature.
Proof of how fast the Showcase has grown in popularity is the fact that tournament directors are in negotiations with famed Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., to appear in the 2015 event.
Oak Hill, routinely ranked in the USA TODAY national Top 25 poll, has claimed eight national titles and finished second on six other occasions. The Warriors have produced 14 first round NBA picks, including Rajon Rondo (Boston, 2006), Carmelo Anthony (Denver, 2003), Ron Mercer (Boston, 1997) and Jerry Stackhouse (Philadelphia, 1995).
The school won 65 consecutive games from 2000-02, went 44-0 in 2011-12 and posted three other undefeated seasons.
Brandon Jennings, a 2009 first-round lottery pick by Milwaukee, has the single-game scoring record with 63 points.
Landing Oak Hill next year would be a coup that would establish the Showcase as the dominant basketball tournament player in Tennessee.
Stone said the 2015 tournament is “almost booked already” and includes the Oldsmar School, out of Florida, which committed to the 2015 Showcase last January. Another school from Texas contacted the Hurricanes coach about playing in next year’s tournament.
“The Showcase is gaining national recognition,” Stone said. “And that’s what we want to bring to Chattanooga for our local teams and fans to see. We’re blessed with a great facility and strong contacts through Hamilton Heights.
“Last year’s Showcase was definitely a success, although I’d be lying if I said nothing went wrong. On the whole, things went off without a hitch and the coaches were very complimentary.”
Four girls teams – East Hamilton, Hamilton Heights, New Hope and The Rock – will compete in a round robin format that was in place last year.
Invitations were extended to power teams Riverdale of Murfreesboro and Bradley Central and they showed interest, but could not work out space on their schedule to participate.
“Public schools have more red tape with governing bodies to get past,” Stone said. “We eventually want to take the girls to a 16-team tournament.”
The New Hope girls (19-0) headline the four-team field with their No. 8 Super 25 national ranking by MaxPreps.com, which also ranks New Hope No. 1 in North Carolina.
New Hope already has defeated The Rock’s girls twice this season by scores of 52-33 to open the season and 64-37 and is coming off a 97-25 thumping of Heathwood Hall Episcopal on Jan. 10.
Scenic City Showcase Schedule
At East Hamilton High School
Game 1 – Central Park vs. Prominence Academy, 3:30 p.m.
Game 2 – New Hope (B) vs. Hamilton Heights, 5 p.m.
Game 3 – New Hope (A) vs. East Hamilton, 6:30 p.m.
Game 4 – The Rock vs. Tyner, 8 p.m.
Game 5 – Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 3:30 p.m.
Game 6 – Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 5 p.m.
Game 7 – Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6:30 p.m.
Game 8 – Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 8 p.m.
Game 9 – Loser Game 5 vs. Loser Game 6, 10:30 a.m.
Game 10 – Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 6, Noon
Loser Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8, 1:30 p.m.
Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 8, 3 p.m.
New Hope vs. Hamilton Heights, 6:30 p.m.
The Rock vs. East Hamilton, 8 p.m.
Hamilton Heights vs. The Rock, 3:30 p.m.
East Hamilton vs. New Hope, 5 p.m.
New Hope vs. The Rock, 10:30 a.m.
Hamilton Heights at East Hamilton, Noon
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)