by Terry Douglass
The main event in the seventh annual Heartland Hoops Classic figures to be an up-tempo affair.
Four-time defending Nebraska Class A state tournament champion Omaha Central will be making its second consecutive Classic appearance as the Eagles will play Denver East High School on Saturday, Feb. 15. Tipoff at Grand Island’s Heartland Events Center is scheduled for 9 p.m.
“It’s going to be full-court basketball,” Denver East coach Rudy Carey said of the matchup he believes features the best teams from Nebraska and Colorado going head to head. “We press and run and they like to press and run. I know Omaha Central is very aggressive, very good and they’re very well-coached, so we expect it to just be a war.”
Omaha Central coach Eric Behrens echoed Carey’s sentiments.
“Denver East is just really talented,” Behrens said. “They have some guys that can really play — if you look at the Rivals rankings, they’ve got some guys who are really well-known nationally.
“Playing them is going to be a real challenge. Everyone tells us that Denver East is the top team in Colorado in the top class, so we know that’s going to make it a lot of fun.”
Fans of up-tempo basketball will probably also like what they see. While Omaha Central graduated several players from last year’s squad, Behrens said the Eagles’ style of play remains the same.
“We’re going to try and do some of the same things: Press and run and get it going up and down if we can,” Behrens said. “I think our guys play well with that style, so we’re going to keep trying to do what we’re good at.”
Behrens said there are certainly differences between last year’s Eagles team and the squad he’s bringing back to Grand Island this year. For starters, Omaha Central doesn’t possess any one player who received as much individual attention as current Louisville freshman Akoy Agau, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds to lead his team to a 70-63 victory over Oak Hill Academy (Va.) before an estimated crowd of 6,000 in last year’s Classic finale.
“I don’t know if there’s as much hype surrounding this year’s team as compared to last year, but it’s a really coachable group and they have really improved from the first day of practice,” Behrens said. “They have just bought into doing whatever it takes to win games. They’re really tough, defensively, they share the ball on offense, they take care of it and don’t turn it over too much and we’ve got some guys that can make shots.
“Don’t get me wrong: We’ve got some talented guys who can play, but we’re very team-oriented and I think that’s a big part of our success.”
Omaha Central won 16 of its first 17 games to start the season. The only setback in that span came in the second game of the season when the Eagles lost to Omaha Benson 64-59 in the Omaha Public School Jamboree on Dec. 7.
Senior forward Tre’Shawn Thurman leads the way for Central. The 6-foot-7, 205-pound senior averaged nearly 18 points per game through Jan. 30.
Senior guards Jarek Coles and Austin McGaugh were also averaging double figures in points for the well-balanced Eagles.
“Rashad McCoy and Austin McGaugh, have been real solid and Jarek and Tre’Shawn have consistently scored in double figures for us,” Behrens said. “Malik Harris and Reath Nyoach are really good rebounders, so we have been getting a really well-rounded effort.”
Sophomore guard K’Zahn Jimerson was also giving Central an additional scoring threat off the bench, but was battling an injury in January. Behrens said he expected Jimerson to be available to play in the Classic.
Denver East is led by senior guard Dominique Collier, who played on the U.S. national 16-and-under team and is aiming to become just the second four-time All-Colorado selection in the state’s history, joining former Colorado University standout and NBA player Chauncey Billups. The 6-2, 160-pounder who has committed to play for his home-state Buffaloes next season, averaged 23.9 points and four assists in his team’s first 17 games.
Creighton recruit Ronnie Harrell adds scoring punch for the Angels. The 6-6 senior forward has averaged 16 points per game, despite battling a wrist injury.
“He’s a pure shooter,” Carey said of Harrell. “He’s 6-6, a good ball-handler and a shooter. He missed a couple of weeks with a sprained wrist, but he should be back for the Omaha Central game.”
Denver East also features Jevon Griffin, who Carey describes as a “power guard” averaging 12 points per game and point guard Brian Carey, who Coach Carey refers to as “the motor” of the team. Not to be overlooked is Tyre Robinson, a 6-6 shot-blocking post player with a 40-inch vertical jump.
The Angels started their season 14-3 with their only losses coming against out-of-state competition. Denver East lost to Neumann-Goretti (Pa.) and St. John Bosco (Calif.) in the City of Palms Classic at Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in December and suffered a setback at Northside Christian Academy (N.C.) on Jan. 11.
Carey said his squad should benefit from playing several nationally ranked opponents this season.
“You can always improve and we have got to improve to contend for a state championship,” said Carey, who guided Denver East to consecutive state championships in 2008 and 2009. “It really gives you a good opportunity to gauge yourself and see how you stack up, nationally.
“We have a healthy respect for Omaha Central because we know they’re one of the best teams in Nebraska and we feel like we’re the best in Colorado, so it should be a fun game. I think it’s the right time, right venue and right opponent for us to play at that point in the season.”
After beating Oak Hill Academy in last year’s Classic, Behrens said the Eagles were looking forward to a return trip to Grand Island.
“We loved it last year and it was as fun an experience as you can have for a non-state tournament game,” Behrens said. “It was an unbelievable experience with the crowd the support we received, the arena itself and the quality of the opponent we played in Oak Hill.
“Sometimes when you’re winning a lot of games like our kids were last year, the regular-season stuff seems like just one game after another — they pile up and nothing really jumps out at you — but that game was so much fun. Our kids really looked forward to it and if you talked to them, I think most of them would say that outside of winning a state championship, that was their most memorable experience.”