The Heartland Hoops Classic has become an annual event at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island.
The seventh-annual Hoops Classic is set for Saturday with eight games beginning at 9 a.m. with Sutton against Class D-1 No. 6 Overton and ending with 9:15 p.m. game between Class A No. 4 Omaha Central and Denver East.
"I think the lineup of games is maybe as good as we’ve had from the start to the finish," Grand Island Central Catholic coach and event organizer Tino Martinez said. "We have some highly-rated teams in each game starting in the first game with Overton. Sutton is a very competitive game in C-2."
Last year, Omaha Central took on Oakhill Academy in the final game of the day and came away with a 70-63 victory.
Martinez said this year’s game against Denver East, featuring Creighton recruit Ronnie Harrell, could be just as good.
"It has an opportunity to be as competitive or as entertaining as last year’s Oakhill game," Martinez said. "I think both teams are fairly evenly matched up. There will be a lot of great basketball players on the floor. The people in our area are going to catch a glimpse of some higher-echelon players who maybe play at a different pace and maybe play above the rim a little more than we’re used to watching in our area."
Area teams will face some tough competition at the Hoops Classic. Class D-2 No. 3 High Plains played C-2 N0-3 Freeman at 10:45 a.m.
Grand Island Senior High will play Class B No. 1 and unbeaten Elkhorn South at 12:30 p.m.
Northwest and Class C-1 No. 2 Bishop Neumann follow at 2:15 p.m. just before Class C-2 NO. 6 Doniphan-Trumbull takes on traditional power Norfolk Catholic.
Martinez’s Crusaders then face a big challenge against Class C-2 No. 5 Southern Valley at 5:45 p.m. Martinez has seen Southern Valley play a couple of times.
"They’re going to be a real challenge for us," Martinez said. "They’re very well-coached. They have a very experienced coach in John Miller who was up in the Chambers area for a long time. They will be a tough matchup for us."
The Crusaders were 11-4 at one point and rated in the top 10 in Class C-1, but then the injury bug hit.
Junior Brett Wiens missed time with a concussion, and leading scorer Youhanna Ghaifan injured a knee and missed about three weeks.
Junior point guard Eli Hunter missed time with an ankle injury, one that Martinez said will have to be nursed throughout the remainder of the season.
The injuries hurt the Crusaders in the Centennial Conference Tournament when the lost to Bergan 68-32 and and Wahoo Neumann 72-29.
GICC faced a Bergan team that had players 6-foot-8, 6-7 and 6-4 while its tallest player that night was 5-11.
"Our reward for getting beat by Bergan is we had to go to C-1 No. 1 Bishop Neumann, so it was definitely not an opportune time for us to have the injuries we had," Martinez said. "But I don’t know if any part of the season is a good time to have it. We’re just fortunate to have everybody back."
Now the Crusaders are nearly 100 percent. Ghaifan is back but Martinez said he is not yet to full strength.
"But his knee feels really good," Martinez said. "It’s more about just getting his conditioning back. Brett Wiens didn’t feel that good the other night, but I think most of his concussion symptoms have subsided and hopefully he’s back to full strength."
Before the Crusaders worry too much about Southern Valley, they have to play Class C-2 No. 1 Hastings St. Cecilia on Friday.
"They’re as good as anybody in C with all their cylinders firing and we saw that this week when they beat Wahoo," St. Cecilia coach Kevin Asher said. "Wahoo is a very good basketball team. They have a week to prepare. We’ll see if we can have the energy that we had (Tuesday against Adams Central)."
Tough stretch for Patriots
Adams Central is its toughest stretch of the season.
The Patriots have lost three straight games, but they’ve been in all three. They fell to Doniphan-Trumbull (16-3) by a 58-52 score and to 18-3 Ravenna (62-53) in the Lou-Platte Tournament before dropping a 67-59 game to St. Cecilia (16-4) Tuesday.
"We talked about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger," Adams Central coach Zac Foster said. "We played Ord, a dang good team, up there and beat them. We played Doniphan close and had a chance to win, then we played Ravenna and it went into the fourth quarter.
"We played these guys then Ravenna again and Kearney Catholic to finish up. It’s a grind, but then again we want to be playing our best basketball in districts and this is going to help us."
Bob Hamar is the boys basketball writer for The Independent.