We will address five pressing questions about the boys and girls basketball scene every week throughout the 2009-10 season.
1. What's the most intriguing first-round matchup at the Nike Tournament of Champions?
The nation's most prestigious girls' tournament (Dec. 17-23 in the Phoenix area) features a matchup of Norcross (Norcross, Ga.) vs. St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.). Norcross is rolling early in the season behind senior Briana Jordan and the freshman duo of Diamond DeShields and Kaela Davis. The Lady Blue Devils, up to No. 13 in the latest ESPN RISE FAB 50, have never been to the TOC so will be in for a challenge. ESPN RISE FAB 50 No. 1 St. Mary's, with its two big guns (Chelsea Gray and Afure Jemerigbe) and an experienced supporting cast, is the favorite going into that game because the Lady Rams know how physically and mentally challenging it is to win in the desert. Despite the talent and experience, getting to the finals won't be easy for the nation's top-ranked team.
2. Which team could be a surprise at the Nike TOC?
It could be Mount Lebanon (Pittsburgh, Pa.). The Lady Blue Devils are coming off an undefeated season with loads of returning talent, but they've never seen teams like the ones they'll face at the TOC. Beyond that, teams from Pennsylvania have traditionally not played well in the event. If Mount Lebanon doesn't come in starry-eyed, it should do well. Remember, against the caliber of competition at the TOC, a 2-2 record would be considered a success. Mount Lebanon's opener with fellow FAB 50 club ThunderRidge (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) could be a barnburner. Win or lose, the TOC experience will help Lebanon when it faces St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.) on Dec. 29 at the T-Mobile Invitational.
3. Can the top three Southern California teams at the NIKE TOC overcome injuries?
Three SoCal teams opened up in the top 16 of the preseason ESPN RISE FAB 50, but things have changed in Tinseltown faster than you can say TMZ. Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.) started out No. 6 but lost talented junior Justine Hartman for the entire season because of ACL surgery. The Ladycats already lost a game and dropped out of the FAB 50, meaning players like Jeanier Olukemi and Breana Buczek are going to have to step up big time for the squad to creep back into the national rankings. No. 16 Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.) won the Inglewood Holiday Classic without USC commit Thaddesia Southall, but the Jackrabbits still miss her services on the offensive glass. That leaves No. 2 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), which might be able to absorb the loss of junior Alexyz Vaioletama a little better because the team is used to playing without her. We envision the Lady Monarchs making it to the semifinals of the TOC, where Bolingbrook (Bolingbrook, Ill.) and Morgan Tuck might be waiting.
4. Will Latavious Williams' move catch on?
Let's explain his move in a bit more depth so you'll know why we don't think it will. By now, everyone knows the path Brandon Jennings took to The League -- from Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) to Italy to No. 10 pick in the NBA Draft. Williams hopes to make the league as a trailblazer of different sorts -- he's trying to go from the prep ranks to the D-League to the NBA. The 6-foot-7 swingman was All-State at Starkville (Starkville, Miss.) in 2008, then took a fifth year at Christian Life Center (Humble, Texas) and committed to Memphis. When Williams didn't qualify academically, he reportedly considered a six-figure deal in China before the D-League's Tulsa 66ers drafted him and offered a reported $19,000 contract. Williams isn't playing much so far, giving NBA scouts little to work with and making his decision to reportedly turn down six figures look questionable in hindsight. And, of course, hindsight is 20-20, so we're guessing other players will learn from Williams and not go that route.
5. Can Yates (Houston, Texas) be slowed down at the Iolani Classic in Hawaii?
Yes, Yates can be slowed down, but it's doubtful the Lions will be contained at the Dec. 17-22 tourney. The nation's No. 9 team in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 is off to a hot start with a 6-0 record. The defending Texas Class 4A state champions averaged just over 150 points per game in their first three victories. Though they likely won't put up that many points per game on the island, Yates' experience and confidence will make the Lions tough to beat. In fact, they are undefeated in their last 23 outings. A semifinal matchup with either Columbia (Decatur, Ga.) or Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.), both FAB 50 clubs, would be a stiff test. After Christmas, Yates will give Kentwood (Covington, Wash.) all it can handle at the T-Mobile Classic, especially since UCLA-bound Josh Smith won't be 100 percent because of injury.