ESPN bringing 15 games to national television

It's become a staple on the ESPN family of networks: Tip-Off Thursday. The first Thursday in each of the last five Decembers has tipped off the national coverage of high school basketball.

The 15-game high school package commences Dec. 6 with No. 25 Campbell Hall (North Hollywood, Calif.) trekking to No. 11 St. Edward (Lakewood, Ohio) at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

"We're always trying to find unique matchups involving ranked teams and players in the ESPN 150 (player rankings)," said Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing, who coordinates the sixth ESPNU Old Spice high School Showcase. "We've had a good track record on this first Thursday in December and this year shouldn't be any different."

The series is highlighted by teams from 11 states, with 12 schools in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 preseason boys' basketball rankings, released earlier this month.

Tip-Off Thursday has featured All-American players such as LeBron James, Tyler Hansbrough, Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Sebastian Telfair, and Darius Washington Jr.. The inaugural game saw James and his unheralded St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio) teammates upend top-ranked Oak Hill Academy at Cleveland State University in 2002.

A year later, the nation's top two guards, Telfair and Washington, tangled in Bronx, N.Y.; Oden and Conley won games in 2004 and '05; and Oak Hill edged Norcross (Ga.) in a battle of the nation's top two teams.

"We've had the top players featured in these games," Ghazi said. "High school players like O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Greg Oden, Dwight Howard, and LeBron (James) have made an impact on the college and NBA levels recently. The high school players you'll watch this year (on ESPN channels) should be the stars next year in college."

This year's opening night game will be staged at St. Edward's 2,000-seat gymnasium in suburban Cleveland. Top 10 players (according to the ESPN 150), No. 5 Jrue Holiday of Campbell Hall and No. 7 Delvon Roe, of St. Edward flavor the intersectional matchup. Campbell Hall, California's defending Division IV champion, returns four starters, bolstered by the UCLA-bound guard Holiday.

St. Edward, which had a 25-game win streak stopped in last year's Division I semifinals, relies on 6-7 Roe (Michigan State) and 6-8 Tom Pritchard (Indiana).

"Three of the four games on ESPN2 will showcase high school teams in their home venues or high school gyms," Ghazi said. "Small venues bring out the best in the players and fans enjoy the great sight lines."

Here are thumbnails of six key dates on the schedule (All times Eastern).

• Dec. 13: No. 9 St. Benedict's (Newark, N.J.)-No. 1 Oak Hill Academy, 9 p.m., ESPN: The game is slated for a neutral as a key fixture at the Marshall County Hoops Festival in rural Benton, Ky. Arizona-bound point guard Brandon Jennings, the top-ranked player in the ESPN 150, drives the Oak Hill engine. Louisville-bound forward Samardo Samuels (third ranked in ESPN 150) counters for St. Benedict's.

• Dec. 29: Houston vs. the Nation (doubleheader), 9 p.m., ESPNU: The matchups have not been decided but Oak Hill and No. 2 St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) will play two Houston are teams. Event director Hal Pastner of Vision Sports said the teams will likely play Yates (Houston) and Klein Collins, two of Texas' strongest large school clubs at the 7,000-seat Campbell Center. The game is a homecoming for OHA 6-10 junior center Tiny Gallon, who attended nearby Atascocita High in Humble. Forward Quintrell Thomas (No. 88) and highly-touted junior guard Dexter Strickland lead St. Patrick. Anthony Jones of Yates, a 6-11 center, has signed with Baylor.

• Jan. 15: American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.)-Monsignor Pace (Miami), 9 p.m., ESPNU: Florida-bound center Eloy Vargas (No. 27) and 6-2 junior Kenny Boynton form a one-two punch for American Heritage.

"We're trying to feature different parts of the country," Ghazi said. "South Florida has plenty of good teams and we were fortunate to get these two."

• Jan. 21: The Spalding Hoophall Classic (three games), 11 a.m., ESPNU: The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., hosts a colossal four-day event over the Martin Luther King Weekend with 40 teams from 15 states. The three marquee games are No. 16 Archbishop Mitty (San Jose)-Holy Cross (Queens, N.Y.); St. Raymond (Bronx)-No. 20 Taft (Woodland Hills, Calif.); and No. 6 St. Anthony (Jersey City)-Scott County (Georgetown, Ky.).

• Feb. 9: The Prime Time Shootout (doubleheader), 8 p.m., ESPNU: The nation's premiere February event gathers the top teams to Trenton, N.J. before embarking on their postseasons.

The opening day is No. 12 Rice (Manhattan, N.Y.) and No. 13 Lincoln (Brooklyn). This might be a preview of the New York State Federation Class AA tournament combatants. Rice is the favorite to win the New York City Catholic title and Lincoln, led by super junior Lance Stephenson, aims for a six PSAL title in seven years. If the rankings hold, St. Patrick and Oak Hill would pit the top two teams in the HIGH Elite 25 rankings at 9 p.m.

• Feb. 21: Hurley Night in Jersey City, 7 p.m., ESPNU and ESPN2: Legendary coach Bob Hurley of No. 6 St. Anthony (Jersey City) and his son, Danny of St. Benedict's, fuel this father-son doubleheader from their hometown. St. Benedict's concludes its season against No. 5 Montverde (Fla.) Academy on ESPNU.

In the nightcap, St. Anthony plays American Christian (Aston, Pa.) at 9 p.m. The Friars return five starters and have a final tune-up before a likely postseason showdown with St. Patrick. Tyreke Evans of American Christian is No. 2 player in the ESPN 150.

Additionally, ESPNU will supplement the game schedule with a weekly 30-minute show, ESPNU Recruiting Insider, which evaluates the top high school basketball recruits and their classes based on research and analysis provided by ESPN's Scouts Inc. The show will be aired on Friday (6:30 p.m.) with Lowell Galindo hosting and ESPN's Scouts Inc. recruiting analyst John Carroll, who previously coached in college and the NBA.

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.