If we've learned anything from the first two days of the annual Times Free Press Best of Preps basketball tournament, it's this: Hang on for what should be a wild season of hoops.
The first month of the high school basketball season is more or less a preseason for most teams, a time for coaches to set their rotations before the new year brings with it a slate of district games that determine which teams have legit shots at advancing to their respective state tournaments.
The three-day format of the Best of Preps is set up not only to spotlight top area talent for fans but also to help coaches prepare their teams for the rigors of playing on consecutive days, as they will once the postseason tournaments begin.
Several of the boys' and girls' teams competing in the Best of Preps tournament look poised to become state tournament contenders, which would be a welcome upswing from recent seasons when the area prep basketball scene consisted of a couple of teams separating themselves from the pack.
It's no secret that Chattanooga teams have struggled to contend with the rest of the state, but as is the case with all school sports, the cycle is due for a positive swing for local teams.
McCallie narrowly lost in the Division II state championship game last season and has an abundance of returning experience mixed with new talent to be considered a top contender again. Led by Cordell James, Terrance O'Donohue and C.J. Reese, the Blue Tornado have a nice mixture of ball-handlers and solid post play, as well as a coach, Dan Wadley, who knows how to win at the state tournament.
Not only has Wadley led McCallie to the tournament each of the last two years, but his Tennessee Temple teams were regular contenders in Class A and won two state championships.
One of the biggest threats for McCallie this season will be rival Baylor, which has arguably the city's top player in junior Reggie Upshaw and a solid all-around player in Leo Born. The 6-foot-6 Upshaw averages a double-double and continued to develop a fan following at the Best of Preps, starting the tournament by nailing four straight 3-pointers.
Veteran Austin Clark, who would get my vote for the best coach in the city regardless of sport, always develops his teams to hustle, play defense and rebound, and now he has the type talent to take those fundamentals and contend with any opponent.
Among the public schools, while Tyner may not have the college prospects it has produced in years past, coach Gerald Harris always puts a team on the floor that makes teams work for every basket, and the Rams have found ways to win their first nine games. The confidence built from the undefeated start should help carry Tyner through a tough district schedule that includes another state-tournament contender in Howard.
Even some of the teams that were sent to the losers bracket after the first round of the tournament should make deep postseason pushes. With D.J. Bowles triggering Cleveland's offense, the Blue Raiders are dangerous, and there may not be a more athletic team in the entire area than Ooltewah. At the very least, the Owls are arguably the most fun team to watch, with every trip down the floor a chance at a highlight dunk or a long 3-pointer.
Much like Baylor and McCallie expect to battle throughout the year, Baylor's girls and GPS look poised to face off several times this season for not only bragging rights as the best team in the city but also for a potential Division II state title.
The defending D-II champion Bruisers can win with an up-tempo style or are perfectly content to physically pound opponents in the half-court game. Baylor, with three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup, is one of the few teams on GPS's schedule that won't be intimidated by the list of future college players wearing blue and white.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...