Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer sign off on the year with one last basketball conversation. They discuss fallout from the Arbor View vs. Centennial game last week and get to this week's picks.
Bishop Gorman High basketball coach Grant Rice had high expectations when planning the holiday basketball tournament hosted at his school.
First, he wanted the nation’s best teams to participate. And, of course, the event needed to honor the godfather of basketball in Las Vegas, legendary UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian.
Now in its second year, the Tarkanian Classic is doing just that.
The 44-team event, which begins Wednesday at Gorman, is highlighted by four of the nation’s top five teams as ranked by Maxpreps.com, and four defending state champions. Notable teams include: Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly of Southern California, Pinnacle of Phoenix, Central Catholic of Oregon, and Northern California powers Sheldon and Bishop O’Dowd.
And, of course, nationally ranked Gorman, which has two of the nation’s most sought-after recruits in 2015 post players Stephen Zimmerman and Chase Jeter, is also part of the field.
A separate prep-school division will include Henderson-based Findlay Prep, powerhouse Montrose Christian of Maryland and top 10-ranked Prime Prep.
The tournament is so anticipated, Rice said more than 100 media credentials have been issued and 50 colleges are expected to send recruiters. Friday, when part of the tournament shifts to the Orleans Arena, three games will be televised by the CBS Sports Network with Doug Gottlieb — one of CBS’s lead college basketball analysts — on the call.
In two short years, the tournament has arguably become the most anticipated of the holiday season.
“It’s like the summer tournaments in Las Vegas. Everyone wants to come to Las Vegas around the holidays to play basketball,” Rice said.
Rice is busy wearing two hats this week — one of the tournament organizer, and more important, the other as the Gorman coach. Gorman has traveled to Chicago and Phoenix in the past two weeks in playing national competition, posting a 1-2 overall record but gaining valuable experience for its roster of some first-time contributors.
Last week, Gorman lost by just six points to Oak Hill Academy of Virginia, which is of the nation’s most prestigious programs.
“We learned we have a pretty good team, but we have a ways to go,” Rice said. “We fought hard and we stayed together, and we were able to take Oak Hill Academy to the wire.”
Rice’s scheduling philosophy for Gorman is to play the best out-of-state competition available in preparation to defend its state championship. This week, that competition is coming to Las Vegas, giving the Gaels a valuable home-court advantage. The Gaels play Lynnwood of California at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Gorman.
“It’s always great around Christmas time to stay home in Las Vegas and still play quality teams,” Rice said.
Gorman isn’t the lone local school in the event. Clark and Durango highs are each guaranteed four games — and each should come against notable foes. One of Durango's top players is guard Alex Tarkanian, Jerry's grandson.
For Clark, one of the Las Vegas area’s top public-school programs, the tournament is a perfect setting to make a splash nationally. The undefeated Chargers play at 6 p.m. Thursday against Mater Dei, which is led by Stanley Johnson, the class of 2014’s top recruit who is committed to the University of Arizona.
It’s a big jump in competition, but the Chargers aren’t backing down. While Mater Dei won the Tarkanian Classic last season and is one of California’s perennial powers, Clark coach Chad Beeten said his players are up to the challenge. They are ready for the spotlight.
“Our kids are excited for this. Our kids want this (game),” Beeten said. “It’s been four years turning this program around and we are anxious for the opportunity for exposure. I can tell you right now, we don’t have an inferiority complex. We are prepared to compete.”
They are equally excited being part of a tournament named for Tarkanian.
Rice, the younger brother of UNLV coach Dave Rice, has been a fan of Tarkanian since his brother played for the Rebels during the 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons when UNLV made consecutive Final Four appearances and won the 1990 national title.
The Rice family would drive from Claremont, Calif., for each UNLV home game, then head back to Southern California afterward so Grant wouldn’t miss middle school. For a young basketball junkie, watching Tarkanian’s Rebels run up and down the court helped shape some of his basketball philosophies. Like Tarkanian’s teams, Gorman plays aggressive defense and likes to push the ball up the court in transition.
“I’m honored to run a tournament with his name on it,” Grant Rice said.
Tarkanian will likely attend Friday night's games at the Orleans, where he’ll be informally recognized.
Visit tarkanianclassic.com for schedules, ticket prices and other information.