There wasn’t much question about the best boys basketball team in Division I last year, as Corona del Sol finished the season on a 30-game winning streak and cruised past Laveen Cesar Chavez for the state championship.
While the Aztecs could once again be a contender this year, they won’t be the favorites. In fact, opinions seem to vary on the big-school teams to beat.
Dobson, Mesa, Pinnacle and Desert Mountain are the squads most often mentioned at the top alongside Corona. Those five seem to have the edge on paper, but ranking them in order is no easy task.
Paradise Valley seems like a safe bet as the preseason favorite in Division II, while there’s no question Gilbert Christian is the cream of the crop in Division III. Division IV is tougher but Desert Christian, last year’s No. 1 seed and a state semifinalist, has a healthy number of returning starters.
The season begins on Monday with regular season games and a plethora of tournaments.
Football may be winding down, but there’s no time to rest. Here comes hoops season.
Tribune Preseason Rankings
1. Dobson: Basha transfer Jaron Hopkins and Kodi Justice form potent duo; outside shooting of Ryan Richardson is vital
2. Mesa: Starting five is most talented in state from top to bottom, but big-game experience a concern
3. Pinnacle: Drew Bender and Dorian Pickens are back, but is there enough of a supporting cast?
4. Corona del Sol: POY Calaen Robinson and Avery Moss are big losses, but Casey Benson leads the defending champs
5. Desert Mountain: Diego Magana and Rolando Rhymes lead unselfish, balanced team
6. Cesar Chavez: Runners-up have Pablo Rivas back but lost some talent, including sharpshooter J.D. Reagan
7. Gilbert: Prescott transfer Truman Moore gives Tigers inside game to go with guards Conner Helvig, Anthony Bryant
8. Mountain View: Junior Payton Dastrup may already be state’s best player, but he needs help after loss of Cam Boone
9. North: Leading scorer Jonah Legg returns and Mustangs lost only one key contributor
10. Chaparral: Joe Boyd and Eric Conklin are low-post talents complemented by young guard play
Others to watch: Brophy, Highland, Red Mountain
1. Paradise Valley: Fresno State commit Paul Watson is the star but Trojans have talent behind him
2. Sierra Linda: 1-2 punch of Edgar Sarmiento and Damien Mendoza should have Bulldogs in mix
3. Poston Butte: Jalen Richard and Kyle Davis both averaged more than 18 points per game last season and return
4. Saguaro: Ryan Berg, Mike Hauser lead a Sabercats group which is always competitive
5. Greenway: Northern Arizona commit Chris Miller is top scorer and will lead Demons
6. Coconino: Everyone of substance back from last year’s 21-win team
7. Nogales: Must replace Joseph Monreal and Cesar Solis but Brian Cervantes leads new-look Apaches
8. Queen Creek: Bulldogs won 21 games last year and Blake Williams, Carter Wilson return
9. Thunderbird: Loss of Marcus Wheeler hurts, but next top-5 scorers should keep Chiefs relevant
10. Shadow Mountain: Impressive freshman class should have immediate impact on varsity
Others to watch: Salpointe Catholic, Catalina Foothills, Betty Fairfax
1. Gilbert Christian: Sam Jones, Roberto Reyes, Dylan Bliss lead another stacked Knights team
2. Snowflake: After 26-5 season, Chase Walden and Reggie Petersen return
3. Valley Christian: Balance should again be name of the game for Trojans
4. Scottsdale Christian: Cody Ostertag a big loss but Clay Crookham, other key players back
5. Chinle: Three scorers in double digits return, led by Kevin Yazzie (15.3 ppg)
1. Desert Christian: Top seed and state semifinalist last year returns plenty of talent
2. Duncan: Lots of key returners from state semifinalists
3. Yuma Catholic: Won 20 games last year and could be better
4. Joy Christian: Jeremiah April and Trevor Deason are nice 1-2 punch
5. Arizona Lutheran: Kris Lamberson is back but will need help from newcomers for last year’s runners-up team
Players to watch
Payton Dastrup, Jr., PF, Mountain View: Top-50 national recruit deferred to Cam Boone last season, but should dominate for Toros
Dorian Pickens, Jr., SF, Pinnacle: Smooth shooter should increase scoring load after Pioneers graduated three starters; top-100 recruit
Casey Benson, Jr., PG, Corona del Sol: Leader of the Aztecs knows when to shoot and when to pass; will play huge role in team’s fortunes
Jaron Hopkins, Sr., PG, Dobson: Colorado commit has raw talent to excel but must fit into more disciplined scheme after leaving Basha
Kodi Justice, Jr., SF; Dobson: Sharpshooter with quick release should see more open looks with Hopkins next to him
Jake Toolson, Jr., SF, Highland: Excellent shooter who will have to work hard for shot with defenses keying on him
Paul Watson, Sr., SF, Paradise Valley: Fresno State commit one of state’s most athletic players
Drew Bender, Sr., SG, Pinnacle: Rice commit scores, rebounds, passes well and will need to do all for Pioneers
Sam Jones, Jr., SF, Gilbert Christian: Impressive range; will be main scorer with graduation of Connor Patterson
Jalen Richard, Sr., SG, Poston Butte: Athletic slasher will put up points; committed to Santa Clara
Others to watch
Basha: Maurice Kirby, Sr., F; Brophy: Tim Kempton, Sr., F; Chandler: Daquise Gaines, Sr., G; Chaparral: Joe Boyd, Sr., F; Corona del Sol: Ashton Howard, Sr. F; Dobson: Ryan Richardson, Jr., G; Desert Mountain: Diego Magana, Sr., G; Rolando Rhymes, Jr., G; Desert Vista: Avery Brunson, Sr., F; Kyle Pitman, Sr., G; Gilbert: Conner Helvig, Sr., G; Truman Moore, So., F; Gilbert Christian: Roberto Reyes, Jr. G; Dylan Bliss, Sr., G; Hamilton: Michael Garcia, Sr., G; Higley: Quinn Bailey, Jr., F; Highland: Austin Witherill, Jr., G; Marcos de Niza: Richaud Gittens, Sr., G; Devin White, Sr. F; McClintock: Ben Cuevas, Sr., G; Mesa: D.J. Henderson, Sr., G; Christian Harris, Jr., G; Isaac Allen, Jr., F; Jalen Jenkins, So. G; Mesquite: Zach Green, Jr., G; Mountain Pointe: Khari Holloway, Sr., G; Perry: Jordan Howard, Jr., G; Poston Butte: Kyle Davis, Sr., G; Queen Creek: Blake Williams, Jr., G; Red Mountain: Travis Meeker, Sr., F; Saguaro: Ryan Berg, Sr., G; Mike Hauser, Sr., G; Scottsdale Christian: Clay Crookham, Sr., G; Skyline: Jordan Lee, So., G; St. Mary’s: Brendon Norwood-Pearson, Sr., G; Tempe: Delano Jones, So., G; Valley Christian: Jeff Paschke, Sr., G.
• Transfers: Not surprisingly, there was plenty of offseason movement. The most notable transfers were that of Basha stars Torren Jones and Jaron Hopkins. The cousins both went to Dobson before Jones again transferred out of state, to La Lumiere Prep in Indiana. Hopkins, a first-team All-Tribune selection a year ago, remains with the Mustangs for his senior season. He is joined by Perry guard Ryan Richardson, an elite shooter who should complement Hopkins and holdover Kodi Justice. Mountain Pointe shooting guard Austin Witherill is now at Highland, Gilbert welcomes promising big man Truman Moore from Prescott, Corona del Sol added Las Vegas Bonanza standout Ashton Howard and Marcos de Niza’s Avery Brunson transferred to Desert Vista, though the Thunder lost a pair of key players when forward Connor MacDougall and guard John Marshall transferred to the Westwind Prep National team.
• Division II contenders: The Final Four in Division II a season ago consisted of Peoria, Tucson Amphitheater, Arcadia and Glendale Raymond Kellis. All four schools lost a superstar (Peoria’s Dewayne Russell, Amphitheater’s Tim Derksen, Arcadia’s Larry Lewis and Kellis’ Kenny Martin) and aren’t expected to be back at the top of the pack this season. The new blood is led by Paradise Valley, which features Paul Watson, Ryan Finley and a deep squad. Sierra Linda, Poston Butte and Saguaro are also teams that could be in the mix at the end of the season.
• Coaches: Tons of turnover within the coaching ranks. Here are the coaches who ended up with new programs: Paul Long (Tempe); Commander King (Seton); Daniel Peterson (Chaparral); Aaron Windler (Mountain Pointe); Jon Burns (Basha): Dustin Cooper (Mesquite); Joe Babinski (Perry); Ty Amundsen (St. Mary’s); Brian Smith (Rancho Solano Prep) and Hosea Graham (Westwood).
Nov. 19-21, 24: Fear the Hop tournament at Mesa High School
Nov. 19-21, 23-24: Salpointe Tipoff Classic
Nov. 20-21, 23-24: Paradise Valley Invitational
Dec. 6-8: Christian Cup
Dec. 11: Highland at Gilbert
Dec. 13: Dobson at Mesa
Dec. 17: Pinnacle at Desert Mountain
Dec. 26-29: VisitMesa.com Basketball Challenge
Dec. 26-29: McClintock Holiday Shootout
Jan. 10: Mountain View at Mesa
Jan. 21: MLK Basketball Classic
Jan. 22: Saguaro at Paradise Valley
Jan. 29: Corona del Sol at Dobson
Feb. 1: Desert Mountain at Pinnacle
Feb. 6: Sectional tournaments begin