Zach Mayo

Wheeler a team to watch for in HSOT Invite's second day

Posted December 27, 2013

As expected, Thursday's opening round of the HighSchoolOT.com Holiday Invitational showcased a talented tournament field packed with big-name teams, highly-scouted recruits and remarkable athleticism. In their first game of the event, the Marietta, GA Wheeler Wildcats embodied all three of these characteristics. 

The Wildcats traveled north for the holiday and pounded the Garner Trojans in their round-one game, picking up an 86-60 win over one of the best teams in the local Greater Neuse River 4-A Conference. 

Wheeling Wildcats v Garner Trojans - December 26, 2013 Boys basketball: Wheeler 86, Garner 60

As many out-of-state teams did Thursday, Wheeler started off slow against the Trojans. Shots were not falling for the Wildcats and they were unable to penetrate to the basket and use their big bodies to score down low. Garner led by three after the first quarter.

The remaining three periods went very differently for both parties involved. Wheeler quickly turned the game into an opportunity to add to its highlight dunk reel and Garner was simply unable to match the team athlete-for-athlete. The Wildcats broke the game open and it was very much over before the final buzzer sounded.

Are the Trojans a top-3 team in this year's tournament field? No, but they are consistently a power in the Triangle area and are known for their athleticism, which makes Wheeler's dominating win all the more impressive.

When looking at what exactly the Wildcats are bringing to the table when they take the court, I believe the team has as good a chance as any to be playing for all the marbles in the Shavlik Randolph bracket on Saturday night.

First, the team has a clear identity. These Wildcats are big and much more physical than most of their counterparts in the tournament's field. They aren't going to out-shoot anybody from deep--they attempted just eight three-pointers in the game--but they will put bodies in the paint, score efficiently inside and pull down boards. The team out-rebounded Garner, 29-17.

Second, the team has multiple--and very intimidating--scoring threats. Six-foot-seven senior forward Elijah Staley had more big dunks than I could count in the rout of Garner, and there are only a handful of big men left in the tournament I could imagine containing him. His 213-pound frame helps him fight for rebounds and move to the rim with authority.

Boys Highlights: Wheeler (GA) 86, Garner 60 Boys Highlights: Wheeler (GA) 86, Garner 60

Also Wheeler's starting quarterback, Staley had basketball scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Cincinnatti, Georgetown and Miami, but turned them down to play football at Mississippi State. He's a four-star football recruit and a three-star basketball recruit, so that should tell you a bit about the type of athlete this guy is.

And then there's Jaylen Brown. The 6-foot-6 forward is a five-star recruit and the top player in the state of Georgia's Class of 2015, according to ESPN. Brown had 23 points against Garner. He's also very athletic, also plays above the rim and also knows what he's doing on defense.

Brown has offers from several of the nation's top college basketball programs, including Arizona, Kansas, Louisville and UCLA. North Carolina State has offered Brown as well.

Both Brown and Staley have the ability to score big in any given game, and if one is struggling, the other can carry more weight. Avery Patterson and Maleek Catchings each scored ten points in Thursday's win while Jacobi Green scored nine, so the team has role players who can add to the box score as well.

And don't forget about 6-foot-10 Daniel Giddens, the fourth-ranked player in Georgia's Class of 2015. Giddens sat the first game of the tournament with an injury but plans to be back for the team's remaining games.

As always, coaching plays a role too. Head coach Doug Lipscomb has won more than 500 games in his career, and the Wheeler basketball program has won four state championships since 2002. Lipscomb has coached several players who now make a living in the NBA, including former Wolpack standout J.J. Hickson. Lipscomb knows how to coach and make his players feel comfortable on the big stage.

Wheeler is slated to play Kinston High School in the second round of the Shavlik Randolph bracket. The game is set for Friday afternoon at 4. While Kinston features star talent in Brandon Ingram, the top player in North Carolina's Class of 2015, the team looked beatable in its opening-round overtime win over Broughton. Ingram shot 6-for-11 from the field and was not able to make himself comfortable until the fourth quarter and overtime, where he lifted his team to the win. Just five Kinston players scored in the game.

Wheeler won't count its eggs before they hatch, but should the Wildcats advance past Kinston, they will play the winner of Orlando, FL Lake Highland Prep vs. Apex in the HSOT Invite's final game on Saturday night at 8:30.

After a day of watching 16 basketball teams take the floor in Broughton High School's Holliday Gymnasium, Wheeler is one of the teams I am most excited to see in the second round. From what I have seen, I think they have the firepower and pieces to make a run at the title. If not, they will certainly provide us with more entertainment along the way.

Follow Zach Mayo on Twitter at @ZachMayoHSOT

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