Prep boys' basketball: Lone Peak likely to be No. 1 team in nation
Highland • Scratches both fresh and healing line Zach Frampton's right arm and chest as if he just narrowly escaped a mugging, and in a sense, he does every day when practice is brought to a close.
"That's how it is around here," the Lone Peak junior guard said with a chuckle. "It's a lot of hard work."
That hard work and dedication is paying off for the 7-0 Lone Peak boys' basketball team. The Class 5A squad likely will rise to No. 1 in the country in MaxPreps.com's rankings after Jabari Parker's Simeon Career Academy, formerly ranked as the top team in the country by MaxPreps, lost to DeSoto (Texas) 67-57 on Thursday night.
The occasion would be momentous for Utah high school basketball because the Knights would be the first team from the Beehive State to ever be recognized nationally with a No. 1 overall ranking in the country by MaxPreps.com.
"You have a vision of what you want [your program] to look like, but it takes a lot to get there," Lone Peak coach Quincy Lewis said, "and you don't know if you'll ever get there or not."
The Knights did and have evolved into a national powerhouse on the backs of their three stars, guards Nick Emery (19.8 points per game) and T.J. Haws (15.5 points per game) and center Eric Mika (18 points per game), all of whom have committed to play for Dave Rose's BYU Cougars a few miles south of Highland.
Throw in the likes of Talon Shumway, Connor Toolson, Spencer Curtis and Frampton, and the Knights are one of the deepest teams in the U.S.
But if there is one battle Lone Peak faces every day, it's resisting the temptation to grow comfortable with just how good the team is this season, something Lewis calls "one of our greatest challenges."
"It's a daily conversation because we're dealing with kids, but we do have good kids and they have good families behind them," he said.
The Knights, who are coming off their second straight 5A state championship last year, added arguably the most imposing player in Utah basketball in the 6-foot-10 Mika, who transferred to Lone Peak from Waterford but had to sit out the 2011 season due to transfer rules.
"Last year was fun filling up water bottles and stuff," he said, "but this year is nuts."
Quite the appropriate characterization.
Lone Peak already has defeated some of the top teams in the country in its first month of the season. The Knights obliterated Proviso East (Ill.) 84-46 in Chicago on Dec. 1, and defeated the No. 1-ranked team in Colorado, the Denver East Angels, 73-54 in the Great Western Shootout in Orem on Dec. 7. Along with the probable No. 1 ranking from MaxPreps.com, which will release this week's list Monday, the Knights currently are ranked No. 6 nationally by ESPN.com and No. 8 in the USA Today Super Rankings.
"We try not to worry about it too much," Haws said about the increasing recognition. "We just want to focus on that next game."
Lone Peak's next game will be at the State Farm City of Palms Classic tournament in Fort Meyers, Fla., on Wednesday. The Knights are scheduled to face Callaway High School out of Jackson, Miss., in the opening game of the four-day, 16-team tournament. Callaway won the Mississippi Class 5A title in 2011.
If the Knights advance past Callaway, they'll likely face the Chester Clippers from Pennsylvania, a team that is riding a 58-game winning streak and ranked No. 4 by MaxPreps.com last week.
"There's a lot of expectations coming from Utah, and not only Utah, but also from out of state," Emery said. "If you want to win games back there, you can't do it individually, you have to do it as a team."
Lewis said the Knights are scheduled to play in two more national tournaments this season: The Brandon Jennings Invitational in Milwaukee during the second weekend in January, then the Spalding Hoop Hall Classic in Springfield, Mass., Jan. 17 to 21.
And most of these high-profile tournaments around the country actually pay for Lone Peak to come to them. That's how hot of a ticket the team is right now.
Coming into the season, Lone Peak's No. 1 goal was to stay grounded and, so far, the Knights say they've done their job.
"It's not easy," Emery said, "but we just stick with it."
The tricky part will be achieving that goal while vying for a third consecutive 5A state title and bouncing back and forth between the East Coast during the holiday season a test that undoubtedly will challenge one of the best teams in Utah high school history.
"You've got to enjoy the ride a little bit," Lewis said. "I'm fortunate, honestly, to coach these guys."
As Mika teased Frampton, examining each scratch, the junior guard said his teammates aim to keep things as simple as possible despite the growing media attention and various national rankings.
"We just want to play basketball," he said.
At this point, that may be easier said than done for the Knights.