Prep basketball: Utah players and teams commanding national respect

Published December 27, 2013 8:30 pm
Boys' basketball • Lone Peak's recent success has elevated state's reputation nationally.
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Las Vegas • Lone Peak coach Quincy Lewis sat on the folding chair pressed tight between the baseline and the wall of the small gym. It was minutes after the Knights had won a tight game at the Tarkanian Classic, and the next two teams to play were beginning to warm up as their fans filtered into the gym.

His players already had left, but Lewis, still holding a clipboard, stayed. He allowed himself just a moment to reminisce.

The son of a longtime high school coach, Lewis has been around Utah prep basketball for nearly his whole life. He has won titles, both as a player and a coach, and he has seen talented players come and go.

And now, after decades of the state's talent remaining largely unnoticed by the rest of the country, Lewis is witnessing a dramatic shift in the outside perception of Utah high school basketball. Where once players and teams from Utah were overlooked, those from neighboring states now know Utah basketball is as good as that of anywhere else.

Lewis can in truth take a chunk of credit for the change in perception. Lone Peak opened a lot of eyes last season when it battered nationally prominent teams on its way to MaxPreps.com's national title.

"I think last year went a long way, with all the attention that we got," Lewis said. "I felt like we've always had multiple schools that could compete out of state, but it wasn't until last year that we really got on the map."

Earlier in the day, UNLV assistant coach Todd Simon looked on from the baseline during a game between Bishop Gorman (Nev.) — considered one of the most talented teams in the nation — and Sheldon (Calif.). A curious thought popped into his head as he watched, one that wouldn't have 10, or even five, years ago: Utah players aren't so different from these guys.

A former head coach at one of the most prestigious basketball schools in the country, Findlay Prep (Nev.), Simon has been one of the outsiders who have come to understand just how good Utah basketball is.

"They've always played a quality brand of basketball [in Utah] — you can tell the coaching in the state is very good," Simon said. "But now I think people, from a recruiter standpoint, are acknowledging that there's something more to it. These players are good, not just the brand of basketball."

Utah basketball is even beginning to create a ripple nationally. Venerable North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who also was at the Bishop Gorman-Sheldon game, stopped short of saying Utah has become a can't-miss state when he recruits. But being from Utah would be no barrier for a kid hoping to get a look from the Tar Heels.

"We would recruit a kid from Utah," Williams said. "There's no question. We look at the individual kid, and they've had some good players there."

Apart from Lone Peak's success last season, the biggest reason Utah players and teams are gaining respect is a simple matter of opportunity. Most of the best players in the state compete in AAU ball during the summer, against elite out-of-state talent, and that has given them exposure players in the past didn't have.

"The basketball has always been this good, but we haven't had the opportunity to get out and be seen," Bountiful coach Mike Maxwell said. "The AAU has changed that. When I was playing 30 years ago, we didn't have that. We had one tournament in the summer, one chance to play against teams from all over the country, and you were completely overlooked."

The seed clearly has been planted. And as long as Utah teams continue to churn out good players and teams — if the Tarkanian Classic, where Utah teams won most of their games, was any indication, they will — the opportunities for exposure and respect will only continue to increase.

Perhaps in another five or 10 years, Utah's reputation won't even be a matter of discussion, Simon said. By then, Utah might just be another state where the quality of basketball is simply assumed, like California or Nevada.

"Usually when people realize the top crust [of players] is pretty good, the layers below have a lot of good guys," Simon said. "No question, it's a spot on the map. It just keeps increasing the awareness. … I think you're going to see a huge upward trend. I really do."

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