BRISTOL — It's almost never easy in the Arby's Classic for area teams, and Johnson County's first-round opponent figures to be beyond comparison to anything the Longhorns have seen.
“We went and watched them play, and it didn't make me feel any better,” said Johnson County head coach Austin Atwood. “They are very good and have all of the components to win the Arby's Classic. They are very athletic.”
The 'Horns will try to hook the Wildcats today at 5:30 p.m. in the first day of the 31st annual event at Viking Hall. Johnson County is 7-5 on the season while Hamilton is 8-1.
Tipping things off today will be a pair of out-bracket matchups with Sullivan East battling Urspring, Germany at 1 o'clock, and Sullivan South taking on Charlotte (N.C.) United Faith Christian at 2:30.
In the round of 16, Grand Bahamas Tabernacle Baptist will play Norcross (Ga.) Greater Atlanta Christian at 4 p.m. In the late games, Dobyns-Bennett meets Murfreesboro Oakland at 7 o'clock, and Mentor, Ohio, lines up against Oak Ridge at 8:30.
First-round action continues Friday with Milton, Ga., taking on the East-Urspring winner at 4 o'clock, Arden (N.C.) Christ School playing Tennessee High at 5:30 p.m., Gate City, Va., battling Nashville Christ Presbyterian Academy at 7, and Suwanee (Ga.) Peachtree Ridge playing the South-United Faith winner at 8:30 p.m.
The quarterfinals are set for Saturday, and then the Arby's Classic will take Sunday off. Action resumes Monday with the semifinals at 7 and 8:30, and the championship is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
Johnson County got off to a very slow start, losing to Daniel Boone and Science Hill in TSSAA Hall of Fame contests before beating Cloudland. The 'Horns then lost to Hampton and Virginia High for a record of 1-4.
An overtime victory over Sullivan East, punctuated by the 61-point combination of Brian Dempsey and Chase Phillips, got Johnson County back on track. Beginning with that game, the Longhorns have won six of seven with the only loss a 53-52 setback against Sullivan South.
Hamilton owns wins over two Texas teams during a Thanksgiving tournament in Duncanville. Its lone loss came against tradition-rich Chicago Simeon, which had current Duke University star Jabari Parker for the last four seasons and won a state title each year.
Keelon Lawson, a 6-foot-6 junior, cut loose for 27 points in the loss to Simeon.
Lawson's younger brother Dedric is ranked as the No. 4 sophomore in the nation by ESPN, and is getting serious looks from national powers like Kentucky, Kansas and Louisville. Keelon has committed to Memphis. Both players are averaging over 20 points per game.
Other key players for the Wildcats include 6-7 junior Terrence Birdsong and 6-3 junior Romero Hill.
“Besides the brothers, they have a nice point guard and three or four other guys who complement each other really well,” said Atwood.
Hamilton has won a pair of Class AAA state championships, beating Science Hill by one point in 1991, and winning by one point in double-overtime against Shelbyville Central to cap a 39-0 season in 2006.
Despite the challenge, Atwood said his bunch is excited to be in the Arby's.
“We know we have a huge challenge no matter who we play,” he said.
Here are some notes about the other power players in this year's tournament:
Christ Presbyterian Academy — Coached by Arby's alumnus Drew Maddux, the Lions have won each of the last two Class AA state titles. They boast 6-foot-7 Braxton Blackwell, a sophomore who is the nephew of former NBA star Ralph Sampson. Blackwell is already getting looks from big-time college programs.
Arden (N.C.) Christ School — Gone is the local connection of Shannon Hale and Jaylen Allen, but the Greenies have reloaded and boast 6-10 Lloyd Burgess and 6-6 Alex Wnuk.
Mentor — Scoring points is the trademark of this team, and the Cardinals won the Division I state title in Ohio last year. Caleb Potter (6-4, West Virginia recruit) and Connor Krizancic (University of Cincinnati football recruit) are players to watch.
Milton — The Eagles have plenty of size with 6-6, 6-8, 6-9 and 6-3 in the starting lineup.
United Faith Christian — Coached by former NBA star Muggsy Bogues, the Falcons have good height and a nice mix of talent.
Urspring — Always a title threat, the German team has its usual assortment of size with six players 6-7 or taller. The team was the German 19-under national champions.