By Brandon Blakney

The first week of January is upon us again which means two things, a new year and the return of the annual Hoop Cities Invitational!

This years field is stacked with a mix of programs from the Triad and the Queen City set to battle it out on a four game slate. Let’s settle in and preview the matchups, along with some key players to watch!

Liberty Heights vs Westridge

Hoop Cities is kicking things off with a bang two of the top emerging programs in the Hoop State will slug it out.

Both programs are relatively new to the hoops scene but they’ve established ground quickly as both squads boast multiple division one prospects. These teams met last season and the Cardinals of Liberty Heights edged the Golden Knights by one point.

Liberty Heights may be more battle tested than anyone in the field, they play a brutal national schedule. This group features a loaded backcourt with tons of versatility, their guards play multiple positions which allows this talented trio to play towards their strengths.

Westridge, (10-4), also boasts a talented backcourt but the Golden Knights play more of an inside- outside game. This group is coming off consecutive losses in the Western Kentucky Hoops Classic, and we expect Coach Lowe’s group to come in hungry to compete.

Players to watch

Liberty Heights

6’5 2018 Michael Wynn (ECU commit)

Wynn is a dog and over the last several months his stock has exploded through his play on the Adidas Gauntlet as well as his recent play with Liberty Heights.
At 6’5 he’s got great size for the point guard position Wynn utilizes his length and explosiveness to finish over defenders at the rack. Wynn is a natural playmaker; not many guards see the entire floor like this kid, Wynn always looks to advance the rock and make the extra pass, Wynn is also a knockdown shooter from deep the defense will be burned if caught slacking.

6’0 2018 Chris Martin (unsigned)

Martin is the most important piece of this roster due to his versatility and his role as the ultimate X- factor on both ends.
Whenever this group needs a bucket Martin is the guy and he wants the ball in the final seconds with everything on the line. Martin continues to prove he is one of the top remaining guards in the 2018 Cycle; Martin has a dangerous first step off the dribble, in the lane Martin is a crafty finisher and posses the floater all guards must have, Martin is also an exceptional rebounder at the guard position his ability to crash boards is underrated. Martin really gets after it defensively as well with quick hands and nice footwork he wreaks havoc on opposing ball handlers. Martin’s recruitment has picked up late and he’s caught the eye of several division one programs.

6’0 2019 Davier Dixon

Dixon has really come into his own this season it’s obvious the combo guard is playing with big time confidence.
With the skills to truly slot in at either backcourt spot Dixon is a combo guard in every sense of the word, he can fill it up or create for others depending the personnel on the floor. Dixon transferred into the Cardinals program last year and took some time to get adjusted, but now Dixon understands his role and embraces it. Dixon can be a spark plug with his instant scoring ability, Dixon is unselfish with the rock and looks to make the right basketball play. Currently the Junior holds an offer from Southern Miss but expect that list to grow.

6’3 2019 Caleb Burgess

Long and rangy guard, the bigger the stage the better Burgess performs it’s been fun to watch his progression this season.

Burgess loves the game and plays with passion everytime he laces up, currently Burgess has offers from Hampton and Winston- Salem State. Providence and Tennessee have also shown interest in Burgess’s services. Offensively Burgess is a three level scorer; Burgess is usually one of the best shooters no matter who’s on the floor, when he sees the ball go in Burgess can really heat check it, Burgess strong finishing ability and precise passing make him a pick N roll maestro.

6’7 2019 Zach Shumate

A new school finesse forward Shumate is a key cog in this rotation his shooting ability opens the floor up for these quick guards.
Shumate is a true stretch four he might be the best shooter on the team and that isn’t a knock to anyone, this kid can seriously stroke the leather. Shumate has added depth to his game recently and looks more comfortable on the dribble drive. Shumate is sneaky athletic and he could prove to be a mismatch knightmare for the Cardinals.

6’8 2018 Steven Randle

Randle could be the best long term prospect in this contest he’s got major upside in a game that caters towards bigs who can shoot the ball.
Randle is already an all around solid forward; Randle has added range on his jumper , he looks confident spotting up on the elbow, and down low Randle is a load he finishes strong with either hand. Randle’s mix of length and explosiveness off first jump should earn him shotblocker and rebounder at the college level. Randle holds several D1 offers currently and whoever signs this kid will get an immediate contributor on both ends.

Walkertown vs Greensboro Dudley

Two teams in different conferences and divisions, not completely familiar with one another in their styles of play.

Walkertown (8-5, 3-1), comes in on a three game win streak, the Wolfpack feature one of the top sophomores in the state at point guard. Coach Kevin Thompson has a deep basketball pedigree and it seems he’s got all this talent on his roster clicking together in the new year.

Dudley (10-3, 2-1), is a proud basketball program with a rich winning tradition, the Panthers come into every contest expecting to take the opponents best shot. For years Dudley has been in the upper echelon of Greensboro programs. This year the Panthers rely on senior leadership and experience. Dudley is a disciplined group and they will scrap every possession, they will make the opponent work for every bucket.

Players to Watch

6’0 2020 Jalen Cone

Cone is a top five prospect in all major NC service rankings and heavily considered a top 50 prospect nationally in the class of 2020.
In his sophomore campaign Cone has been near unguardable no matter who’s checked him, Cone is coming off one of the greatest performances in Frank Spencer tournament history. In the three- day winter classic Cone scored 107 total points. Virginia Tech is one of his several offers, Kentucky has already had Cone on campus as well and the Dennis Smith comparisons continue to grow.

6’5 2018 Tim Boulware

Boulware hasn’t been a huge name on the recruiting radar there isn’t much intrigue for 6’5 power forwards, but this dude is a gamer for sure one thing you can’t measure on paper is heart.

Boulware is the defensive anchor for the Panthers down low and he plays bigger on the boards than his height gives. Boulware has soft hands and nice touch around the rim he could have a big day matched up with this thin Wolfpack frontline.

WS Prep vs Faith Christian Assembly

The hosts of the tournament Ws Prep (7-3), come into this contest red HOT after winning the prestigious Frank Spencer Winter Classic.
Prep is another group fueled by guard play, this group of perimeter players is truly exceptional. Coach Gould has his group amped up to defend their home court and easy wins don’t exist in the Phoenix’s gymnasium, Faith Christian Assembly better be ready for a dog fight.

Faith Christian Assembly (2-8), haven’t won a contest in several weeks, so they will be come into this one starved for a win and with nothing to lose.
The Lions have have competed hard through their gauntlet of a schedule, they kicked their season off in late October with a trip to Mouth of Wilson, to take on hoops powerhouse Oak Hill Academy. Added in with some of the top prep programs in the Carolinas the Lions have played a slate worthy of anyone.

Key Players

6’2 2018 Daivien Williamson

The ETSU has played out of his mind so far in a big senior season, Williamson has already landed hardware his school had never seen after his MVP performance drove WSPA to their first Frank Spencer title.

One of the most polished all around scorers in the entire state Williamson is simply a walking bucket. Williamson has gotten better every season and this year he’s averaging 21 points per game, a true gym rat, Williamson doesn’t just rely on natural ability he’s a student of the game. In front of his home crowd we expect a big game, this is another step in the quest to that elusive state title.

6’2 2018 Justice Goodloe

Goodloe “The Point Guard” is the unappreciated engine of this offense, this backcourt doesn’t work without him he’s the stability.
This kid is a true pass – first point guard and in a generation where they’re a dying breed, Division one’s should be pulling the trigger yesterday because Goodloe’s stock is buy now. The “pass first” label isn’t a knock on the offensive ability, Goodloe is a capable double- digit scorer but understands he’s surrounded by scorers. Goodloe leads the Phoenix in assist with seven per game game.

6’3 2019 Marvin Reed Jr

Reed comes from a basketball pedigree he’s the son of a coach and truly understands the game, he leads by example with his toughness and non stop motor.
Reed is one of the better perimeter defenders in the Bull City and he truly relishes strapping up on the opponents best players. Reed understands his strengths and doesn’t force the issue offensively, he’s also an above average rebounder at 6’3. Saturday the Lions will need a game on both ends from their team captain!

Reynolds vs Independence (Charlotte)

The nightcap of the event pits two very proud programs against one another in what be a clash to remember!
Reynolds (8-4), may be playing their best ball of the season right now, the Demons are riding a three game winning streak and the momentum of a title run in the Pepsi Bracket of the Frank Spencer.

This group took some lumps last year but they’ve grown a year older and have gained serious confidence as a unit. Coach Billy Martin is one of the most respected basketball minds in the triad, the Demons are well coached, disciplined and play hard for one another.

Independence ( 12-1, 4-0), come into this showcase ranked fourth in the Hoop State and boast a absolutely loaded roster.

The Patriots loan loss came at the hands of a talented Carmel Christian team back in mid december, it was a clash of queen city titans and it was decided in the last minutes. Since then the Patriots are back to rolling, Coach Preston Davis and his group have won their last three contest by double- digits.

2019 6’3 Mysta Goodloe

Goodloe is a key reason for the Demons run of late he earned all tournament honors at the Frank and, on the season he’s averaging career highs in almost every major statistical category.

Goodloe’s game looks sharpened all around he’s been playing both guard positions on the Wing, Goodloe is has improved on his decision making with the rock and he’s been on fire from deep.

2018 6’6 Larry Borland III

Borland is the Demons best player and has been a reliable inside presence all season for this group.
It will be interesting to observe the matchup between he and the Patriots big Matt Smith, Borland is a straight glass eater on the boards on the season he averages six boards on the year. Borland is a strong finisher down low and he utilizes solid intangibles and athleticism to flourish offensively, this season he averages 16 points per game.

2018 6’5 Jamarius Burton

When you talk about stock risers I’m not sure any player on the list tops Burton, the 6’5 combo guard has had a breakout senior year and the recruitment trail has become friendly.

Burton has improved on perimeter shooting and paired it with his natural athleticism, at 6’5 Burton is a natural slasher and an explosive finish off the bounce. Burton is a strong physical guard, this season he’s distributed the rock more efficiently than ever as well. Hofstra is the latest to show strong interest and they will be in the stands to see Burton Saturday.

2019 6’6 Matt Smith

Smith is the beast in the middle for Independence he averages a double- double on the year and no one has really had an answer for him. Smith is quicker than most bigs and he’s extremely athletic, he runs the floor fluently and Smith usually beats his man down in the open floor.
Smith is also a natural shot blocker on the defensive end, he’s averaging almost three blocks a contest! Burton will bother majority of the shots he doesn’t swat away and his length and vertical could cause serious issues for the Demons guards.