Cream of the crop

King Cotton boasts slew of talented teams

WHEN Today through Friday WHERE Pine Bluff Convention Center, Pine Bluff FORMAT Two brackets (King and Creed) under tournament play

When the King Cotton Holiday Classic’s kickoff event was held in October, tournament director Sam Glover mentioned that he and his staff always have the goal of getting the best teams in the nation to play in the annual showcase.

This year’s crop of programs appear fit the bill.

The nationally-acclaimed event begins today at the Pine Bluff Convention Center with an eight-game slate that’s again dotted with top-tier teams and players. Benton and McDonough of Tyrone, Ga., officially open the three-day tournament with an early-morning encounter at 10 a.m. today. It will be the first King Cotton appearance for both teams.

“We’re thrilled to death to be able to play in it,” Benton Coach Dexter Hendrix said. “This is my 10th season at Benton, and I don’t think we’ve ever had this much excitement, this much buzz about our program as we’ve got right now, and a lot of that has to do with this tournament. I’ve gotten a lot of texts and calls from people asking about the schedule and when we play because they want to come watch us.

“Not only is this a big deal for our basketball team and program, its big for our community, too, to be involved in something like the King Cotton. I think our community and school district realize how big of an opportunity and how fortunate we are to have been invited. It’s going to be extremely challenging, but it’s also something we’re excited about.” Sixteen teams from eight states and the District of Columbia will participate in the two-bracket classic. Several programs arrived Tuesday, but one – Gonzaga (DC) – actually flew in on Christmas night.

Incidentally, the Eagles are one of top-ranked teams in the nation.

Four other teams from Arkansas are represented in the field, including a pair of defending state champions. Pine Bluff, which reached the title game of the King bracket last year, are the reigning Class 5A champions while Little Rock Christian won the Class 4A crown. White Hall will be making its third straight appearance in the tournament, and Little Rock Central is included for the first time in more than two decades.

The Central Tigers, though, are playing with a ton of confidence, especially after putting together an impressive showing last week at the King of the Bluegrass Holiday Classic in Kentucky when they finished runner-up.

Central also owns victories over Little Rock Christian, fellow Class 6A contender Springdale Har-Ber, Class 5A challengers Maumelle and Vilonia and a pair of Missouri powers in St. Louis Cardinal Ritter and Oak Park. The Tigers will play in the final game of the first round at 8:30 p.m. against Archbishop (Pa.) Wood.


The Pine Bluff Convention Center has housed its share of historic sports moments, and today, one of the state’s most endeared figures will be remembered after being a central figure in one of those instances.

Former University of Arkansas basketball player Charles Balentine, who died in August at the age of 60, will be celebrated after the contest between Pine Bluff and Duncanville, Texas. The Newport native reserved his spot in Razorback lore when he hit a 4-footer along the baseline to beat Michael Jordan and then-No. 1 North Carolina 65-64 on Feb. 12, 1984, at the convention center.

This season marks the 40th anniversary of the shot.


Pinson Valley (Ala.) has found a way to continue hammering away on the floor despite dealing with heartbreak.

The Indians lost stand out athlete Caleb White in August when he died after collapsing during a preseason workout with his team. The 5-11 guard, who’d been a starter since his freshman year and an honor student, was an all-state selection as a junior when he averaged nearly 21 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists and helped lead Pinson Valley (10-5) Class 6A regional finals. He also averaged more than 17 points as a sophomore.

Earlier this season, the Indians honored White by retiring his jersey prior to playing their first home game, which they eventually won 79-48 against Carver (Ala.) Birmingham. Last week, Ben Davis (Ind.) also paid homage to White during its game with Pinson Valley at the West Kentucky Hoops Classic.


Pine Bluff had its first King Cotton Holiday Classic title in its grasp last year until Beaumont (Texas) United escaped with a 53-52 victory after Wesley Yates buried an off-balanced jumper with 1 second left.

Many of the same players from the Zebras’ roster are back this year as they take another stab at winning the event.

“I feel like we’ve got a big chance to take over and win it all again,” Pine Bluff guard Courtney Crutchfield said during a recent media event for the tournament in Little Rock. “We fell short by one possession [last year], but I feel like we’ve got the pieces and the players to go back and re-do it all over again.” The loss didn’t exactly deter the Zebras from their ultimate goal. Pine Bluff was beaten just once in its next 17 games and captured the Class 5A state championship, with Crutchfield earning most valuable player honors.


There will be several eye-catching matchups in the opening round, but there is one that will feature a pair of teams that have yet to taste defeat.

Gonzaga of the District of Columbia (8-0), and St. Joseph of Santa Maria, Calif. (10-0), have waltzed to unbeaten records ahead of their opening-round clash. Neither team has been tested much, either.

For Gonzaga, which is ranked in the top 15 of the ESPN top 25, has beaten everyone it’s played by at least 12 points. In the Eagles’ last victory — a 100-57 rout over Saint John Paul the Great Catholic of Dumfries, Va. — Nyk Lewis, a 4-star guard who has offers from schools like Georgetown, Kansas State, LSU, Maryland and Tennessee, had 21 points and four assists. Derek Dixon, also a 4-star guard who holds offers from Iowa, Miami, Pittsburgh and Penn State, added 13 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

St. Joseph’s slimmest margin of victory has been 14 points, which came in a 74-60 win over Lincoln Park Performing Arts of Midland, Pa., on Dec. 19. During its 64-38 rout of Northwood (N.C.) in the championship game of the 16-team Capitol City Classic last week, sophomore guard Julius Price, a 6-2 guard with offers from Minnesota and Washington, had 27 points en route to earning the most valuable player award. Junior forward Tounde Yessoufou, a 4-star prospect who’s being heavily recruited by Arizona, Kansas, UCLA and USC, scored 25 points.


McDonough will enter its game with Benton on a bit of a streak.

The Warhawks are coming off a 74-57 victory over Pope (Ga.) on Dec. 23, in the finals of the Marietta Power bracket of the prestigious Lemon Street Classic in Marietta, Ga.

Four players finished in double figures for the War-hawks, led by senior guard Keenan Gray’s 19 points. Nigel Thomas, a 6-6 junior, had 17 points as well for McDonough, which put together an stout three-game stretch to claim the tournament title.

The Warhawks beat Blythe-wood (S.C.) and North Cobb (Ga.) by a combined 52 points before picking up a 17-point win over Pope.

King Cotton Holiday Classic

WHEN Today-Friday WHERE Pine Bluff Convention Center, Pine Bluff FORMAT Two brackets (King and Creed) under tournament play NOTEWORTHY Tickets can be purchased at … The tournament was founded in 1983 by Travis Creed. … At least 35 players, who’ve played in the tournament, have gone on to play professionally. Two players – Nick Smith and Brandon Miller – played against one another during the 2021 event. … The last teams from Arkansas to win titles in the event was North Little Rock and Magnolia two years ago.


  • GAME 1 Benton (12-2) vs. McDonough, Ga. (10-1), 10 a.m.
  • GAME 2 Pinson Valley, Ala. (10-5) vs. Silsbee, Texas (10-6), 11:30 a.m.
  • GAME 3 White Hall (8-5) vs. Sandy Creek, Ga., (7-1), 1 p.m.
  • GAME 4 Little Rock Christian (9-4) vs. Westminster, Fla. (6-2), 2:30 p.m.
  • GAME 5 Gonzaga, D.C. (8-0) vs. St. Joseph, Calif. (10-0), 4 p.m.
  • GAME 6 St. Frances, Md. (9-4) vs. Booker T. Washington, Texas (12-2), 5:30 p.m.
  • GAME 7 Pine Bluff (8-2) vs. Duncanville, Texas (5-6), 7 p.m.
  • GAME 8 Little Rock Central (11-1) vs. Archbishop Wood (2-3), Pa., 8:45 p.m.