Players travel far for King Cotton tipoff

LITTLE ROCK — Traveling long distances is nothing new to Westminster Academy’s boys basketball team.

“In the summer, we travel all over as a team and when we’re on our way to a lot of these tournaments,” said Ehren Wallhoff, coaching in his 20th season at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., school.

Some teams are invited to play at the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, just across the peninsula from Fort Lauderdale. Some go to the Thanksgiving Hoopfest in Duncanville, Texas, near Dallas, or the Gonzaga D.C. Classic in the nation’s capital.

Pine Bluff is not a common destination among metropolitans, but it is in the world of top-level high school basketball.

“We’re excited to finally be here at King Cotton,” Wallhoff said, his team having just flown 5 hours to Little Rock. “It’s been one of our top destinations for the last couple of years, and we’re finally here.” On the edge of the Atlantic, Westminster is one of the easternmost teams in the 16-team King Cotton Holiday Classic, which will tip off for the fifth time in six years today.

Ranked 35th nationally by, Wallhoff’s Lions flew into Little Rock’s Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/ Adams Field at the same time as the 60th-ranked Archbishop Wood Vikings — the easternmost team — from the Philadelphia suburb of Warminster, Pa.

“We try to take a trip a year,” 11th-year Wood Coach John Mos-co said. “In the past, we’ve been as far out as Hawaii. This year, we were in Springfield, Mass., and we were at Maryland for [DeMatha Catholic’s tournament].” But Arkansas is new to a lot of players, like Wood senior and recent University of Miami signee Jalil Bethea.

“Arkansas’ a pretty random place for me to be,” the 6-foot-4 shooting guard said. “I never would have seen myself come here.” Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy Panthers flew into Little Rock later in the afternoon, as did the 74th-ranked St. Joseph (Santa Maria, Calif.) Knights, this year’s westernmost team in the coast-to-coast summit that is King Cotton. No. 47-ranked Little Rock Central is in the field as well.

They all expect one thing during this time of travel, and it’s not sandy beaches or giant mountains.

“It’s to come here and compete and come out with a win,” said Alex Constanza, Westminster’s 6-foot-8 shooting guard ranked second among Florida sophomores by ESPN.

None of the listed players to watch this week from Westminster are seniors, but the Lions don’t see that as a disadvantage. Con-stanza is heavily recruited across the country, while Alex Lloyd, Dwayne Wimbley Jr. and Gustavo Guimaraes are all ranked among the top 15 juniors in Florida by ESPN.

“This is everyone’s second year doing this,” Con-stanza said. “A lot of players are returners, so you come out here and play the game we love and come out here with a win.” “I think it’s a nice advantage,” said Lloyd, who has played in Arkansas before at an AAU tournament. “It gives us depth and chemistry.” Having nationally ranked standouts will catch the attention of tournament directors across the country, Mosco pointed out.

“We got a phone call from [King Cotton director Samuel] Glover, and we took him up on the offer,” said Mosco, who has previously coached Collin Gillespie (a two-way player with the Denver Nuggets) and Andrew Funk (now with the Nuggets’ G-League team).

Bethea exploded onto the scene, as Mosco put it, to the No. 7 overall ranking by after not playing as a freshman. He came off the bench as a sophomore and drew more attention playing in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League during the summer.

Fellow guard Josh Reed, whose father Ricky is in Temple University’s Hall of Fame, has signed with Philly-area Drexel University. But there’s more to Wood than just those two players that they want you to see.

“I feel like we’re a tough team,” Reed said. “All five people on the court can put the ball in the basket. We’re going to be tough to put out.” Said Bethea: “We’re definitely going to play fast. If the other team scores, we’re going to inbound it and get it right out. Also, we have a lot of people who can shoot the ball. They can get their own shot.” Wood will play the 8:45 p.m. game against Central to close today’s schedule. That will follow the Pine Bluff-Duncanville clash scheduled for 7 p.m.

Being nearly 1,200 miles away from home for three days can only help a team like Wood strengthen its chemistry, as Bethea sees it.

“It just helps us all come together and play different people,” he said. “When we play different people, it makes us look at the teams we play back at home.”