There’s always been a level of unpredictability when games officially tip off at the King Cotton Holiday Classic. The one thing that’s never been in question is the level of skill that’s routinely been on display.
It’s a sure-fire bet that talent will be in bulk when the nationally-renowned tournament begins Wednesday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. And the overall number of sought-after players who’ll be at this year’s event may be the most it’s been since the King Cotton was restarted in 2018, especially in the Class of 2025.
Jalil Bethea of Archbishop Wood in Warminster, Pa., is the highest-ranked player in the showcase. The 6-4 guard is the No. 7 player in the Class of 2024 according to ESPN and was heavily courted by several NCAA Division I Power 5 schools like Kansas, LSU and Syracuse before he eventually signed with Miami in September.
Little Rock Central’s Annor Boateng, a 6-6 forward who has signed with Missouri, is rated No. 30 in the class by ESPN, while Jared Harris of Silsbee, Texas, comes in at No. 80. The 6-4 guard has signed with Memphis.
Those in attendance won’t have to wait long to get their first glimpse of top-shelf play from a loaded roster of underclassmen.
Benton, led by consensus 4-star prospect Terrion Burgess, will open the event at 10 a.m. on Day 1 against McDonough, Ga., which features a pair of front-court players who are at least 6-8 and a 6-4 guard who’s getting looks from a number of collegiate programs.
“They’re huge,” Benton Coach Dexter Hendrix said. “You’re talking about 6-9, 6-10 bigs. We started breaking down film, and I really haven’t seen a weakness yet in those guys. Outside of having great size, they shoot the ball well and have good guard play.
“But when you play in a tournament like this, you don’t expect to play someone that’s not really talented. You already know that every game you play is going to be against a really good team that has really good players.”
Burgess, a 6-9 forward, has been the focal point for the Panthers since he transferred in before his sophomore season. The junior, who’s averaging more than 23 points per game, holds offers from a number of schools, including the University of Arkansas, Auburn, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. But his load has been lightened somewhat this season because Benton has more scoring punch at its disposal.
Fellow juniors A.D. Gray, 6-4, Elem Shelby, 6-3, and Harrison Pickett, 6-2, have all had big games, while 5-10 sophomore Javarious Russell has settled in at the point guard spot. Hendrix also pointed out that his bench has been key as well.
“Definitely happy with some of the things we’ve done,” Hendrix said. “We played White Hall [Thursday], and we had 17 assists as a team. We’re really playing the right way, especially on defense. When we’ve had success this year, that’s where it’s started.
“A lot of good things, but we know we’ve still got a long way to go.”
McDonough is coming off an impressive showing in the Lemon Street Classic at Marietta, Ga. Forwards Nigel Thomas, a 6-8 junior, and Nathadeus Fambro, a 6-9 junior, provide girth inside, but it’s senior guard Keenan Gray, who’s averaging more than 20 points per game, and junior guard Zion Greene that are doing damage in the backcourt.
Still, the Panthers and the Warhawks offer up only a sample size of what’s to come on the first day.
Pinson Valley, Ala., and Silsbee meet in the second game that will feature two NCAA Division I targets against one another. Clyde Walters, a 6-6 sophomore who has offers from Alabama, Alabama-Birmingham and Troy, leads Pinson Valley, while Silsbee is powered by Harris.
The list continues, from University of Arkansas target Jai’Chaunn Hayes, a 6-6 junior, and White Hall going against Tyrone (Ga.) Sandy Creek and guard Amari Brown, who has offers from TCU and Mississippi State. Little Rock Christian’s bevy of collegiate commits and prospects, including sophomore J.J. Andrews, will face Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Westminster, which is spearheaded by 6-3 guard Alex Lloyd, one of the top players in the Class of 2025. And that’s just the early session.
The other eight teams all have upper echelon players, starting with Boateng and Bethea. Those two will lock horns in the final game of the night Wednesday. Prior to that, Gonzaga of Washington, D.C., will show off its stout lineup featuring 6-9 junior Christian Gurdak against Tounde Yessoufou of Santa Maria (Calif.) St. Joseph. The junior, who’s ranked No. 24 by ESPN, has offers from Arkansas, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA just to name a few.
Baltimore St. Frances and Dallas Booker T. Washington have an arsenal of standouts, as does Pine Bluff and Duncanville, Texas.
“It’s going to be off the charts in terms of the talent level that’ll be there,” Hendrix said of the tournament. “We knew when we signed up for it that it’d be a great challenge for us, simply because of the really good teams and players that will be playing. But we’re trying to take the mentality that you can’t win the fight if you’re not a part of it.
“So we know it’ll be tough, but it’s exciting for us at the same time. And I know it’ll be even more exciting for the fans because they’ll get a chance to witness all of it.”