Area basketball doesn’t get better than I.E. Invitational

The Compton Dominguez and Etiwanda High School basketball teams navigated the 32-team 2008 CIF playoff bracket to the semifinals but managed to miss matching up with each other.

A win each in today’s first round and the two Southern California powers will meet in the second round of the Inland Empire Classic. And neither Compton Dominguez nor Etiwanda is the best in the 32-team tournament that kicks off today, according to Rancho Cucamonga coach Bill Burke, one of the four organizers of the tournament. That distinction doesn’t even go to defending state champion Eisenhower, rather Corona Centennial, which has already defeated Etiwanda this season.

“This is the best field we’ve ever had,” Burke said of the 10-year-old tournament. “We have to play better competition if we’re going to play well in the Baseline League. I think a lot of teams realize that and that’s why they want to come to this tournament and play the best competition around.”

That fact that play hasn’t yet begun in some of the area’s quality leagues is a large reason many of the quality teams are free to play in the tournament, which begins today and runs through Saturday’s championship game at Colony.

With traveling expenses something schools are eager to avoid, most of the upper eschelon teams in the Inland Valley have opted to join the event.

“A lot of the leagues are starting later this year, so that’s helped us out,” Burke said. “And one of the things that’s a bigger issue now is transportation costs. If you have a local tournament like this, you might as well come.”

The entire Baseline League is in the field along with five teams from the Citrus Belt League that produced state champion Eisenhower. Defending Sierra League champion and CIF-SS Division I-A semifinalist Chino Hills is in the field along with defending Mt. Baldy League champion Colony and defending Sunkist League champ Summit.

With quality teams come quality players, including Alta Loma forward J.J. O’Brien, who has signed a letter of intent with Utah, and Baseline League foe Kendall Williams of Los Osos, the point guard once committed to UCLA now considering offers from Marquette, Baylor and Long Beach State.

Centennial juniors Gelaun Wheelwright and Dominique Dunning along with Palmdale 7-foot senior Darrell Haley Jr. are a few out of area players to watch.

“There are going to be at least a couple of college coaches scouting in each gym,” Burke said. “We’ve got a lot of Division-I players this year.”

The largest boys basketball tournament in Southern California, in Burke’s estimation, includes referee fees of $11,800 alone. There are four teams in the field from the L.A. Times preseason top 25, including two in the top 10: No. 4 Centennial and No. 9 Eisenhower.

“Win or lose,” Burke said, “you’re going to get five quality games.”