By Aram Tolegian
The big news of the offseason hit like a ton of bricks.
Pasadena High School coaching legend Tim Tucker resigned after 18 successful seasons and soon after resurfaced across town at Maranatha.
Tucker won two CIF-Southern Section championships at Pasadena and 15 league championships, including nine straight on his way out the door.
In the meantime, Pasadena became the area’s unquestioned power. A mantle it assumed from La Canada. Both are public schools. Both are now looking up at private schools as far as the local power struggle is concerned.
Yes, times are a changing. And they’re changing fast. The top team in the area is San Gabriel Academy. That may be hard to swallow for some area hoops junkies, but that’s the reality. After all, it no longer matters what a school’s enrollment is. If there’s five top-notch basketball prospects walking around on a campus of 100 students or a campus of 2,000 students, the bottom line remains the same.
So get ready for a power shift. Sure, Pasadena High will still be solid. Muir will win its share of games. La Canada and Keppel will be forces in their leagues. But the truly elite teams in the area this year reside at tiny San Gabriel Academy and Maranatha.
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1. SAN GABRIEL ACADEMY
Surprised? Don’t be.
Where should we get started? The Eagles were already one of the top teams in the area thanks to the return of 6-foot-7 All-Area standout Josh Ajayi, who averaged a double-double last season.
Then, head coach Kevin McCloskey struck gold when Marcus LoVett Jr. transferred in. LoVett Jr. is one of the top guard prospects in the country, which makes him the top overall player in this area.
LoVett Jr. running the show, combined with Ayaji’s athleticism and a 6-foot-9 post man in Ricky Guo make San Gabriel Academy about as formidable as they come. Then, you thrown in 6-7 freshman Carmelo Bright, who could be any kind of player, and this team gets down right scary.
This school in this ranking may be hard for some to accept, but just be happy your favorite team doesn’t play them.
Tucker is already an area legend as far as coaches go and now he turns his attention to turning tiny Maranatha into a Southland power.
Tucker left Pasadena after a successful run and should hit the ground running on St. John Ave.
The players have certainly followed. Five new faces have joined the program. Tey Williams came over from La Verne Lutheran when that program went belly up. Nick Springer is in from Crescenta Valley. Skye Isles has joined the ranks from Village Christian along with Austin Barbato, formerly of San Dimas.
And then there’s 6-foot-9 Musa Dama, who is from Africa and has tons of upside to go along with his sizable frame.
Given all the talent on hand, it won’t take long before Tucker has Maranatha on the map.
Don’t think the Bulldogs are going to fade away just because Tucker is gone.
Longtime Tucker assistant Tony Brooks has taken over and he got a nice gift when standout Ajon Efferson transferred back to Pasadena after spending last year at Serra.
Efferson is on the short list of the area’s top players and gives Pasadena the kind of top-notch talent it will need to compete in the Pacific League.
Sophomore Tyrek Adams is expected to be a force and can jump out of the building.
The Mustangs have it all, size and good guard play. Once football standout Dejon Williams is back into basketball shape, he’ll join Jersey Messan to give Muir one of the best backcourts around.
There’s good size, too. Center Ben Dinkins is 6-9 and forward Arinze Anakwenze is 6-6. This team will be scary once it hits its stride and should make the Pacific League race very interesting.
The Aztecs are young in several spots last year and still won 21 games. This year’s team is loaded with veterans and could be poised for a monster season.
Senior guard Kyler Lee is one of the better backcourt threats around. Post presence Bertram Mak had several big moments last year and should be even better.
Keppel doesn’t figure to be challenged in the Almont League this year, but you probably already assumed that.
6. ST. FRANCIS
The Golden Knights could be sitting on a monster season if how last Season concluded is any indicator.
Yes, St. Francis took its lumps in the difficult Mission League, but once in the playoffs the Knights won two games and built up a head of steam heading into the offseason.
A good collection of talent returns and there’s athleticism all over the floor for head coach John Stephens.
Kyle Leufroy had a strong sophomore campaign and looks to be one of the better talents in the area. Evan Crawford can play guard and forward and won’t be easy to stay with for defenders. Point guard Michael Allen is back, along with forward Greg Lupica.
This is a veteran team and it could surprise quite a few people with just how good it might be even in a very rugged league.
7. LA CANADA
The Spartans won “only” 15 games last year and figure to be much improved for legendary head coach Tom Hofman.
La Canada lacked a consistent scorer and on nights when the 3-pointers weren’t falling, the Spartans were very easy to topple.
This year’s team should be better because of all the experience gained last year, but still a go-to guy must be found. Is it Koko Kurdoghlian? Is it Dan Jun? Those are two good places to start.
Guard play is likely what will determine the Rio Hondo League this season because there doesn’t seem to be any scary size in the league to worry about.
That should play right into La Canada’s hands, but just to be safe, the Spartans better not miss often.
8. FLINTRIDGE PREP
The return of point guard Robert Cartwright gives the Rebels a big-time talent to build around.
Cartwright is one of the top players in the area and will really have to call on all his star power early because all of the other top contributors from last year’s 22-win team are gone.
If a supporting cast is found, the Rebels look like a strong bet to defend their Prep League title and push for another 20-win season.
The Eagles lost leading scorer Tyler Shimamoto to graduation, but enough talent remains to think head coach John Carney will put another good product on the floor.
Elijah Peters, the football team’s quarterback, averaged 14.6 points per game last season and did a solid job on the boards last season. Bryan Phan looks to be the team’s top outside thread and should improve on his 7.6 points per game last season.
Grant Kirchhoff saw considerable time as a freshman last season and figures to make a major leap this season.
The Eagles will miss Shimamoto’s leadership and willingness to take big shots late in big games, but once a go-to guy is found, this team will be formidable again. Gabrielino is your Mission Valley League favorite.
10. TEMPLE CITY
The Rams swept the Rio Hondo League last season, but lost most of their production to graduation.
There may be growing pains early, but head coach Eric Chin clearly has the program on a upward rise and some new threats should be found before long.
Chin likes the look of Gordon Lee, who averaged 12.7 points per game last season and is the top outside shooting threat on a team that likes to play from behind the arc.
The Rams don’t figure to be nearly as athletic in the paint this season, so that could hurt against bigger teams. But there’s really no size to speak of in the Rio Hondo League, which makes it a guard’s league. Temple City should be just fine under those circumstances.
By Aram Tolegian