Don’t look now, but Mike Brey’s Notre Dame basketball team sits atop what may be the best conference in college basketball.
Nobody should be surprised by this.
It’s the sort of thing the former DeMatha point guard/assistant coach has been doing for a decade and half, ever since he took over the basketball fortunes of the Irish.
Yet somehow – perhaps because of the school’s geographic isolation from its rivals in the Big East and now the Atlantic Coast Conference – Brey’s accomplishments seem to be perpetually overlooked.
The new college basketball season is still taking shape. As a result, it’s difficult to draw many definitive conclusions based on what’s happened so far. After all, preseason No.1 Duke has already lost once; perennial power Michigan State has lost three times.
One of the few certainties in this still-young season is this: Upper Marlboro native and DeMatha grad Markelle Fultz is playing as well as any freshman in the country. Through the first five games of his college career at the University of Washington, Fultz is averaging 25.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game.
You could argue forever about the Washington area’s all-time best high school team or player.
The best-ever head-to-head matchup? There shouldn’t be much debate about that.
I’ve researched decades and decades of local high school basketball history and for my money, the best individual matchup came in a game played 40 years ago this week.
On Feb. 1, 1976, DeMatha forward Charles “Hawkeye” Whitney and Mackin guard Anthony “Jo Jo” Hunter put on show that was both stunning and spectacular.
Both were first-team All-Met selection during that season of ’76; both were the top players on outstanding teams as well. Whitney averged 23 points per game in leading DeMatha to a 24-3 record and a No. 3 ranking in the final area poll. Meanwhile, Hunter averaged an area-best 28 points per game as the Trojans finished 23-7 and No. 4 in the area.
And both were at their absolute best on that cold February night 40 years ago. A DeMatha-Mackin game was always a huge draw in those days. With that in mind, the game had been moved to the gymnasium at St. John’s to accommodate the big crowd.
That turned out to be a good decision. The St. John’s gym holds about 1,700 fans. Newspaper accounts of the game listed the crowd that night at 2,200. Where was the fire marhsall? He was probably at the game, like everybody else.
But the crowd figure wasn’t the story. The numbers that Whitney and Hunter put up that night was what everyone remembers.
Even though the two big stars didn’t guard each other – Whitney was a forward, Hunter a guard – they were clearly the focal point. For most of the night, the other eight players on the floor were rendered supefluous.
Whitney, who could and did score inside and out, pumped in a game-high 41 points, just managing to lead the Stags to an 84-82 overtime victory.
Hunter, equally brilliant in a losing cause, reponded with 38 points of his own on an assortment of long jumpers (this was a decade ahead of the 3-point line) and lightning-quick drives to the basket.
Clearly, the two of them were playing on a different level – and neither was unduly selfish or reckless during their 32-minute showcase. Whitney connected on 17 of 25 shots grabbed 14 rebounds and even found time to hand out four assists. Sort of makes you wonder what the rest of the Stags were doing that night.
Hunter countered with a 17-for-31 shooting performance. He also filled up the stat sheet, adding five rebounds and seven assists.
“There’s no question those two put on one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen,” DeMaha coaching legend Morgan Wootten said afterward.
The back-and-forth between the two decorated high school stars went on all night. Whitney scored nine points in the first quarter, after which the Stags held a 23-18 lead. Hunter responded with a dozen in the second as Mackin cut its deficit at halftime to 39-38.
Hunter stayed hot after the break, too, scoring 10 points during a frantic 90-second span to start the third period. After three quarters, the Trojans had taken the lead at 62-60.
Then it was Whitney’s turn to shine. He scored seven points in the first three minutes of the fourth to put DeMatha up by six. But Hunter came right back later in the quarter with a pair of baskets within 30 seconds to tie the game at 76 with 30 seconds left.
After DeMatha’s Tony Ellis missed a free throw with 22 seconds left, Mackin rebounded and had a chance to win at the end of regulation. But a turnover ended any chance to decide the game in just four quarters.
Whitney took over from there, scoring six points in the extra session to settle the epic contest.
Both he and Hunter had given their all. Whitney had been suffering from the flu and was so weak that he missed four practices leading up to the game and needed help to get to the bathroom while home sick.
Hunter, though healthy, was just as spent. He sat on a bench in the Mackin locker room, his head down, and couldn’t summon the energy to get dressed until his teammates had showered and left.
As soon as the game ended, Wootten rushed up to Hunter, hugged him and said, “Jo Jo, there’s nobody beter than you.”
Congratulations go out to DeMatha’s Markelle Fultz and Paul VI’s V.J. King, who were recently named to the McDonald’s All-America team. This year marks the first time in nine yars that the Washington area has had two representatives on the prestigious squad.
The teams Fultz and King play for are doing well this year, too. DeMatha is 16-3 and ranked No. 1 this week, although that should change after the Stags’ loss to league rival Gonzaga. Paul VI is a more modest 12-7 and ranked 18th.
Both players – along with standout St. John’s guard Anthony Cowan – are ranked among the ESPN’s top 100 high school prospects in that latest rankings. Fultz is No. 10, King is No. 26 and the Maryland-bound Cowan is No. 69.
These numbers once again point up the oustanding caliber of basketball played in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, the private school league that includes the area’s top three teams, according to the Washington Post (DeMatha, St. John’s and Gonzaga), as well as four of the top nine overall.
Fans of the WCAC can rightfully claim their league as one of the best – if not the best – in the county, year in and year out.
That’s all well and good. But does it bother anybody – other than me – that more and more, the private schools are the only ones that really matter during high school basketball season?
The further you get away from the 2009-10 DeMatha basketball team, the better it looks.
That year, the Stags were their typically excellent selves, going 32-4 en route to a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title and a victory over Ballou in the City Title Game at Verizon Center.
The Mike Jones-coached Stags lost only to national powers Mater Dei (California) and St. Anthony’s (New Jersey) and twice to league rival Gonzaga. The second loss to Gonzaga came in the finals of the season-ending Alhambra Catholic tournament at Frostburg State.
Through the years, DeMatha’s had a host of 30-win seasons and league championships under both head coach Morgan Wootten and Mike Jones, a former player at DeMatha.
The school’s basketball has been so consistently good, it’s difficult to make comparisons between one team or one era and another.
But as time goes on, the collection of talent Jones had at his disposal looks more and more impressive.
On Thursday, Jerian Grant, a member of the 2009-10 Stags, was selected 19th overall by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the NBA Draft. He was almost immediately sent to the New York Knicks as part of a three-way trade that also involved the Atlanta Hawks. Grant was an All-American this past season at Notre Dame, averaging 16 points and six assists per game.
He becomes the third player off that particular DeMatha team to get drafted. Two years ago, Ex-Stag Victor Oladipo went second overall to the Orlando Magic. Last year, Grant’s brother Jerami, went in the second round to the Philadelphia 76ers. He, too, played at DeMatha in 2009-10.