WHEELING - The weekend of festivities surrounding the sixth annual Cancer Research Classic get under way this evening.
The basketball showcase, which is the brainchild of self-admitted basketball junkie Dr. Gregory Merrick, actually tips off Friday afternoon and will feature nine games over the course of Friday and Saturday at Wheeling Jesuit University's McDonough Center.
"Preparations are coming along really well," Merrick said Wednesday afternoon. "Once you get down to the last minute, you just hope and pray everything is in place and ready to go. I've got such a remarkable team that works on this, I know we'll be ready and things will run as smoothly as possible."
The highlight games of the weekend include: Huntington Prep vs. Prime Prep on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Simeon vs. Montverde on Saturday at 6 p.m. and D.C. Gonzaga vs. Salesian from suburban San Francisco on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Huntington Prep features Andrew Wiggins, who many regard as the top player in the Class of 2013, while Prime Prep is a school that was started by NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, who Merrick believes will travel with the team to Wheeling.
"I expect that game to be the best of the weekend," Merrick said. "The talent, on both teams, is unbelievable and the game's going to be a track meet."
Simeon, which is returning to the event for the second straight year, features Jabari Parker, who just verbally committed to Duke University last month. Montverde features future major college players Dakari Johnson, Kasey Hill and D'Angelo Russell.
Salesian is led to the Friendly City by Cal-Berkeley signee Jabari Bird. M
Merrick, who believes there could eventually be upwards of five NBA Lottery Picks in this tournament, feels Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor is a can't miss pro prospect. He's listed as a Class of 2014 player.
Whitney Young, which played in the CRC last year as well, will take on Neumann-Goretti from Philadelphia at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Other top players to keep an eye on include: Jaelin Grant and BeeJay Anya, both of DeMatha High; BJ Johnson, Lower Merion High; and Emmanuel Mudiay, Prime Prep High.
"We feel the teams and players will speak for themselves," Merrick said. "It's going to be a very fun weekend."
Along with the nationally regarded teams, the CRC has always sought to include local talent as well. Linsly and Wheeling Central will be in action Friday, while Wheeling Park will once again take on St. Joseph's Prep from Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon at 12:30 p.m., which is the first game of the day.
"This event is a great way for the local teams to gain some exposure and get a good, stiff challenge to help prepare them for the rest of their regular seasons and into the tournament," Merrick said.
According to Merrick, advance ticket sales have been brisk. Tickets are still available and will be available at the door. The tickets can be purchased at the Schiffler Cancer Center at Wheeling Hospital.
"I can't give an exact number of tickets sold, but it's been been better than they've been," Merrick said. "We hope to see as many local basketball and sports fans as possible."
Tonight's tip-off banquet, which still has seats available according to Merrick, will feature current ESPN Basketball Analyst and former Wake Forest head coach Dino Gaudio as the keynote speaker.
According to Merrick, Gaudio will fly into Pittsburgh this afternoon and fly back to Charlotte on Friday because of on-air commitments through ESPN.
"We are really excited about the banquet," Merrick said. "We think it's going to be a really special evening."
The entire teams from Wheeling Park and Wheeling Central will attend the banquet this year.
ESPN will begin its set-up process for the games it will air Saturday night on Friday morning.
All told, the crew will consist of 38 people to produce the games, which will be aired on ESPN2 and ESPN-U Saturday night in the 6 and 8 p.m. timeslots.
Former Wright State University head coach Paul Biancardi will once again supply the color analysis.
Once again this year, area bands will perform during Saturday's games. Steubenville High School's marching band will be the chief entertainment and perform on the floor Saturday evening. The Big Red pep band will be on hand Friday evening.
"The local bands bring a lot of energy to the gym," Merrick said. "It really gives it an atmosphere like a Big Ten game."
Staskey may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org