WHEELING - The nation's premier high school basketball players are about to converge on the Ohio Valley.
The seventh annual Cancer Research Classic Basketball Tournament opens Friday afternoon and features nine games over the course of the two-day evening that's sponsored by Wheeling Hospital and is aimed at not only showcasing some of the top hoop talent in America, but also promoting men's health.
"This is always an exciting event and anytime you can be around basketball, great players and great teams, it's always fun," said CRC Director Dr. Gregory Merrick. "We look at this as a college event where the players wear high school uniforms because you'll be seeing many of these kids playing at major colleges."
Logistically, Merrick and his staff, which is spearheaded by Bonnie Funkhouser and Pam Conway, are ready for the games, which is expected to once again draw large crowds to the campus of Wheeling Jesuit University.
"Pam and Bonnie have done a tremendous job and now we're just waiting for the teams to arrive," Merrick said. "All of the vendors and volunteers are in place, so we're down to the point where we're just looking forward to seeing people come in the door."
Action gets under way at 3:10 with what Merrick thinks could be one of the best games of the weekend when Prime Prep and Simeon clash. Wheeling Park and Seton LaSalle will tangle at 4:40 p.m.
The third game of the evening - Cleveland VASJ and Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) - will tip at 7 p.m. and be broadcast live on ESPNU. That contest features two of the top juniors in America in Carlton Bragg from VASJ and Stephen Zimmerman of Gorman.
"I am really excited for that VASJ and Bishop Gorman game," Merrick said. "People have told me Bragg is the best player in the state of Ohio since LeBron James, so this will be a chance for him to really show who he is."
The final game of the evening is a rematch of the national championship game between Montverde and St. Benedict's Prep. Montverde features upwards of 10 future Division I players, including Ohio State signee D'Angelo Russell, who is just coming back from an injury.
Saturday's action begins at 12:10 p.m. with Wheeling Central and St. Joseph's Prep of Philadelphia meeting.
The premier game on that day's card is at 7 p.m. and pits Duke signee Jahlil Okafor and Whitney Young against Prime Prep and SMU signee Emmanuel Mudiay.
Merrick is also high on the 4:40 game, which pits Wheeler from Georgia against Montverde.
Bishop Gorman and Simeon will also play respective games on Saturday.
"The first and last games of the weekend are just bookends around marvelous basketball," Merrick said.
The teams are slated to start arriving today into the Ohio Valley and many are expected to work at Wheeling Jesuit's McDonough Center.
Montverde, Bishop Gorman, Simeon and Prime Prep are all flying to Pittsburgh and busing to the Ohio Valley today. St. Benedict's is set to arrive tonight.
Whitney Young will arrive on Friday and the remainder of the teams will bus in for the games.
"We don't expect any travel issues," Merrick said. "The storm looks like it's going to stay in the northeast and by Friday, it should be cleared out."
Unlike high schools in West Virginia and Ohio, the CRC will implement a 35-second shot clock for this year.
"I am really excited about that," Merrick said. "I know the reasons they don't, but I think it should be adopted in all high school basketball. We're hopeful that teams that normally don't have a shot clock have been practicing with it because kids can tend to panic when it runs down to about 12 seconds or so even though that's still a lot of time."
Merrick indicated that both Wheeling Central and Wheeling Park have been practicing with the shot clock. Both the Knights and Patriots play teams from Pennsylvania, which also doesn't utilize a shot clock, so the playing field is even in that regard.
Doug Costain once again oversaw the assigning of the officials for the event.
"It'll be a mixture of college and high-level high school guys," Merrick said. "Doug's done a marvelous job and one of the biggest compliments we get is about our officiating, so we're proud of that."
During Saturday's action, Merrick said plenty of health professionals will be on hand in the main lobby of the McDonough Center to present facts and conduct screenings for men's health.
"It's a great opportunity to come out and learn and get tested," Merrick said. "Men usually live, on average, 7 to 8 years less than women because of our unwillingness to get care, but we're making inroads and it's a great opportunity to do that with basketball."
The bands of St. Clairsville, Wheeling Park, Indian Creek and Steubenville will all perform throughout the course of the weekend.
According to Merrick, advance ticket sales have gone well, but he stressed that tickets will be available at the gate.
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