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Hoops Classic gives holiday some pep

It’s been five years since Charlotte has had a truly big time high school basketball Christmas tournament.

That’s changing this week when the first Wild Wings Cafe Hoops Classic comes to Ardrey Kell. The tournament tips off Friday and concludes Dec. 30.

Former Carolina Panther Muhsin Muhammad co-founded the restaurant’s chain’s holding company, Axum Capital Partners. Axum is hoping some of the high profile prep teams coming to town might elevate the brand.

If the tournament is anything like the old Bojangles’ Shootout, it’s going to become a draw in town. At one time, USA Today called the Bojangles’ Shootout the best post-Christmas high school basketball tournament in America. The event was run by Jeff Hood, who is also behind the Hoops Classic. He’s assembled an impressive field that includes the nation’s top ranked team, Montverde (Fla.) Academy, and some impressive matchups.

On opening day, Hood will pair national power Arlington Country Day against nationally ranked Northside Christian of Charlotte, and N.C. 4A state champ Olympic will face private school power Victory Christian. Cam Newton’s alma mater, Westlake (Ga.) High is also in the event. Westlake will face national power Abraham Lincoln on Friday.

There are a handful of players ranked among the nation’s top 100 in their respective classes. In past years, Hood has treated fans to a who’s-who of high school athletes. Expect some of the kids in this year’s field to become household names in the near future, too.

• Past players in this event include Raymond Felton (North Carolina/New York Knicks), Brandon Rush (Kansas/Utah Jazz), Anthony Morrow (Charlotte Latin/Georgia Tech/New Orleans Pelicans), Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State football/Oakland Raiders), LaMarcus Aldridge (Texas/Portland), Stephen Curry (Charlotte Christian/Davidson/Golden State), Wayne Ellington (North Carolina/Dallas Mavericks), Gerald Henderson (Duke/Bobcats), Derrick Favors (Georgia Tech/Utah Jazz), Kendall Marshall (North Carolina/Los Angeles Lakers) and Jody Meeks (Kentucky/Lakers).

• Perhaps the most impressive team of the early season has been coach Mike Craft’s Ardrey Kell Knights. Ardrey Kell lost to a very good Myers Park team Dec. 5, but bounced back with four straight wins. Last week, the Knights emphatically took down reigning N.C. 4A champion Olympic, winning 73-54 at home. Ardrey Kell controlled the game throughout and ended Olympic’s 37-game win streak. And playing two nights later at Harding, one of the toughest places to play in Mecklenburg County, the Knight didn’t have a letdown, winning 62-51.

• Myers Park’s girls jumped into USA Today’s national rankings at No. 18. The Mustangs have been nationally ranked, in one poll or another, for the past three seasons. The Mustangs, however, still don’t have that elusive state title ring. Myers Park is 10-0 this season and is 70-1 over the past three seasons. The Mustangs have won 58 straight regular-season games, but I sense something different about this year’s team. Myers Park seems more hungry, and maybe the playoff frustrations are building (as they should) or maybe the Mustangs are finally buying into second-year coach Barbara Nelson’s championship pedigree – she won seven state titles at Providence Day – but these Mustangs seem a little different than the past two teams that dominated regular-season play.

Myers Park will play in the Naples Holiday Shootout in Florida next week and will face some of the top girls teams in the country. It may ruin the Mustangs’ gaudy record and gaudy streaks, but these are the kinds of games that will toughen Nelson’s team up for a March run towards what they hope is the school’s first state title.