Trying to determine which boys basketball team was the favorite in the Class 5A Southern League last season was difficult.
Picking the preseason favorite to win the 5A state title this year is going to be a greater challenge.
“There’s a lot of parity this year,” Liberty coach Kevin Soares said.
The boys high school basketball season gets underway with a full schedule of games this week. Class 5A is as wide open as it has been in recent years, with all 12 teams vying for the eight spots in the state tournament of what is now a Southern-only classification.
Last season, Durango, Liberty, Bishop Gorman and Coronado were head and shoulders above the rest and put on thrilling games against each another. Durango emerged victorious, winning the state title, but an offseason filled with movement changed the landscape for the top teams.
First-year Durango coach Ron Riley, a standout at Clark High and Arizona State, will have his work cut out for him with four starters from last year’s team having left the school, most notably three-star wing and San Diego State commit Taj Degourville.
Gorman only has two returning players — guards Ryder Elisaldez and Nick Jefferson — from last year’s team after notable stars John Mobley and brothers Jase and Jaxon Richardson left.
“They don’t have the high-profile kids as much as they’ve had in the past, so (Gorman) could be a little bit more dangerous,” Soares said.
The offseason movement began when Liberty’s Dedan Thomas Jr. reclassified to the class of 2023 and graduated early to join UNLV. Soares said this year’s Liberty team is “a little deeper” than last year’s team that lost to Durango for the state title.
Sophomore Tyus Thomas, the younger brother of Dedan, will be the point guard for the Patriots, who also bring back starters Andre Porter, Kaeden Castillero and Tyler Bright.
“That’s kind of benefited us a little bit more,” Soares said of the depth. “It’s not going to be one or two guys you can totally key on. We probably have five or six guys that can score 25-plus if they’re rolling.”
Arbor View, which finished fifth in the league last season, could be the most intriguing team with the addition of Pharaoh Compton. The San Diego State commit is a four-star prospect and previously played at Spring Valley before playing with Arizona Compass Prep last season.
Coronado returns most of its team from last year, led by guard Josiah Cunningham and center Tee Bartlett. Desert Pines, Foothill and Centennial, all playoff teams in 5A last season, will also contend for the postseason.
As a reward for winning the 4A title the last two seasons, Mojave is making the jump to 5A, along with Silverado, Las Vegas High and Spring Valley.
“It’s very competitive across the board,” Mojave coach KeJuan Clark said. “Everyone feels like this is their chance to win it this year. We feel like there’s a chance for us to win it as well.”
Mojave’s suffocating full-court pressure defense and the dynamic play of guard C.J. Shaw helped the Rattlers be the team to beat in 4A and could help them contend for the 5A title. The Rattlers graduated just two key contributors from last season.
“Outside of our top guys, we have a big group of sophomores that are very talented,” Clark said. “We’re trying to see which of the younger guys step up and give us some more needed depth.”
The battle for the state title will look different this year with 5A being Southern-only, with the top Northern teams electing to drop to 4A during the realignment process in March.
Since 1993, Northern Nevada teams have won just three titles in the top classification (2006-2008). Soares said the change can be a “good thing.”
“It’s not a knock against the North, but they haven’t (won it) since (2008),” Soares said. “Playing that first game (in the state semifinals against a Northern team) was a good warmup to prepare for the state championship, but it also presented an opportunity for kids to get injured. Now, you’re really going to have to earn your way to the state title.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Zak Abdalla, Foothill: The junior guard averaged 17.3 points and 5.7 rebounds last season.
Alijah Adem, Spring Valley: The senior point guard missed all of last season with an injury but averaged 26 points per game as a sophomore for the Grizzlies.
Tee Bartlett, Coronado: The junior center will be a force inside on both ends of the floor for the Cougars.
Pharaoh Compton, Arbor View: The senior forward and four-star recruit played with Arizona Compass Prep last season.
Josiah Cunningham, Coronado: The senior guard was the Class 5A defensive player of the year last season.
Ryder Elisaldez, Bishop Gorman: The senior guard and UC San Diego commit will be the Gaels’ primary ballhandler.
RJ Nance, Centennial: The senior guard and Texas-Rio Grande Valley commit will be the Bulldogs’ primary scoring threat.
C.J. Shaw, Mojave: The junior guard averaged 22.2 points per game last season.
Xavion Staton, Sierra Vista: The junior center holds notable Division I offers from Kansas, Southern California, UCLA and Louisiana State.
Tyus Thomas, Liberty: The sophomore takes over the reins at point guard for the Patriots.