Rick Pitino’s University of Louisville Cardinals beat John Calipari’s University of Kentucky Wildcats 80-77 on Saturday afternoon. Every basketball fan in the Commonwealth of Kentucky was watching the game.
Everyone except the Bullitt East Chargers’ fans seated in Birdville Coliseum just outside Ft. Worth, Texas. Kentucky’s top-ranked prep cage team was playing in the 55th annual Whataburger basketball tournament.
The Chargers’ third-round game against Houston’s Spring Westfield Mustangs inconveniently began at the same time as the Commonwealth’s civil war cage match.
Half of the Chargers’ supporters were Wildcat fans, the other half were Cardinal fans. With one eye on their sons and one eye on their smart phones, they called out scores and clock to each other. It was a rather civil civil war.
I personally didn’t have a cock in the fight. I was in Ft. Worth visiting my sister and was looking for a reason to get out of the crowded house where all of the grown-ups were doing their level best to avoid talking politics.
I was reading the sports page and saw the box scores for the Whataburger tournament and noticed that the town I grew up in, Plano, Texas, had two teams in the tournament. Then something caught my eye, a score line for “Bullitt East KY.”
Of course Bullitt county is NOT in “East KY”, it is on the southern perimeter of the Louisville metro area, my home base. A quick use of Google and I discovered that Bullitt East wasn’t the only out-of-Texas team in the tournament and Birdville Coliseum is only a few miles from my sister’s house.
I grabbed my notebook, made some lame excuse about my “writing career” and headed for the basketball tournament.
Bullitt East Boys
The Bullitt East Chargers are coached by 12-year veteran and Jerry Tarkanian look-alike Troy Barr. While he shares Tarkanian’s shaved pate, his mannerisms with players and officials are more like Mike Krzyzewski; he is like a thoughtful and encouraging teacher.
The Bullitt East brand appears all over the Internet in various national prep rankings, previews, and predictions. Barr’s boys began this season ranked #1 in Kentucky and appear in various places on the universally capricious national polls. Success is an expectation in the Mt. Washington community.
According to David Jones, father of Charger senior guard Derek Jones, four of the seniors on this year’s team played an undefeated season together on the Bullitt East freshman squad. Three of them played for Jones in an elementary school league.
Success attracts players like Bulleit Bourbon attracts spirit connoisseurs. The only underclassman starting for the Chargers is sophomore guard, Hunter Noffsinger. His parents moved closer to Louisville to lessen their commuting time and chose the Mt. Washington community so their son could play for Barr’s Chargers.
Then there is the unpretentious superstar of the team, 6'9" senior forward Derek Willis. Willis averaged nearly a double-double his junior year, and UK’s Calipari wasted no time inking Willis to an early commitment.
Willis, however, is not a home-grown product. He transferred to Bullitt East prior to his sophomore season from Louisville’s Male High School. Word is he was looking for better coaching and he found Barr and now a full ride to the most storied basketball program in the nation.
Parents of children who play high-level sports come to dread the term “traveling team.” These are the local elite youth sports teams that, in order to play against quality opposition, travel for leagues and to tournaments all over the region, the state, and the country. Travel team commitments require parents to dedicate an enormous amount of time and resources to spend weekend after weekend on the road, outfit their players, and pay coaches and travel expenses. It is not for the faint of heart.
Jessy Bacon, father of sophomore backup post Tyler Bacon, told me that thirty or so parents and supporters made the trip from Louisville to Ft. Worth. A major winter storm passed through that part of the country and actually forced one of the “national” tournament teams, defending Whataburger champions Little Rock Parkview, to cancel their trip and a chance to defend their title.
No amount of snow and ice could keep the Bullitt East supporters in Kentucky. Even the three-man WFBR radio broadcast team made the trip. The only travel complaint was a commonly heard grumble about all of the road construction in the area and the havoc it played with everyone’s GPS systems.
The players and coaches, however, got to experience adventure travel at its finest. Whataburger pays the travel expenses for the tournament’s “national” teams so Bullitt East flew to the tournament. After a stop in Memphis, the team’s plane developed technical problems with the landing gear and had to return to Memphis. The team spent the day lounging around the airport before they were flown late that evening to Atlanta, where they were forced to spend the night.
They finally arrived at DFW airport at 11 a.m. and were ready to play their first game at 5:45, where they manhandled Coppell High 67-47. Ellis had 19 points, and Bellarmine University recruit, Rusty Troutman added 16.
In the second round, Bullitt East took a 34-24 lead into the fourth quarter of their game against Arlington Martin. Maybe the extended travel finally took a toll on the Bullitt East boys or maybe they just couldn’t overcome the ankle injury to their leading scorer Ellis, but Bullitt East was outscored 8-22 in the fourth quarter and lost the game 42-46.
“They just lost focus,” David Jones told me.
By Saturday, I was settled in with the Bullitt East supporters, as their team faced No. 5 Houston Spring Westfield in a consolation bracket game. Ellis looked hampered by his bum ankle. His passing and ball-handling skills were evident, but he lacked explosiveness.
It didn’t matter. His teammates picked up the slack with Troutman going for 17 points and the entire team shooting 19 of 22 from the line. The Chargers didn’t score a field goal the entire fourth quarter but were an incredible 15 of 16 on foul shots, outscoring Spring Westfield 15-11 in the quarter and 55-46 for the win.
So the Chargers advanced to the penultimate game of the tournament, the fifth-place game against No. 8 North Crowley. The arena was starting to fill up in anticipation of the final championship game. While the crowd filed in, Derek Willis treated them to an exhibition of the full set of skills that enticed the Kentucky Wildcats to give him a scholarship before his senior year even began.
Midway through the first quarter, North Crowley’s broad-shouldered 6'8" senior center tried to lay the ball up off the glass, only to have it emphatically pinned there by Willis who then claimed the rebound. Willis was explosive throughout the game, throwing down three dunks, finding open teammates, and running the floor. On one break, Willis stopped on a gnat to let a Crowley defender run past him, then spun to his left and kissed a soft jump-hook off the glass.
Sometimes teams go flat when their superstar is a human highlight reel. The temptation to be a fan and watch just like everyone else is just too much. But Barr’s boys are easily the most disciplined and well-coached team in the tournament.
Case in point: with under a minute to play in the first half, North Crowley decides to play for the final shot. There is no shot clock so the two North Crowley guards stand out near half-court killing the clock. Ellis is on the bench but his teammates know what to do.
They start in a 1-2-2, then without a word from their coach shift into a 2-3, and finally in a lazy half-speed sort of way they walk into a 3-2. They seem bored with North Crowley killing the clock. When the clock hits ten seconds, like a cougar leaping out of the grass, one of the wings suddenly sprints right at the ball handler and goes for the steal. He almost gets the ball, but earns a foul instead.
I’m flummoxed. Why on earth would they foul in that situation? The well-coached supporters fill me in. The team has two fouls to give, and the sudden attack has the potential to disrupt the team trying to play for the last shot and not expecting an ambush. Worse case scenario, the opponent has to inbound the ball (another chance for a steal), and the timing of the opponent’s play is now completely disrupted.
North Crowley is a good team with a couple of superstars of their own. Bullitt East keeps changing defenses to cover them—man-to-man, 2-3 zone, 1-3-1, 1-2-2, and I swear I saw a 1-3 with man-to-man on the other team’s top scorer.
In the third quarter, North Crowley takes the lead but Bullitt East ties it again 34-34 on Ellis’ jump hook. The game is getting very chippy by this point, and both sets of supporters are vocal with the referees who seem a bit overwhelmed.
On a Troutman drive to the basket, two officials make opposite calls, one calls charge and the other calls block. After a conference in which the younger referee is clearly upset, the head official goes to the scorer’s table and announces a double foul, in what has to be a first in the history of basketball, a charge AND a block. What?! How is that even possible!
With 8.2 seconds left, Bullitt East is down 52-53. After a time out they get the ball into the hands of their leading man, and he calmly drills a 22-foot jumper for his 30th point and a 55-53 win.
After that game the Whataburger tournament final was anticlimactic. One of the national teams, Long Beach Poly from California, swept Plano East off the floor with a convincing 51-40 win. Long Beach Poly featured three players who will play in the Pac-12. Plano East hung tough for three quarters but was simply overpowered by the well-coached, out-of-state visitors.
Bullitt East is next slated to play in the Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions in Springfield, Missouri. One look at the teams and players expected to participate in “The #1 Attended High School Basketball Tournament in America” would deter most teams. But not Barr’s boys, they will be there ready to play and probably with a few surprises for any team that fails to take these bluegrass Bullitt boys seriously.
I know I’ll be following them on the radio along with everyone else in Mt. Washington.