It is the largest high school basketball tournament of its kind in Western Canada, an early-season look at the contenders and the pretenders.
And for members of the Neelin Spartans, hosting the eighth annual Brandon Sun Spartan Invitational is clearly one of the highlights of their season.
“It’s a really big tournament for us that we host and for eight years now it’s been a really important tournament in Manitoba, so I am really excited,” said Spartans forward Theo Farough, who was a BSSI all-star in his Grade 10 season last year. “To do well in the BSSI is a huge deal and I’m just looking forward to it and hoping that we can do the best we can.”
Thirty-two varsity boys teams will hit the hardwood at five gymnasiums — Neelin, Crocus Plains, Vincent Massey, Assiniboine Community College and New Era — on Thursday afternoon when this year’s tournament tips off.
Once again the BSSI is divided into two tiers of teams, with the top Victoria Inn Division returning the likes of Winnipeg’s Oak Park Raiders, Garden City Gophers and Sturgeon Heights Huskies, three of the top four teams in last year’s provincial AAAA championship won by Oak Park. The Raiders, who also won the BSSI last season, return one of province’s premier point guards in Grade 11 standout Junior Sesay, as well as the tournament’s tallest player in 6-foot-9 centre Aaron Ivey.
“We get to see some of the best teams out there and that’s a really interesting thing to do, kind of compare yourselves to the best teams in the province,” Farough said.
Five out-of-province teams will also make the trip to Brandon, including the Superior Gryphons and Sir Winston Churchill Trojans from Thunder Bay, Ont., with Regina represented by the Campbell Tartans, Winston Knoll Wolverines and the Sheldon Williams Spartans.
The young Neelin squad will again compete in the second tier Tri-Star Screen Printing Division, which also features the defending champion Lord Selkirk Royals, Brandon’s Vincent Massey Vikings and Crocus Plainsmen, as well as southwestern Manitoba teams from Dauphin, Glenboro and Killarney.
“That’s something we wanted when we started eight years ago was to make sure that we ran a tournament that covered the high end of basketball, but also covered our local teams and gave them an opportunity to come to Brandon and showcase what they do at a single A, double A or even a three A level,” said Spartans head coach and tournament organizer Don Thomson.
“We’re still pretty young. We have one Grade 12 (Mark Jacobson) and a team loaded with Grade 10s and 11s, so we’re going to go out and play hard and see how it works out.”
Dauphin defeated Neelin 76-48 in last weekend’s final of the Sanford Early Cat Classic, while Crocus Plains whipped Windsor Park 90-45 in the consolation final of the Kildonan East tournament.
“I think we have a team that can compete,” said Plainsmen head coach Bart Walker, whose team returns Justin Arthurson, a 48-point scorer in one BSSI game last season.
“We have a lot of athletes and guys that can play and know the game and have played together, so we’re pretty excited and happy with our team,” Walker said. “It’s always nice to be at home and play in a big tournament like this ... and we’re excited to be in it.”
Meanwhile, the BSSI will be the first action of the year for Brandon’s Vincent Massey team, under the direction of head coach Brett Nohr.
“We’ve been practising really well the last couple of weeks, so they are just getting excited to play a game,” Nohr said.
“We’re young. We’ve only got two kids in Grade 12, but I think we’ve got some fairly athletic kids that just need to understand how to play the game of basketball and once they figure that out, we should be OK ... I’m looking forward to it.”
Eighty games will be played over the next three days, culminating in the Tri-Star Division final on Saturday at Neelin at 5:10 p.m., followed by the Victoria Inn final at Neelin at 7 p.m.