There are plenty of reasons to buy a ticket to watch the Mater Dei Christmas Tournament in Breese. But the most convincing this year is a chance to watch 6-foot-8, 220-pound senior standout Austin Nichols from Briarcrest Christian High in Memphis.
Nichols turned down scholarship offers from Duke, Tennessee, Auburn and other major programs to stay with his hometown school, the University of Memphis.
Averaging 25 points and 13 rebounds per game for the 10-3 Saints, he is considered one of the top 30 recruits in the country by most recruiting services. He is listed as the nation's 13th best senior by ESPN.com and will lead the top-seeded Saints against Highland at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
"(Duke coach Mike) Krzyzewski was in twice, they wanted him badly," Briarcrest coach John Harrington said. "We thought he was going to go to Tennessee because he's got a sister that goes to school there. He had offers from everybody.
"(Memphis) was sort of a surprise, but this way he gets to stay close to home."
Nichols, who helped his team finish second in the state last season, is more than just a scorer. He's also athletic and a good passer whose ability to finish around the basket makes him even more desirable on the next level.
"He's not your prototypical Memphis ballplayer," Harrington said. "He'd be an Indiana-type player in my book. He reminds me a lot of the Zeller kids, the one at Indiana and the one that was at North Carolina."
Cody Zeller is a 7-foot sophomore standout at Indiana who recently graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview issue. Brother Tyler Zeller was a 7-foot-1 All-American at North Carolina and now plays in the NBA with Cleveland.
Nichols is a four-year starter who may just be tapping into his vast potential, according to Harrington.
"He runs the floor well and he can score inside or outside," Harrington said. "He's a very high efficiency scorer around the basket and last year led the city (Memphis) in field-goal percentage. He's put on 20 pounds in the offseason, so that really shot his stock up with most people."
Nichols had a 40-point game against Bartlett, Tenn. earlier this season and routinely faces intense defensive attention.
"I think it's important to stay humble. Don't be cocky," Nichols told the Memphis Commercial Appeal earlier this year. "Keep your feet on the ground, and also hard work. If you blend all that together, you can make something special. That's what I've tried to do here and I guess it's paid off."
Along with Nichols, the Saints also feature 6-3 senior forward Chris Hodges, athletic senior point guard Donnavan Spralls and sophomore guard Adam Pike.
Briarcrest's three losses came to Huntington (W. Va.) Prep, the nation's No. 1 team (74-70), No. 18 White Station from Memphis (61-52) and undefeated Santa Fe Christian from California (53-48).
"We're pretty young," said Harrington, whose team was 24-6 last season and lost to Nashville Ensworth in the Division 2-AA state title game. "We graduated eight seniors last year and five of those eight are playing college basketball and two more are playing college baseball."
Harrington said Briarcrest has an enrollment of 550. He brought one of his previous teams (Bartlett) to the Centralia Holiday Tournament -- finishing second --and enjoyed the region enough that he's made it back to the metro-east again.
"I was looking on the Internet for tournaments and the first thing with Mater Dei was the 52nd annual, so I knew it had been around for a while and was a very reputable tournament," Harrington said. "I liked that brand of basketball and the fans, plus it's not too far away plus there's five games in four days ... there's a few things that caught my eye."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.