While December is holiday time for many, it is also showcase time for high school basketball, and two of Gwinnett County's best girls teams will be participating next week in one of the country's biggest showcase.
Three-time defending Class AA state champion Buford and four-time defending (three in Class A, one in AA) champion Wesleyan head west for the 2011 Nike Tournament of Champions beginning Monday at sites throughout the Phoenix metro area.
"Any time you get invited to a tournament like this, it says something about your program," said Buford head coach Gene Durden, whose top-ranked Wolves (5-0) head to Phoenix for its first appearance in the Nike TOC fresh off Friday's win over No. 5 (AAA) Columbia. "We're excited about getting out there and representing Buford. It's the best field. Every team out there is nationally ranked. So, it will be a good test for us."
Both packs of Wolves will be in the Joe Smith Division -- considered to be the toughest of the six 16-team brackets featuring top teams from around the nation -- though neither Durden nor Wesleyan coach Jan Azar is necessarily eager for the two teams to meet, especially with a regular-season game already set for Jan. 28 at Wesleyan.
"We don't want to travel all the way out (to Phoenix) to play a team that's only a few miles from us like Wesleyan," Durden said. "If we're both in the finals, then that would be OK with me."
Added Azar, "I agree (with Durden). We went to Myrtle Beach (S.C., for the Beach Ball Classic) last year and saw Norcross, which is right across the street from us. But we're both in it for a reason, so if we do wind up playing (Buford), it will be big.
"But unless we both make it to the finals, it will be hard for us to match up with each other because we're so far apart in the bracket. But it's exciting that two Gwinnett teams are in the top bracket."
Indeed, Wesleyan (7-0) is on one end of the bracket and will tip off the Joe Smith Division's tournament against Good Counsel of Olney, Md., at 10:30 a.m. MST (12:30 p.m. locally), while Buford opens on the opposite end with Mater Dei of Santa Ana, Calif., at 3 p.m. MST (5 p.m. locally).
So, the chances of the two meeting are slim, unless both teams advance to the championship finals Thursday.
While that may seem remote given the quality of the field, both teams are playing strong basketball heading into next week's tournament.
Buford continues to roll despite still missing Tennessee-bound senior guard Andraya Carter, who continues to rehab a knee injury suffered last spring, and will not play out in Arizona.
In her absence, Durden has been quite pleased with way Kaela Davis -- the Wolves' leading scorer at about 25 points per game -- and several others have stepped forward to fill the void, not only on the court, but in the locker room.
"Kaela's done a good job of not only playing well, but also with leadership and doing the little things," Durden said. "Kristina Nelson has been big for us in the low post. MacKenzie Darrah has done a lot of good things for us, and Maya Dillard has done a great job of handling the ball an running the offense.
"The biggest thing we want to get accomplished is to get better and prepare for our (region and state) tournaments in Georgia. After (this upcoming) week, there's not anybody in Georgia we'll be afraid of."
Similarly, Wesleyan, which will make its second appearance in the Nike TOC, has displayed its customary wealth of depth so far this season, led by seniors Holli Wilkins (the team's leading scorer at about 16 ppg), Kaelyn Causwell and Jordan Frazier, all of whom were freshmen during the Wolves' last trip to Phoenix.
"Even though they didn't play much, just them being out there and taking in everything, it gives us the experience we need heading out there," Azar said. "We've been playing some good basketball so far (this season). ... So, I feel like we've prepared as best we can. We've also been off all week because of exams, and it's tough ... because we've practiced only three times this week.
"But this is a very well-rounded team, and probably the deepest teams that we've had here, and that says a lot. When we were out here the last time, there were times when (now Georgia forward) Anne Marie (Armstrong) was running the point, and times when she was playing center. This team, every player is in the right position."