Kent Williams adopted a mantra when he took over as De Smet’s basketball coach before the 2017-18 season. The Spartans are on a “mission back to tradition.”
That tradition got a shot in the arm Monday when the Tournament of Champions announced De Smet will be included in the 2021 tournament field.
Regarded as one of the top high school basketball tournaments in the country, the Tournament of Champions has become a proving ground for the area’s top basketball teams over the last 36 years. De Smet becomes the fifth local team invited since 2016. It joins Chaminade (2016), Webster Groves (2018), Belleville West (2019) and Vashon (2020). Chaminade, Webster and Belleville West all went on to win state championships. Vashon was well on its way before the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the Class 4 and 5 state semifinals in March.
“It’s pretty exciting to get the call,” Williams said. “It’s a great honor to be invited.”
It will be De Smet’s fourth appearance at the Tournament of Champions. It also made the trek to Springfield in 1999, 2000 and 2003. Vashon’s seven appearances are the most by an area team. St. Charles West (1995), CBC (1997) and Vashon (2002, 2006) are the only area teams to win the Tournament of Champions.
Williams has a personal connection to the tournament after he served as an assistant coach for Missouri State University’s men’s basketball team between 2008 and 2010. He knows firsthand what the atmosphere is like when the building is rocking. The 2020 Tournament of Champions had a three-day attendance of 22,553.
It’s also the same facility where the state championships are held. The chance to play in JQH Arena against elite competition in January with March on their mind is something that could prove beneficial for the Spartans.
“It’s a great environment to play in,” Williams said. “You get to play on the court where the state championships are held.”
The Tournament of Champions will be among the biggest tests De Smet will face next winter. The other seven teams in the field include IMG Academy, Atlanta’s Pace Academy, Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High, Las Vegas’s Bishop Gorman, Kansas’s Sunrise Christian, plus Springfield’s own Kickapoo and Greenwood.
Greenwood features rising senior guard Aminu Mohammed, who is among the top recruits in the nation and put on a show in January. He set the tournament record for most total rebounds (52) and most rebounds in a game (23). His 100 points scored over three games is tied for fourth most all-time.
De Smet was invited on the strength of its returning roster, which includes rising senior posts Sekou Gassama, Yaya Keita, guard Jeremiah Walker and junior Brian Taylor. They have been significant pieces in helping the Spartans climb out of the funk that the program was in prior to Williams’ arrival.
A five-time state champion with 14 state semifinal appearances, De Smet has posted back-to-back 20 win seasons after failing to win more than half its games between 2014 and 2018. The Spartans have not won a district championship since 2013 when they finished as the Class 5 runner-up.
“To see where the program has come from then to now it speaks to their dedication and the hard work they have put in,” Williams said.
De Smet also will make appearances at the Highland Shootout, the Midwest Showdown Shootout and the Ozark Mountain Shootout. Williams said the Spartans will continue to play in the Coaches vs. Cancer Holiday Tournament and the Parkway West Showdown. Plus, there will be the grind that is the Metro Catholic Conference with two-time defending champion CBC bringing back an experienced core and a Chaminade team that returns several elite underclassmen.
The Spartans have not won the MCC since the 2006-07 season. Every other team in the league has won it outright at least once.
“There’s a lot of tradition at De Smet and we’re trying to get it back,” Williams said. “That’s what we’re driven to do.”
STLHighSchoolSports.com is the most comprehensive source of stats, scores and stories from any and all area high schools.