Brains and brawn: Ivy League-bound centres highlight Snowball tourney

When the latest edition of the Abbotsford Collegiate Snowball Classic tips off next week, expect some taller gentlemen to take centre stage.

Cedric Kuakamensah (21) of the St. Andrew’s Saints from Barrington

Cedric Kuakamensah (21) of the St. Andrew’s Saints from Barrington

In recent years, the Abbotsford Collegiate Snowball Classic has been defined by dazzling point guard play.

Since 2008, when organizers of the storied senior boys basketball tourney began augmenting the field by bringing in high-profile American teams, it’s been all about the floor generals.

In ‘08, it was Mykel Cleveland leading the Williamson Lions of Mobile, Alabama to the title. In ‘09 and ‘10, Marek Klassen of the hometown Yale Lions asserted his status as one of the Snowball’s all-time greats by winning back-to-back MVP awards. And last year, highly touted junior Landon Drew led the way as Los Angeles’s Fairfax Lions won gold.

But when the latest edition of the Snowball tips off next week (Jan. 11-14), expect some taller gentlemen to take centre stage for a change.

The biggest names among the big men are a pair of centres bound for Ivy League schools next fall. Cedric Kuakumensah, a 6’8” pivot from the St. Andrew’s Saints of Rhode Island, has landed a hoops scholarship from Brown University. Braxston Bunce, a 6’11” behemoth out of Kelowna Secondary, is ticketed for Cornell University.

The way the Snowball draw sets up, St. Andrew’s and Kelowna – B.C.’s No. 1-ranked AAA squad – are on a collision course to meet in the final. Though there are no guarantees that match-up will materialize, the prospect of a battle between two future Ivy League opponents makes for a fascinating subplot.

“It would be a good test for our team, and myself personally,” Bunce told The News earlier this week. “It would be a great measuring stick.”

Kuakumensah and Bunce both bring an elite combination of brains and brawn. Harry Parmar, Bunce’s coach with the Kelowna Owls, says his star “might have gotten a B once in band in Grade 8.” He brings a tireless work ethic to both his academic and athletic pursuits – in addition to a strong post game, Bunce (pictured right, No. 23) has developed a nice touch on his jump shot as well.

Kuakumensah, according to St. Andrew’s coach Mike Hart, drew scholarship offers from NCAA schools in higher-profile basketball conferences. But the Worcester, Mass. native decided the academic opportunities at Brown were too good to pass up.

“He’s our first Ivy League player, and I’m probably prouder of him than any kid I’ve had in the program,” Hart said. “He’s just a tremendous kid. He’s one of our captains, and he’s probably the best role model you could have. Everything’s at a high level for him.”

St. Andrew’s is a private school located in Barrington, R.I., and the senior boys basketball team boasts a long track record of success. The Saints have won eight New England championships in program history, six of which were earned during Hart’s 18-year tenure.

2011-12 was supposed to be a rebuilding season for St. Andrew’s, after the graduation of star shooting guard Michael Carter-Williams. The first player from Rhode Island selected to McDonald’s All-American Game is now a freshman with the Syracuse Orange, the NCAA’s No. 1-ranked squad.

But the Saints have fashioned a 9-2 record behind a deep stable of big men led by Kuakumensah, and a stellar sophomore class led by point guard Henry Bolton.

“It’s funny, because traditionally we’ve been press-trap-run-score,” said Hart. “I learned from (current University of Louisville coach) Rick Pitino in the late ‘80s when he was at Providence, and I always wanted to play that way.

“But this year, we are a slowdown, flex offence team that plays halfcourt defence and halfcourt offence. It’s a personnel thing. Usually we come in with a bunch of guards and maybe two big men. Now, we have five big guys and a couple guards.”

Beyond the Saints and the Owls, the Snowball field is stacked. Five of B.C.’s preseason top-10 AAA teams – No. 1 Kelowna, No. 3 W.J. Mouat, No. 6 Kitsilano, No. 7 Burnaby South, and No. 9 St. George’s – will be in attendance. The draw also features the Kelvin Clippers of Winnipeg; the G.W. Graham Grizzlies of Chilliwack, B.C.’s No. 2-ranked AA squad; and a terrific cross-section of Abbotsford talent including the Yale Lions, the MEI Eagles and the host Abby Collegiate Panthers.

The 52nd annual event tips off next Wednesday, as Abby Collegiate takes on the Chilliwack Storm at 12:45 p.m. The tourney gets going in earnest on Thursday, with games tipping off from 9:45 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. The semifinals are set for 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Friday, and the final goes at 8 p.m. Saturday. A complete draw is posted below.

“I don’t think there’s been a Snowball with better teams or better players than this year,” said Panthers coach Prentice Lenz.

“We haven’t had a whole wealth of talented big kids coming through before. We’ve had one here or there, and we’ve had some great guards, but never this sort of calibre of big kids. I think it’ll be some very exciting basketball.”

• The News will be providing blanket coverage of the Snowball at abbynews.com, with a live blog updated all day Thursday and during Saturday evening’s final.