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How will CAA's Open Division change Arizona high school basketball landscape?

By Richard Olbert, 07/18/18, 7:45PM MST

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They're wearing bright orange jerseys with big white numbers on front. No name. And they're tearing it up at a recent Arizona State high school basketball team camp.

Who are these guys?

It's not Tempe Corona del Sol.

It's a team led by Phil Lowe, a former Chicago-area high school coach who moved to the Valley five years ago and is forming a team that is led by 6-foot-10, 205-pound Shon Robinson, who, since his move from Chicago last year, has blown up on the local recruiting scene.

Robinson dominated in the Arizona Interscholastic Association at Gilbert Higley during his sophomore season.

He has added two inches and about 25 pounds since last August, and now he could become the face of the new Canyon Athletic Association's Open Division.

After leading his team to a semifinal rout of a loaded Phoenix Mountain team that is expected to challenge for the AIA 6A title again next season, Robinson was asked about his new team.

What is the name of it? Where is it located?

"I don't know all that yet," he said. "I just trust my coach."

That coach is Phil Lowe, who is from Chicago and led Robinson to Higley last year. Lowe was part of Higley coach Jerome Joseph's staff since Joseph's days leading Gilbert Christian.

 

Now Lowe is branching off on his own with hopes of having a team play in this new Open Division in an Arizona governing body that has looser regulations than the AIA:

  • Teams are placed in divisions based on how strong they are, not enrollment numbers.
  • International players are allowed to play.
  • Just for basketball, for schools that service an at-risk student population, a fifth-year student-athlete who has not completed graduation requirements is allowed to appeal and play if approved by the board.

"We are anticipating that once the prep academies hear about this division in Arizona that we may generate outside-of-the-state interest, as well," said Randy Baum, who is executive director of the CAA. "Currently, we believe the division will have five to 10 teams in the first year."

Lowe said he is looking to land his prep team at Eduprize, a charter school in Gilbert.

He said it would give his team a flexible schedule with a chance to travel out of state for national games against greater competition go with the 12-or-so CAA Open Division games.

"We're still going to play the best of the best," Lowe said.

Baum said there would not be a state championship for the Open Division in the first year, but a game would be played in the CAA's state championship venue, which is where the Suns play -- Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix.

 

"It's an exciting opportunity for the CAA," Baum said. "It will be interesting to see with (Deandre) Ayton being selected Number 1 out of a prep program (two years at Phoenix Hillcrest Prep, followed by one season at the University of Arizona), if this grows even more."

The CAA received a jolt of credibility in 2017 when Tri-City Christian Academy's 6-9, 235-pound Nigel Shadd signed with Kansas State. Nobody from the CAA had gone to a  major college to play basketball before then.

Opening door

Baum said that in the last few years, CAA members have kept prep academies out of league- and state-tournament play.

This season, however, it is opening the door for the prep academies with the experimental Open Division that will allow the prep academies to pick up local games.

The AIA shut the door on Hillcrest when it formed before Ayton's junior season, denying any kind of membership and preventing it from playing some of the local powers, like Phoenix Shadow Mountain and Phoenix Pinnacle.

Findlay Prep in Nevada has a partial membership with its top high school sports association because it agreed not to poach local players. That has allowed it to play against powers such as Las Vegas Bishop Gorman and in the ESPN-broadcasted national high school tournament in the spring.

"We are not sure how well this will go over, but we would like to lead the way in our state on allowing a platform for these high school athletes to play local games in-state," Baum said.

Basketball players must be rostered 24 hours prior to the first game and cannot be rostered on any teams outside of the CAA League, Baum noted in the CAA bylaws. Baum said that varsity teams that also have national teams must submit rosters and pictures before the first scheduled CAA game to him.

"It is a movement that is growing steam and will probably continue to grow," Baum said.

Hillcrest Prep Academy, with a shoe sponsorship, took off on the national scene the last three years with Ayton and now ASU-commit Kyree Walker. Its top national team would stay in Grind Sessions, travel, and play top competition across the country.

Dalen Terry, a top guard prospect at Corona del Sol, has left the AIA for Hillcrest Prep. 

Hillcrest could put a second team in the CAA Open.

"I really love the fact that the CAA is doing this open division for prep schools," said Matt Allen, the director and co-owner of Hillcrest. "It's a way for not only prep academies to have a quality league, but even more importantly, a way for foreign players to play quality competition.

"I believe Hillcrest will possibly work with a school one day and use the CAA like a development league for our kids."

Kyle Weaver, who coached the 7-foot-1 Ayton at Hillcrest before taking over as coach of prep academy at Bella Vista in the Northeast Valley last year, said he isn't sure what the program will do next season. But there is a chance, with expansion, that a second Bella Vista national high school team could play in the CAA.

Whatever happens, Weaver sees prep academies growing.

"It's definitely growing with the NCAA regulations coming down with club ball," Weaver said. "Preps (academies) are going to grow and continue to grow in a number of years."

AAU basketball could be changing next year if the NCAA gains more control of the viewing periods for recruiting. A recommendation is to have three or four camps in June and July for college coaches to evaluate talent.

There would still be the spring viewing events for AAU tournaments. But it might get harder in July for many high school basketball players to be seen by colleges if they're not among the select invited to a camp.

That would never be Robinson's worry, whose recruiting ramped up again since May with basketball scholarship offers from Arizona, Texas A&M, Mississippi, Iowa and Florida.

For now, Robinson is hoping to put his team, whatever it might be, on the map.

"“I want to make a statement, show my team is one of the best in Arizona," Robinson said.