With its battle-tested star, Clearwater High is considered among the best boys basketball teams in the Tampa Bay area. After all, the Tornadoes, led by Florida State signee Okaro White, advanced to the Class 5A state title game last season and started this year ranked 91st in the nation by Rivals.com.
Yet when Clearwater plays in the Tampa Hoops Classic this Saturday, it will go from top dog to underdog.
Overloaded with talent, toughness, tenacity and, for that matter, teams (16), this tournament would seem to have a strong case for being among the state's and nation's best, all the more remarkable since it began just three years ago.
"I think the biggest thing we've been able to do is build upon the previous year and keep making it better," said Troy Fowler, one of the tournament's primary organizers.
This year's field is filled with teams that boast rich traditions and elite players.
The headliner is St. Anthony's of Jersey City, N.J., a powerhouse that has won three national titles under legendary coach Bob Hurley, a finalist to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame this year.
Other teams include Brooklyn's Lincoln High, the alma mater of current NBA stars Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, and Arlington Country Day, which has won five straight state titles.
This is the challenge facing Clearwater, as well as Lakewood and Tampa Prep, the bay area entrants in the tournament.
"We try to go out and schedule the best teams possible," Tornadoes coach Allen Carden said. "This is a tournament that prepares you for the rest of the year."
Facing nationally ranked teams a couple of times at a premier tournament such as this helped several area teams make postseason runs.
Clearwater, King and Tampa Prep participated in last year's classic and advanced to the state final four in their respective classifications. Six of the 12 state teams that participated in last year's classic went on to play in the state tournament, including the entire Class 5A final four field (Clearwater, Gainesville, King and Palm Beach Dwyer).
"This is the best competition a lot of area and state teams will play all year," Fowler said. "I think we're getting to the point where if you're a team with state title aspirations, you want to come play in this tournament."
About the only drawback to having such a rugged slate of games is that local teams are usually bounced by the time the championship game is set.
So Fowler decided to invite area teams to play a maximum of two games, called the elite Florida series. Those teams — and games — do not count toward the tournament field.
"Our goal is to promote high school basketball in our community and give locals a tournament with high-caliber competition to make a championship run," Fowler said. "We think we've got a great event. But this is something we think can become even bigger and better."
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.