The last time Tounde Yessoufou was at the Alaska Airlines Classic in 2022, the 6-foot-5 human highlight reel tried to break the rims at West High.
The St. Joseph star threw down 12 dunks in three games and averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots to become the first freshman MVP in tournament history dating to 1989.
Yessoufou is back in Anchorage this week in what feels like a ‘Return of the King’ moment as the McDonald’s All-American candidate seeks to become the first two-time Classic MVP since legendary East T-bird Trajan Langdon in 1992 and 1993.
Yessoufou is a five-star recruit who ranks in the top 10 nationally for the Class of 2025 and holds offers from Kansas, Arizona, Texas, UCLA, etc.
He comes to Alaska averaging 33 points per game, highlighted by a tournament record 46-point explosion at last month’s King Cotton Holiday Classic in Pine Bluff, Ark.
“He amazes us every day,” said St. Joseph coach Tom Mott. “He always puts on a show and does a great job of signing autographs and taking pictures with kids.”
The Alaska Airlines Classic tips off Thursday with a star-studded field that also includes the Nazareth Kingsmen of Brooklyn, N.Y. and East Hall Vikings of Gainesville, Ga., in addition to Alaska teams West Anchorage, East Anchorage, West Valley, Dimond and Bartlett.
From top to bottom, the Alaska Airlines Classic field is as strong as there’s been in the state in many years, reminiscent to the tournament’s glory years in the 1990s.
Reigning state champion East is 7-0 and just won the T-bird Classic while defending state runner-up West Valley is 8-0 and coming off winning last week’s Alaska Prep Shootout.
Meanwhile, West is 6-0 against in-state competition and won last month’s Clark Cochrane Christmas Classic while Dimond (5-2) and Bartlett (5-3) are playing well.
St. Joseph (16-2) is ranked 10th in the state of California and top 40 nationally. The Knights defeated perennial powerhouse Duncanville (TX) at the King Cotton Classic and won the Capitol City Classic in Salem, Ore.
In both of those tournaments, Yessoufou was named MVP.
“Tounde is extremely competitive and relentless in his effort to get better,” Mott said. “The thing that makes him so effective is that he is 110% about winning – every game, every possession, every matchup.”
Led by Yessoufou, St. Joseph has posted a 70-13 record since 2021, including a fast start this season against a tough schedule that’s included road trips to Arkansas and Oregon. Now it’s Alaska.
“We live two hours from Los Angeles, which is one of the basketball hotbeds in the USA and we travel there probably eight times throughout a year to play games and tourneys, but there’s so much more to hoops than just playing great teams,” Mott said.
“Exposing our guys to different parts of the country is invaluable as they develop as young men and I know Alaska is a huge highlight for all of them.”
BIG APPLE COMES NORTH
Nazareth is another tournament headliner, a team loaded with talent that went 26-1 last season and then moved up to play in New York City’s famed Catholic League among the likes of Archbishop Stepinac, Hayes and Christ The King.
“In the CHSAA, there are no nights off,” said Nazareth assistant coach Michael Camacho. “You’re constantly playing (NCAA) Division I and II talent.”
The Kingsmen feature college-ready players themselves in the terrific trio of Halon Rawlins, Tyler Francis and Tristan Rogers.
The 6-foot-6 Rawlins is an awesome all-around player who holds offers from Oklahoma State, Seton Hall and Fordham.
Enter the post at your own risk with this rim protector guarding the rim.
“From chase down blocks to knocking down a mid-range jump shot, he does it all,” Camacho said. “He loves to play both sides of the ball.”
Rogers is a 6-foot-2 point guard who orchestrates the offense.
“His game defines effort and heart,” Camacho said, “and that’s the character of this team.”
Nazareth (7-4) sits in second place in the CHSAA at 6-1, with its lone league loss coming to nationally ranked Christ The King. The Kingsmen are big, with five players 6-foot-5 or taller, and big on defense, giving up 56 points per game against NYC competition.
“Our team identity is defense,” Camacho said. “Defense is top priority for us because it translates to our offense, which the style we play is open and free.”
GEORGIA ON MY MIND
Georgia’s East Hall is coached by Joe Dix, who is bringing his third team to the Alaska Airlines Classic on the heels of earning career win No. 400 two weeks ago.
East Hall won the 2012 tournament title 87-74 over Bartlett behind Joshua Hampton’s 39 points. In 2015, the Vikings came with Kyvon Davenport, one of the greatest players in tournament history.
This year, the Vikings feature senior sharpshooter Chris Alford and a slew of underclassmen, including sophomore Jamarcus Harrison and freshman Braydon Langston.
Alford, a 6-foot-2 3-point specialist, has hit four or more treys in six games, including one with seven and another with eight. Last season he averaged a bucket a game. Today his scoring average is 17 per game.
“Chris has literally blown up,” Dix said. “He has really shown a high level of improvement.”
Harrison is a 6-foot-3 star in the making – an all-region quarterback on the football field who was the 12th-leading passer in the state of Georgia. He looks to be just as effective on the hardwood, pumping in scoring games of 29, 27 and 25 this season.
“Jamarcus is simply one of the best I have ever coached,” Dix said. “High motor, incredible skill and high character.”
Langston is a 6-foot-5 forward with bounce.
— Jordan Langston (@jO_lEiGh21) January 7, 2024
Last year, East Hall had a 3-14 record after 17 games. This year the team has won 10 of 17.
“They play hard and play really well together. Fun group to coach,” Dix said. “These guys are really excited about the trip to Alaska. I wanted them to experience some of the joy our other teams have had there.”
As if the tournament didn’t already give a college-ready vibe, the Alaska Airlines Classic will also feature a 35-second shot clock.
DON’T SLEEP ON ALASKA
For the last five years, the two best teams in the state have been East Anchorage and West Valley from Fairbanks.
They’ve had some incredible head-to-head postseason games over that time, including a doozy of a Class 4A state championship game last year won by East.
Neither team has lost a step this season as East and West Valley are both undefeated coming into the Alaska Airlines Classic.
East (7-0) is backed by coach Chuck Martin and all-state studs Akeem Sulaiman and Muhammed Sabally.
Martin, a former college coach at Liberty and Master’s, has led the T-birds to two state titles in this his sixth season at the school. During that time the T-birds have won 123 of 139 games.
“East is extremely well coached and had some outstanding players that really pushed us during our last visit,” Mott said.
Sulaiman last season broke the Classic single-game blocked shots record with eight and Sabally was the hero of last season’s state title win, scoring 20 points in a 53-48 victory.
Getting to play top Loer 48 teams in the Alaska Airlines Classic is one of Sulaiman’s highlights of the season.
“The tournament is a good challenge for us to see who we are as a team against some of the top players in the nation and some of the best schools in the country,” he said.
West Valley (8-0) has thrived under coach Colten Growden, a former star player and coach at crosstown Eielson. With the Wolfpack, Growden’s group has won 101 of 109 games since 2019.
With success like that, it’s time to put some respect on his name.
West Valley lost two all-state players but has not dropped off behind the play of point guard Jamari Sims and forwards Leyton Nield and Sawyer Peterson.
Tournament host West Anchorage (6-1) is having another solid start under coach Josh Muehlenkamp, with Eagles’ only loss coming against Ridgeline (WA).
The team welcomed back several key contributors, including hard-to-guard Des’Laone Cook and veterans Mat Chuol and Buob Marial. Chuol is a 6-foot-4 defensive disrupter while Marial was named MVP of last month’s Ketchikan tournament.
West will host West Valley in an intriguing first-round matchup on Thursday afternoon in front of the school’s student body, with the iconic West High gymnasium nearly filling to 3,500-seat capacity.
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