With one of the state’s best players and two highly-touted freshmen, Smoky Hill’s window to win its first boys basketball crown is wide open.
The Buffaloes have yet to lose in the state of Colorado behind the play of senior Rickey Mitchell Jr., who leads Class 6A at 26.6 points per game. And beyond Mitchell, Smoky Hill features towering freshmen Kai McGrew (6-foot-8) and Carter Basquez (6-5), both of whom are already drawing Division I interest.
Consider it a reloaded cupboard in southeast Aurora after the Buffaloes lost seven of their top eight varsity players to the prep school scene during the pandemic-affected 2020 season.
“We got hit by the prep movement hard in 2020,” Smoky Hill head coach Anthony Hardin said. “People don’t know, because we took it in stride and found a way to be competitive (at 10-6), even though we lost the majority of our guys. And two of those guys were already Division I commits.”
Smoky Hill’s best playoff showing came in 2006, when the Buffaloes made the Final Four led by current Regis Jesuit coach Ken Shaw. Under Hardin, who morphed the Buffaloes from a four-win season his first year in 2016 into one of the south metro’s top programs, Smoky Hill’s best finish was the Great 8 in 2019. That team was headlined by state Gatorade player of the year Kenny Foster, who now plays for Wyoming.
“We’ve built back up and returned to our brand now,” Hardin said. “Now this year’s team is like that team (in 2019), and we’re just coming into our identity.”
As the top talent who stayed amid all those departures a few seasons ago, Mitchell is being rewarded for staying the course on East Smoky Hill Road. With an offer from Metro State already in his pocket, Mitchell also has serious interest from San Francisco, Colorado State and Northern Colorado.
Mitchell was 5-8, 135 pounds as a freshman, when his lone varsity action came in the Buffaloes’ double-overtime loss to Chaparral in the state tournament. Smoky Hill’s star now stands 6-4, 165 and is throwing down dunks with consistency.
“I saw all these guys leaving when I was a sophomore and I said to myself, ‘Here is my opportunity to play,’” Mitchell said. “I also had prep schools talking to me to come out and join their team, but I believed in my path here, and I chose to stay at Smoky. I just put my head down and went to work.”
As the chemistry between Mitchell, Basquez and McGrew continues to develop, the opposition is left wondering who to focus on defensively. Rounding out the main cast for No. 3 Smoky Hill (13-2) is sophomore guard Lorenzo Contreras, junior guard Torian Ray Gasaway, junior forward Ibraheem Kevin Sylla and senior guard Jayson Lewis.
In the Buffaloes’ positionless offense, modeled in the style of the 2013 Miami Heat, any one of those players can command the point at a given time, though Contreras is the team’s true point guard with 4.5 assists per game.
“Gabbing a rebound, pivoting and passing it to the sideline to your point guard and then him bringing it up the floor is a dated process that slows down transitions,” Hardin said. “All five guys have to be able to bring the ball down the court, and that’s what we do.”
With the word out on Mitchell, Centennial League teams are making every effort to deny him the ball. He’s scored at least 30 points five times this season, including dropping a high of 40 in the Buffaloes’ win over Valor Christian on Dec. 13. He makes acrobatic finishes at the rim, is explosive off the dribble and can shoot the three from NBA range. So teams are intent on trying to make someone else besides Mitchell beat them.
That’s where the Buffaloes’ freshmen tandem comes in.
“Teams are trying to deny me the ball the last couple weeks since we started league play, and they’re trying to make it tougher for me to score,” Mitchell said. “But they’re quickly finding out that Kai and Carter, and our wings too, can handle the ball and go score at any time, too.”
McGrew said he and Basquez’s chemistry “is good, but it’s not there quite yet.”
“When it does get there, and we keep putting in that work, we’re going to be really dangerous,” McGrew said.
Mitchell has taken both players under his wing, as he knows the freshmen bigs will be critical in order for Smoky Hill to advance past fellow Class 6A title contenders in the state tournament. Last year, the Buffaloes lost to district rival Eaglecrest in the Sweet 16, but believe they can top that run this winter despite having just three seniors on the roster.
“I’ve known (Mitchell) since I was really young, and I’ve sort of always followed his lead,” Basquez said. “He’s showing the younger guys the way on and off the court. In practice he’s always the first one in the drills. He’s the first one cheering us up when we’re down in a tough moment in the locker room. At school he’s there for us too, taking us to lunch. We’ve been able to develop that relationship with him in a short time frame.”
For Mitchell, that leadership role is one he hopes will help buoy the program’s chances in the final rounds of the Class 6A state tournament, held March 9-11 at the Denver Coliseum.
And the senior believes 2023 could be just the start of a trophy run for Hardin and the Buffaloes.
“With how we’re playing right now — and if (McGrew and Carter) stay together like they should and stay at it — I see multiple (league and/or state) championships coming, just with them two leading the team,” Mitchell said. “But first, we’ve got to take care of business and make school history this year.”
The Heavyweights at Midseason
A look at other Class 6A teams in the title hunt, and the players leading the charge for each program.
No. 1 Fossil Ridge (14-1) fell in the championship game last year. The potent Sabercats feature senior 6-8 combo forward Nick Randall, who helped key their state tournament run in 2022, plus seniors Domenic Leone, Ty Brown and Matthew Boldt.
No. 2 Rock Canyon (16-1) is dangerous again under coach Kent Grams. Rock Canyon’s catalyst is senior point guard Gavin Hershberger, an Upper Iowa University commit, while the Jaguars are also headlined by senior Aidan Peck and junior Mac Terry.
No. 4 Mountain Vista (14-2) is helmed by coach Brian Wood, a former Buena Vista standout who once held the state record for career points. The Golden Eagles feature three potent scorers in senior Caden Stevens, senior Radek Homer and sophomore Cal Baskind.
No. 5 Denver East (14-2) lost to Windsor and Fossil Ridge in the first two games of the season, but hasn’t fallen since en route to helping Rudy Carey become Colorado’s all-time winningest coach. The Angels’ top players are seniors D’Aundre Samuals and Austin Mohr.
No. 9 ThunderRidge (12-5) is the two-time defending champion after winning the Class 5A crowns in ’21 and ’22. Guard Andrew Crawford, who is receiving Division I interest, is the Grizzlies’ star while fellow juniors Charlie Spann and Tommy Wight are also key.