The Omaha Crusaders are part of a new element to the traditional summer basketball experience.
Besides competing in big-time AAU tournaments across the country, the Crusaders' under-15, 16 and 17 teams are playing in the Pentagon Tournament Series, a new league for some of the top programs in the Midwest.
Fourteen teams from Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa signed up after the Dakota Schoolers broached the idea last summer. OSA is the only Nebraska program involved.
Teams have gotten together in April and May, playing six games over two days in Ames, Iowa, and Minneapolis. They'll finish in Sioux Falls, S.D., on the July 19 weekend.
“I think it's a great idea,” said Dan Archie, the coach of the U-17 Crusaders. “You don't have to pay entry fees and you know you are not going to play the same teams over and over. It's really a great setup.”
Archie's team is 9-1 in the league, losing only to the first-place Minnesota Comets (10-0).
Teams will play three more games in Sioux Falls before the top eight meet in a tournament for the championship. The bottom six will play a consolation event.
The older Crusaders already have played in four tournaments. They hit the road next weekend for the Mullen's High Profile Tournament in St. Charles, Mo., and then finish in the Las Vegas Fab 48 at the end of July.
They're 18-4 overall, and Archie loves what he's seen from this group, which he's been coaching for the past three years.
“I think the sky is the limit for this team,” he said. “I think this team has a chance to have five to seven Division I prospects.”
Leading the list are Omaha Benson's Khyri Thomas and Thik Bol.
Thomas, a 6-foot-4 guard, already has offers from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Portland State.
“He's multi-talented — he can play one through three,” Archie said. “He's very athletic, he shoots the ball, plays very good defense, has good hands and has a high motor. He plays hard all the time.”
Also important to Archie is that Thomas has none of the arrogance of a big-time player. Archie says Thomas is a high-character kid who doesn't complain, works hard and is coachable.
Bol, who is 6-8 and can play forward or center, is not former NBA player Manute Bol's nephew, as some have reported. The families knew of each other, but the name Bol is common in the Sudan, their native country, and they are not related.
Thik Bol has attracted interest from schools such as SMU, UMKC, UNO, Southern Utah and Portland State.
“Benson should be pretty good next year,” Archie said, laughing.
Bol and Kevin Harkins of Omaha South are the tallest players on a squad with seven players 6-7 or taller. Another three are in the 6-4 to 6-5 range. Kevin Metoyer of Omaha Westside is the smallest, a 5-7 point guard.
Even though the Crusaders are tall, they can play any style, says Archie.
“When you are that versatile, it's tough to beat you,” he said.
Archie, a teacher at the Douglas County Youth Center and former head coach at South, said he's not just talking up his team when he says so many could go Division I. He's coached select basketball since 1998 and has seen similar teams.
His best team in 2002, led by current overseas pro Jason Dourisseau of Omaha Burke and the University of Nebraska, had seven players go on to play Division I basketball.
“I want all these guys to at least come out of the summer with a scholarship offer and, of course, always get better,” Archie said. “The main goal is for these kids to get looks, each and every one of them, regardless of whether it's Division I, II or junior college. As long as they know someone out there wants them and they make improvement over the summer.”