Casey Benson wasn’t the only busy family member during the 2012-13 boys basketball season.
While the Tribune Player of the Year helped Corona del Sol to a second straight Division I state championship in February, his father, Tim, was quietly orchestrating a potentially seismic shift on the club basketball scene.
The 2014 class has long been lauded for its depth and high-end talent, but when it came to club ball programs, the elite players had largely gone their separate ways. Last summer, Casey played for a team in California. Highland small forward Jake Toolson joined a team in Utah. Others stayed local, but were strewn among different options.
Some of the top players talked about joining up as last year came to a close, and Tim Benson made it reality by burning up the phone lines this winter. Soon, the Arizona Power Basketball club program was born.
“I was planning on playing for my other team from Utah when Tim Benson called my dad,” Toolson said. “He was like, ‘We’re putting together this Power team and we’re getting all the best kids from the East Valley. We would really like Jake to come play for us. We think we can do something special.’”
Toolson (a Brigham Young commit), Benson (Oregon), and Corona power forward Connor MacDougall (Arizona State) joined quickly, which created a momentum that no one saw coming.
Perry point guard Jordan Howard jumped on board, as did Gilbert Christian combo guard Roberto Reyes, giving the team five players with Division I offers.
And once word spread about the 2014 players coming together, it piqued the interest of the East Valley’s younger top prospects.
Howard’s little brother, Markus, who is expected to play varsity as a freshman at Perry next year, joined Power, as did Corona del Sol sharpshooter Dane Kuiper, who recently verbally committed to New Mexico. Marvin Bagley III, the eighth-grader who has four scholarship offers already and is dominating kids several years older than him, is a Power program member as well.
All three may be the best Arizona players in their respective classes.
“They see the older guys play with each other, and now the younger guys want to play together,” Casey Benson said. “It’s kind of like a domino effect.”
There are sacrifices, to be sure. Benson, Howard and Reyes are all back court players and must share time.
Since Howard and Reyes are uncommitted and still looking to find the best college opportunity, it was a big decision to pass up a chance at being the go-to scorer and join a team where shots will be limited.
“It was definitely something to consider because when you play on teams with all this talent, it’s like, ‘What opportunities am I going to get? Will this make me a better player?’” Howard said. “So that’s what I was thinking about. But I’d played with most of these guys before and they said they wanted to build something great, and I wanted to be in on it.”
Said Reyes: “Every player on this team can average 20 points, but we’ve made the sacrifice.”
Arizona Power has a different feel from other club ball organizations.
Most AAU games are played fast and free, more in tune with the NBA All-Star game than the NBA playoffs.
At a recent practice, though, Power coach Sundance Wicks spent an inordinate amount of time perfecting just three set plays.
A former college assistant at Colorado and Northern Illinois, Wicks wasn’t initially interested when Tim Benson brought up the idea of him coaching a club team.
“One day I’m running a camp in Iowa and Tim calls me and says, ‘Do you want to coach AAU basketball?’” Wicks said. “I go, ‘I hate AAU basketball. I do not want to do this. I despise it. So if I say yes, I’m going all in. I want to coach the best players and be around the best people. I don’t want to make this mediocre.’”
The early returns have been very encouraging, as some of the younger teams are nationally ranked for their age group.
Additionally, the older players spoke glowingly of the family feel within the organization. Toolson said there was a recent tournament in which 50 Power players formed a student section to encourage one of the younger teams, a rarity in club ball.
“We were cheering them on, chanting stuff,” Toolson said. “At an AAU tournament!”
Club ball programs, of course, are notoriously fickle. A few key defections from coaches or players, and an organization can come crumbling down.
Arizona Power believes it’s different. Benson and Toolson both talked about coming back to help mentor the younger kids once they reach college.
This began as an idea to bring together a top-flight group of seniors for their last club ball hurrah, and now it may be turning into something much more.
“It’s like building a dynasty, really,” Howard said. “It’s something that’s going to be here for years to come. It’s much more than just a team. It’s a family.”