Hampton set to  serve buffet of  holiday hoops

By Matt Hill

   Once the presents have been open and the ham has been eaten, it will be time for basketball in Carter County.
   The Grindstaff Carter County Classic will start Thursday at Hampton High School. The event, which features eight boys teams, will run through Saturday night.
   Special promotions will be featured during the event, including 12 people having the chance to shoot a basketball on the other end of the court for a new PT Cruiser.
   Unaka and Unicoi County will open up the tournament Thursday at 4:30 p.m. That game will be followed by the Happy Valley-University High, Cloudland-Whitesburg (KY) and Hampton-North Greene tilts.
   Here are some capsules on each team. We'll start with the four Carter County schools, then talk about the rest of the teams in the event.
   After a slow start, the host team for the event has seen better days recently. Hampton has defeated Sullivan North and Cloudland, and played Class AAA Morristown West extremely tough.
   The Bulldogs have been getting the bulk of their scoring from guard Greg Osborne. Osborne poured in 18 against North and 20 against Morristown West.
   The Bulldogs have been playing virtually their entire roster in the early games, which may pay off tremendously in a tournament that lasts for three-straight days.
   With the event being on its home floor, Hampton could be a serious contender in this tournament. The Bulldogs seem to have turned the corner after losing some tough early games.
   With a 2-5 record going into last night's game at Johnson County, the Warriors haven't had a whole lot to cheer about this season. In their defense, they've gone up against Class AAA schools in most games so far this season.
   Happy Valley does have a win over host school Hampton on a last-second shot by Cody Whitlock. The Warriors will count on Whitlock for clutch shooting and Tim Whaley for scoring punch.
   With Charlie Bayless still on the sideline for the Warriors, Happy Valley is in almost any game it plays in. A lot of the losses this year have been fairly close.
   Happy Valley has a daunting task to start the tournament by going up against what might be the tournament favorite in University High, but the Warriors could still make some noise in this event.
   The Rangers come into the tournament with a 4-8 record, but part of the reason for that might have to do with a schedule that includes a trip to the Bahamas and two Class AAA teams in the TSSAA Tip-off Tournament.
   Unaka sort of turned the corner on Dec. 14 with an 86-44 victory over North Greene in Baileyton.
   Unaka's top player so far this year has been Rusty Chambers. Chambers, who recently earned Player-of-the-Week honors by a local publication, has become one of Carter County's better performers this year after being a role player on last season's state tournament team.
   Unaka's bracket is very interesting. If Unaka defeats Unicoi and University High wins, it might be a showdown of preseason Watauga Valley favorites in the semifinals.
   The Highlanders are rebuilding a little bit after tying for the Watauga Valley Conference title last year. Cloudland comes into the tournament with a 1-5 record.
   The 'Landers have shown promise in recent days. They defeated Christian Academy of Knoxville for their first win on Saturday, and gave Hampton and Johnson County all they wanted last week before losing.
   Robby Tolley and Cole Gouge were the go-to-players early on, but Mark Byrd looks like he's emerged as a major threat as a scorer and ball-handler for the 'Landers.
   Cloudland looks to have the football out of the way. The 'Landers nearly pulled off a shocking upset against the Longhorns, and have the capability to surprise some people in this tournament.
   This looks like the team to beat, as the Junior Bucs have the best record in Northeast Tennessee with a 10-0 clip.
   University High, who traditionally doesn't play a strong schedule, has several wins over Class AA schools to let people know that this team is for real.
   The Junior Bucs are led by 6-6 center Brandon Bradley, who scored 29 points against Evarts (KY) Saturday night. Brothers Matt and John Tillman also provide a scoring punch for the Junior Bucs.
   This is probably the favorite to win the Watauga Valley, and maybe the best team Tony Gordon has had since being the head coach at University High. We'll find out this week if the Junior Bucs are worth the hype.
   The hard-luck team in the area this year has been Unicoi County. The Blue Devils have lost to North Greene, Volunteer and University High on last-second shots.
   The Blue Devils play good defense, but lack offensive firepower. Unicoi County held Elizabethton to 45 points last week, but could only muster 28 themselves.
   Unicoi is led by sophomore Matt White. White is averaging 14 points-per-contest.
   If Unicoi can continue playing good defense, it might have a chance to do some damage in this event.
   The Huskies come into this tournament as a mystery team. North Greene defeated Unicoi County in Erwin, but lost by 29 to University High and by 42 to Unaka.
   6-3 senior Dustin Collins and 6-0 sophomore Matthew Burns are both averaging 17 points-per-game to lead the Huskies.
   With North Greene having to face host school Hampton in the first round, the Huskies come in as an underdog.
   After being a state tournament team in Kentucky a year ago, new head coach Rick Adams finds himself in a rebuilding mode this season.
   Whitesburg is led by guard Bo Cook, forward Winston Lee and forward Chris Whitaker.
   Whitesburg may be down a little bit, but has the potential to be a major threat in this tournament.