Want some tough competition to start the boys basketball season? Then participate in the talent laden, nationally known Washington Tournament of Champions.
In its first two tournament games at Torry Gym, Pekin faced one of the top Class 4A teams in the state and one of the best teams in Texas.
The Dragons also matched wits with two of the country’s most sought-after recruits.
Belleville West buried Pekin 87-42 Tuesday behind 15 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots from E.J. Liddell.
College Park (Texas) outscored the Dragons 83-78 Wednesday.
Quentin Grimes of College Park, considered the No. 1 high school point guard in the country and a Kansas recruit, scored 27 points on 11 of 18 shooting plus he had nine rebounds and four assists.
Pekin will play two more games in the tournament, at 8:45 a.m. Friday and 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Its opponents were not known nor on the tournament’s website as of Thursday night.
“I don’t think we’ll face a better team than Belleville West the rest of the season,” said Pekin coach Jeff Walraven.
As for the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Liddell, “he’s athletic and skilled,” Walraven said. “He plays in the post, but he’s comfortable on the perimeter.”
Among the colleges that have made Liddell offers are Illinois, Illinois State, DePaul, Iowa and Iowa State.
Walraven was much happier with his team’s performance against College Park than against Belleville West despite Grimes’ typically impressive night.
Five Pekin players scored in double figures against College Park.
Jace Link led the way with 22 points, followed by Christian Hill (15), Max Jones (15), Adam Cash (10) and Brady Grashoff (10). Link also had five steals and three assists. Patrick Torrey contributed six points.
Link and Hill are seniors and Torrey is a junior. Jones and Grashoff are sophomores and Cash is a freshman.
The Dragons shot 46 percent from the field (28 of 61) and were 8 of 11 at the free throw line.
“Our offense was 1,000 times better against College Park than it was against Belleville West,” Walraven said. “We shared the ball, found the open guy, took shots within our offense and knocked them down.
“We gave up 83 points, but the game was still a step in the right direction for us defensively, too. Our defensive intensity and understanding were much better.
“We got better as a team during the summer, and I expect that will happen during the season, especially as our young players learn how to play at a higher level.”
Pekin was known the past few seasons as a defensive-minded team that played a half-court offense, probing and passing in search of the best shot. Is the 78 points the Dragons scored against College Park a sign of things to come?
“I don’t know. Ask me after 12 games,” Walraven said. “We can score, and College Park gave us a lot of opportunities to score by taking quick shots.”
Pekin and College Park were tied 38-38 at halftime. The Dragons trailed 59-48 after three quarters and made things tight at the end by scoring 30 points in the fourth quarter.
Cash was the lone Pekin player to reach double figures against Belleville West. He had a dozen points. The Dragons were 16 of 44 from the field for 36 percent including 5 of 21 on 3-pointers.
Pekin hasn’t played in the Tournament of Champions in several years. This is the tournament’s 12th year. Pekin actually hosted a couple games in the tourney’s inaugural year.
The Dragons traveled to Decatur, Galesburg and Springfield in recent years for Thanksgiving week tournaments, but decided to accept an invitation to play in the Tournament of Champions.
“It’s good for us to play locally during Thanksgiving week at a well-run tournament that gives us our kids great exposure to good teams and good players,” Walraven said.
Steve Stein can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.