SACRAMENTO, Calif. —
Then-Archbishop Mitty (San Jose, Calif.) star Aaron Gordon skipped into Sleep Train Arena last season, threatening to lay claim as California's best and most accomplished prep basketball player.
Instead, Gordon was outplayed and outshot by then-junior Stanley Johnson
, who led his Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Monarchs to a third-consecutive California Interscholastic Federation state title and 10th overall.
Johnson, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound guard who averages 25 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists, returns to Sleep Train Arena Saturday to finish off what Gordon didn't, and perhaps surpass Jason Kidd as the Golden State's most golden player.
But waiting for him is 6-10 Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.)
post Ivan Rabb
, who is averaging 25 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks himself. He's considered one of the top five juniors in the country.
The matchup in the CIF Open Division final makes for an intriguing ending to the nation's final traditional high school game of 2013-14.See boys basketball playoff brackets from across the country
Mater Dei (34-0) is No. 1 nationally in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 rankings
and No.2 in the MaxPreps Computer Rankings
. O'Dowd (28-4) is No. 9 in the MaxPreps Computer Rankings and 23rd in the Xcellent 25.
"I can't think of another state championship game in the country with more appeal from a star standpoint than this one with Stanley Johnson and Ivan Rabb," said MaxPreps National Basketball Editor Jason Hickman.
Rabb, who is quiet and soft-spoken off the court and fluid and smooth on it, said he's not nearly concerned with Johnson's legacy. Or even his own.
"Honestly, I just want to win," he said after a 26-point, 13-rebound, six-block performance in the Northern California regional final performance at Saturday in Sacramento.
But he knows how badly Johnson wants to go out a winner. The two have been teammates for the Oakland Soldiers AAU team the last two summers. There's a mutual respect and even a friendship.
"Stanley is my boy," Rabb said. "I found out how competitive he was during the summer. He hates to lose, even AAU games. But so do we. So do I. We're both competitors. I can't wait."'
Johnson who scored 26 points and had 12 rebounds in last year's 50-45 title game win over Mitty, is trying to become the first upper-division player in California to win four straight state titles.
"It's not like he was sitting the bench as a freshman," said Cal-Hi Sports Editor Mark Tennis, who has covered the state for 35 years. "He's been a major contributor all four years. … There's no doubt if Mater Dei wins, he'll go down as one of, if not the best, in state history."
But the Dragons, with Rabb leading the way with 25 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks, proved they could stay with Mater Dei during a
63-59 overtime loss in December
. Rabb was able to get Johnson and teammate M.J. Cage
, a top-rated 6-9 sophomore, into foul trouble.
"Ivan is a breed of his own," Johnson said. "I've played with and against a lot of really great athletes, but Ivan, especially for his size, might be the most athletic. I've seen him from just a standing start jump up and pin a ball at the top of the square. Incredible."
Besides his leaping ability and long reach, Rabb is ambidextrous and has a nice touch and mid-range game. He shoots better than 60 percent from the field and 70 percent from the line. He doesn't demand the ball and lets the game come to him, which reflects his relaxed personality.
O'Dowd coach Lou Richie said Rabb will need to light a fire under his teammates next year.
"He's an incredible kid," Richie said. "He's a practical joker and at the same time very witty and sharp. He doesn't miss a thing. He's a perfectionist."
Mater Dei's Gary McKnight, California's winningest coach with 994 wins and 10 state titles, thought he saw enough of Gordon last year. Rabb doesn't have Gordon's motor, but he can do just about everything else. At 6-10, he rarely handles the ball, but he can. He rarely takes 3-pointers, but he has that range.
"He's a fantastic player, agile and athletic," McKnight said. "He's definitely one of the premier players in the country. We saw him singlehandedly beat a very good Bishop Gorman team. He's just fantastic. The real deal."
Former college coach Gerry Freitas, who now runs a West Coast scouting service, said Rabb is destined to be pro for many years.
"He has the ability to impact the game in a big way in every manner possible: scoring, passing, rebounding, blocking shots and hustle plays," Freitas said. "And he's a team guy all the way. … His ceiling is off the charts. The man who becomes his agent is going to be a very lucky guy."
That guy might want to snag Johnson first. The Arizona signee has the unusual combination of strength and shooting touch. He studies the game and has mastered all positions.
"He's played all of them for us," McKnight said. "As a freshman he played center, as a sophomore forward, two guard as a junior and now he's playing point guard.
"He's the best we've ever had. Period."
Richie, like all opposing coaches, raves about Johnson's versatility, but seems more impressed with his intangibles and charisma.
"Stanley Johnson is a great brand all by himself," Richie said. "He has life skills that will allow him to be successful far beyond his playing days."
He showed his analytical ways during a phone interview by breaking down each of the Dragons piece by piece, player by player. He noted every player's strength and weakness. Like McKnight, Johnson is very impressed with O'Dowd's chemistry, epitomized by 6-5 forward Shane Farley
, the Dragons' selfless glue guy.
"We obviously need to contain Ivan, but you can't forget about the other guys," Johnson said. "They remind me of the De La Salle team we played twice in one year a few years back.
"I think a key is who will punch first and then grind it out from there. It's going to be a tough game. Our strength will need to go past theirs."
Johnson has made no qualms that he wants to be the state's greatest player. He said it after last year's title game.
Freitas said the similarities between Johnson and Kidd are uncanny.
"Both are physically superior to 99 percent of all opposition and both possess a high-level skill set," Freitas said. "But the thing that sets both players apart from others is their will to win. A great player with a great will is next to impossible to defeat.
"If Mater Dei and Johnson win state for the fourth-consecutive time it will be hard not to anoint Johnson as the best ever to play in the state."