Mike Miller and Ernie Kuyper dreamt of putting the spotlight on South Dakota prep basketball. Ten years later, the Hoop City Classic has become the state’s premier in-season event.
Branded as the Mike Miller Classic for the first eight years, it started with seven boys games at the Corn Palace in 2010 and has evolved into an event featuring boys and girls high school squads and four college teams for a total of 29 games across two venues.
The now-called Hoop City Classic has brought the nation’s top-ranked high school team on three occasions, more than a dozen McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA players, making Mitchell the state’s basketball hub for two days each December.
“I always dreamed it would get this big and I hope it keeps getting a little bit bigger,” said Kuyper, president of the Hoop City Classic. “I hope, one day, we play a Division I game or a Division II game. … It’s a wildfire, it’s a lot, but it’s been fun. It’s year 10, but we want to keep it going and keep getting better.”
Mike Miller is no longer the namesake of the classic since accepting a job as an assistant coach at the University of Memphis. NCAA compliance rules led to the rebranding of the classic along with Miller’s youth basketball program in April 2018.
Still, it has Miller’s imprint as he and Kuyper attempted to pull together contacts created throughout his NBA career and time spent in the AAU circuit.
Since then, 52 high schools from 15 states have competed -- along with 11 colleges -- with 19 new schools joining the fray this season.
Many are drawn to the games for the star power and dunks from out-of-state teams, but fans and players also look forward to seeing how South Dakota teams stack up against the competition.
A moment that stuck out to Kuyper was when Sioux Falls O’Gorman received a standing ovation after coming within a point of stunning No. 1 La Lumiere (Ind.) 74-73 at the Corn Palace in 2011. A year ago, Yankton also came away with an overtime win against perennial Minnesota powerhouse and Hoop City Classic attendee, DeLaSalle, 71-65, at the Sanford Pentagon.
“People don’t usually see us as a huge basketball state,” said Jade Miller, who played for Mitchell in the inaugural Mike Miller Classic. He was also on the Dakota Wesleyan University team when college teams were added to the mix. “Whenever we played those teams from out of state, we felt we had to prove ourselves. We might not be 6-foot-8 dunking teams, but we know how to play basketball.”
As the tournament began to grow, however, the Corn Palace could not play host to every team in the field, so the Pentagon in Sioux Falls was added as a second venue in 2015.
That was also the same year that Dakota Wesleyan competed in the first round of college games, defeating a Florida National squad coached by Scott Schmidt, who eventually became Corn Palace director for more than three years and is an assistant business professor at DWU.
When Schmidt brought Florida National to the tournament, his players were used to playing in front of 200 fans. But the crowd exceeded 1,000 at the Corn Palace. Coming from Mitchell, Schmidt was used to bigger attendances, but his players were not accustomed to the attention.
“You kind of take that stuff for granted and think it happens around the country because you’re used to it,” Schmidt said. “Not everybody gets that opportunity. I still talk to my kids. My cousin, Dave Allen, cooked ribs for my players one night at my mom’s house. They’ll call me and say, ‘Is the rib guy still there? How’s he doing?’”
Some were not as thrilled with the expansion as Schmidt, but playing in two venues also allowed for more local teams and teams from South Dakota to compete. During the first season, five in-state teams competed, while 17 boys squads and four girls teams are on the slate this year.
“I think it’s a lot cooler how they’ve changed to two venues,” said Matt Henriksen, who played in the first two Hoop City Classics and now serves as head coach for Sanborn Central/Woonsocket. “We’ve got Class B teams now, Class A teams -- it’s giving kids an experience to play in the Corn Palace and the Pentagon with that type of atmosphere. Some of those smaller schools don’t get a chance at that.”
As has been a trend at times during the first decade of the tournament, the snowstorm currently in the forecast for this weekend could provide some teams from the south an opportunity to see snow for the first time.
A snowstorm did not prevent 1,750 fans from seeing the first night of the Mike Miller Classic in 2010 and pushed games back a day last year, but Kuyper has leaned on South Dakota’s unpredictable weather as a selling point.
“A lot of these kids have never seen snow,” Kuyper said. “It’s a great experience for these kids. I use it as a positive. Get yourself 22 inches of snow and a basketball game.”