Sunday, December 31, 2006

Plenty of big holiday winners

POINT #1 .... As previously mentioned, there were two teams in particular that had the most to prove this holiday basketball season. Lincoln Park and T.F. North both answered the bell. Lincoln Park can now use the Big Dipper Tournament title at Rich South as a springboard to the second half. There is no question that, on paper, Lincoln Park is one of the five or six most talented teams in the state. Now, by getting past Big Dipper nemesis Thornton, and the claiming the title, coach Tom Livatino's club can focus on winning a city title.

T.F. North may not have won the Proviso West Holiday Tournament, but the third-place finish they brought back to Calumet City proved a lot of critics and doubters wrong. The Meteors may not always look pretty in their style, but the 12-1 record they have heading into January is a statement that this is not the T.F. North team of the past two years. Senior Demond Watt was a monster at Proviso West. If Watt, who has had problems elevating his play on a consistent basis, continues to play at the level he did at Proviso, this is truly a different team. I look for T.F. North and Thornwood, which won the State Farm Holiday Classic in Bloomington, to be near the top of the rugged SICA East and separate themselves from the likes of Bloom and Thornton.

POINT #2 .... There are very few times when the college coaches, no matter what level they are at in Division I, beat the talent evaluators and recruiting services to the punch on a player. That is, in a way, what has happened when it comes to Iman Shumpert of Oak Park-River Forest. The 6-3 junior guard's feverish recruiting attention from numerous college coaches was expected. However, the high-major Division I interest didn't really equate to where Shumpert has been rated by the experts.

After seeing Shumpert's progression from this past summer to what he displayed at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, the Hoops Report has now elevated Shumpert to No. 6 among all junior prospects. It wasn't always about the production with Shumpert while at Pontiac, but just what he offers as a talented prospect. He's so long and possesses great length, which along with his great natural instincts, he utilizes defensively by getting in the passing lanes and with his man-to-man defense. He's a solid shooter, although he needs to be a little more consistent with his shot, and he features a mid-range game that is becoming more and more of a lost art among high school players. Shumpert's stock is soaring and look for it to continue to soar between now and next summer's AAU play.

POINT #3 .... After spending a week traveling the state, going from gym to gym, tournament to tournament, the Pontiac Holiday Tournament remains my favorite stop along the holiday tournament road. There is just no place that provides as much as Pontiac. For more on the Hoops Report's thoughts on the holiday tournaments, you can find it in the printable copy of the Hoops Report due out in early January (subscription information can be found below). If I had to rank the top spots to visit it would look like this: 1) Pontiac Holiday Tournament 2) Proviso West Holiday Tournament 3) Pekin Holiday Tournament 4) State Farm Classic in Bloomington 5) Big Dipper Tournament at Rich South

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Plenty to prove over the holidays

POINT #1 .... There are two teams that I believe have the opportunity to step up over the holidays, turn some heads and grab a little mojo along the way -- T.F. North and Lincoln Park. In different ways these two teams have something to prove. They have both been taking baby steps over the past couple of years in preparation for these kind of moments.

POINT #2 .... Lincoln Park has, without question, the talent to play with anyone this side of Simeon, including quickness, depth, athleticism and a dynamic point guard in Juice Thompson. Coach Tom Livatino is the first to admit it's his responsibility to somehow get this group to play with a sense of urgency. And once the semifinals roll around at the Big Dipper, that sense of urgency better be there for a potential showdown with Thornton. A Big Dipper title could show this team just what it takes to play consistent basketball against elite teams and put them in a position to make a serious run in the second half of the season.

POINT #3 .... T.F. North, meanwhile, made a terrific move by getting into the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. This minefield of teams should prove to be the test T.F. North -- and avid prep basketball followers -- are looking for. This has been a program that's made tremendous strides over the past two-plus years. Coach Tim Bankston upgraded the schedule significantly and it's starting to pay off. However, for whatever reason this has been a team a lot of people, including myself to an extent, refuse to buy into. This is the proving ground, right here at Proviso West, to make a statement. This isn't to say the Meteors have to win the thing, but just make a strong showing against some of the state's elite in a high-profile event and venue. There isn't a team with more on the line in the first round of a holiday tournament than T.F. North. An upset loss to Glenbrook North in the 9 a.m. game on opening day could be damaging. Remember, this is a team that must compete at the highest level nearly every night out playing in the SICA East and being in a sectional with the likes of Thornwood, Washington and Thornton.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Shootout a plus for Weber, Illini

Point #1 .... The Champaign News-Gazette Shootout at Assembly Hall today (Saturday, Dec. 16) was a real plus for coach Bruce Weber and the Fighting Illini basketball program. Well, maybe not so much this year, but if it can continue with even better players and higher profile programs in the future, this shootout concept could help significantly in recruiting.

This is a great way to get prospects on campus, to play in Assembly Hall and, more than likely, in front of Illinois basketball fans. If I'm Weber, I am doing all I can behind the scenes to encourage the organizers of the event to keep this running in Champaign.

Point #2 .... What a game local boy Verdell Jones, Jr. had in front of Weber and Illini fans. Jones, who has added a little strength and is now a legit 6-3, has really been impressive of late. The junior guard from Champaign Central is pretty gifted with the ball in his hands, possesses great court vision and has really added to his offensive game. It will be interesting to see how the Jones recruiting fares, especially as the Illini await Decatur Eisenhower guard Lewis Jackson's decision. Although he has plenty of work to do, including finding a way to get stronger and bigger, I now have Jones as the No. 6 rated junior in the state.

Point #3 .... Illinois recruits Mike Tisdale of Riverton and Bill Cole of Peoria Richwoods were both in action in the shootout in Champaign. I am still a little puzzled why Illinois decided to bring both in next year, although each has a vast amount of potential with their length, height and skill level, especially for being big men. Trying to decide which one you like better depends on the day you see them. They are pretty similar, both in the way they play, their size and weight and where they are in terms of their development. With that being said, it's going to be quite some time before either one of these players make a significant impact at the next level.

If Illinois' team returns as expected next year, with Shaun Pruitt, Brian Carlwell, C.J. Jackson and Rich Semrau on the inside at the four and five spots, Tisdale and Cole could both redshirt. I think the two will be factors down the road, but we may be talking three or four years down the road. And in the state the program is in right now, with no true stars on the current roster (Jamar Smith, maybe?) or coming in, that's not what the Illini faithful want to hear.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Big changes in Class of 2008 prospect rankings

POINT #1 .... There is no doubt the Class of 2008, this year's juniors, lacks the marquee talent of some past classes. There are no Corey Maggettes, Shaun Livingstons, Eddy Currys or Derrick Roses in this class. Still, there is plenty of talent and what has changed in the first month of the season is the way the Hoops Report ranks these current players.
Farragut big man Mike Dunigan remains the top prospect, simply because of great size, potential and grades. Then some of the changes come into play.
I believe Marshall's Ryan Hare is now the No. 2 prospect in this class. I love the way he plays. He has a little Quentin Richardson in him. He's not as polished or quite as big as the former Whitney Young star and current New York Knick, but he's relentless in taking the ball to the basket and finishing, while also very capable on the perimeter.
I love Decatur Eisenhower's Lewis Jackson. Yes, all 5-foot-9 of him. He's explosive and electric. Jackson checks in at No. 3, followed by DeAndre Liggins of Washington and Batavia's do-it-all Nick Fruendt. Liggins is atop most people's rankings and is the most highly regarded player nationally in this class. But I just feel Liggins has a long way to go, both from a consistency standpoint and offensive talent. He, to me, is basically the same player I saw last year. I have not seen the big jump top players typically make between their sophomore and junior years.
What this top five means is that the Hales combo of Matt Humphrey and Josh Crittle are not in it. Humphrey has been in a funk since the start of the season and Crittle just needs to learn to bring it every night out.
The top 10 also includes Luke Fabrizius of Hersey at No. 8, the much-improved Verdell Jones, Jr. of Champaign Central at No. 9 and one of my favorites, Mike Dinnuno of Von Steuben, at No. 10.

POINT #2 .... While I'm on the topic of Ryan Hare and Marshall, I don't think there is any doubt Marshall's Mike Stovall is the best unsigned senior prospect in the state. If Stovall were to qualify academically, as some seem to predict, some school is going to sign a gem of a player late in the recruiting game. He still has so much untapped potential, his athleticism is off-the-charts and he is able to knock down that three-point shot. His perimeter skills are vastly improved.
Stovall, if he weren't to qualify, would be a perfect prep school candidate. Why do I say that? Because I believe Stovall, with one more year of development and added strength, could play just about anywhere at the Division I level after one year of playing at a reputable and quality prep school.

POINT #3 .... The tradionally powerful south suburbs is without a doubt strong again this season with plenty of depth. However, this year it seems there might not be a true state power. I realize it's still early and there is a lot to learn between now and state tournament time, but the early going has shown that some of those highly-ranked teams from the south 'burbs are not quite what I thought. I still believe the two teams with the best chance of emerging as a "power" are Thornwood and Hillcrest. While Thornwood and Hillcrest have lost to very good teams in Marshall and Proviso East, respectively, their overall performances were puzzling.

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