Sunday, January 21, 2007

Conant more than just a surprise

POINT #1 .... There haven't been too many weekends for individual teams that match what Conant did on Friday and Saturday night. The Cougars had everything to prove in matchups with Schaumburg and highly-ranked St. Joseph. First, Conant needed to prove it had the premier team in the Mid-Suburban League. They did just that with a win over Schaumburg, a team they lost to early in the season. Then they went and showed they can play with the state's elite, beating St. Joe's.

While Conant relies heavily on its own style of play, which includes a patient offense and a tough-as-nails defense that holds opponent's shooting percentage and points down, this is still a different team than even the one prior to the holidays. The biggest reason is the play of 6-4 Geoff McCammon, who has blossomed into a true difference-maker. In addition to being a force on the glass, McCammon's offense has been a huge boost. He has shown the ability to absolutely take over games and dominate. Senior Eric Loos has settled into his role as sixth man and flourished, providing another offensive threat off the bench and on the perimeter.

Conant is more than a surprise or rising contender. The Hoops Report loved the look of this team this summer. Conant was ranked among the Top 25 teams in the Hoops Report preseason poll. They have impressive non-conference wins over Thornton and St. Joseph, while also winning the York Holiday Tournament. This team is senior-dominated and will be battling Lake Park for the top seed in the Elgin Sectional.

POINT #2 .... Oak Park has taken control of what was supposed to be the most competitive conference this side of the SICA East. With a win over Proviso West and a pesky Lyons Twp. this past weekend, junior star Iman Shumpert and Oak Park find themselves alone at the top of the West Suburban Silver standings.

There wasn't a coach in the league that felt one team would run away with the league title when the season began. Last year the league champ, York, had four losses. A similar scenario was expected this year. While there is still plenty of basketball to be played, Oak Park is unbeaten in conference play and looks like it may be on the verge of doing what no one thought--dominate the conference. At this point the Hoops Report would be shocked to see Oak Park lose more than two conference games.

POINT #3 .... Yes, the Simeon battle with Oak Hill Academy was hyped as the Game of the Year. And yes, Simeon and Derrick Rose did put on a show at UIC in stunning what amounts to an all-star team in Oak Hill. But the juices just don't get flowing for the Hoops Report when a showdown involves an out-of-state team. It was fun. It was exciting. It was great exposure for the Chicago Public League and the state of Illinois. And it's great to see Oak Hill, which has 50 states it can recruit from, lose. Nonetheless, the hype doesn't come anywhere close to when two top powers from Illinois collide.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

What coach says is true

POINT #1 .... Simeon remains the top-ranked team in the City/Suburban Hoops Report rankings. And the Hoops Report doesn't care that it dropped its second game of the year Sunday night to Rice out of Harlem, 53-51, at Madison Square Garden. The Wolverines clearly remain the most talented and diverse team in the state.

Coach Robert Smith has repeatedly said Simeon's goal this season was not to go unbeaten, which would have gone a long way in putting this particular team in Illinois prep basketball lore. The goal remains the same: to become the first Chicago Public League team to win back-to-back state championships. Smith believes the schedule, the target on its back and constant media attention his team faces this year is the perfect ingredient to repeat. And he's right.

The fact is, when March rolls around, no team will be more prepared for a state tournament run than Simeon. When Illinois teams are at home beating up on other Illinois teams, Simeon is playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden against a solid Rice program out of Harlem. As other Illinois teams are watching, Simeon will be playing on ESPN and facing the country's best team, Oak Hill Academy. Throw in playing in front of packed houses at the Marshall County Hoopfest in Kentucky and the City-Suburban Showdown at Northwestern, plus facing different styles of teams and officiating at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, and Simeon will have faced about every test imagineable prior to its March run. Throw in the fact this team is incredibly talented and has been through the state tournament grind before, winning it all a year ago, and it's impossible not to keep Simeon No. 1 in the polls.

POINT #2 .... No team in the Top 25 has had as many wins with as little fanfare as Conant. The Hoops Report did have Conant ranked in its preseason Top 25. Nonetheless, the Cougars have quietly put together a terrific 14-1 start to the season. Underrated coach Tom McCormack, though, will find out a lot about his team this weekend. If Conant wants to add to the scrapbook and claim a MSL West title, it must beat a hot Schaumburg team Friday night. Conant lost to Schaumburg back in December but could force a tie with a win. Then the Cougars will travel to No. 3 ranked St. Joseph the following night for a perfect mid-season measuring stick. This is a different Conant team than it was early in the year. The reason? Geoff McCammon. The 6-4 senior has been huge, playing bigger than his size and providing a major presence inside.

POINT #3 .... The East Aurora-West Aurora rivalry, the oldest in Illinois, is the best in high school basketball. The latest edition, last Saturday at East Aurora, only added to the great history of this rivalry, with East upsetting West in a last-second two-point thriller. There will be plenty of people who will argue Evanston-New Trier or maybe some other rivalry. But a rivarly is a little extra special when it involves one community, split by a river and bounded together by this one game. The two have faced each other in so many meaningful and memorable games that it's come to be expected. Might there be another East-West showdown in March?

Friday, January 5, 2007

Upset? Yes. Surprised? No.

POINT #1 .... First, this is not an "I told you so." However, Farragut's upset win over Simeon on Friday night in the Chicago Public League Holiday Tournament is not an absolute shock. For further proof, go back and read previous Hoops Report blogs, particularly the one headed: Unbeatable? Simeon is not.

While Simeon is clearly the most talented team in the state with the dynamic, unselfish superstar Derrick Rose leading the way, the Wolverines do not possess that invincible feel we have seen from some of the state's all-time great teams. Simeon's style, whether it be sitting in that stinkin' zone defense or just not utilizing the ridiculous amount of speed, quickness and athleticism it has, lends itself to an upset on any given night. We saw it in the state championship game, we saw it against Warren in the title game at Pontiac, and we see it again against a team in Farragut that should have been completely overmatched.

POINT #2 .... Plain and simple, Simeon allows teams to stay in games when they have no right being in them. When it is all said and done, Simeon could very well win back-to-back state championships this March. But again, I will not be shocked if they were upset along the way.

It has been said before by some that Derrick Rose is too passive, that he lets the game come to him too much and he never tries to do too much. That is all true. That doesn't make him less of a talent. He's still the best guard I've seen in Illinois in the last 25 years. He's still going to be a star at Memphis and be a Lottery Pick in the NBA. He can still impact and, at times, dominate games without scoring. But, when it comes to the all-time great teams, the best player on those teams have had a little different mindset and personality than Rose. And this may sound crazy to some, but there have been some players at the high school level that I would rather have trying to win me a game than Rose. I would take Rose's future and NBA prospects over those players, but truth be told, I would rather have had Jamie Brandon of King at the high school level, Quentin Richardson of Whitney Young at the high school level or Jon Scheyer of Glenbrook North at the high school level.

POINT #3 .... Anyone who doesn't believe this Farragut win over Simeon doesn't significantly change the landscape of high school basketball in Illinois, has blinders on. I have talked with several coaches that have watched this same Simeon team I have watched. Those same coaches have some of the same feelings I have about this Simeon team. They are beatable. However, the minds of players--opposing team's players--would have begun to shift with every Simeon win this season. Win after win after win for Simeon, coupled with the non-stop media exposure of how this Simeon team may be one of the state's greatest teams, would naturally enter the heads of those players Simeon were playing against. Now? Forget about it! They're licking their chops for a shot at the defending state champs and feel a sense of confidence after hearing what Farragut accomplished.

You better believe there is a little smirk on the faces of all those Chicago Public League teams, as well as teams like Richards, Leo, Proviso East and St. Joseph, all of which may get a shot at Simeon come state tournament time.

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Thursday, January 4, 2007

Huge recruiting lift for NIU

POINT #1 .... The Northern Illinois basketball program and coach Rob Judson received a huge recruiting lift tonight when Von Steuben junior standout Mike Di Nunno gave a verbal commitment to the Huskies. The Hoops Report has long been a big Di Nunno fan, since the time he was performing at a high level for Lake Park when he was just a freshman. Di Nunno is without question one of the top shooters in the state of Illinois, hard-nosed and plays with confidence and passion. What the Hoops Report likes so much about this commitment is the attitude and insight Di Nunno put towards the recruiting process. Di Nunno was not looking at what schools were or weren't recruiting him. He wasn't looking to go to the highest profile school. He was comfortable with the program and the coaching staff. He wanted to find what he perceived to be the best fit and NIU was just that.

As far as what this does for Judson and NIU basketball, it's a huge lift at a time when they could really use it. The recent struggles aside, the Huskies have now tapped into the Chicago area for a talented kid that the Hoops Report really believes can be an impact player in the MAC. And to get this commitment at this stage, before Di Nunno has even completed his junior season, is an added bonus, both in exposure for the program and for getting the ball rolling for their Class of 2008 recruiting. The staff can now put its energy towards other areas. A lot of credit goes to Judson and his staff of Carl Armato, Donald Whiteside and Sean Harrington for locking Di Nunno up at this stage of the recruiting game.

POINT #2 .... The Hoops Report has raved about the future of Whitney Young, both in the near future and into the next couple of years. While it's been mentioned the Dolphins will be a dangerous team by the time February rolls around, it's also about time they begin to put it together. Whitney Young has put itself in position to be better in the end, playing a top-notch schedule that has included dates with H-F and Lincoln Park, a road trip to Rockford Boylan and competing at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. But suddenly Whitney Young is 5-5 after falling to Englewood in the opening round of the Chicago Public League Holiday Tournament at Chicago State on Thursday. Yes, it's time for this team to take a step forward if it wants to become the threat the Hoops Report thought it would be come Public League playoff and state tournament time.

POINT #3 .... I did make note of this in Issue #3 of the Hoops Report, which goes out to subscribers Friday morning, but I finally have come to the conclusion that there finally is a true No. 1 player in the Class of 2009. Loyola Academy's Marcus Jordan is the top sophomore in the state. Yes, the sophomore class, as I've stated numerous times, is arguably the weakest class talent-wise we've seen in years in Illinois. However, Jordan has come to the forefront due to his mere presence. Jordan's body, strength, athleticism and explosiveness set him apart from the rest of the players in this class. He has a lot of work to do with his perimeter shot, but I believe Jordan will distance himself from the rest of the pack over the next couple of years.

With that in mind, here is a quick look at the top dozen sophomores through December, according to the City/Suburban Hoops Report:
1. Marcus Jordan, 6-3, Loyola Academy
2. Darius Smith, 6-2, Marshall
3. D.J. Richardson, 6-2, Peoria Central
4. Chris Colvin, 6-1, Whitney Young
5. Joseph Bertrand, 6-3, Sterling
6. Michael Haynes, 6-6, Washington
7. Jordan Prosser, 6-7, Eureka
8. D'Mitri Riggs, 6-2, Bloomington
9. Xavier Humphrey, 6-4, Fenwick
10. Kyree Jones, 6-2, Julian
11. Cully Payne, 5-11, Burlington Central
12. Cortney Bell, 6-5, Lincoln Park