Sunday, February 18, 2007

Even in greatness, Rose finds ways to improve

POINT #1 .... There is an interesting article in the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times regarding Derrick Rose's final hurdle: aggressiveness. First, finding faults in Derrick Rose, the Simeon star, is being a little nitpicky. We're talking about one of the greatest players this state has produced and, in my mind, the best guard this state has had in more than 25 years. He's won a state title, will likely be the Mr. Basketball winner and will be a NBA Lottery Pick whenever he chooses to go pro, whether that's next year or later. I stand by my quotes in the story, which basically states that those who watch Rose the most would simply like to see him raise his level of play every game out, no matter what the circumstances are.

We want to see what we saw from Rose at the UIC Pavilion when Simeon took out the nation's top-ranked team, Oak Hill Academy. We want to see the Rose we saw against St. Joseph on Saturday night at Northwestern. He came out and took over in the first quarter, was aggressive, made four three-point shots that really set the tone for the rest of the game.

A player with the ability of Rose has to assert himself, look to dominate at this level each time out and play with a sense of urgency. It shouldn't be about proving critics wrong or being motivated by what newspaper writers and analysts say. In the loss to Farragut earlier this year Rose barely looked for his shot or to score. He's had performances against lesser teams and talent, where he's not exactly needed for Simeon to win, where he would just as soon relax in the shadows, such as the three games at the Pontiac Tournament where he scored in single digits.

This does not mean Rose doesn't play hard. It doesn't mean winning is not a high priority for Rose. He plays hard and he plays to win--always. And he always plays unselfishly, almost to a fault. It just means the great ones have that killer instinct, which now appears to be coming along for Rose in the second half of the season. This has been Rose's biggest area of improvement over the past month or so, which shows again why he's one of the state's all-time best.

POINT #2 .... I'm not sure if a team has played a more important individual game all season than Loyola's matchup with Warren in the City-Suburban Showdown at Northwestern. There is no question Loyola is one of the state's elite teams, but of all of those elite teams in the Chicago area, Loyola has played the softest schedule and had minimal opportunities to prove themselves to the high school basketball world.

Loyola's big chance came against Eric Gordon on ESPN. The Ramblers were embarrassed. Yes, they did hand Lake Park its lone loss, but the matchup with Warren on a big stage was critical for this team. A loss to Warren may have really left some doubt as to whether this team can beat a really good team. Now, the Ramblers have a boost heading into state tournament play.

POINT #3 .... The whispers are being heard that Thornwood is done. The Thunderbirds have dropped three straight games, including lopsided losses to a fast-improving H-F team and to Thornton last Friday night. Those that are doing the whispering should probably shut it and wait until March is over.

Rewind to last season. Thornwood lost three of its final five regular-season games, including a 61-40 defeat to Thornton in the regular-season finale. Coach Bob Curran rallied his team to a dramatic March run, which included a five overtime win over Washington in the sectional final and a triple overtime win over H-F in the supersectional. The Thunderbirds finished third in the state. Don't underestimate the fact that Curran has his teams ready and prepared for March and knows what it takes to make deep state tournament runs.

Friday, February 16, 2007

IHSA misses another opportunity

POINT #1.... The IHSA had yet another chance to win over fans and media. A year ago, obviously due to scheduling conflicts with the supersectional sites, the IHSA had a doubleheader supersectional on Monday night and Tuesday night. Fans and media were ecstatic over the fact they were able to watch four supersectional games in a two-day span. This year? All supersectionals will be played on Tuesday night, which has disappointed fans and media throughout the Chicago area.

POINT #2.... After taking a look at the Elite Eight brackets, there is another glaring weak bracket and powerful bracket, which seems to be the case more often than not. There has been plenty of debate whether the Elite Eight should be seeded. Who would do it? The fact is, the bottom bracket this year is loaded while the top bracket is without any true top five team.

With all this being said, it appears on paper Warren will be the team to beat in the upper bracket, with the likes of Simeon, T.F. North, Thornwood, Hillcrest, Lincoln Park, Washington, Loyola Academy, Peoria Richwoods and Marshall all battling it out in the bottom half.

POINT #3 .... After further review, T.F. North is for real. At least that is what the results continue to show. The Hoops Report probably has been about the last to jump on the T.F. North bandwagon. It will be interesting to see the prognosticators pick T.F. North this March.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A lot learned in south 'burbs

POINT #1 .... OK, enough of you "I told you so" people out there regarding Richards. No, they haven't played the toughest of schedules. And yes, they did lose at Hillcrest Friday night in what was supposed to be their "shut up" game to all of those doubters. Nonetheless, this Richards team is very talented and dangerous despite the loss. They didn't play to their capabilities, which included way too many Hillcrest second-chance scoring opportunities and too many defensive breakdowns, but coach John Chappetto's team has got a little of everything. I like this team a lot. Khadamus Llongbey and Brendan Styler can really stretch a defense with their perimeter shooting, and rising junior Carl Richard oozes with talent. He reminds me a lot of former Evanston star and current Purdue player Gordon Watt. This team can play with anyone in the state. Yes, anyone. The key in March, though, will be point guard Eliud Gonzalez, Llongbey and Tommie Thomas taking care of the ball. The Bulldogs would win a lot of sectionals around Illinois if it weren't playing in the same one as the state's top team, Simeon.

POINT #2 .... Bloom has size and probably the most talent in the Joliet Sectional. H-F is playing better and better by the week. But I believe if Hillcrest is healthy and fully stocked, coach Tom Cappel's club will win the sectional. That's not an earth-shattering statement considering the Hawks are the top seed. The critics, though, are out there.

This team gets after it both defensively and on the offensive glass, seems to play extremely unselfish and has different players step up game after game. Elliott Jones is probably the heart and soul of this team and is playing with some banged up fingers, Justin Berry is undervalued by most and Justin Taylor was extremely missed when he was out. But when 6-6 Kellen Thornton plays big and makes himself a presence on both ends of the floor, Hillcrest is a different team.

POINT #3 .... Wow, another statement was made by T.F. North with his double-digit win over Thornwood. Suddenly, coach Tim Bankston's team is ranked No. 2 in the most recent Hoops Report rankings, due out in this week's issue. You have to give credit to Bankston for loading up this year's schedule in preparation for the SICA East wars and the tough road his team will face in March.

However, I know there are still those who doubt this team as well. I can't remember a team that has done so much in the regular season against high-quality competition and still people question their staying power. In fact, I will be willing to bet that when the Hoops Report state tournament preview issue rolls out in a little more than two weeks, not one prognosticator will pick T.F. North to reach Peoria when all the picks are made in that issue.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

What legacy does Simeon want to leave?

POINT #1 .... The goal has remained the same for coach Robert Smith and the Simeon Wolverines: become the first Chicago Public League team to win back-to-back state championships. The schedule was loaded up with tough teams, atmospheres and circumstances in preparation for that second state title run. And with that state title, Simeon surely would have left a legacy worth talking about, especially with this being the final year of the two-class system. Now, however, Smith and Simeon are beginning to leave a different legacy--a state champion on the verge of being disliked by the fans of this state that cherish high school basketball so much.

Rumors have circulated for months regarding what Smith has said or didn't say regarding the showdown with St. Joseph in the City-Suburban Showdown at Northwestern Feb. 17. Now he has gone public with it and, as a result, is giving the program, school and Chicago Public League a black eye.

Any team, coach, member of the press or fan that has been involved with the tremendous event known as the City-Suburban Showdown, will quickly tell you what a class event it is. The showdown is a win-win situation for everyone involved, from the teams that play in it to the fans that get to enjoy it. And for Smith to accuse the Integrity Group of anything less, is just another reason for fans to turn their back on Simeon and its quest for another state championship.

Regardless of any circumstances, Simeon signed a contract to play St. Joseph. The arguments against playing the game are nonsense. The schedule Simeon put together this year, which is more demanding than any high school team in the state with the travel involved and quality of competition, is doing exactly what Smith hoped it would: win a second straight state title.

Simeon played three games in two days at Pontiac. They traveled across the country to Madison Square Garden to play and came home to play another game the next day. This is just another challenge for Simeon in its preparation for March.

In reality, it's sad to see what has become of this. The kids at Simeon deserve the accolades and attention they've received. And they deserve to play in what is the highest-profile game in Illinois this year.

POINT #2 .... The sectional seeding meetings are tonight (Wednesday, Feb. 7). I think one of the most interesting seeds will involve West Aurora. The Blackhawks are clearly better than their .500 record indicates. And their schedule has been tougher than any team in that sectional. But seeing how these seeding meetings have gone in the past, I fully expect the coaches to seed West Aurora in the 5-8 group. With that being said, I would sure hate to be one of the top four seeds that would have to face Gordie Kerkman's West Aurora club in a regional final.

POINT #3 .... Everyone is talking about the T.F. North-Thornwood showdown this Friday night. Yes, it's huge in the south suburbs and for SICA East supremacy. But the game the Hoops Report has been anticipating for weeks is the Richards-Hillcrest matchup on Friday. We will all find out a lot about both teams, especially the unbeaten Bulldogs of Richards. A loss to Hillcrest would not diminish the terrific start Richards has had. But a win over Hillcrest would truly solidify this team.