Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Yikes! Visions of 1993 all over again

POINT #1 .... Everyone knew back in November Simeon was No. 1. Everyone knew when the state tournament began Simeon was clearly the team to beat. What no one knew, however, is how little of a challenge Simeon would have once it got to the Elite Eight. That, however, is what is shaping up after the completion of supersectional play.

Thornton--and likely Marshall in the state semifinals--will undoubtedly be bigger tests for Simeon than what they will face in the title game Saturday night. In fact, whatever team reaches the final out of the top bracket (O'Fallon, Lockport, Stevenson or Rockford Boylan) will enter as perhaps the biggest underdog we've seen in a state championship in many years.

POINT #2 .... The biggest underdog to play in a state title game in the last 25 years was Rockford Guilford in 1993. Guilford lost to unbeaten Chicago King by a whopping 37 points, 79-42. How did Guilford get there? Well, the bracket they were in was very similar to the top bracket of this year's Elite Eight as Guilford was joined by Palatine Fremd, Bradley-Bourbonnais and Edwardsville, which weren't exactly your basketball powers that year. Just as it is this year, the path is clear for an underdog to reach the final. And sitting there waiting, just as King was in 1993, is a Chicago Public League power in Simeon.

POINT #3 .... For all the talk about Derrick Rose as one of the greatest guards--and players--this state has produced, Simeon would still be a state title contender without the Memphis-bound senior. The key word here is contender. The dynamics would obviously be different at Simeon. But make no mistake, a nucleus of Tim Flowers, Kevin Johnson, Bryant Orange, Brandon Hall and Keyon Smith would no question be a top 10 team in the state. With Rose, this is the best team to be playing in Peoria since the great Quentin Richardson-led Whitney Young team in 1998.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Four-class (hard) feelings won't go away

POINT #1 .... Anyone who has subscribed to the City/Suburban Hoops Report or has even visited this blog knows how the Hoops Report feels about the upcoming four-class system. There isn't a person, school or group of people more upset and frustrated about the change as the Hoops Report--maybe some people are just as upset and frustrated, but none that are more.

I've heard from so many coaches and fans about being the "little guy" and how tough it is to compete. They say, "Joe, you don't understand." Heck with that, I do get it. My junior year in high school we had what was perceived as one of the best basketball teams in our school's history. The spring before that school year began we were notified that we would be a Class AA school for the first time in the school's history--the smallest Class AA school in the state. We went 23-2 in the regular season, would have been a Class A giant. Instead we finished 24-3, losing a heartbreaker to a 24-1 Class AA school in the regional final. Would I have rather been Class A? You bet. But I never would have wanted three or four classes. (By the way, what ever happened to three classes? Why bypass three and jump straight to four? Just another issue.)

Now, to add insult to injury, listening to quotes coming out of the IHSA office in recent weeks in newspaper articles regarding the switch to four classes, specifically from Executive Director Marty Hickman, just makes you shake your head. This is more than just about losing the tradition, history and sense of accomplishment that is instantly gone with the arrival of four classes. It's about how this whole thing was pushed through and the road they took to get four classes.

POINT #2 .... OK, fine, ignore the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association's thoughts on the matter, which is exactly what the IHSA did regarding expanding basketball to four classes. The IBCA was virtually unanimous in saying it did not favor going to four classes. If the IHSA wants to ignore the people that are in the heart of the sport and, in all likelihood, are the ones that probably know what is best for the sport, fine. Even an informal survey by the Hoops Report in one of last year's issues had astounding results, with a very, very small minority of coaches in the state saying they were in favor of four classes. But again, the Hoops Report is fine with the IHSA saying that while it respects the viewpoints of the coaches in the state, this matter is not about the coaches.

However, if I hear one more time, just one more quote coming out of the IHSA saying "this is what the membership wanted," I am going to lose it. What in the world are they basing this on? Is it the ridiculous survey the IHSA sent out to schools around the state with many other topics and questions packed into the very same survey? Is it that same survey that only 38 percent of the roughly 800 IHSA member schools responded to?

This has been pointed out time and time again by the Hoops Report. And it will continue to be pointed out as long as statements like "this is what the membership wanted" are spewed out of the mouths of the people that, deep down, want four classes. Think about it. If we're talking 38 percent of 800 that is right around 300 schools that responded. Of the 38 percent that did respond, 64 percent of those schools (64 percent of 300 schools) voted in favor of expanding to four classes. That means that of the roughly 800 member schools in this state, right around 192 of them were definitively in favor of expanding from two to four classes. That is less than 25 percent of the schools! So how can we be so positively sure that "this is what the membership wanted?"

Then I see quotes from Hickman in Sunday's Sun-Times saying "eight classes hasn't diminished the state championship [in football] in any way." What does he base this on? Has he listened to the people that cover the sport and follow it? While not nearly as controversial as basketball, I have spoken with several football coaches who believe eight classes are too many. The mass majority of media members believe eight classes are too many. I have spoken with many high school football fans, including myself, that lost a considerable amount of interest in the sport because of eight classes. As a fan you have no idea what teams are in what class and you lose any sense of tradition and history because it's impossible to even name past state champions because of eight classes.

POINT #3 .... The point is, with the way this was handled-- and knowing what a hot and emotional topic it was going to be -- how can anyone base a major decision that has so much impact on these type of survey results? When it comes to prep sports in Illinois, basketball is the heart and soul. You can't lump it together with volleyball and track.

Ask anyone close to the situation or those who have followed the issue closely, and it comes down to several individuals with small-school ties. The new regime at the IHSA helped in funneling this through by the way it was done. Would four-class basketball be here if the old regime at the IHSA, with the likes of Dave Fry, Don Robinson and Jim Flynn, been still intact? Maybe, but probably not. But before doing it, before making a monumental change, they would have made darn sure it truly was what the member schools wanted and not some small percent that pushed it through. A formal survey, separate from other issues and topics, with at least a majority responding, would have been conducted and evaluated.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Jumping on their back in March

POINT #1 .... A big part of a team's success in March has a lot to do with star players rising to the top and carrying a team, especially during sectional basketball. We are seeing that again this March in the Class AA sectionals and none more so than at Glenbard West, a team that really came together down the stretch of the regular season and is now playing in the Sweet 16.

Glenbard West, which has zero depth and little basketball tradition, has hardly been a blip on the radar this winter and has received little appreciation and respect from the Chicago media. Yet here they are, one win from reaching Peoria after preparing themselves in a tough West Suburban Silver Conference. The biggest reason? The emergence of 6-8 junior John Shurna, who has been absolutely dominating in state tournament play.

Shurna showed great potential last year as a sophomore. He was slowed just after the season started with an injury but has come on like gangbusters since. Although very thin and not real strong, Shurna possesses a solid skill package, great hands and a feathery touch around the basket. He's a true difference-maker and has put Glenbard West on his back at times and carried them. I now believe Shurna, who could very easily end up 6-10, is a mid-major prospect at worst and has elevated himself into the top 15 prospects in the relatively weak junior class.

Shurna is the big reason Glenbard West is still alive, although not the only reason. They are big and strong. Northwestern football recruit Kevin Watt, a high-energy player, has overachieved on the basketball court and has been spectacular in the postseason. They also don't make mistakes or turn the ball over, receiving much better guard play than anyone anticipated. Each possession has a purpose, which is so important in March. And why they are still Peoria dreaming.

POINT #2 .... Right there with Shurna in helping lead his team into the Sweet 16 is Thornton's Mustapha Farrakhan. This is another team no one truly believed would get past the likes of a T.F. North or Thornwood in the sectional. Farrakhan, though, has that capability of taking over games with his scoring ability. He hits big shots, scores in crucial situations and has shown he's more than just a perimeter shooter.

POINT #3 .... And finally, is there any player whose back you would want to ride more than Derrick Rose of Simeon? What makes Rose even more special this season is the fact he's already been there and done it during last year's run to a state championship. Add that championship, big-game experience to all the talent Rose brings to the floor each night and opposing teams are truly an underdog in any matchup with the Wolverines.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Simeon is great, but greatest?

POINT #1 .... As we all watch Simeon embark on this state tournament trail, which will very likely end with a repeat state championship for coach Robert Smith, star Derrick Rose and the rest of the Wolverines, the comparisons will be made. Is this the best team in state history?

There was an interesting piece written by the Chicago Sun-Times regarding this topic. Veteran writer Taylor Bell took the 1972 Quinn Buckner-led Thornridge team, while Steve Tucker made an argument for the modern era teams, including the great Peoria Manual team of 1997 and this year's Simeon team. There are others that will argue the 1981 unbeaten Quincy team, led by Michael Payne and Bruce Douglas, and the 1990 unbeaten King team, led by Jamie Brandon, as the state's best.

When it is all said and done, yes Simeon, in all likelihood, will have done something no other Chicago Public League team has ever done: win back-to-back state titles. If we're talking two-year runs, then throw Simeon into the mix. But as far as the best, single-season team ever? Simeon just misses being placed on that pedestal.

I'm not even sure this is the best city team I've seen in the last 10 years. I still would take the 1998 Whitney Young team, led by Quentin Richardson (DePaul), Cordell Henry (Marquette), Dennis Gates (California) and 6-8 Corey Harris (Ball State).

As a pure high school player, Richardson was more dominating than even Rose at the prep level. Whitney Young's supporting cast was better. I would take George Stanton over Robert Smith as a coach. And that Young team didn't have any slip-ups, such as the one we saw Simeon have against Farragut. The Dolphins beat every Illinois foe that year, losing only a 60-58 heartbreaker to Lexington Catholic out of Kentucky.

What also must be noted is just how loaded the state was that year with team and individual talent. When comparing the 1997-1998 season to the 2006-2007 season there is absolutely no comparison. The 1998 senior class in Illinois was the best we've seen in this state in the last 25 years. The Fenwick team, which Whitney Young beat behind Richardson's 28 points and 19 rebounds in the City-Suburban Showdown, with future NBA star Corey Maggette was loaded. Maine West featured the high Division I pair of Lucas Johnson and Kevin Frey. Galesburg, the state runner-up in '98, had the heralded Joey Range and Rod Thompson, a pair of Big Ten recruits. The Simeon team had future NBA player Bobby Simmons, Julian had Lance Williams, Farragut boasted future Arizona star Michael Wright and Peoria Manual still had Frank Williams. Rockford Boylan had Illinois recruit Damir Krupalija. Heck, Naperville North's Henry Domercant wasn't even ranked among the top 20 senior prospects that year and he went on to become one of the nation's leading scorers in college while playing at Eastern Illinois.

Whitney Young was better. There is no question Whitney Young had bigger potential obstacles in the winter of 1998 than this Simeon team has or will have in the next two weeks. That, along with the fact the Dolphins didn't lose to a single team from Illinois, gives Whitney Young the edge.

POINT #2 .... Another popular question asked over the last year or two is whether or not Burlington Central's Cully Payne can play in the Big East Conference. The 6-foot sophomore guard made a big splash two years ago when he committed to coach Jerry Wainwright and the Blue Demons when he had just graduated from 8th grade. Since then the poor kid has been scrutinized up and down by everyone and, to his credit, handled it all very well.

The Hoops Report thought it was a bit premature with DePaul making an offer that early. But Payne is beginning to remind the Hoops Report of another type of player that had an unbelievable career in the Big East--former Syracuse star Gerry McNamara. Payne has that confidence, the gunslinger approach and tremendous basketball savvy which McNamara played with.

Will Payne reach the level of McNamara, who helped lead the Orange to a national title as a freshman four years ago and became a cult hero in the Carrier Dome? That will be a tall task. Payne, though, was absolutely brilliant Saturday night in scoring 35 points against Rockford Boylan in the regional final. This came three days after scoring 35 in a regional win over Sycamore. Remember, he's just a sophomore.

POINT #3 .... As of today, Sunday, Mar. 4, there are only 13 days left of two-class basketball in Illinois. Enjoy the best state tournament Illinois has to offer these next two weeks.

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Jordan Watch

POINT #1 .... I have mentioned a few times I feel the most improved player in the senior class over the past two years, especially the last 18 months, has been Jeff Jordan of Loyola Academy. I remember two years ago when I felt Jordan was in that top 20-30 player range in the Class of 2007. Now? He's without question one of the top 15 seniors in the state and one I feel is often overlooked as a college prospect. There is more and more talk of Jordan walking-on at a high-major school. If Jordan ends of landing at a low to mid-major Division I school, that school will have itself a steal of recruit for it being this late in the recruiting game.

Jordan's strength remains his ability to get to the basket and finish. He has a good frame and athleticism and uses both well. His shooting and decision-making have improved, although they both could be more consistent. The combo guard, though, brings a lot to the table, including defensive intensity, a great demeanor and total unselfishness. I really love what Jordan brings to the court each night.

POINT #2 .... Well, the Hoops Report state tournament preview is out. The picks are in by both the Hoops Report and other "expert" high school basketball analysts around the state. The consensus -- surprise, surprise -- is Simeon to repeat. What is interesting is that eight of the nine experts polled also have Warren playing in the state championship game.

The Hoops Report picked these sectional winners: Glenbard East, Lockport, Decatur Eisenhower, East St. Louis, Warren, Jacobs, Lake Park, Rockford Boylan, Loyola Academy, Lincoln Park, Washington, Bloomington, Thornwood, Hillcrest, Simeon and St. Joseph. The four games in the Elite Eight: Decatur Eisenhower vs. Glenbard East; Warren vs. Lake Park; Loyola vs. Washington; Simeon vs. Thornwood.

POINT #3 .... I have always said national high school team basketball rankings really don't make much sense to me. When there are so few teams around the country playing one another, how in the world can you rank these teams? These rankings are for entertainment and intrigue purposes only. But what is even worse is any ranking of junior high prospects. Are you kidding me? Anyone who can actually rank junior high players when in no way they've all been seen and identified is foolish. A list of top 8th grade prospects? OK, maybe. But to actually rank these kids from one to whatever is really a joke, unfair to the development of a 13-year-old. It's not freakin' tennis where the top national 13-year-olds play one another in national tournaments. It's sad to see.