By Joe Henricksen
The Class 1A and 2A state tournament has started, while the big schools get it going next week. And the time has come for fans, media and various prognosticators to start making their picks. Who will have extended state tournament runs? Who will be playing for it all in Peoria?
Every season and every coach in America will tell you defense wins championships. While that is true, there are certainly other qualities and strengths I look for when trying to figure what teams are primed for big-time success when it matters most -- in March. The following are three key elements the City/Suburban Hoops Report tries to find when picking its teams in regional and sectional play.
The talented but erratic teams are typically the ones that pull off the regional upset. They are geeked up, capable and dangerous -- for one game. Those teams, however, generally aren't able to put together three or four tournament wins. So take a look at the teams that have played with consistency, especially in the last four or five weeks of the season, and against above-average competition. These are teams that even when they have lost, they've played pretty well.
Solid, veteran guard play
If there is one other ingredient that goes right with defense it's solid guard play. Coaches at all levels will talk about the importance of it. The proof is there in the history of state tournament play. The teams with talented guards with experience are in position to stay in games, handle crucial situations and win tight games -- and big games. These teams are capable of playing different styles and adjusting to the styles they are playing against. And the experience of playing in big games during the regular season and earlier in their career and learning from it pays dividends in March.
The go-to player
There are stars and there are go-to stars. And without pointing any fingers, there are talented players, both past and present, that have not -- or are not -- money players when a team needs them the most. Sure, they will come up big from time to time. But I'm talking about the player that is always there, always dependable. There are stars that can disappear in crunch time. But when a team has one -- a true go-to player -- it helps overcome so many areas of weakness. This is the player that can get his own shot, create and score when his team is going through a tough stretch and is in desperate need of a basket. This is the player that can get to the line in the fourth quarter and knock down big free throws. This is the player that can break the back and instill a little intimidation into an opponent. This is the player that, when a team is having that one bad night on the wrong night, can bail his team out and almost individually win a game when the team struggles. Thus, avoiding the dreaded upset.
There are very few teams that have all three of the aforementioned ingredients. A team that immediately jumps out, though, as having these particular three is Homewood-Flossmoor. It's no wonder the Vikings have lost just one game (a last-second loss to Whitney Young at Proviso West in December) and are one of the favorites to win the Class 4A state title. Kevin Dillard provides two of the ingredients himself -- a veteran guard who has played in big games over the last three years and has been a go-to player all season. Supo Sanni is right there with him as an absolute force on the glass and bringing toughness and athleticism that is tough to match up against at the high school level.