By Joe Henricksen
There is an emerging rivalry in the north suburbs and the stakes are only going to get higher. Zion-Benton and Waukegan went at it Tuesday night in a wild atmosphere at Waukegan High School, where Zion-Benton escaped the Dog Pound with an intense win behind the sterling play of senior point guard Ronald Steward. The same two teams could very well meet again in the same gym in about a month with a sectional championship on the line. Warren and Lake Forest may have something to say about a potential rematch between Waukegan and Zion-Benton, but the City/Suburban Hoops Report would be surprised if it's not one of these two heavyweights advancing to the Hoffman Estates Supersectional. In what is a strong sectional field, Zion-Benton and Waukegan are clearly the two most talented teams.
Player of the Year conversation should include....
In a recent radio interview I mentioned that Naperville Central's Drew Crawford should be in the Player of the Year conversation. By the reaction I received you would have thought I was talking about a player in Alaska. While Crawford is certainly a darkhorse and a Hoops Report favorite over the past two-plus years, he has no realistic chance for the Mr. Basketball award due to the fact hardly anyone knows much about him or has seen him play. He doesn't play in the Public League, he didn't play at Proviso West or Pontiac over the holidays, and he didn't sign with a big-time college basketball program. Crawford, though, should be a top five Mr. Basketball vote-getter.
Young talent in Southwest Prairie
Plainfield North has received the most notoriety out of the Southwest Prairie Conference this season, but the young talent in this league is making a name for itself. Romeoville's Devon Hodges, a 6-7 sophomore, has already made headlines by committing to Wisconsin earlier this season. A couple of other young players in the league have recently really impressed the Hoops Report. Oswego East's Jay Harris is a slender guard who is a big-time scorer. The 6-0 junior can do it off the bounce and from beyond the arc. He's a fundamentally strong scorer, using ball fakes to free himself up and knock down shot after shot. He's a fun one to watch and a college prospect to keep an eye on. Plainfield Central's Derek Marks, a 6-2 sophomore, is another rising prospect. He's got an old school game and, for a young player, already has established a nice mid-range game.
The big picture for a couple of 3A hopefuls
Aurora Central Catholic is 20-2 and has won its second straight Suburban Catholic Conference. Oswego is 17-5 on the season and tied with Plainfield North for the top spot in the Southwest Prairie Conference. However, the two programs are off the Chicago media radar for many reasons. But each program has a chance for a deep run in March -- if it can beat the other. The two will meet in a Class 3A regional final at Oswego early next month. But despite little recognition, the road for the winner of that Oswego regional contest has a great chance to win a Class 3A sectional. Sterling, led by Illinois recruit Joseph Bertrand, would be the top team in the Rochelle Sectional, where either Aurora Central or Oswego will advance to.
Aurora Central was the biggest winner in the slight changes the IHSA made in regional and sectional assignments. Last year Aurora Central won a regional title and fell to eventual state champion Marshall in the sectional semifinals. This year, instead of being placed in the R-B Sectional, where heavyweights St. Joseph, Marshall and North Lawndale will be battling it out, Aurora Central heads west. Now the Chargers could win the school's first sectional title since 1991.
Oswego, meanwhile, has one regional title in the last 35 years -- and that came back in 1985. With a win over Aurora Central in the regional and two winnable games in a soft sectional, it's not inconceivable for Oswego to win its first sectional championship on the 35-year anniversary of coach Steve Goers leading Oswego to the Elite Eight in 1974.
Oswego, which features a nice trio in seniors Andrew Galow, Jordan Mitchell and junior Andrew Ziemnik, will get Aurora Central on its home floor and has been an impressive since the holidays. However, Aurora Central has a terrific talent in 6-6 senior Anthony Kelley, who was recently profiled in the Hoops Report as one of the state's "best-kept secrets." Kelley, a long, athletic wing who can really shoot it, is a difference-maker and is capable of carrying a team.
How about the job coach Paul Runyon has done with Downers Grove South this year? The Mustangs lost back-to-back games in December, including a first-round loss to York in the opening game of the York Holiday Tournament. That loss left DGS 5-4 on the season. Since that time the Mustangs have won 12 straight, including a win over Morton, and are now tied for the top spot in the West Suburban Gold. Downers South, behind senior scoring guard Malcolm Herron, sport a 17-4 record. The Mustangs will get a terrific measuring stick prior to the start of regional play when they host Neuqua Valley Feb. 21.
And, more recently, St. Patrick has rebounded nicely from its stunning loss Jan. 31 to Joliet Catholic, which is just 5-17 on the season. Behind undervalued guard Bryant Smith, coach Mike Bailey's team beat Benet Academy and St. Ignatius last weekend. Smith scored 49 points in the two wins. St. Pat's gets another big test this weekend when it travels to face a talented Niles Notre Dame team.
A year ago Homewood-Flossmoor was considered the best team in the state and point guard Kevin Dillard had emerged as the favorite for Mr. Basketball. This year H-F has quietly put together another solid season, despite losing virtually everyone from last year's power-packed team, including Dillard and a pair of Division I football standouts in Supo Sanni and Russell Ellington. H-F has played a rugged schedule, yet coach Jim McLaughlin has his team 16-5 and in control of the Southwest Suburban Red. Go ahead and pencil H-F in as the No. 4 seed in the Lincoln-Way North Sectional behind Thornton, T.F. North and Bloom.