By Joe Henricksen
The field is set. Peoria's Carver Arena will open its doors Friday to a few state favorites in North Lawndale and Thornton, some awfully big names in Jereme Richmond and Marcus Jordan and a couple of party crashers in Oswego and Dundee-Crown. The City/Suburban Hoops Report offers up a Peoria primer for state basketball fans as the final weekend of the season is upon us. See you in Peoria.
After watching the last couple of weeks play out there are some wishful thinkers in the high school basketball world. Fans are keeping their fingers crossed for what would be a tantalizing 4A final featuring No. 1 ranked Thornton, winners of 29 straight games, and a Jereme Richmond-led Waukegan team. If that matchup materializes fans will see a dazzling display of speed, quickness and athleticism. These two have proven they are the two best teams in 4A. Waukegan is more than stars Jereme Richmond and Colin Nickerson. Junior Quan Connor and sophomore Aaron Johnson have both emerged as legitimate offensive forces since Waukegan dropped a pair of games at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. Someone will have to find a way to slow down Waukegan's transition game.
However, don't rule out Whitney Young, which got over the sectional hump and has taken the next step under coach Tyrone Slaughter. This team's talent, which includes a boatload of Division I players, has been talked and gawked at for two years. Has their time come?
In 3A it's North Lawndale's title to lose. After dominating St. Joe in the second half of the sectional final and absolutely dismantling North Chicago by 41 points in the supersectional, the 2008 Class 2A champs are poised to repeat as state champs this year--this time in 3A. The Phoenix feature blinding speed and quickness in the backcourt with Illinois State recruit Terry Johnson, ankle-breaking John Taylor and a host of others off the bench. And the size and strength inside is an advantage and luxury most prep teams just don't possess. How does a high school team counter the inside tandem of 6-4 Jonathan Mills and 6-4 Jermaine Winfield? And then add 6-10 Paul Bunch off the bench?
THE PARTY CRASHERS
When listening to post-game speeches at all levels and in all sports about how "no one believed in us" or "we wanted to prove the doubters wrong,"many times it's simply self-motivation. Not so with Dundee-Crown. No one did believe in this group of overachievers, especially in a matchup with 4A heavyweight Neuqua Valley. This was a monumental upset. However, behind the gutsy play of Jeff Beck this team is the surprise of March. There will be no bigger underdog in Peoria--maybe in many years--than Dundee-Crown against Waukegan.
While Oswego is without question a surprise in 3A, the Panthers' ride to Peoria is a bit different than Dundee-Crown's trip. Despite the Cinderella tag it's been given, Oswego was better or just as good as every opponent it played in the regional, sectional and supersectional. Oswego took care of the business in front of them and land in Peoria sky high after a thrilling overtime win over Rock Island. Since the calendar turned to 2009 the Panthers have won 18 of 19.
Oswego has relied on the steady guard play of Andrew Galow, a little scoring punch from Jordan Mitchell and the rugged but skilled play of underappreciated junior Andrew Ziemnik. Plus, 6-4 senior Colin Seibert has stepped up and been a big factor late in the season around the basket.
Jereme Richmond is a rare, special talent. He's dynamic in the way Derrick Rose was for Simeon in back-to-back state title runs just a couple of years ago. He's the Player of the Year, he's versatile, fun to watch and he's staying home to play his college basketball at Illinois. He's a drawing card that fans can't wait to see play.
THE SUPER SEVEN
Here are the seven best high school players who will be playing in Peoria this weekend.
Jereme Richmond, Waukegan
The 6-7 junior is the best player in the state regardless of class and one of the premier players in the nation. He is a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. His skill level is off the charts. He is a terrific passer, can score off the dribble or on the block and is the premier shot blocker in the state.
Jonathan Mills, North Lawndale
A man among boys in high school basketball. He's Dennis Rodman minus the many tats and attitude. A freak rebounder who is an awful mismatch for high school teams. His second-chance scoring opportunities can break the heart of opposing teams and their momentum.
Reggie Smith, Thornton
Smith brings freakish athleticism and toughness, both of which are crowd pleasers. He's clutch in crunchtime and is one of the top dozen juniors in the state of Illinois. Forget he's just 5-11 and has a suspect jumper, his extraodinary athleticism puts him at another level.
James Pointer, Leo
He is a little less heralded than the Whitney Young guards, but Pointer is an absolute bull and blur in the open court. No one can stay in front of him. He has the ability to get to the basket when he wants, especially in transition. He has the ability to put a team on his back and carry them.
Colin Nickerson, Waukegan
If Richmond is Batman then Nickerson plays a great Robin. He uses his length defensively to cause problems both on-the-ball and in the passing lanes. He's also emerged as an offensive force, capable of knocking down shots from beyond the arc or getting to the basket off the bounce. Richmond and Nickerson, a real steal for Fairfield, form the best 1-2 punch in the state.
Chris Colvin, Whitney Young
Regarded as one of the top five college prospects in Class of 2009, the Iowa State-bound point guard has the ability to break just about anyone down off the dribble. He has been at his best during this state tournament run.
James Kinney, Champaign Centennial
If the 5-11 guard were playing in the Chicago area he would be an all-area performer and receiving a whole lot more hype. The Ohio recruit has been a standout all season with the ability to put the ball in the hole. He scored 37 points in two sectional wins and poured in 26 in the supersectional.
FIVE TO WATCH AND WHY
Here are five other players to keep an eye on this weekend for different reasons.
Rayvonte Rice, Champaign Centennial
He's one of the underrated juniors in the state and has climbed the Hoops Report player rankings in the Class of 2010. He's still refining his perimeter shot and overall skill level, but he's a force in getting to the basket, a man using his body.
Andrew Ziemnik, Oswego
Watch this kid for a quarter and you'll love what he brings to the table. The 6-3 junior competes, battles, rebounds, leaves everything on the floor and has a little skill to go with it. He will finish around the basket or face up and knock down shots.
Trevell Rivers, Thornton
Arguably the most underappreciated player in the state with off-the-charts athleticism and a college-ready body. The undersized post player--at 6-3--provides a huge presence defensively and on the glass for a Thornton team that lacks size. Rivers makes up for any of Thornton's shortcomings.
Marcus Jordan, Whitney Young
Hey, he's MJ's kid. A lot of eyes will be on the rugged perimeter player who uses his frame, athleticism and strength to bull his way to the basket.
Jermaine Winfield, North Lawndale
While the senior trio of John Taylor, Terry Johnson and Jonathan Mills get all the hype for the Phoenix, Winfield, a 6-4 junior, is easy to find and appreciate. He brings it every single day. He's big, strong and has developed a nice touch inside 15 feet. He's the forgotten man with the senior stars surrounding him.
Class 4A Semifinals: Waukegan over Dundee-Crown; Thornton over Whitney Young
Class 4A Championship: Waukegan over Thornton
Class 3A Semifinals: North Lawndale over Champaign Centennial; Leo over Oswego
Class 3A Championship: North Lawndale over Leo