By Joe Henricksen
There are always several ways to define what transpires over the course of March Madness. This year a big part of the March Madness has been programs, coaches and players taking the next step.
Over the past few years there have been several Chicago Public League programs trying to take the next step. Whether it was Foreman, Whitney Young, Hyde Park, Brooks, Lincoln Park or any of the other flavors of the month city teams, they were all -- in their own way -- trying to take the next step. Some have, some didn't and some are still undetermined.
Whitney Young is still kicking after surviving a grueling sectional field, where it beat Morton and De La Salle in the sectional. The much-maligned Dolphins will square off with Hyde Park in a terrific Public League supersectional matchup Tuesday night at Chicago State.
However, the team that has taken the biggest step forward this March is Brooks. Coach Chris Head, who led Westinghouse to a state championship in 2002 and a second-place finish in 2000, has a young team playing for a whole lot this Tuesday. Brooks came into March as the No. 5 seed in the Richards Sectional. They knocked off Crete-Monee and Hillcrest to win the school's first-ever sectional championship with four sophomore starters. The Eagles now face Leo, one of the Class 3A favorites, in the supersectional.
While we are on the topic of taking the next step, Brooks guard George Marshall has done so. The talented sophomore has been absolutely outstanding. The Hoops Report watched him lead the way with 21 points in a sectional win over Crete-Monee last Tuesday night. The 6-0 point guard then scored a game-high 29 points, including 24 in the second half, in the come-from-behind win over Hillcrest in the sectional final. Marshall can handle it, sees the floor, can score in different ways and has elevated himself in the Class of 2011. He can get into the lane, is pretty gritty and gets to the free throw line effectively. Marshall is a competitor who wants the ball in crunchtime. He is now among the top dozen college prospectes in the sophomore class.
Others that have taken the step...
• Having to beat both Zion-Benton and Warren to win the sectional was a tall order for Waukegan, but after an IHSA suspension reversal and a miracle halfcourt shot from Jereme Richmond the Bulldogs did just that. After all this team went through last season and to end up in Peoria this season would be pretty special. What more can you say about how coach Ron Ashlaw has brought this team together?
• De La Salle's Dre Henley is a unique talent with an enormous upside who has continued to raise his level of play over the course of the season. The 6-5 skilled and versatile sophomore scored 30 in a sectional semifinal win over Proviso East and added 21 Friday night in a loss to Whitney Young. In the Hoops Report's eyes he's among the top three college prospects in the loaded Class of 2011, who could even make a claim as the No. 1 prospect before it's all said and done.
• In Rock Island, coach Thom Sigel won his first sectional title at the school in his eight years with a win over Morton on Friday night. There were a lot of expectations when Sigel arrived at Rock Island, a school with a ton of basketball tradition. Sigel had guided Rock Falls to a state championship before his arrival in the Quad Cities. The talent level, however, was down a bit at Rock Island when he arrived. While Sigel had won a few regional championships in his time at Rock Island, the program finally took that next step with a sectional title behind super sophomore Chasson Randle. Now the Rocks are one win from reaching Peoria with a team that relies heavily on a solid sophomore class.
• No matter what Oswego does in the DeKalb Supersectional Tuesday night, this has been a landmark season for the program, which includes a school record for wins and the first regional and sectional titles in decades.
• Coach Lance Huber led Dundee-Crown to 21 wins in the 2005-2006 season and a regional championship in 2007. Now the Chargers will be making a supersectional appearance, though in a big underdog role, after a dramatic win over St. Charles North in the sectional championship.
Steps to be taken....
• No team has more pressure on it Tuesday night than Thornton. The Wildcats are the No. 1 team in the state, boast a 28-1 record and play an opponent everyone expects them to beat in Belleville East. Coach Troy Jackson has built up a 145-34 record in five-plus years in Harvey with four sectional titles and a couple of trips to Peoria. However, expectations at Thornton are a little different then at most schools. And the expectation this year is to bring home a state championship -- or at least a state trophy. In two previous trips to Peoria the Wildcats fell to Downers Grove South (in 2005) and Simeon (in 2007) in the state quarterfinals. A win over Belleville East would assure Thornton of its first state trophy of any kind in the Troy Jackson era.
• The rise of the Neuqua Valley program this decade has been swift and prominent. All that is missing is a trip to the state finals. Last year the Wildcats got over the sectional hump and reached the supersectional, falling to eventual state champion Richards. This year Neuqua is back in the supersectional with a very winnable game against Dundee-Crown. Prior to March, Neuqua Valley and Dundee-Crown had three common opponents -- Glenbard East, Hoffman Estates and Waubonsie Valley. Neuqua Valley beat all three teams by a total of 35 points. Dundee-Crown lost to all three by a total of 34 points. D-C did knock off St. Charles North in the sectional final, a team that played Neuqua Valley tough in the Upstate Eight.