By Joe Henricksen
Illinois Fighting Illini fans around the Champaign area had plenty to watch in Assembly Hall throughout the day Saturday in the Deron Williams Shootout at the Hall. They were excited to see the signed (Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard), the committed (Tracy Abrams) and potential future Illini (Chasson Randle, DeJuan Marrero and Quincy Miller). But it was the local team, Champaign Centennial, that stole the show.
As the Hoops Report stated in its most recent blog, there is basketball outside the Chicago area, with that conversation starting with Champaign Centennial. The Hoops Report has now watched the teams that are considered to be the best of the best in Illinois this season, including Simeon, Whitney Young, Waukegan, Glenbrook North and Centennial. The defending Class 3A champs were so impressive in their dismantling of Richmond and Waukegan. Centennial doesn't have to take a backseat to anyone. They are huge and physical. Plus, Drake-bound Rayvonte Rice is a difference-maker at the high school level. If the Centennial guards can handle the quickness and trapping of Waukegan as they did in a 71-54 win, coach Tim Lavin's club is going to be more than just fine.
• Champaign Centennial
The loss of James Kinney, a big-time performer during last year's run to a state title, was supposed to be more significant than it's showed. But this Centennial team just may be better, bigger, stronger and with more weapons. While Rayvonte Rice is a difference-maker, 6-8 Jeff Johnson has gotten better every time the Hoops Report has seen him since last March. Throw in 6-8 junior Josh Piper and 6-7 James Mihm and this is a huge high school basketball team.
• Glenbrook North
The Spartans have quickly showed why they were the City/Suburban Hoops Report's No. 4 ranked team in the preseason. They jumped all over a highly-regarded Peoria Notre Dame team and executed near flawless basketball for a December game. Alex Dragicevich and Austin Weber are a pair of big, perimeter scorers. But what was so impressive with Dave Weber's club was how they have tightened up the defensive screws. Glenbrook North held Peoria Notre Dame to just 23 points and are allowing only 45 points a game during its 8-0 start.
• Rayvonte Rice
An ideal mid-major recruit who chose the right level and will have the ability to be an impact player in the Missouri Valley at Drake. Rice was the most productive player on the day, playing with a sense of purpose in Centennial's win over Waukegan. He poured in 32 points but did so in a variety of ways, knocking down shots from mid-range and beyond the arc, while also getting to the basket and to the line. He's strong and uses his body well.
• Chasson Randle
The maturation of Randle continues, both mentally and physically. He is playing with more confidence, thinking less and just reacting. That has a lot to do with his experience this offseason, both with the Illinois Wolves and playing with the national age-group team. The 6-2 guard has the ability to both make plays and make players around him better. Simply put, Randle will be the type of player you win games with at the next level. He helped lead Rock Island to a win over Robinson with 28 points, including 3-of-6 from three.
• Tracy Abrams
First, the kid is a gamer who won't use a bum ankle as an excuse for anything. The junior guard is probably at 80 percent at best, yet goes out, competes and shows the toughness the Hoops Report became so enamored with two years ago. In Thanksgiving Tournament play without Abrams, Mt. Carmel looked very suspect. With Abrams in the lineup at 80 percent, the Caravan have dominated Brooks and beaten a talented Peoria Central team. The explosiveness, which is one of his strengths, isn't there right now with the ankle injury. Nonetheless, Abrams showed his improved jumper (knocked down his first three shots from beyond the three-point line) and finished with 17 points (on 7 of 14 shooting) and eight rebounds.
Might Robinson's Meyers Leonard be the best prospect in Illinois? While no one has really brought the subject up, it's not absurd to consider it. At the very least, Leonard is undervalued nationally. Yes, he has snuck into most people's top 50 or 40 nationally, but based on everything you do when projecting players he should be higher. I mean, really, how can there be 30 or 40 better prospects than Leonard? The kid is 7-feet tall, long, athletic, coordinated, runs the floor with ease, skilled with a shooting touch and absolutely bursting with potential. He has to gain weight and strength, just like every other high school player who is still growing in his body, and he's still learning just what he's capable of as a player. But you can't find skilled big men with that type of physical package.
Struggles in Champaign
Whether it was the tough overtime loss the night before in Marion, the travel involved over the two days, or simply Champaign Centennial's stealth performance, Waukegan did not look like the team that was ranked No. 2 in the preseason. Colin Nickerson was not only an all-state caliber guard and weapon on both ends of the floor last year, he was the glue guy and provided a presence off the floor for this team. He's sorely missed. The Bulldogs do have the state's top player, Jereme Richmond, but there is no height beyond Richmond and very little depth. For Waukegan to beat the very best, Richmond will likely need to be very special.
Peoria took it on the chin Saturday going 0-3. Peoria Notre Dame was beaten up by Glenbrook North, Peoria Manual lost to Bowman Academy by 19 and Peoria Central fell to Mt. Carmel in overtime. In addition, several of the top players on those Peoria teams had their struggles. There will be better days for Peoria prep basketball.
Missing out on Siakam
Illinois fans in attendance were certainly interested in getting a look at Brehm Prep's James Siakam, a widely discussed prospect due to varying perceptions. Unfortunately, no one got the chance as Siakam, the undersized but highly athletic and productive 4-man, was lost for the year following an injury Friday night. He sustained bone fractures to his face in Friday night's game in Marion. Siakam is one player in the Class of 2011 college coaches were anxious to evaluate this winter to determine just what he is and how his productivity will translate to the next level.
For more on the Deron Williams Shootout at the Hall, along with holiday tournament previews, subscribe to the City/Suburban Hoops Report, now in its 15th year of publication. Call (630)-408-6709 or email email@example.com for more information.