By Joe Henricksen
Chicago area high school basketball fans, both in the suburbs and in the city, are a little spoiled. They can get their fill of top prospects, elite teams and different styles of play each and every weekend. There are times, however, when the blinders can be a detriment to their viewing pleasure and impact their discussion on high school hoops when the conversation leaves Cook, Lake, Will or DuPage counties.
That's because there is basketball -- some very good basketball -- outside the Chicago area. While there may not be a dynasty like East St. Louis, Sr. in the 1980s or Peoria Manual in the 1990s, there is still plenty to talk about this year. And the discussion starts with the defending Class 3A state champs. Champaign Centennial may have lost James Kinney, who is now playing at Ohio, but the Chargers have been impressive to open the season.
Centennial went to the Lincoln Thanksgiving Tournament and went 5-0, including a 46-37 win over the talented host school. Drake recruit Rayvonte Rice was spectacular, averaging nearly 28 points a game in the five wins, shooting 55 percent from the field and knocking down 11 three-pointers. Coach Tim Lavin's club rattled off seven wins to start the season, with an average victory margin of -- get this -- 21 points.
With Rice, Eastern Kentucky signee Jeff Johnson, a 6-8 developing big man who can shoot, and up-and-coming 6-7 junior Josh Piper, Centennial could very well be playing for a second straight state championship this March. However, Centennial's biggest challenge could come Saturday in Assembly Hall. The Chargers will square off with Jereme Richmond and Waukegan in the highlight game of the Deron Williams Shootout at the Hall.
Pride back in Peoria
If the Chicago Public League's Red-South is the premier conference in the state, the Mid-State 6 in the Peoria area isn't far behind. If there were RPI conference rankings, we would likely be looking at No. 1 (Red-South) and No. 2 (Mid-State 6).
What a winter it will be with Peoria Notre Dame, Peoria Richwoods, Peoria Central and Peoria Manual all jockeying for the top spot. After a rather disappointing year that finished with upset thuds in March, the Mid-State 6 schools won't get a chance to underachieve -- the schools are too talented this year.
Notre Dame, which will be one of the favorites in the State Farm Classic in Bloomington-Normal over the holidays and could face off against Centennial, returns virtually everyone from a 17-win team, including the perimeter trio of talented Tyler Les, point guard Nick Rochford and slasher Justin Smith. Big Max Bielfeldt, a 6-7 mammoth junior, is coming off a terrific summer of AAU ball. And 6-8 Drew Blumenshine only adds to the expectations after sitting out last season after transferring in from nearby Washington.
Peoria Richwoods can match Notre Dame's experience with a half dozen players that have been around for three years. There isn't a true star, but the Knights will be a threat after reaching the sectional semifinals a year ago and winning 21 games. Coach Mike Ellis' club, which traveled to Chicago last weekend and was impressive in knocking off Hyde Park in the closing seconds, won the Rock Island Thanksgiving Tournament.
"Give them [Richwoods] credit," said Hyde Park coach Donnie Kirksey following his team's loss at Chicago State last weekend. "They are a veteran team and played like a veteran team down the stretch. They made plays, came up with stops."
While most coaches and those around Peoria believe Notre Dame may be the best team, it's a debate between Peoria Manual and Peoria Central who has the most talent. Central likely gets the edge.
The Lions are certainly talented, but the youth on this team didn't prevent them from cruising past both Thornton and Bolingbrook to claim the Decatur Turkey Tournament. Bobo Drummond, the one of the top sophoores in Illinois, gets the pub. But those in attendance in Decatur said fellow sophomore big man Devonte Lawson played huge. Throw in juniors Travis Kellum and Darian White, along with returning senior and unsung and underrated guard Tony Banks, and Central's start to the season shows that coach Dan Ruffin's team is a Class 3A contender. Drummond and Lions square off with Mt. Carmel and Tracy Abrams in Champaign on Saturday.
The team sitting in arguably the best position is Peoria Manual. They are young but after watching Manual early on this season, their talent level is unparalleled for a Class 2A school The Rams will be battle-tested come March when they enter state tournament play in what will likely be the final year Manual will be a Class 2A school.
A year ago the Rams were upset in the sectional by Princeton. The Hoops Report would be shocked if that happened again. Although there is youth in the mix, this team is loaded with talent. Ball State recruit Marvin Jordan, a 5-11 point guard, and 6-2 Lawrence Alexander are a pair of talented veterans in the backcourt. And 6-5 junior Andrew Jordan, who transferred in this season, has turned the corner and raised his level of play. He's one of the top 15 players in the state in the Class of 2011.
But it's the youth of this team that makes the Rams exciting, with junior Andrew Jordan, 6-5 junior Brandon Watson and three rising sophomores -- Jacoby Roddy, Landis Farmer and Jeff "Kiki" Stokes -- all intermingled in the rotation.
The Hoops Report is enamored with Stokes, who is the best of the talented bunch and has plenty of upside as a college prospect. He's a player. Stokes is not talked about much among the glut of fine 2012 guards in Illinois, but he should be. He plays with some flash and style, with the ability to beat people off the dribble, getting in the lane and pulling up with his mid-range game or getting to the basket and finishing. He's very strong with his offhand. While his perimeter shot needs some work -- it's a bit of set shot from his chest -- he demands attention outside the three-point line as he will knock down shots. Stokes is in the process of having a breakout year.
Manual will have Mid-State 6 matchups with Notre Dame and Richwoods prior to traveling to the Pontiac Holiday Tournament in late December, where the Rams hope to get a shot at Chicago area powers Simeon or Waukegan.
A few others to keep an eye on this winter ...
Rock Island: In Class 3A standout guard Chasson Randle, one of the top 100 players in the country in the Class of 2011, and Rock Island could do some damage.
Lincoln: A system team that knows how to win and has a legitimate shot of playing in Peoria in Class 3A behind a pair of deadly shooters in Ben Brackney and Jordan Nelson.
Rockford Boylan: Look for coach Steve Goers' program, which features a ton of experience and an up-and-coming talent in sophomore Austin Angel, to be playing in its 18th supersectional this March.
O'Fallon: Unbeaten and led by hard-nosed junior Roosevelt Jones, who is averaging over 21 points a game, the Panthers are the cream of the crop in the far southern part of the state.
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