By Joe Henricksen
The final full weekend of the regular season was quite a tune-up for many of the Chicago area's top teams, which included impressive showings from some of the state's elite players and statement wins from a few of the ranked teams still searching for some respect.
The City/Suburban Hoops Report takes a quick look back at the weekend that was. This is about four blogs in one, so enjoy ...
Morgan Park? City champs? Say it ain't so!
Following Morgan Park's win over surprising Marshall Friday night, which capped off a run that gave the Mustangs their first city championship since 2001, coach Nick Irvin was certainly feeling good. As he told the Sun-Times: "We shocked the world ... There are a lot of haters ... and there are a lot of people that didn't want us to win."
The best and only way I can describe the reaction of many Public League coaches and fans around the city when they heard the news Morgan Park won the city title was to steal a line from talented writer Bill Simmons of ESPN.com in his column following Tiger Woods' Friday speech: "By this point, I was making the same face that an airplane passenger makes in the first few seconds after an unclaimed fart."
After a controversial start to his young high school coaching career, including the transfer of star Wayne Blackshear from Curie to Morgan Park last season, Nick Irvin and Morgan Park's success has fueled the fire -- and left the aforementioned expression on many faces. But today no one can take away the fact, no matter how they feel, that Irvin and Morgan Park are city champs. While many opposing coaches probably won't tip their cap, Irvin and everyone at Morgan Park have an expression of their own on their face: a big TAKE THAT! look on their smiling faces. Throw in the fact they are surging with momentum, boast a bonafide superstar at the high school level and have young, up-and-coming players in the program, and Morgan Park will be a player this March and in the near future.
Here comes Waukegan
A friend of mine said it best following Waukegan's Saturday win over Whitney Young in the marquee matchup of the 15th annual City-Suburban Showdown: "They [Waukegan] are like a bunch of attacking pitbulls."
Well, that's exactly what coach Ron Ashlaw has instilled in this team the last two years. Ashlaw gets these players in attack mode. He uses his team's greatest strength -- speed and quickness -- so well with relentless trapping pressure. The Bulldogs play so darn hard, which is a credit to Ashlaw and his staff.
Yes, replacing last year's star Colin Nickerson has been nearly impossible with all that he brought, from performance to intangibles, but the Bulldogs appear ready to make that run in March. Quan Connor leaves it all on the floor and has become a pretty solid running mate to Richmond. And two younger players, junior guard Aaron Johnson and athletic sophomore Akeem Springs, are becoming bigger and more consistent weapons.
After watching Waukegan Saturday night, the lopsided loss to Champaign Centennial back in December is a distant memory. You have to believe the rugged game the night before and the late-night hours and long bus travel leading up to the Centennial game played a bigger role than we thought. Waukegan is the best team in Illinois right now.
If someone had woken up from a three-year coma Saturday and watched Jereme Richmond in Waukegan's win over Whitney Young, they would not have believed any of the fuss over his sometimes lack of effort or untimely transgressions over the last three seasons. J Rich went out and played. No fuss. No finger-pointing or jawing. Just a dominating figure, showing skill, versatility and unselfishness. Fresh out of a coma, you would have thought nothing less of the player who you heard so many great things about just prior to slipping into your three-year state of unconsiousness.
In the most recent issue of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, this topic was asked: What player means the most to their state-ranked team? Answer: Richmond. Why? No team has as talented or a more enigmatic star than Waukegan. While it has been like walking on egg shells at times with the mercurial star player, the reward is having the best and most complete player on the floor each night -- and on both ends of the floor -- when he's at the top of his game. He dominated with his impact on the game against Whitney Young, from his defensive rebounding and shot blocking to his versatile offensive game.
Whether anyone wants to admit it, Richmond, slowly and surely, has taken steps in the right direction in terms of his maturity. And he's always been unselfish in terms of not trying to do too much. He showed that again on a big stage in front of many college coaches, fans, media members and a TV audience Saturday night at UIC.
Mike Shaw ... The player and prospect
The biggest cause for concern when it comes to ballyhooed young basketball players is accepting who they are as players. When a player comes into high school and the hype surrounding him is insurmountable, there are only two ways to go: stay right at that level or take a dip. With the hype some kids have early on, it's rarely ever possible to surpass it. Such is the case with De La Salle's Mike Shaw.
Mike Shaw does not have to be the Next Big Thing. He doesn't have to be a top 10 national player or a future McDonald's All-American. There isn't a player in the talented Class of 2011 who has been critiqued more than the 6-8 Shaw, mostly due to the early and lofty expectations. But there is nothing wrong with who he is as a player, especially after watching him grow into the player that he is over the past month. In Saturday's win over Simeon he showed what he is, which is a high-major player who was up at the rim an awful lot, extremely active and a skilled passing big man who will be a solid face-up 4-man at the college level. Shaw's performance was the best the Hoops Report has seen from him in a long time.
It's almost become blasphemy for fans to accept a player being "just" a solid high-major prospect when they've been sold by others way too early that the player is so much more. But what in the world is wrong with being a solid high-major prospect, which means you are one of the better high school basketball players out there?
I feel for the kid (and others like him) who have so little to gain after being judged, fairly or unfairly, so early in their career. Talk with Shaw or anyone who is around him, from his high school coaches to his AAU coaches to the college coaches who are recruiting him, and you'll see and hear he is a terrific kid who works hard. I'm happy for Mike Shaw in becoming the player that he is.
De La Salle ready for March
With De La Salle's impressive play of late, which included a three-game sweep over talented Mount Carmel, a road victory at Leo and a win over Simeon in the last week, there is no sectional in the state tougher at the top than at Proviso East. Whitney Young, Foreman and De La Salle, all top 10 teams, are the top three seeds battling it out for a supersectional berth.
De La Salle, though, is playing as well as anyone. Mike Shaw can be a huge factor around the basket at the high school level, while senior D.J. Bland is the wildcard. He provides toughness, leadership, athleticism, scoring and defense.
I'm thinking (hearing?) the recruiting of a particular high-profile prospect is about to get a little wild and crazy. And the recruitment of another high-profile prospect could be ending sooner than later.
It's official: Benet is back
Raise your hands out there if you were a true believer Benet Academy would go into Westchester and come out of its showdown with St. Joseph with a win? The Hoops Report didn't.
"It's so sweet just because we knew nobody gave us that big of a chance besides the guys in our own locker-room," Benet star junior David Sobolewski told the Daily Herald.
Typically, this quote is simply a cliché, a Me-Against-The-World mantra that inspires a team -- at least for a night. But in this case? Sobo was dead-on. St. Joseph losing a conference title in its own gym in its last season playing in the East Suburban Catholic Conference? And to a junior-dominated team in Benet? But that's exactly what coach Gene Heidkamp's club did Saturday night.
And with a win this week over Niles Notre Dame, hardly a pushover, Benet can claim its first East Suburban Catholic Conference title since 1995. What the win also does is show the Neuqua Valley Sectional is not just a two-team race between the host school and No. 1 seed Glenbard East. Benet Academy, the No. 3 seed, may have a little something to say. And what the win also does is show Benet will be one of the top teams next season, with the return of Sobolewski, 6-10 Frank Kaminsky and shooter Matt Parisi. The three juniors scored all 50 of Benet's points in the 50-39 win over Benet.
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