By Joe Henricksen
There are always twists and turns among the many story lines that develop during March Madness. And as we get deeper along the state tournament trail, the fun and excitement keep rolling. Here are a few quick snapshots from Friday's sectional title games.
Super Sobo and Benet revival
As mentioned in a previous blog this week, there is not a single player in the state of Illinois who carries more responsibility than Benet Academy's David Sobolewski. The junior point guard has made believers out of anyone who watched his performance in two sectional wins. In a midseason Hoops Report issue, Sobolewski was tagged as the best player in the tough East Suburban Catholic Conference; he's more than that. Sobolewski is one of the top junior guards in the state, who is literally the team's only ballhandler for 32 minutes and lone playmaker.
All Sobolewski has done in the last three tournament wins is average just over 31 points a game and dish out a countless number of assists, while both sectional opponents--East Aurora and Glenbard East--threw everything and the kitchen sink at him.
This is not the same Benet team that played in December or January. A lot of credit goes to coach Gene Heidkamp, who has been instrumental in helping this team make tremendous strides over the past couple of months and getting the most out of the collective parts he has. As is the case with successful teams, Benet's players have accepted their roles and bought into what is being preached. They are led by a star but are a physical group that plays darn good halfcourt defense.
Benet basketball has been revived. There aren't a lot of fans out there remaining who were around for the Benet glory days under coach Bill Geist. During an 11-year run beginning in 1976 through the mid-1980s, Benet was as strong as any basketball program in the state. In those 11 years, Benet never won fewer than 20 games in a season, averaging 24 victories a year. Geist's teams won 10 regional titles, five sectional championships and reached the Elite Eight three times, finishing third in 1979. In the 22 years since Geist's departure, Benet has never won a sectional--until this season.
Public League Power
When the eight teams roll into Peoria next weekend for the Class 3A and 4A state semifinals, fans could be looking at three Chicago Public League teams playing in Carver Arena. Whitney Young, Simeon and Marshall will all be favored to win their respective supersectional matchups Tuesday night. And it's no surprise it's the city's Big Three.
While Simeon and Marshall have been dominant Chicago Public League programs for decades, Whitney Young has elevated its status over the last three years under coach Tyrone Slaughter. And when is Simeon coach Robert Smith going to receive his due? Yes, it's been a tough and rough season for Smith and the Wolverines in comparison to past seasons, but look where they are once again: playing basketball during the final week of the season.
While Simeon and Young have grabbed the attention and headlines, Marshall has quietly put together a pretty remarkable season and may be one of the two or three biggest surprises of the year. Remember, this program lost the great Darius Smith from last year's team. Smith was not only one of the premier talents in the state, he was the fearless leader who brought toughness. Still, the Commandos play hard, aggressive, get-after-it basketball, something we have all come to expect from Marshall over the years. The big men, 6-5 senior Vincent Garrett and 6-6 senior Alfonzo McKinnie, have received most of the attention, but the man that makes this thing go is the little package of TNT known as Keifer Sykes, an up-and-coming 5-8 junior guard.
Maine South Magic
There was a reason the Hoops Report had Maine South in its preseason Top 25. This is a special and unique group of players who you throw all the clichés at and actually believe them. You know, the "we believe" and remain "focused" and "play hard and unselfish" and are "poised" and "never get down" and ... you get the point. Despite the tough, season-ending injury to 6-7 Kevin Schlitter, the team's top returning player, back in November, nothing has curtailed the winning ways of the Hawks, who won their first sectional championship since 1999.
They're not done yet
How about Oswego? Yes, the Hoops Report did believe and expect Oswego would win a regional and sectional, forecasting the exact supersectional matchup (Peoria Richwoods vs. Oswego) in the state tournament preview issue that will take place Tuesday night, but the Panthers still slid under the radar. Now they are one win from back-to-back trips to Peoria. And this from a program that had won a total of two regional titles over a span of 50-plus years prior to last season. The Cinderella story of a year ago, when Oswego finished second in state in Class 3A, will have its hands full against the No. 1 ranked Class 3A Richwoods team.
Where are the JT believers?
There has been very little buzz surrounding Joliet all year outside the two campuses of West and Central, but the Steelmen won their first sectional since 2002 and are one win from reaching the State Finals for the first time since 1998. A big reason is the solid coaching job turned in by Joliet's Luke Yaklich. There is certainly talent, including budding freshman guard Morris Dunnigan, but the Steelmen are overachievers from a season standpoint. They may not look pretty all the time, but Joliet is alive and kicking with just enough offense and a consistent halfcourt defense that will mold people down. There were even doubters heading into Joliet's matchup with Homewood-Flossmoor, despite the fact the Steelmen were the No. 1 seed and beat the Vikings twice during the regular season. Heck, the Hoops Report was at one of those JT wins over HF and still picked against Joliet. Good news for Joliet fans: Hoops Report is picking O'Fallon over Joliet in the super! Lol!