By Joe Henricksen
As the City/Suburban Hoops Report makes its annual trek to Peoria, where coaches congregate, fans dissect and eight teams go at it over two days of basketball, if you're a fan of prep basketball you can't help but be excited about this year's Final Four in Class 4A and 3A.
There are the perennial powers. When it comes to both city and state basketball powerhouses, Marshall and Simeon are near the top. The two programs have done it recently and historically, with Marshall's great tradition dating back to the 1950s and Simeon's beginning three decades ago.
There are a pair of defending champs. Yes, both Whitney Young and Champaign Centennial return to Peoria to defend their 4A and 3A titles, respectively. There is nothing like a couple of teams with a big, fat bulls-eye on their back and teams trying to knock off the champ.
There is the superstar. All eyes will be on Waukegan's Jereme Richmond, the Illinois recruit and McDonald's All-American. Richmond is the type of talent we've come to expect in Peoria, following the likes of Derrick Rose, Jon Scheyer, Shaun Livingston and other recent greats.
There is the unheralded superstar. Champaign Centennial's Rayvonte Rice has made a strong push for Mr. Basketball honors. Players outside the Chicago area often don't get enough publicity, but Rice rivals any player in this field when it comes to production and what he does for his team.
There are the up-and-coming superstars. A pair of freshmen, Tommy Hamilton of Whitney Young and Jabari Parker of Simeon, are regarded as two of the top young players in the nation in the Class of 2013. For many fans this will be their first glimpse of the talented pair.
There is the local flavor. The tournament will feature the hometown team in Peoria Richwoods, the No. 1 ranked team in Class 3A.
There is the unknown. Fans are anxious to see just how good southern Illinois representative O'Fallon is.
And there are the rematches, both inevitable and possible ones that make this weekend even more intriguing. Waukegan will play Whitney Young in a highly-anticipated 4A semifinal Friday night. Whitney Young beat Waukegan in last year's title game. Many believe Peoria Richwoods and Champaign Centennial will meet in the 3A title game, which would be a rematch of a regular-season tilt that went Richwoods' way earlier this year. And it was just three years ago that Simeon beat up on O'Fallon in the 2007 state championship game. Those two will tangle in a 4A semifinal Friday night. And if Simeon were to meet Whitney Young? The two met Dec. 19, with Whitney Young winning 62-55.
The City/Suburban Hoops Report takes a snapshot of the eight state qualifiers, the storylines to follow with each team and what could prove to be the difference-making effect for each team in Peoria.
• Peoria Richwoods
Storyline: Yes, the Knights are the hometown team, which is obviously a big story. However, this strong, often underrated program, is seeking its first state championship. The other two Peoria powerhouses, Manual and Central, have nine state titles between them. It's time Richwoods gets a title of its own and adds to the growing tradition of the program.
The difference-maker: Experience, depth and defense. This is a senior-dominated team, with some youngsters helping off the bench, that have bought into defense and team basketball. Richwoods, which hasn't allowed a team to score more than 55 in any state tournament win, is the only 3A qualifier who hasn't given up at least 60 points in any March game.
• Chicago Marshall
Storyline: There isn't a big-named star for the Commandos, just a bunch of hungry, hard playing, get-after-it, don't-worry-about-the-stats type of team that comes to play. Marshall has been one of the true surprises this season. Junior Keifer Sykes may be small in stature, but he sets the tone and is a Hoops Report sleeper in the Class of 2011.
The difference-maker: Relentlessness. There isn't a star but the Commandos bring it, putting pressure on opponents on both ends of the floor. The more hectic and chaotic things get, which Marshall creates with its quickness, the better off it will be.
Storyline: Every year there is a fear that one or two teams in Peoria are just happy to be there. Then those teams are smacked right in the gut on Friday with the "anything beyond this is gravy" attitude. Of all the teams in the 3A field, Hillcrest fits that mold. The Hawks already are going to bring home the first state trophy in this tradition-rich program's history no matter what happens in Peoria. Even with the trophy guarantee, don't count on a coach Don Houston team coming in satisfied.
The difference-maker: The Hawks throw a defense that most teams are not familiar with. Hillcrest's halfcourt traps and the 1-3-1 look it throws on opponents requires a team to make adjustments and get out of its comfort zone. The Hawks have the length and quickness to give a team fits.
• Champaign Centennial
Storyline: When the bulk of your players experienced a state title just 12 months ago, anything short of winning it again just won't do. Many believe this Centennial team is better than a year ago. The only way to even begin that discussion is for this group to win two more games. Then the debate can begin.
The difference-maker: Rayvonte Rice. This kid finds ways to win -- and win big games. Rewind 12 months and just ask North Lawndale and Oswego all about Rice, who put up 22 and 10 in the semifinal win and added 21 points and provided the game-winning plays down the stretch in the state title game.
• Chicago Simeon
Storyline: This team was in borderline turmoil and on life support late in the year. Now they are flying high, crushing Lyons, beating talented Mount Carmel and stunning Benet Academy in a double overtime supersectional win. Give credit to Simeon coach Robert Smith for keeping the Wolverines afloat and senior Brandon Spearman, who stepped up from an inconsistent regular season to becoming a go-to player the Wolverines could count on in postseason play. Smith doesn't have to prove anything to anyone with the success he's had, but a state title this year -- after a tough regular season and without Derrick Rose -- would be the capper.
The difference-maker: The Simeon way. Don't discount it. This program is built differently and beats to a different drummer. They appeared disjointed all year long, with a mix of players that didn't truly gel until just before the clock struck 12. There was some serious and quick rehabilitation and Simeon is capable of playing for it all Saturday night.
Storyline: This program is searching for statewide respect. And it's hard to get when you play in the southern part of the state. But this program won 28 games and finished second in the state in 2007, went 29-4 and won regional and sectional titles in 2008 and return to Peoria this year with a sparkling school record 30 wins. Imagine the eyes O'Fallon would open if it were to knock off Simeon and then either Jereme Richmond and Waukegan or defending champ Whitney Young in the title game?
The difference-maker: The unknown Roosevelt Jones could win fans over with his pure relentlessness and hard-nosed play. Don't try figuring out what he is -- he's a player. He's not flashy, but the 6-3 junior averages over 19 points and 12 rebounds a game, along with 3.3 steals, 1.5 blocks and 4.3 assists.
• Whitney Young
Storyline: Ironically, it's the same stinking storyline as a year ago. Whitney Young plays rugged schedule. Whitney Young piles up more losses than other top teams. Whitney Young is doubted heading into March. Whitney Young reaches Peoria. Will the storyline have the same tune come Saturday night with a second straight state championship?
The difference-maker: There has been a ton of talk about anyone and everyone in the city and suburbs this year, but the forgotten man has been senior point guard Ahmad Starks. Oh, he's highly regarded and has been for some time, but the Oregon State recruit has been a man in state tournament play. And a red-hot guard can carry you a long way in March. If Young had any chance of repeating, it would have to be because the guard play stepped up and shined. Starks has done just that.
Storyline: This one is pretty simple, really. The Bulldogs and star Jereme Richmond are in Peoria to complete some unfinished business. They head into Peoria as the team to beat, having knocked off Whitney Young a few weeks ago in convincing fashion and playing at a pretty high level.
The difference-maker: The speed, quickness and pressure Waukegan can put on a team can be back-breaking, but the reason it's so effective is Jereme Richmond. At the high school level, Richmond is a difference-making defensive player in terms of blocking and altering shots and getting on the defensive boards. Plus, he's a versatile threat on the offensive end that makes those around him better and more dangerous.
And the picks ...
A year ago the Hoops Report flamed out, picking four of the eight 3A and 4A state qualifiers when the state tournament tipped off. This year, however, the Hoops Report has fared much better, with seven of the eight teams reaching Peoria that were picked in the Hoops Report state tournament preview issue. The lone miss? Simeon.
In that state tournament preview issue a little over two weeks ago, the Hoops Report went with Champaign Centennial and Waukegan as the 3A and 4A state champs, respectively. And while there is a much stronger feeling towards both Peoria Richwoods and Whitney Young today, for consistency sake and staying with the original picks, the Hoops Report will stick with Waukegan.
Class 4A Semifinals
Simeon over O'Fallon
Waukegan over Whitney Young
Class 3A Semifinals
Peoria Richwoods over Marshall
Champaign Centennial over Hillcrest