By Joe Henricksen
While the Chicago Public League playoffs may not have the significance they once did, there is no doubt city teams turn it up a notch and the intensity is raised this week when opening round games tip off. An automatic state berth may not come with the title, but there is still a strong sense of pride and bragging rights at stake.
Want an underrated sporting event? Try a second-round heated city playoff game that is still played in the high school gym -- before the bigger stage of college arenas in later rounds. These second-rounders are scratch-and-claw battles full of ferocity and emotion. There are individual players up against longtime friends and certain programs looking to make noise by cluttering up the hierarchy of city hoops.
Here is a quick rundown of what's to come in the Chicago Public League playoffs.
THE FAVORITE: This is Simeon's tournament to lose. The Wolverines, unbeaten and ranked among the top teams in the nation, certainly have a bulls-eye on their back. And they know it. Nonetheless, coach Robert Smith's team has answered the bell every night out and has an unmatched combination of depth, talent and chemistry.
TOP CHALLENGER: Take your pick among the defending city champs, Morgan Park, or a host of West Side powers in Crane, Whitney Young and Farragut.
Morgan Park has a player in Wayne Blackshear that has the capability of carrying his team. Crane and Kieran Woods have arguably been the city's biggest surprise. If the Cougars can stay away from Farragut -- the only team that has beaten them this year -- they just might be OK. Whitney Young has certainly had its troubles, but the Dolphins are capable of stringing together a run at any time with the talent coach Tyrone Slaughter has, which includes the return of point guard Derrick Randolph last week.
And then there is Curie, which sports a 23-1 record and won its ninth straight Red-Central title.
BEST FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS: A pair of Red-South vs. Red-West battles highlight the first round of action, with Brooks (Red-South) facing North Lawndale (Red-West) and Marshall (Red-West) squaring off with Vocational (Red-South).
EARLY MARQUEE MATCHUP: While Simeon will name its score in an opening round game with Wells, there will be no bigger or tougher second-round matchup in the city than the Simeon-Morgan Park rematch. Wayne Blackshear and Company fell short in the regular-season matchup. Now the Mustangs, the defending city champs, get another crack at No. 1 early in tournament play. With either Foreman or Mather waiting in the quarterfinals, the Simeon-Morgan Park winner should get to the city's Final Four where it will likely face Crane or Whitney Young.
SLEEPER: Brooks has held its own without its top player, George Marshall, who has been out since Christmas with a broken bone in his hand. The Wisconsin-bound Marshall gets the pins taken out of his hand this Friday and should be ready to go if Brooks can survive a little longer without its star guard. Marshall would team up with Mike Powell to form one of the top backcourts in the state. In addition, big men Keith and Kevin Gray have stepped up and are playing their best basketball of the season to give coach Bobby Locke an added dimension.
BEST TEAM NO ONE TALKS ABOUT: Bogan has played a top-flight schedule (West Aurora, Rock Island, Centralia, Peoria Central, Simeon, Morgan Park, Carver, Brooks and power McCluer North out of Missouri) and held its own. The Bengals play hard and may be young enough (nucleus is juniors and sophomores) that they don't know any better than to go out and win a few games in the city tournament a little ahead of schedule.
TOUGHEST BRACKET: When one bracket features second-round games like Farragut-Carver and Brooks-Bogan, all of which are ranked in the Top 25, you know it's stacked. Plus, scrappy North Lawndale is in the mix as well in a first-round matchup with Brooks. Farragut and Brooks are the big names in the bracket, but there aren't many teams that have played better than Bogan over the past month. And Carver features dangerous DeShawn Delaney.
MOST TO PROVE: Take a look at the bracket that includes Orr and Curie and you have your answer. There is no question the regular season has not been what Orr anticipated. However, the city tournament can breath some fresh air into a program, especially for an Orr team that has dealt with recent controversy. With the IHSA suspending the Spartans from state tournament play for failing to attend an annual principal rules meeting/town meeting. With a difference-maker like Mycheal Henry and a favorable bracket, Orr hopes it can finally put together a run. Curie, meanwhile, has a glitzy 23-1 record. However, the doubters remain as the Condors, who lost to Danville at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, have not played a single team ranked in the Chicago area's Top 25. But if coach Mike Oliver can guide his team through a manageable bracket -- Orr, Hyde Park and Marshall pose the biggest threat -- then Curie could find itself in the city semis and one big effort from a berth in the city title game.
BEST PLAYER: This is an opportunity for Morgan Park's Wayne Blackshear, who was recently named to the McDonald's All-America team, to add another chapter to his growing legacy in Chicago Public League hoops. The 6-5 Louisville-bound Blackshear could add a second city championship to his résumé. A huge city tournament, which would include an upset over mighty Simeon, could very well separate him from the rest of the pack in the Mr. Basketball conversation.
HOOPS REPORT'S FINAL FOUR PICKS: Simeon over Whitney Young; Farragut over Curie
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