By Joe Henricksen

December 2011 Archives

Just can't top the Pontiac experience

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By Joe Henricksen

Simeon is one of the elite high school programs in the country with arguably the biggest individual prep star in junior Jabari Parker. Coach Rob Smith has been bombarded by organizers with requests to travel here and there to play in national tournaments and events around the country. He takes them up on their offers -- as long as the dates don't fall between Christmas and New Year's.

There isn't another holiday tournament in Illinois that would have been able to keep Simeon in the fold. There isn't another holiday tournament in Illinois that Smith and his program would stay this loyal to -- or feel the need to. That says a lot about Smith and Simeon, but it says even more about the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.

The 81st Pontiac Holiday Tournament concluded with another Simeon title, its 10th title in the last 16 years. But unlike Duke, the Yankees or the Soviet Union hockey team from decades ago -- dominant programs and franchises people tend to despise, cheer against and get tired of watching win-- the people of Pontiac seem to grow closer to Simeon every year.

"The people of Pontiac have kind of adopted Simeon over the years," says tournament director Jim Drengwitz.

Well, when the host school is a little like Chaminade in the Maui Invite -- the friendly host who is always paired up with a basketball giant in a hopeless situation in the opening round -- why not adopt the best darn program in the state?

The people of Pontiac, from the fans to the tournament organizers, appreciate what Simeon brings to the table. Simeon brings instant credibility. Simeon puts seats in the 2,500-plus seat gym. Simeon brings enjoyable individual talent. And Simeon creates memorable moments for the area to look back on and talk about for years to come. Plus, Simeon has won with class over the years.

While the dynamic relationship between Simeon and Pontiac is unique, it's far from being the only way to describe this special tournament. The Hoops Report and plenty of others have written plenty of the Pontiac experience, hailing it as the best there is in Illinois during holiday tournament time.

It's almost eerie how, no matter what year it is, so many games in this tournament are tightly contested, well played and at a higher-than-expected level. It's as if that old gym floor brings out the best in the worst and the absolute very best out of the elite.

The geographical representation over the years has brought city, suburbs and different areas of Illinois together. As a result, the tournament offers up different styles of play and intriguing matchups. Pontiac has had some heavyweight teams from the likes of Simeon, West Aurora, Warren, Peoria Manual, Joliet, Waukegan and legendary teams like Quincy in the late 1970s and early 1980s and Providence St. Mel in the mid-1980s.

There is always quality team depth and top individual talent. Just recently Pontiac has showcased Mr. Basketball winners Derrick Rose, Brandon Paul and Jereme Richmond, along with a likely future winner, Jabari Parker.

The unique format, which includes winner's bracket games mixed in with consolation bracket games and the semis and final on the same day, keeps people coming and going and talking about what is transpiring. There is a buzz throughout that final day after watching the semis and waiting for the top two teams to return later that night.

The gym is cozy and the fans are right on top of the floor, smashed in like it looked in the old Boston Garden photos. There is very little space between the baseline and the back walls. And there is even less space between the team benches and fans in the bleachers. Those fans who are lucky enough to have scored tickets behind those benches are often entertained by being smack dab in the middle of a huddle during a timeout.

There is an old school feel in that central Illinois gym. There is the monstrous tournament bracket up on the wall at one end of the gym for every fan to see, updated throughout the three days. There aren't gimmicks between timeouts and games. There isn't a P.A. man constantly blabbing in the mic. At Pontiac, there is no need to.

Then there are the people. Man, these people are friendly. I admit I don't travel to Pontiac at any other time during the year, but you almost want to make the trip in February or June or October just to see what it's like. Are these people really this friendly all year long? They treat the visiting teams, the media, the officials, the college coaches who are recruiting, and the fans so well. And it's genuine, in that make-you-feel-at-home way.

These people and the Pontiac community LOVE this event. To say the fans at Pontiac are diehard is an understatement. Every game of the tournament is broadcast live locally on the radio. The local residents -- moms, dads, kids, business leaders -- volunteer, provide sponsorships and rally together to make it one special event.

And the little kids who are involved in helping with the tournament as a ball boy, towel boy or working under the basket as sweepers -- or who simply come to watch with dad -- look as if it's just a continuation of Christmas morning during those three days of tournament action. The kids line up for autographs of the players or the big-time head college coaches who roll in to evaluate. They get their keepsake tournament programs out between games and fill in their brackets.

"Oooh, I can't wait for the Simeon-Manual game," one little fella said to the other on the baseline following the Warren-Curie game. "I think Kendall Pollard is going to be the difference."

Huh? How does a 9-year-old central Illinois kid from Pontiac know Simeon's fifth starter?

The Pontiac Holiday Tournament seems as if it becomes a sort of celebration for a community starving for just a little bit of excitement.

The fans are respectful, which is an accomplishment in itself and an achievement other sporting events can't even fathom. At Pontiac, there is just basketball and just those who watch it. These fans appreciate it, as shown late in the third quarter of a fantastic Simeon-Peoria Manual semifinal matchup. After several minutes of relentless play and action, high intensity, big-time plays and great hustle, there was a stop in the action and the majority of fans rose to their feet and applauded. It was like one of those appreciative cheers you see after a fantastic point on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

There have been few changes to the Pontiac experience over the years. The "If it ain't broke no need to fix it" theory works just fine. For a tournament that is over 80 years old to still be following close to the same standards is amazing. And that's why people turn out every year, whether it's the locals who cherish the fact Pontiac is a destination spot in late December, or those that make the trek down I-55 from the Chicago area or other parts of the state to watch some great basketball and enjoy hospitality second to none.

Fans were able to enjoy one heck of a final day at Pontiac this year. There were a couple of overtime games in the consolation bracket. There was the No. 1 team in the state -- and the country. There was the Warren-Curie double overtime classic in one semifinal, with a thrilling one-point Simeon win over Peoria Manual in the other semifinal. There was one of those eye-opening performances from the star, Simeon's Jabari Parker. There were people hanging from the rafters in a jam-packed gym. There was a buzz.

As one veteran basketball observer said to me with a smile but in all seriousness, "Think we'll see this in March?"

When writing or talking about Pontiac, it's almost becoming a broken record. So why the need to write about it again? Because the final day at Pontiac this year reminded all of those who have been coming for years why this tournament should never be taken for granted.

With all that is wrong with the high school basketball game -- the focus on individual players, selfishness, constant hyping of players on the internet and social media, yucky and poorly played AAU basketball, four-class basketball, transfers -- there is still something very right. Pontiac.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Holiday tournament crystal ball

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By Joe Henricksen

Though it wishes it could be, the Hoops Report can't be everywhere over the next five days of holiday tournament action. There is so much potential for tantalizing matchups, so the Hoops Report broke it down. Here is a look at what fans might be able to enjoy over the next five days if the Hoops Report's crystal ball is correct (championship game picks at the bottom).

Monday, Dec. 26
• 5:30 p.m. at Rich South
Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis is a sophomore to get out of the house for, watch play and enjoy. Bolingbrook has a young, up-and-comer in freshman Prentiss Nixon and a red-hot junior prospect in 6-7 Ben Moore. On a slow day of tournament action around Illinois, this is an interesting matchup.

Tuesday, Dec. 27
• 12:15 p.m. at Wheeling
At first glance, a first-round matchup between Loyola Academy and Prospect appears to be a couple of middle-of-the-road teams with a combined record of 9-8. The reality is a young Loyola team is back to full strength (after missing key parts due to the football team's extended playoff run) and Prospect features high-scoring guard Mike LaTulip, who will be a preferred walk-on at Illinois next season.

• 3:45 p.m. at Proviso West
The first round of holiday tournaments don't typically offer a matchup like this: Hillcrest (7-2) vs. Morton (6-1). The winner will get a shot at Rockford Auburn the following day.

• 5:00 p.m. at Romeoville
The first year of the Romeoville Christmas Classic will have its two best teams in the 16-team field, Crane and Ridgewood, meeting in the second round. It wouldn't be a stretch to say these two teams could very well meet again in late March in the Hoffman Estates Class 3A supersectional. Crane's Willie Conner is one of the top unsigned prospects in the state.

• 6:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. at State Farm Classic in Normal
As far as back-to-back, first-round matchups go, there is a nice double-dip on the campus of Illinois Wesleyan Tuesday night. Normal U-High, led by 6-7 sophomore Keita Bates-Diop, takes on Oswego at 6 p.m., while Normal and Thornwood, two teams with a combined 13 wins this season and boasting Division I guards, meet at 7:30 p.m. There is a local flavor with the two Normal schools and talent on display with U-High's Bates-Diop, Thornwood's Darrell Combs (Loyola recruit), Normal's Anthony Beane (Illinois State recruit) and Oswego's Elliot McGaughey.

Wednesday, Dec. 28
• 1:00 p.m. at Pontiac
Waukegan is better than its 3-5 record and Joliet West is a threat to make a run at Pontiac with the duo of 6-9 Marlon Johnson and 6-3 junior Morris Dunnigan. The loser of this first-round matchup becomes the favorite in the consolation bracket over the next two days. The winner will get a crack at No. 2 seed Warren in the second round.

• 5:15 p.m. at Proviso West
There may not be a better quarterfinal matchup in any tournament than Homewood-Flossmoor and New Trier in the second round. New Trier, which has only lost to Warren, hasn't been talked about enough. The Trevians have a legit high school big man in Connor Boehm, along with a surplus of talented guards. That's a terrific combination at the high school level.

• 7:15 p.m. at York
A quarterfinal matchup between No. 6 seed Riverside-Brookfield and No. 3 seed St. Ignatius should be a good one. Ignatius, with just one loss, has been one of the bigger surprises in the early going, while R-B is better than people realize with a talented trio in senior Luke Nortier, junior guard Damonta Henry and 6-7 junior Miki Ljuboja.

• 8:30 p.m. at Proviso West
The potential Proviso East-St. Joseph matchup brings out the local flavor in the near west suburbs. Plus, there will be a lot of talent on the floor, both young and old with the likes of St. Joe's Paul Turner and A.J. Patty and Proviso East's Keith Carter and Sterling Brown, as these two neighbors hook up in a second-round game.

Thursday, Dec. 29
• 6:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. at Proviso West
The semifinal night at Proviso West is typically a showcase of four of the top teams in the Chicago area. This year, however, Rockford Auburn makes an appearance and hopes to open some eyes with a run at Proviso West. The Hoops Report is calling for a Morgan Park-New Trier semifinal (Yes, New Trier pulls off mild upset of H-F in the quarterfinals) at 6:30 p.m. The nightcap at 8 p.m. could be a dandy as Rockford Auburn's calm, smooth and talented point guard, Fred Van Vleet, takes on all the speed and pressure the Proviso East guards will throw at them.

• 6:30 p.m. at Pekin
If the top two seeds can manage their way to the title game at Pekin, both Springfield Lanphier and Plainfield East will be unbeaten. Lanphier features one of the top young players in the state in sophomore Larry Austin and unheralded senior Everette Clemons, while a veteran Plainfield East team is led by underrated senior guard Dee Brown. Plainfield East would make one heck of a statement if it heads back home with its perfect record still intact.

• 7:15 p.m. at Wheeling
The first semifinal at the Hardwood Classic could be a good one if Stevenson and Notre Dame tangle. There are some young players in both programs providing some pop to their respective seasons. And no young player in the tournament is better than Hoops Report favorite Jalen Brunson, Stevenson's 5-11 freshman guard.

• 7:30 p.m. at Pontiac
Oak Park, which has received a monster effort from 6-6 Gabe Levin this season, hopes to have Bradley-bound guard Ka'Darryl Bell back from an injury. If Bell is back in the fold, a matchup with Peoria Manual in the quarterfinals at Pontiac becomes a lot more enticing.

Friday, Dec. 30
• 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m. at Pontiac
If you can, squeeze in the two semifinal games at Pontiac that tip at 1:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., where you could catch a double-dip featuring a Curie-Warren showdown and Simeon taking on Peoria Manual. Big Cliff Alexander, Curie's 6-8 super sophomore, will go up against Warren's 6-9 Nathan Boothe and 6-8 Darius Paul. The Simeon-Manual battle could very well be one featuring a pair of state champions at the end of the season -- Simeon in 4A and Manual in 3A.

• 6:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. at Proviso West
You won't find many better third-place games in any tournament than what you will find at Proviso West. The Hoops Report's pick to be playing in the third-place game at Proviso: Rockford Auburn vs. Morgan Park. Then follow it up with a nightcap, where the title game could feature the state's No. 2 team, Proviso East, taking on either New Trier or Homewood-Flossmoor.

• 7:00 p.m. at Rich South
The McDipper Tournament can only hope the top two teams do indeed meet to create a matchup featuring two unbeaten teams ranked among the top five in the Chicago area. Bloom and Seton Academy would fill the gym and bring a lot of interest to the McDipper if the two do end up colliding in the title game.

• 7:15 p.m. at York
A highly-anticipated matchup between Downers Grove South and De La Salle, two teams with big expectations and high profiles, is what everyone is hoping for and expecting at the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament final at York.

• 8:45 p.m. at Wheeling
How about a pair of area East Suburban Catholic Conference teams meeting for the title? Although Notre Dame and St. Viator will meet in the final week of the regular season in what will likely decide the ESCC title, the Hoops Report expects these two to collide on the final night at Wheeling in what should be a terrific matchup.

• 9:00 p.m. at Pontiac
If the top two seeds, Simeon and Warren, get through a pretty tough field of teams, it will be a rematch of not only last year's Pontiac championship game but also the Class 4A state title game last March.

Hoops Report's holiday tournament picks
Proviso West Holiday Tournament: Proviso East over New Trier
Pontiac Holiday Tournament: Simeon over Warren
McDipper at Rich South: Seton Academy over Bloom
Pekin Holiday Tournament: Springfield Lanphier over Morton
Jack Tosh Classic at York: De La Salle over Downers Grove South
Wheeling Hardwood Classic: St. Viator over Niles Notre Dame
Normal State Farm Classic: Rockton-Hononegah over North Chicago
Hinsdale South Holiday Tournament: Metea Valley over Schaumburg
Glenbard West Holiday Tournament: St. Charles East over Glenbard West
Romeoville Christmas Classic: Crane over Glenbard South

Lil' Ulis is big time

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By Joe Henricksen

There is so much analysis, evaluation, questioning and projecting of basketball prospects today in Illinois it borders insane. It's the nature of the beast with this internet/twitter thing in a state that loves its hoops and produces its fair share of high level prep talent.

Through it all, though, everyone gets caught up in the prospect buzz words like "potential," "high ceiling," and "upside." Yes, it's important. Vitally important, in fact, when projecting players to the college level. However, thinking and hoping a player will add this, add that along the way in trying to reach his potential has become all too common.

There is something to be said about the prospect who brings a little of that upside but, more importantly, possesses an unquestioned skill level, knows how to play, understands the game and is just simply a pure, fluid basketball player.

My fellow basketball friends, I give you Tyler Ulis.

The Marian Catholic sophomore point guard is special, a breath of fresh air in this world of "he's big, athletic, long, runs the floor and is loaded with promise" prospects. The Hoops Report's late summer Class of 2014 player rankings had Ulis as the No. 8 prospect among all sophomores. He's now sneaked into the Hoops Report's top five prospects in the class. And he was among the top 20 prospects in the state regardless of class, a list the Hoops Report put out last month. There were and continued to be skeptics, naysayers and some who blasted the thought of Ulis that high on those lists.

And the Hoops Report understands. Really, it does. For some, it can be difficult to rationalize a player that young who is just 5-8 on a list with other players prominently mentioned as high-major prospects. Come on, five-foot-seven?

It's not difficult for me. I'm sold. 100 percent.

Ulis is a high-major prospect, which is why he was among the Hoops Report's top 10 players in the class after watching him play as a wise-beyond-his-years freshman and after putting together a solid, consistent summer. As a freshman he poured in 37 points in a win over St. Viator, scored 20-plus points five times and averaged nearly 14 points a game. And he's taken his game to another level as a sophomore.

There will surely be college coaches scared off by his diminutive size. The high-major head coach will look at Ulis, see his size, then cringe and say, "Is this really the guy that's going to run my team?" Then they will watch him play and say, "Hell, yeah." They will immediately realize what Ulis lacks in size he makes up for in so many other areas.

The Hoops Report, in fact, generally does not like little guards when projecting to college. There just aren't a whole lot of small guards in that 5-7 to 5-10 range who succeed at the high-major level. But the special ones do and Ulis is in that category. Ulis can not only survive at the high-major level, but he will find a way to impact games at that level once someone gives him the ball and chance to do so.

There are other small guards from Illinois that come to mind.

You think former Hillcrest mighty-mite Maurice Acker, a 5-7 waterbug and Hoops Report favorite back in the day who ended up at Marquette. While Ulis has similar playmaking ability, he's a better scorer than Acker and has a little more gitty-up.

There is Decatur Eisenhower's Lewis Jackson, who has had a solid career as a 5-9 point guard for Purdue. Ulis isn't as strong, physical or as athletic as Jackson, but he's clearly more of the prototypical point guard than Jackson was coming out of high school.

Then there is Jerome Randle, the Hales Franciscan star who at his listed 5-10 (probably closer to 5-9) surprised everyone with just how dominating of a player he was at Cal. Randle was all-Pac 10 twice and the conference's player of the year as a senior. Ulis won't be as dominant of a scoring lead guard as Randle, but he's probably a purer point guard.

There will be high-major offers at some point. He's too good, too pure of a point guard for this pint-sized talent to be ignored for too long. The Hoops Report's guess is they will come before the end of his sophomore season, maybe even after he carves up opponents at the McDipper next week with more eyes on him.

Given his size, Ulis knows exactly how to excel on the floor, rarely getting too deep in the lane. Instead of over-penetrating, Ulis uses his smarts. He pulls up with his nifty, stop-on-a-dime pull-up jumper or floater. Or he simply distributes the ball at the perfect time and in the ideal place. With his handle, quickness and smarts, he's difficult to trap and gets where he needs to get.

If you need someone to run the show, Ulis is your guy. He's a quarterback. He's always in control, reads a defense and is a different-level decision-maker, again making you question how he can be this young. He puts players in position to succeed, both in his running of a team and being arguably the best, most precise passer of any point guard in Illinois this side of Rockford Auburn's Fred Van Vleet.

If you need someone to handle constant pressure, get where he wants on the floor and provide dribble penetration, Ulis is your guy. He's instinctive and the ball in his hands just looks natural, so effortless. Ulis has a little extra gear he is able to tap into and, despite his small frame, it's difficult to keep him from penetrating. There are few players in Illinois who handle it like Ulis while still being in such control of their speed with the ball.

With his acceleration in the open court and his developed mid-range jumper, along with an ability to knock down a three-pointer, Ulis is not just a distributing point guard. The kid can score. And his jumper is only going to get better and more efficient with time.

And what about that size? Sure, it's going to be a hinderance at times. Defensively, his light frame will make it tough at times to keep more physical guards out of the lane. There will be mismatches in certain situations defensively at the next level. And his size will always make it difficult for him to finish at the basket; he's not an elite athlete.

But you know what, though? There is something unique now about watching a player who truly gets it, has that awareness and knows how to play the game of basketball while still possessing talent. It's easy to get tired of watching the potential-type guys who have no clue, and it's easy to start appreciating a fundamentally-sound -- and exciting -- player like Ulis. Pound for pound -- and this is a big statement -- Tyler Ulis is the best pure basketball player (not prospect) in the state of Illinois this side of Simeon's Jabari Parker.

Don't get frustrated watching the "prospect" who doesn't know how to play. Don't lament what the high school game has become in terms of the focus on individual players and their selfishness. Instead, celebrate what we still have, which is a basketball player in Tyler Ulis who is easy to appreciate and fun to watch. Ulis will be proving a lot of people wrong.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Simeon-Young instant analysis

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By Joe Henricksen

A few quick, random thoughts following the big Simeon-Whitney Young battle at UIC on Thursday night, which the Wolverines won 62-55 to move to 8-0 on the season ...

• Simeon did not look like the No. 1 team in the country. Not on this night. But coach Rob Smith's team isn't going to look like the No. 1 team in every game it plays. The No. 1 college team in the country, no matter who it is, doesn't always look and play like the No. 1 team. And these are high school kids we're talking about, so to expect a show every game is unrealistic.

• With that being said, while Simeon did not play its best and its star didn't have his best game, the Wolverines still managed to pull away and beat arguably the second most talented team in Illinois.

• And with that being said, it's going to take a lot to beat this Simeon team. That's not a surprise. As an opponent here in Illinois, you just hope and pray it's an off night for one or two of its Big Three -- Jabari Parker, Steve Taylor and Kendrick Nunn -- when you do face them.

• Give credit to Whitney Young's defense in that the size and length of the Dolphins did give Simeon very few open looks on the perimeter or easy at-the rim baskets.

• Those that wrote off Whitney Young after the Orr loss last week may need to re-evaluate. Did the Dolphins look awful against Orr? Yes. But it was one game, on the road, early in the season with three sophomores starting and a few key components in dress clothes on the bench.

• The difference in this Simeon-Young game? The veteran, senior Steve Taylor, along with junior star Kendrick Nunn, made plays when the Wolverines needed them most. Those two stepped up in a big way and showed why they are so highly regarded. Taylor, who scored 16 points, was very active and scored four huge points down the stretch, is a really solid pick up for a Marquette team in need of a player who can knock perimeter jumpers down.

And Nunn is a terrific talent as a scoring 2-guard who has athleticism, shooting ability and toughness. He scored 19 points and rebounded well with six boards. When Simeon really needed someone to step up in the first half, he delivered, helping turn an early first half deficit into a one-point Simeon lead by the half.

• Another reason to love Derrick Rose as a Chicago sports fan: The NBA MVP and Bulls star sported a Simeon letterman's jacket as he took in the action. Smooth.

• Head coaches John Calipari of Memphis, Rick Pitino of Louisville and Oliver Purnell of DePaul were all in attendance, along with a dozen or so college assistant coaches.

• A very good crowd in attendance with roughly 6,000 fans in the 8,300 seat UIC Pavilion.

• Even in what was a somewhat quiet game for Simeon star Jabari Parker, the 6-8 junior still filled up a stat sheet and contributed to a big victory.

• Whitney Young sophomore big man Jahlil Okafor is special. There just aren't 6-10 players who have that type of ability, potential and advanced feel as a post player at this age. There are areas Okafor needs to clean up, just as any high school player must do, but he's the rare quality big man coaches around the country search high and low for.

• How about a little credit to Whitney Young? When the Dolphins were down by 15 in the second half, there was no doubt everyone in the gym believed the game was over. That game could have really slipped away for the Dolphins. But Whitney Young didn't roll over. The Dolphins clawed themselves back into it and put a bit of a scare into the state's top-ranked team. No one is really into moral victories, but this was a step in the right direction for this Whitney Young team.

• The person with the biggest smile in the Pavilion should have been University of Chicago coach Mike McGrath, who took in the action and watched two of his future players -- Whitney Young's Nate Brooks and Jordan Smith. Both Brooks and Smith looked the part, with Brooks showcasing his athleticism with a few dunks and Smith being assertive and aggressive in his return from injury. Both Brooks and Smith are the ultimate Division III recruiting steals.

• It's not as if the Simeon-Young battle is a long-lasting rivalry with great history and tradition. But it's a rivalry that has certainly started to bloom in the past few years but in a respectful, healthy way. These two programs attract the most attention, the most talent and play on the biggest stages, both locally and nationally, but they also appreciate the type of growth and atmosphere this type of game can provide both their players and programs.

• This could be the first of three meetings between these two, with each potential meeting a little bigger than the next. Simeon and Young could collide in the city playoffs in February and could meet in a Class 4A sectional in March.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Stars come out in Simeon-Young battle

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By Joe Henricksen

Do a little last-minute Christmas shopping on Michigan Avenue or State Street Thursday afternoon and head over to the UIC Pavilion for a matchup between the two programs with the most high-level Division I talent in the state.

For starters, the Simeon-Whitney Young showdown, which will tip off at 8 p.m., will feature the following:

• The state's No. 1 junior prospect -- and arguably the best high school player in the country regardless of class -- in Simeon's Jabari Parker. He's fresh off pouring in 40 points and pulling in 16 rebounds in just 21 minutes of action in a win over Calumet earlier this week.

• The state's No. 1 sophomore prospect and top five talent nationally in the Class of 2014 in Whitney Young's 6-10 Jahlil Okafor.

• There's also the No. 1 senior prospect in Illinois, Marquette-bound Steve Taylor of Simeon.

• Junior Kendrick Nunn of Simeon, an athletic 6-1 guard, is a highly coveted high-major prospect and one of the state's elite talents regardless of class.

• Whitney Young 6-9 sophomore Paul White is already sporting high-major offers and is among the top 25 rated prospects nationally in his class.

• Unfortunately, big 6-9 Tommy Hamilton of Whitney Young, a highly-regarded junior, is out with an injury.

The game may have lost a little of its luster with Young's upset loss to Orr last week, but it's a smorgasbord of individual talent. Plus, these are the two programs that have played on the big stage. Simeon has won the last two Class 4A state championships, including a title game win over Whitney Young in 2010. Whitney Young won the 2009 Class 4A state title.

Here is the Hoops Report's individual player breakdown of the Simeon-Whitney Young tussle and some keys to the showdown.

Whitney Young Starting Lineup
• Miles Reynolds, 6-0, So.
Sophomore point guard is still learning the ropes but provides energy and quickness for coach Tyrone Slaughter. Reynolds must make the right decisions in transition and against Simeon's halfcourt zone.
• Gabriel Snider, 6-1, Sr.
The UIC recruit must find his perimeter jumper and prevent opposing defenses from swarming Jahlil Okafor inside.
• Jahlil Okafor, 6-10, So.
The state's premier big man is a load, a legitimate on-the-block presence and an impossible matchup at the high school level. It will be interesting to see how Simeon defends Okafor in the post if the Wolverines get out of their zone.
• Nate Brooks, 6-6, Sr.
The highly-athletic Brooks must be active, get on the glass and use his size and hops to his advantage.
• Paul White, 6-9, So.
The talented sophomore is versatile enough to create mismatches for opposing teams and play multiple spots on the floor with his size and skill. Look for the Dolphins to move White around and use him at the 4 spot and on the perimeter.

Whitney Young Bench
• Jordan Smith, 6-3, Sr.
• Keith Langston, 6-4, Jr.
• Scott Kingsley, 6-2, Jr.
This group will need to provide a spark, particularly on the offensive end, and has the ability to do so with Kingsley's perimeter shooting, Smith's versatility and Langston's length and athleticism. If Simeon does play its zone defense, Kingsley and Smith become bigger keys on the perimeter.

Simeon Starting Lineup
• Reggie Norris, 5-10, Sr.
He doesn't have the big name but the Simeon staff knows what it will get from Norris and trusts this senior guard.
• Kendrick Nunn, 6-1, Jr.
A game-changer who can alter the momentum of a game with his superb athleticism, shooting and scoring ability. When Nunn is rolling, Simeon is scary good.
• Steve Taylor, 6-7, Sr.
There aren't many players in the state who can do what Taylor can as far as stretching a defense with his shooting and getting a little done around the rim. If Okafor does guard Taylor, Simeon will be able to bring Okafor away from the basket on the defensive end.
• Jabari Parker, 6-8, Jr.
The state's most gifted player regardless of class can do whatever you ask of him and is a matchup nightmare. Plus, he has the individual talent and ability to make others better.
• Kendall Pollard, 6-4, Jr.
The little-known Pollard, who has multiple mid-major offers, has picked it up of late and is a relentless, physical defender who uses his size and strength very well on both ends of the floor.

Simeon Bench
• Jaylon Tate, 6-2, Jr.
• Jaleni Neely, 5-10, Sr.
• Tyre Washington, 6-5, Jr.
While Simeon may not be extremely deep, the Wolverines are deep enough with a combination like guards Tate and Neely. Tate is one of the better junior prospects in the state, while Neely, who played 12 minutes in Simeon's last game as he bounces back from a knee injury, really makes this team go when healthy.

Hoops Report's four keys to the Simeon-Whitney Young matchup
1) The 3 is the key for Dolphins
Say what? A team that boasts 6-10 behemoth Jahlil Okafor and 6-9 Paul White needs to rely on the three-pointer? No, not exactly. But teams are going to continue to suffocate Okafor inside, much like Orr did a week ago, until Young's perimeter players can knock down shots. The Dolphins, whether it's Snider, Smith, Kingsley or Reynolds, must loosen up a congested defense by hitting a few shots from the perimeter to keep Simeon honest and allow its best player to navigate inside.

2) Quick start
If Whitney Young wants to pull off an upset, coach Tyrone Slaughter's club must get out of the gate quickly, establish a lead or at least keep the game close through three quarters. If there is one team in the city that protects its leads in the fourth quarter, it's Simeon. When the Wolverines have a lead in the fourth quarter it's as if they have Mariano Rivera to turn to in closing out the game. Simeon has the guards and quality skill players with size like Parker and Taylor to comfortably space the floor and close out a game.

3) Defending the big fella
Whitney Young boasts something no other high school team in the state of Illinois has -- a monster, back-to-the-basket, go-to player in the post in the 6-10, 260-pound Okafor. How Simeon, which isn't exactly loaded with size, chooses to defend Okafor could dictate how this game plays out. If Simeon plays primarily zone to protect itself from Okafor dominating, it could play into the hands of Whitney Young and allow the Dolphins to hang around to the end.

4) Defending Mr. Everything
Yes, Whitney Young has the players -- some with size, some with athleticism, some with quickness -- to throw at Simeon superstar Jabari Parker. But what makes Parker special is the ability to dominate an opponent based on what the opponent gives him. He can individually take over a game with his one-on-one ability by posting up smaller defenders or taking bigger players on the perimeter. And just when there is too much attention paid to Parker, the intelligence and basketball I.Q. kicks in and he becomes a weapon in making others around him better.

Hoops Report's Pick
Simeon 54, Whitney Young 45

Hoops Report's weekly rewind

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By Joe Henricksen

A year ago the Chicago Public League's Red-South stood out from the rest of the pack, with 4A champ Simeon, 3A third-place finisher Brooks, Wayne Blackshear and Morgan Park, 19-win Carver and upstart Bogan. This year? While it's not in the class of last year's Red-South battles, the Red-West is flexing its city muscle.

Despite the lackluster performance turned in by Whitney Young in a loss to Orr last week, where the Dolphins scored just 29 points in the defeat, the Red-West features depth with six teams ranked among the top 25 teams in the Chicago area.

Marshall, led by active and underrated wing Milton Doyle, is off to a 8-1 start. Crane looks as if it will be a Class 3A threat in March. Orr is young but dangerous. Farragut features guards who can score and a talented Rashaun Stimage, the Hoops Report's No. 2 prospect in the senior class. And North Lawndale has come out of nowhere with a 5-1 start.

The Hoops Report still doesn't know what to make of the Whitney Young loss to Orr last week. Losing to its Red-West foe was one thing, but anyone in attendance saw a Whitney Young team no one expected to see.

And the rest of the weekend rewind ...

• The Hoops Report has said it before and will say it again, Orr has some of the most overlooked, least talked about players and prospects in the city and suburbs. Give me 6-6 junior Marquis Pryor, junior point guard Jamal McDowell and 6-5 sophomore Tyquane Greer any day. Pryor is among the top dozen prospects in the Class of 2013. Greer, who received his first offer last week from Providence, will see his stock explode soon. And McDowell is the type of point guard you win games with as he's tough, under control and a winner.

• Although the Hoops Report highlighted the talent, potential and legitimacy of St. Viator in last week's blog, no one could have expected what the 9-0 Lions did to Marist last Friday night. Coach Mike Howland's club was sporting a 47-17 lead by the half en route to a big 78-39 East Suburban Catholic Conference victory.

• Speaking of Marist, it was a weekend to forget. Aside from the thumping it took from St. Viator, the Redhawks lost to Chicago Taft on Saturday. That loss is going to be a tough sell come sectional seeding time with Marist in a city-dominated sectional. No one is going to want that No. 8 or No. 9 seed as it will be paired up with Simeon in a regional championship game.

• Staying in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, what Benet Academy has been able to do this season has been pretty impressive in the early going. Sophomore big man Sean O'Mara really has a chance to be a heck of a player.

• It's tough to see a program with such great tradition as East Aurora suffer the way it has in the first third of the season. The Tomcats, who could count on superstar Ryan Boatright and some valuable role players to support him the past four seasons, have been through the wringer. Coach Wendell Jeffries, who was already dealt a young, inexperienced team, is trying to survive injuries and suspensions as well. East Aurora is 0-9 following a 73-42 blowout loss to rival West Aurora.

• Fastforward 11 days and fans in the south suburbs could be treated to a battle of unbeaten teams ranked in the top five if both Bloom and Seton Academy can take care of business at the McDipper. How about a 14-0 Seton taking on an 11-0 Bloom in the McDipper title game? Bloom point guard Donald Moore has been absolutely huge for the Blazing Trojans this year, both in his production and ability to carry his team when needed.

• Why does it always seem like everyone forgets about Morton every year? The Mustangs, who have averaged 19 wins a season over the past seven years playing a very competitive schedule, are off to a 6-1 start heading into the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. The Morton-Hillcrest battle in the first round at Proviso West is one of the better opening day games you will find in any tournament across the state.

• Although it's a team of no-namers, Naperville North is 6-1 after its season-opening loss to De La Salle. The Huskies (6-2) have quietly jumped out to a 3-0 start in the DuPage Valley and are tied with West Aurora for the top spot heading into the holidays. If Naperville North can get by unknown but unbeaten Kenwood and then Waubonsie Valley in the York Tournament, it could get another crack at De La Salle in the semifinals.

• How about the Lake Division of the North Suburban Conference? The top four teams in the league -- Stevenson, Warren, Libertyville and Mundelein -- are now a combined 29-5.

• Rolling Meadows did share a Mid-Suburban League East title in 2005, but the program hasn't spent a lot of time in the top spot over the years. But the Mustangs are 3-0 in the MSL East after their 65-47 weekend win over Elk Grove. Don't underestimate the value of solid guard play, which four-year varsity performer Brian Nelms provides coach Kevin Katovich. With the steady and valued Nelms at point guard, along with Tyler Gaedele as his sidekick -- the two have combined to average just over 25 points a game -- Rolling Meadows could better last year's 7-3 and second place finish in the league.

• Playing without 6-9 junior Tommy Hamilton has been a burden for Whitney Young. Now it appears the Dolphins will be without the skilled 4-man for quite a bit longer as Hamilton will have surgery this Friday on the patellar tendon injury he's been battling. Hamilton's injury is not a complete tear, such as the one NBA player Caron Butler had last season.

Young talent adds to Viator excitement

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By Joe Henricksen

It's one thing to jump out of the gate with a quick 7-0 start to the season with a returning veteran group. St. Viator has done just that behind the returning senior trio of point guard D.J. Morris, 6-2 Kevin Walsh and 6-6 Chris Myjak. Those three have a ton of experience under their belt and averaged nearly a combined 40 points a game a year ago.

But first-year coach Mike Howland, a former St. Viator star player and assistant under veteran coach Joe Majkowski, has more than just a seasoned group ready to challenge for an East Suburban Catholic Conference title. St. Viator has a pair of young, extremely talented players providing a jolt to this unbeaten team and program.

Sophomore Ore Arongundade and freshman Mark Falotico are eye-opening young players who are poised at the varsity level despite their inexperience. While they may not be as seasoned or as varsity ready as the returning veterans, Arongundade and Falotico bring energy, excitement, an added dimension and a pair of legitimate college prospects to a program that hasn't exactly churned out Division I players.

Arongundade and Falotico are both poised to be impact players at the prep level sooner than later, with the 6-2 slashing athletic Arongundade already off to a big sophomore season.

Arongundade was brought up to the varsity late last season and polished his game up this summer in preparation for what will be a breakout sophomore season. Howland, who spent eight years as an assistant at St. Viator prior to being named head coach, has a versatile weapon in Arongundade, who is averaging 14 points a game. He slashes and shoots, both with an advanced, pull-up mid-range game and touch out to the three-point line. His length, speed and quickness allow him to get to the rim off the dribble, both in the half court and transition, and disrupt things on the defensive end.

While Arongundade remains overlooked by most everyone and is among the Hoops Report's top 15 prospects in the Class of 2014, Falotico is a heady, 5-11 point guard who clearly isn't phased playing at the varsity level. Falotico came into high school with a little northwest suburban pub, but he does things players just out of 8th grade don't: he surveys the floor, makes wise decisions with the ball and doesn't try to do too much.

Currently, this St. Viator team is a nice little secret tucked away in Arlington Heights. But a home win over a talented Marist team Friday night and a deep run in a wide open Wheeling Hardwood Classic later this month would change all that. The nice mix of veteran and young talent could turn the Lions into a threat by March.

While the 2010 season ended with 24 wins and Class 3A regional and sectional championships in a very memorable season, St. Viator will be in the Class 4A Barrington Sectional this season with the likes of Warren, Waukegan, Stevenson and Mundelein. But with Arongundade and Falotico, St. Viator is going to be a player for awhile, and with such a solid senior group in support of the young talent, Howland's club is ready to win big -- now.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

De La Salle, DGS big two at York

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By Joe Henricksen

The Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament at York High School will tip off Dec. 27, and defending champ Downers Grove South will have a big-time challenger in De La Salle, which earned the No. 1 seed.

A title tilt featuring DGS, led by the senior tandem of Jerron Wilbut and Jamal Millison, and De La Salle and its young talent, including 6-8 Gavin Schilling and 6-7 Alex Foster is an easy prediction. But the likes of Waubonsie Valley with sharpshooter Jared Brownridge, St. Ignatius and others hope to make a difference in those plans.

Here is a look at the first-round matchups at York (in bracket order).

Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament Pairings (Dec. 27)
York vs. Riverside-Brookfield @ 7:15 p.m.
Wheaton South vs. St. Ignatius @ 5:45 p.m.
Downers Grove South vs. Palatine @ 4:00 p.m.
South Elgin vs. Maine South @ 2:30 p.m.
De La Salle vs. Perspectives @ 5:00 p.m.
Conant vs. Wheaton St. Francis @ 3:30 p.m.
Naperville North vs. Kenwood @ 1:30 p.m.
Waubonsie Valley vs. Lyons Twp. @ 12 Noon

Hoops Report's weekend forecast

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By Joe Henricksen

Quietly, it's a big weekend.

While there aren't any must-win games in December, there are certainly some important ones. And this weekend offers up several matchups that will definitely help shape many conference races going forward. The City/Suburban Hoops Report takes a quick look at the top games in the Chicago area this weekend and ranks them in order of importance and impact.

1. Marist at St. Viator. This is a big one. While Marist was the No. 14 ranked team in the Hoops Report's preseason rankings, St. Viator was labeled a "sleeper" in the preseason issue. Both are right on pace. St. Viator has quietly put together a 7-0 start. Both will contend for an East Suburban Catholic Conference title, but Marist does not want to start 0-2 in league action after falling to Niles Notre Dame last week. And in ESCC play, this is the only time these two hook up this season.

2. Libertyville at Stevenson. Quick, who out there new Libertyville was undefeated? Liar! So who cares if you don't know names like Griffin Pils and Anthony Mack, a pair of seniors who have pushed Libertyville to 7-0. Stevenson has a new perspective after knocking off Warren to kickstart the North Suburban Lake action last week. Both these teams are 2-0 in league play. There won't be a lot of scoring Friday night, but the winner will be sitting pretty with a win.

3. St. Joseph at St. Rita. A lot of individual talent on the floor, including young promising prospects like St. Joe's sophomore Paul Turner and St. Rita freshman Charles Matthews. St. Joseph is young and improving, while St. Rita is banged up and trying to survive while A.J. Avery and Dominique Matthews are out with injuries. But St. Rita's high-scoring Tony Hicks will do all he can to keep the Mustangs afloat, while St. Joe's hopes to steal one while the Mustangs are dinged up.

4. St. Charles East at Elgin. The league favorite, Elgin, was upset by Geneva in the UEC River opener, so this home date with a better-than-you-think St. Charles East becomes a big one if the Maroons want to repeat as conference champs. First-year coach Pat Woods has St. Charles East off to a 3-0 start in league play. Elgin will need to find a way to clamp down on St. Charles East junior star Kendall Stephens.

5. New Trier at Waukegan. These were the two teams the Hoops Report expected to be battling for the top spot in the Central Suburban League South when the season started. And they are both 2-0 heading into this early-season showdown. A road win here for the Trevians would be a big step in the right direction in a season with such high expectations.

6. Plainfield East at Minooka. Hey, how did this one get in here? Plainfield East? Minooka? Plainfield East, now in just its third year of varsity action in the young school history, has been one of the best early-season stories. Senior point guard Dee Brown is a Hoops Report favorite. But a Minooka program that has had its troubles over the years (31-79 the past four seasons), is a veteran team, off to a 6-1 start and tied with Plainfield East at 2-0 in the Southwest Suburban. And 6-4 senior Ben Heide has gone from a terrific shooter to an all-around player.

7. St. Ignatius vs. Loyola (at Loyola University). Although Loyola is young, the Ramblers are finally at full strength and getting better. Peter Pujals, a 6-1 junior, is playing well. St. Ignatius is off to a 6-1 start behind the backcourt play of Brian Howard and Jack Crepeau.

8. Barrington at Schaumburg. Barrington had hopes of challenging for a Mid-Suburban League West title when the season started. Now the Broncos, who are 1-1 in league play, must find a way to avoid dropping two games behind Schaumburg. That won't be easy with Western Illinois recruit John Schneider, a 6-7 senior, out with a broken hand. Junior guard Brad Zaumseil is a good one and will have to carry a bigger load. The favored Saxons have the edge with their experience.

9. Highland Park at Glenbrook North. Highland Park (5-2 overall and 2-0 in the CSL North) has the opportunity to take a big step towards making a legitimate run at a Central Suburban League North title as it faces a Glenbrook North team playing without star junior Andrew McAuliffe. GBN, which has been so dominant over the past decade in league play, could fall two games behind with a loss.

10. Morgan Park at Ridgewood. This little 2 p.m. Sunday matinée is an intriguing non-conference game between a pair of Class 3A teams. Ridgewood, which returns the nucleus from last year's 20-win, regional title team, has a trio on the perimeter -- Andy Mazurczak, Pete Mroz and sophomore Anthony Mroz -- to lean on as coach Chris Mroz uses this game as a measuring stick to see how far his team has come. Young and talented Morgan Park, led by junior star Billy Garrett, has received a lift from sophomore guard Torry Johnson.

11. East Aurora vs. West Aurora at NIU. Arguably the greatest rivalry in Illinois prep basketball--two teams, one community, two great traditions--plays on the Northern Illinois University campus Saturday night. Unfortunately, this one doesn't come close to what the majority of the previous 214 matchups between these two have provided fans. West Aurora is off to a quick start, but Ryan Boatright-less East Aurora is still looking for its first win of the season.

Chicago Winter Jamboree at Oakton, Saturday, Dec. 17
Schurz vs. Dunbar @ 1:30 p.m.
Lane Tech vs. Wisconsin Brookfield @ 3:00 p.m.
Taft vs. Marist @ 4:30 p.m.
Von Steuben vs. Providence St. Mel @ 6:00 p.m.
Foreman vs. Libertyville @ 7:30 p.m.

Individual thoughts from Rose Classic

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By Joe Henricksen

There were six games and 12 teams competing in the 4th annual Team Rose Classic at Collins High School on Sunday. But the Hoops Report walked away impressed with the play of a handful of players, several of which are well under the radar of the casual basketball fan.

• Willie Connor, Chicago (Crane)
After taking in a second Willie Connor game this season, the 6-4 senior is an easy player to walk out of a gym appreciating. Connor is a big, tough, physical wing who gets things done when it matters and in a variety of ways. After watching him put up 28 points and 8 rebounds in a win last weekend over St. Charles North, the Hoops Report watched him take over the fourth quarter in a big win Sunday over Homewood-Flossmoor. He battled his way to 26 points and 10 rebounds in a hard-fought 61-57 win. Connor may not do any one thing great -- aside from competing and playing hard -- but he does a lot of things well. Connor, one of the top 25 players in the Hoops Report's Class of 2012 rankings, remains one of the top unsigned prospects in the class.

• Issaiah Hayes, Chicago (Crane)
Although Hayes has been talked about -- quietly -- in the burgeoning sophomore class, he opened eyes with his play in Crane's win over Homewood-Flossmoor. The young, silky smooth guard was much more effective and showed more polish in the win over H-F than in last week's game against St. Charles North. Hayes, who scored 15 points in the victory on Sunday, has a great handle, quickness and feel for the game. Hayes is fun to watch.

• Marcus Bartley, Decatur (MacArthur)
Although MacArthur's trip to Chicago was a dud, losing to Curie 69-41, the lopsided game provided just enough of an opportunity to see the talents, skill and potential of Bartley. With a quick glance, the 6-3 slender sophomore point guard certainly brings visions of a young Verdell Jones, who starred at Champaign Central and plays at Indiana. Bartley is extremely skilled with the ball, has size at 6-3, vision and a nice feel. Bartley showed he's capable of knocking down perimeter shots and is a Class of 2014 prospect certainly worth keeping an eye on as he's already among the Hoops Report's top 25 prospects in the sophomore class.

• Devon Foster, Chicago (Curie)
The Hoops Report's appreciation for Foster continues to grow. He's matured as a player over last season, or even in comparison to this past summer on the AAU circuit, letting the game come to him and playing more in control. Foster was terrific in the blowout win over Decatur MacArthur a week after putting the Condors on his back in an overtime win over Gary Bowman. Foster has always been a big, versatile 2-guard, but so far in the early part of his senior year it's been about quality production. He's rebounding, scoring, making the right pass, active defensively and playing the best basketball of his career. Foster, a 6-3 uncommitted senior, will be making a big jump in the Class of 2012 rankings.

• Mike Ljuboja, Riverside-Brookfield
Everyone in the gym at the Team Rose Classic couldn't help but notice the 6-7 Ljuboja battle and compete with the likes of Farragut's Rashaun Stimage and the rest of the Admirals. R-B hung tough before Farragut put it away in the fourth quarter, but Ljuboja, who is just a baby in terms of his basketball and physical development, was so impressive. He showcased a soft touch, both around the basket and facing up. He showed an understanding of how to play with his back to the basket in limited opportunities. He has good hands, nimble feet and a nose for the ball for a player with his size and build. There is a lot to like with Ljuboja, especially if he were to grow another inch of two, and he is certainly a Division I prospect in the Class of 2013. It's pretty safe to say the big fella from R-B, who doesn't even turn 16 until next summer, is the most under-the-radar prospect in the junior class -- until now.

A few more observations from the Team Rose Classic
• The Hoops Report has been a bigger fan than most of Rashaun Stimage of Farragut, but the uber-athletic Stimage continues to show why he's been the Hoops Report's No. 2 ranked prospect in the Class of 2012 for some time. He is raw in many ways, yet he boasts so much potential.

• With a group of seniors who have been through the battles, Homewood-Flossmoor has to find a way to win that game Sunday night against a Crane team that has just recently put the pieces together. H-F's tough schedule, however, will certainly pay dividends as the Vikings tune up for the second half of the season.

• Just how Crane would respond to Chris Head's coaching ways was one early-season development worth paying attention to. And though it may not have been the 32 minutes of relentlessness Head is seeking and expecting, the win over H-F was enough to show Crane is buying in. The Cougars' combination of talent, playing hard and a senior warrior like Willie Connor to lean on is going to produce victories this winter.

Riverside-Brookfield is going to be better than anyone thought. In addition to the aforementioned Ljuboja, the Bulldogs feature junior guard Damonta Henry and senior Luke Nortier. Henry is healthy and much improved, while Nortier is a do-it-all type who is a terrific small college prospect.

Marshall blew out Providence St. Mel, but Marshall's Milton Doyle, a long, athletic 6-4 wing, once again showed why he is a recruiting steal for Florida International. He's so slippery and explosive in getting to the rim.

Change of date
A reminder to high school basketball fans that the Simeon-Whitney Young showdown has been moved from Dec. 23 to Dec. 22. The matchup between the Hoops Report's No. 1 and No. 2 teams will tip off at 8 p.m. at the UIC Pavilion.

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Pontiac Tournament field set

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By Joe Henricksen

The Pontiac Holiday Tournament, always one of the top events of the high school basketball season in Illinois, will be highlighted by the return of state champion Simeon and junior sensation Jabari Parker. But Pontiac will offer up some tantalizing and intriguing matchups aside from the Simeon Show.

Here is a look at the matchups in bracket order at the 81st annual Pontiac Holiday Tournament, which tips off Wednesday, Dec. 28.

First-Round Matchups on Wednesday, Dec. 28
West Aurora vs. Danville @ 9:00 a.m.
Curie vs. Niles West @ 10:30 a.m.
Joliet West vs. Waukegan @ 1:00 p.m.
Warren vs. Plainfield North @ 2:30 p.m.
United Twp. vs. Lockport @ 4:00 p.m.
Simeon vs. Bloomington @ 6:00 p.m.
Peoria Manual vs. Pontiac @ 7:30 p.m.
Oak Park-River Forest vs. St. Charles North @ 9:00 p.m.

The brackets will offer up these potential storylines:
• The state's No. 1 senior (Simeon's Steve Taylor), No. 1 and No. 2 juniors (Simeon's Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn) and the No. 2 sophomore (Curie's Cliff Alexander) will all be on display.
• A couple of terrific first-round matchups with Joliet West facing Waukegan, Lockport taking on United Twp. and Oak Park facing a better-than-its-record St. Charles North team.
• Joliet West big man Marlon Johnson, if it can get by Waukegan, squaring off with the inside tandem of Darius Paul and Nathan Boothe of Warren in the second round.
• How about a potential Curie-Warren semifinal battle?
• Simeon, the state's top-ranked team in Class 4A, could meet Peoria Manual, arguably the top team in Class 3A, in the other semifinal.

Regional, sectional sites indicate change

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By Joe Henricksen

(This blog has been updated from the original blog since the IHSA did actually release sectional assignments late Friday afternoon)

Although the who and when has yet to be determined for the IHSA state tournament in March, the where has been decided. And the regional and sectional sites the IHSA put out this week indicate several changes this March.

First, many of the state-ranked teams are feeding into one sectional complex in Class 4A. Simeon, Whitney Young, Curie and Hyde Park -- the top four teams in the Chicago Public League -- will be feeding into the same sectional.

And to make matters worse, Marist, De La Salle and St. Rita are also in the same sectional, so forget about quality sectional matchups, we're talking regional title tilts with the outrageous thought of some of these highly-ranked teams mentioned being No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 seeds in a sectional. The aforementioned seven -- Simeon, Young, Curie, Hyde Park, Marist, St. Rita and De La Salle -- are all currently among the top dozen teams in the Hoops Report rankings. And all seven will be battling it out for a sectional title.

After talking with a few Chicago Public League coaches, this could be the first time since the CPS had its one qualifier advance to the Elite Eight by winning a city championship, that every city team is funneled into one sectional. The days of both Simeon and Whitney Young advancing to Peoria, which was the case a couple of years ago, are over. They won't even meet in a supersectional.

The biggest winner in the recently released regional and sectional sites? Proviso East. Coach Donnie Boyce stepped into a great situation with a loaded roster. Now he has the benefit of the Pirates being shipped out of the state's most rugged sectional.

Proviso East will be hosting a regional that will now feed into the Schaumburg Sectional. When was the last time Proviso East was sent west? The Schaumburg Sectional winner, where Proviso East will be an overwhelming favorite no matter who is playing in it, faces the East Aurora Sectional winner in the Hinsdale Central Supersectional. This could set up a potential rematch of West Suburban Gold powers Proviso East and Downers Grove South in the supersectional.

Oak Park, Morton and York are other schools who probably feel a bit of a sense of relief. Those three programs, like Proviso East, will welcome the sectional change as they are headed west as well to the Schaumburg Sectional. For the last several years, those three near-west suburban programs have had to battle the likes of Whitney Young and Company.

Based on just the sites given by the IHSA, here is an early look at some supersectional matchups that could materialize in Class 4A:

• Proviso East vs. Downers Grove South
• Warren vs. Rockford Auburn
• Homewood-Flossmoor vs. Belleville East
• Simeon vs. New Trier

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Seton sittin' pretty

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By Joe Henricksen

They have speed and athleticism. They have size and experience. They're ridiculously deep. They're off to a 8-0 start and are averaging over 80 points a game. And best of all, when March rolls around Seton Academy will be a Class 2A school after playing a 3A/4A schedule.

When the Hoops Report caught up with Seton Academy coach Brandon Thomas prior to the season, the second-year coach was excited and optimistic about the fortunes of the Sting this winter.

"We have a lot of guys that can play," said Thomas during the first week of practice. "We have a much tougher schedule this season than last year, so I don't know if we'll have as many wins in the regular season. But I think we will be better in March, come playoff time."

After a quick, impressive 8-0 start to the season, which includes wins over downstate Morton, Cahokia, Lincoln, Leo and Crane, Thomas may want to re-think that early forecast. Regardless, the Sting are no longer going to sneak up on people. People are talking. The Sting started the season ranked No. 26 in the City/Suburban Hoops Report preseason rankings, but are now shooting into the top 10 across the Chicago area three weeks into the season.

Seton has a wealth of depth, with Thomas easily going 12 deep. They have size, versatility and quality guard play. The Sting apply constant pressure on both ends of the court, and opponents have to be ready to play at such a fast and intense pace. Thomas' club makes teams change their game plans. Seton has scored 90-plus points in three different wins this season, including a 95-66 thrashing of Leo.

Yet Thomas was busy Wednesday night breaking down film with his team from Tuesday's win over Crane, pointing out plenty of negative in the 73-66 victory. While he still remains excited and optimistic, Thomas is still a coach.

"We watched film tonight and we saw, from a defensive standpoint, little things we didn't do very well, little things that would make us that much better," said Thomas. "They [Crane] out-rebounded us. It was our eighth game, it was their second game. And they had three players who were playing for the first time and we barely beat them."

Thomas has four players in double figures, led by 6-1 junior Mark Weems at 15 points a game, one of the more underrated players in the Class of 2013. Weems is strong, attacks the basket and plays with a motor. Kamal Shasi, a 6-0 junior guard, 6-4 Sylvester Tolliver and 6-8 Russell Robinson are also averaging in double figures. Senior guard Jordan Foster (9 ppg, 7 apg) is one of three players averaging between 7-9 points a game, while sophomore Chris Seaton is providing a lift off the bench with his shooting.

"We have eight games under our belt, and I like where we're at," says Thomas. "I know it's a cliché, but we still have a long way to go. But we're playing hard, and we're going to need to continue playing that way with the schedule we have."

The schedule will test a Seton team that is preparing for a Class 2A run in March. The slate includes Chicago Catholic League foes Mount Carmel, Brother Rice and Leo, a trip to the McDipper Tournament at Rich South in late December, and non-conference games against Milwaukee Hamilton, Orr, Marist and Farragut.

Seton, which is just a few seasons removed from the dominating 2008-2009 team that rolled to a 31-2 record and Class 2A state championship, will be ready for March.

"That was the plan," Thomas said in early November of the schedule the Sting put together. "We want to be prepared for the playoffs."

They'll be prepared and ready. Thomas has a Class 2A state title contender on his hands.

Simeon-Young showdown date moved

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By Joe Henricksen

The highly-anticipated matchup between Simeon and Whitney Young has been moved from Dec. 23 to Dec. 22. The two prep basketball superpowers and winners of the last three Class 4A state titles will still collide at the UIC Pavilion at 8 p.m.

The two teams met twice last season, with Simeon winning a late January regular-season game and Young winning a February city playoff matchup. Simeon is off to a 2-0 start and plays Farragut this Friday night at North Park. Whitney Young is 1-0 with a Red-West matchup against Orr next Wednesday.

Simeon, the consensus No. 1 team in Illinois and the top-ranked team in the country, according to, features the top-ranked senior prospect in the state in Marquette-bound Steve Taylor and the state's top two junior prospects in Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn. Whitney Young's talented trio of 6-10 super sophomore Jahlil Okafor, 6-8 sophomore Paul White and 6-9 junior Tommy Hamilton are all among the top prospects in the country in their respective classes.

Hoops Report's weekly rewind

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By Joe Henricksen

There wasn't a more resounding or more impressive win this past week than St. Rita's double overtime road victory at De La Salle on Friday night.

The game was certainly sloppy, with turnovers, costly mistakes and some poor officiating, but it's still early December. But the fact St. Rita, with little basketball heritage or history to fall back on, won this game under the circumstances -- both 6-7 senior A.J. Avery and sophomore standout Dominique Matthews are out with injuries -- and in the fashion it did (down 14 points and pulling it out in double overtime), speaks volumes for what type of season the Mustangs can potentially put together.

The Hoops Report ruled the game over early, believing the game could get out of hand. De La Salle jumped out to a quick 14-point lead at 27-13, St. Rita looked discombobulated and, again, was playing without its second and third best players. This would have been a very easy game for St. Rita to roll over, play dead and get ready for the next one.

St. Rita gritted through a rough start, made a late second quarter run to keep it within reach, and let star guard Tony Hicks, who had a bit of a rough first half, take over the game in the second half. The all-state candidate was brilliant in the second half and in both overtimes, scoring in a variety of ways -- pull-ups, slicing to the basket, three-point shots -- and made play after play when it counted most.

There is a tough slate ahead for St. Rita schedule wise, and it looks like the Mustangs will be without Avery and Matthews for roughly a month. But if coach Gary DeCesare's team can survive the next month, which includes a tough one Tuesday with Marist, the Mustangs could be even better off heading into February and March with added depth and boost of confidence with the return of two impact players midseason.

And the rest of the weekly rewind ...

• The loss of transfer Jaylon Tate to Simeon is going to be an even bigger blow to De La Salle than expected. The Meteors, who turned the ball over repeatedly against St. Rita, will need the guard play to greatly improve if it wants to play with and beat the state's top teams. There is enough firepower along that frontline with 6-7 junior Alex Foster and 6-8 junior Gavin Schilling to give most teams fits, but decision-making and running a team is not something learned overnight. And Tate was the one player who gained the experience of having the ball in his hands

• Alvin Ellis, De La Salle's athletic 6-4 wing, is off to a fast start this season and was a real difference-maker against St. Rita. He had 24 points and 8 rebounds through three quarters. While Ellis still can be wild and his decision-making can be questioned at times, his athleticism and activity is off the charts, while his perimeter jumper has made big strides. Ellis is a force in transition, finishing on the break and now an added weapon on the perimeter with an improved three-point shot.

• Although it's still very early, Evanston coach Mike Ellis continues to get the most out of a Wildkits team that is certainly not nearly as talented as past Evanston teams have been. And this past weekend Evanston, which played without its top player, 6-8 Randy Ollie, and scorer Josh Irving, still moved to 7-0 after knocking off Maine South 36-35 in the Central Suburban League South opener.

• Simeon? A season is not made in an opening weekend, which saw the Wolverines beat both Hillcrest and Niles Notre Dame. But it once again goes to show how great a job Rob Smith does in scheduling. Yes, Simeon has the opportunity to upgrade its schedule and play national teams as a result of being a national program, but Simeon seeks out different types of teams, styles and venues -- playing a south suburban program like Hillcrest, a East Suburban Catholic suburban program like Niles Notre Dame, Public League power Whitney Young, Catholic League power De La Salle and playing in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament every December. This team isn't there yet, but it has a chance to do something special and be remembered for a long time. The talent that is in place and the different types of lineups Smith can play are scary. If everyone stays healthy, this team sort of has to win a state championship to meet expectations. Those are some crazy expectations for any high school team that will get everyone's best shot all season long.

• There may be some people who write off St. Charles North after a 2-4 start, but the North Stars should not be forgotten. The schedule, which included one of the tougher Thanksgiving tournaments in the state at St. Charles East and a trip to the loaded Pontiac Holiday Tournament later this month, has been upgraded. Plus, the duo of junior Quenten Payne and 6-8 senior Kyle Nelson is too good.

• Charles Matthews, St. Rita's 6-4 freshman guard, is good. Very good. There aren't many players, if any, in the freshman class right now with the present combination of talent and upside Matthews possesses.

• This may not come as a surprise, but Waubonsie Valley's Jared Brownridge is the best, most consistent and accurate shooter in Illinois. He's like a shooting machine you simply re-charge.

• Here is a shout out to a player who will rarely ever be mentioned in any story or talked about outside the gym at 7740 S. Western Ave. -- Mike Foody of St. Rita. The 6-3 senior is a tough, hard-nosed, strong, fiery kid who competes and brings energy. Foody is the ultimate role guy on a pretty talented St. Rita team who won't fill stat sheets up but will help a team win games.

• Some surprising scores from the week, but Geneva's triple overtime win over Elgin was the biggest. Geneva came in 1-3 and played without two starters, yet knocked off a ranked and unbeaten Elgin team in a 66-64 triple overtime stunner.

Morgan Park is young. Really young. The Mustangs, who play five sophomores regularly, could take some lumps against talented, veteran teams this season -- such as Homewood-Flossmoor, which handed coach Nick Irvin's team a 57-47 defeat Saturday at the Chicago Public Schools Shootout at UIC. Nonetheless, the Mustangs have the speed, quickness, athleticism and depth to give many teams problems with their pressure defense.

Crane 6-3 senior guard Willie Conner is underrated. He is a big guard who can score. Conner was impressive in his 28-point, 8 rebound performance in Saturday's win over St. Charles North.

• There is so much dialogue and talk of the top prospects in Illinois, especially the young talent, that there are times when we all -- including the Hoops Report -- need to take a step back and realize their age and let the players develop. Yes, Curie's Cliff Alexander is a special prospect in the Class of 2014. But Alexander, who struggled against Bowman Academy and was in foul trouble, is still just one game into his sophomore season and a developing big man for coach Mike Oliver's Condors.

• Speaking of Curie, senior Devin Foster put his team on his back and carried it in a win over Gary Bowman on Saturday. Foster, a 6-3 uncommitted wing, poured in a game-high 30 points, but more impressive was how and when he did his scoring.

• A big weekend for Homewood-Flossmoor, beating both Joliet West and Morgan Park. While a veteran senior group, which includes Tim Williams, Delvon Rencher, Antonio Bishop and Tyrone Sherman, typically receives the majority of the props and headlines, coach Jim McLaughlin has an under-appreciated, blue-collar battler in Maurius Hill. The 6-5 junior is more than a just a role player.

Title repeats fulfilled and denied

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By Joe Henricksen

When was the last time a defending state champion entered the season with as high of expectations as this year's Simeon team? Has there ever been a team that came into a season more heavily favored to repeat as state champs?
Even with the great Peoria Manual teams of the 1990s -- you know, those four-peat Rams from Peoria -- there was always that talented group from Thornton lurking, raising doubt and questions regarding another Manual state championship.
The Hoops Report takes a look back at several past state champions who had the best and most realistic chance of repeating over the past 30 years. There were several repeat champions but plenty of repeat opportunities didn't go exactly as planned.

QUINCY • 1981 State Champs
1982 Repeat Attempt: Lost in state quarterfinals
The 1981 Quincy team, one of the greatest in state history, went 33-0 and won a state title behind the trio of Bruce Douglas, Dennis Douglas and 6-10 Michael Payne. Although Payne graduated and moved on to Iowa, the state still watched Quincy impressively rumble through the 1981-82 season unbeaten with the Douglas brothers leading the way. But Mendel Catholic stunned the 31-0 Blue Devils in the state semifinals in one of the most memorable games in state tournament history.

SIMEON • 1984 State Champs
1985 Repeat Attempt: Lost in state quarterfinals
Simeon was everyone's pick to repeat as state champs, but the tragic death of Ben Wilson, the nation's No. 1 ranked player, in November likely prevented the Wolverines from winning their second state title. Nonetheless, behind star transfer Nick Anderson and the likes of David Knight, Ervin Small and Eric David, Simeon was 23-1 and ranked No. 2 in the state in the final regular-season polls. Simeon beat Carver in the city final to get back to the Elite Eight. But Springfield Lanphier, led by Ed Horton, knocked off the defending state champs, 52-48, in the state quarterfinals to end Simeon's repeat attempt.

KING • 1986 State Champs
1987 Repeat Attempt: Lost in state championship
Even with the return of All-American Marcus Liberty, who averaged 36 points a game in the final four state tournament games in 1987, King could not repeat. The Jaguars lost 79-62 to a big, talented and athletic East St. Louis Lincoln team featuring 6-6 Chris Rodgers, 6-6 James Harris and 6-9 LaPhonso Ellis in the state final.

EAST ST. LOUIS LINCOLN • 1987 State Champs
1988 Repeat Attempt: Repeated as state champions
After capturing the 1987 state title behind junior LaPhonso Ellis, one of the top players in the country, everyone throughout Illinois predicted either East St. Louis Lincoln or Peoria to win the 1988 state championship. Peoria fell in the sectional final, while ESL Lincoln won its third straight state title. The Tigers' seven state tournament games leading up to the title game win over Eric Anderson and St. Francis De Sales included these scores: 90-46, 86-59, 88-59, 77-45, 69-41, 80-56 and 67-50.

EAST ST. LOUIS LINCOLN • 1988 State Champs
1989 Repeat Attempt: Repeated as state champions
Of the three straight state titles won by East St. Louis Lincoln in the late 1980s, this was the toughest. most dramatic and improbable. LaPhonso Ellis had graduated and moved on to Notre Dame. And the Tigers lost to both Chicago Marshall and Simeon in the regular season. But star Cuonzo Martin, along with the backcourt of Chris McKinney and Vincent Jackson, returned for a run at a three-peat. ESL Lincoln stunned East Aurora at the buzzer in the quarterfinals, winning 72-70, and edged King 60-57 in the semis. In the title game, coach Bennie Lewis' club beat Peoria Central in a triple overtime classic.

PROVISO EAST • 1991 State Champs
1992 Repeat Attempt: Repeated as state champions
The Pirates graduated the "Three Amigos" in Michael Finley, Sherrell Ford and Donnie Boyce, but coach Bill Hitt's club still entered the 1992 season preseason ranked No. 1. And the Pirates lived up to it. Behind guard Kenny Davis, Ray Gay and Jamal Robinson, the Pirates got by Collinsville and Richard Keene in the quarterfinals, 53-51, and went on to win back-to-back state titles--this time with a perfect 33-0 record.

KING • 1993 State Champs
1994 Repeat Attempt: Lost in supersectional (Public League final)
After crushing Rockford Guilford 79-42 in the 1993 state title game behind senior twin towers Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton and finishing 32-0, King set out to repeat and add to a eye-opening win streak in 1994. With Michael Hermon, one of the real underrated prep stars of the last 30 years, King rolled through its schedule and headed into the city championship game and Sweet Sixteen with a 29-0 record (61 consecutive victories) and ranked No. 1 in the state. King met Westinghouse, which it beat in the Proviso West Holiday Tournament title game that season. But Westinghouse, led by Damion Dantzler and Mark Miller, stunned King in the city final, 59-58, to advance to the Elite Eight.

PEORIA MANUAL • 1994 State Champs
1995 Repeat Attempt: Repeated as state champions
Manual lost a star from the 1994 state title team in Brandon Hughes, but the Rams remained loaded the following year. The names of Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin were becoming familiar as a pair of super sophomores, but the 1994-95 team was fueled by Willie Coleman and Ivan Watson. The Rams pulled out a tight 62-60 win over Joliet in the semis and beat Thornton in the final for a second straight state title.

PEORIA MANUAL • 1995 State Champs
1996 Repeat Attempt: Repeated as state champions
The buzz started to heighten surrounding the Peoria Manual program as three underclassmen -- juniors Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin and sophomore Frank Williams -- were set to reload and lead the Rams to a third consecutive state title. They did just that in 1996, beating Thornton in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the state championship. And they would be back for more.

PEORIA MANUAL • 1996 State Champs
1997 Repeat Attempt: Repeated as state champions
Everyone from Carbondale to Danville to Rock Island to Rockford to Chicago had their eyes on Peoria Manual's quest for four straight titles during the 1996-1997 season--and also hoping the highly-anticipated matchup between Manual and Thornton would materialize. Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and junior Frank Williams met Thornton once again -- this time a 31-0 Thornton team -- in the state semifinals. And for the third straight season, Manual beat Thornton and went on to pull out a 47-43 win over West Aurora in the title game.

PEORIA CENTRAL • 2003 State Champs
2004 Repeat Attempt: Repeated as state champions
While the loss of guard Daniel Ruffin off the 2003 state championship team was significant, Shaun Livingston, who would be a NBA lottery pick just three months later, returned for Peoria Central, along with highly-regarded Brandon Lee. Coach Chuck Buescher's Lions won a second straight state championship, beating Julian Wright and Homewood-Flossmoor in a highly-anticipated final.

GLENBROOK NORTH • 2005 State Champs
2006 Repeat Attempt: Lost in state quarterfinals
The defending state champs returned Jon Scheyer from its state title team, along with big men Zach Kelly and Jon Radtke. The loss of standout guard Sean Wallis, however, proved to be too big. Glenbrook North did have another terrific season and reached the Elite Eight, but the Spartans fell in the state quarterfinals to Simeon and Derrick Rose, 61-44, as Scheyer was "held" to 18 points in the loss.

SIMEON • 2006 State Champs
2007 Repeat Attempt: Repeated as state champions
Simeon entered the 2006-2007 season ranked No. 1 and, much like this year's Simeon team, heavily favored to repeat as state champs. Coach Rob Smith welcomed back the heart and soul of the team in All-American Derrick Rose and Tim Flowers, while Kevin Johnson blossomed as a senior. The Wolverines pounded cruised in March, winning every game it played in state tournament play by double digits. Simeon beat St. Rita 100-65 in the regional final, won two sectional games by the scores of 61-36 and 77-32, and beat Evan Turner, Demetri McCamey and St. Joe's 75-61 in the supersectional. Simeon rolled O'Fallon 77-54 in the state title game behind 35 points and 12 rebounds from Flowers. D-Rose's stat line? 2 points, 0-of-7 from the field with 8 assists, 7 rebounds and 4 steals.

SIMEON • 2007 State Champs
2008 Repeat Attempt: Lost in Class 3A state championship
Derrick Rose and Tim Flowers graduated, but the Wolverines welcomed Leo transfer Stan Simpson. With a backcourt of Kenyon Smith and Lazeric Jones, along with Simpson, Simeon reached Peoria again in the first year of the four-class system, losing to Marshall, 69-61, in the 3A title game.

WHITNEY YOUNG • 2009 State Champs
2010 Repeat Attempt: Lost in Class 4A state championship
The Dolphins did lose the senior backcourt of Chris Colvin and Marcus Jordan from the 2009 state championship team, but the expectations remained high the following year. Senior guards Ahmad Starks and Anthony Johnson, emerging junior Sam Thompson and heralded freshman Tommy  Hamilton led coach Tyrone Slaughter's team back to Peoria. After knocking off Jereme Richmond and Waukegan in the semis, Young fell to Simeon, 51-36, in the 4A state championship.

SIMEON • 2010 State Champs
2011 Repeat Attempt: Repeated as state champions
A strong, tough-minded senior class returned from the previous season's state championship team, while the young talent in the program--junior Steve Taylor and sophomores Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn--blossomed. The Wolverines were the preseason pick to repeat as state champs, and coach Robert Smith's club did just that by edging Glenbard East in the state semis and beating Warren in the state title game.

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