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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