By Joe Henricksen
In a season where Simeon has dominated the headlines and new names like Andrew, Metea Valley and Plainfield East have crashed the state basketball party, one of the peculiar storylines has oddly been Whitney Young.
Yes, the program with a state title in 2009, a state runner-up finish in 2010, a run to the Public League championship game last season, bonafide high-major players and a coach who is as quotable as they come, has barely been a blip on the radar. In fact, the team that started the season in everyone's preseason top five is now completely out of the rankings in both Chicago newspapers, while checking in at No. 16 in the ESPNChicago.com rankings.
In the City/Suburban Hoops Report issue that went out to subscribers this week, the Dolphins remain among the top 10 ranked teams, checking in at No. 7.
Oh, the Hoops Report was worried and had its reservations after watching Whitney Young play Orr and look as bad as any highly-ranked team can look in an early December loss. Walking out of that gym on the West Side that night had everyone in attendance wondering what just happened.
But there are upsets -- in the NBA, in college and in high school, especially in high school when you're talking teens playing in the early part of of a prep basketball season. Plus, Orr is a pretty darn good high school basketball team and Young was missing a few key parts due to injury. And even though Whitney Young stars Jahlil Okafor and Paul White have been put on a pedestal and received high-major offers early in their careers, they still are only sophomores.
In the eyes of the Hoops Report, Whitney Young redeemed itself in a Dec. 22 matchup with Simeon, a hard-fought 62-55 defeat to the nation's top-ranked team. That was enough to see that the Dolphins were among the state's best teams. Others have been very slow to get back on board. And it doesn't sit real well with Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter, who believes his players and program have been shunned locally.
"There is no other team that has the high caliber players that we do that would be snubbed in the rankings like we have," says Slaughter, who is 141-57 in six-plus years as coach at Young. "No one plays as difficult of a schedule as we do. Period. When you look at it, there's something sinister about it when you see a team go from No. 2 in the rankings to unranked while playing the schedule we have."
Slaughter's club, which starts three sophomores, is sitting at 6-4 heading into January. But Slaughter is right in that, up to this point, no one has played a tougher schedule in the state of Illinois. While it's true Simeon's schedule quickly turns into a meat grinder with some national dates against top-level teams in January, no one can match the schedule the Dolphins have faced through December. How about this early-season slate:
• Lost to Simeon, the top-ranked team in the state and nation, in a hard-fought 62-55 defeat just prior to Christmas.
• Beat Lexington (SC), a state power in South Carolina that came into the game with a 8-2 record and the only AAAA program in the state to have won 20 or more games in a season for 10 consecutive years.
• Beat Prestonwood Christian Academy (Plano, Tex.), a team that was ranked among the top 10 in the nation at the time and features the No. 2 ranked junior in the country, 6-8 Julius Randle, along with Zach Peters, a 6-9 senior who is headed to Kansas next season.
• Lost to Lone Peak High (Highland, Utah) in double overtime. Lone Peak features three Division I players, was nationally ranked at one point this season and are the defending Class 5A state champs in Utah.
• Lost to Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nev.), a team ranked among the top 15 in the country and features the No. 1 ranked senior in the nation, 6-5 Shabazz Muhammad.
That resumé alone should be enough to keep Whitney Young in the basketball conversation -- and rankings -- in Chicago. There are 25 teams in the Chicago area that could play that type of schedule and compete at that level with those teams?
Slaughter believes his program and players should be given credit for accomplishments and opportunities Whitney Young takes advantage of outside the state lines.
"I really don't think we are given much credit for thinking outside the box and going outside the state of Illinois to play the high-level caliber teams," says Slaughter. "We want to expose our kids to opportunities around the country other teams and other kids their age aren't able to experience. These are wonderful opportunities for our players, and people around the country have recognized and appreciated our kids and their success."
The philosophical approach to scheduling Slaughter and Whitney Young take is certainly different than other programs around the state. However, with the exception of Simeon, there isn't another program in Illinois that is in the position to be able to schedule the way Whitney Young does. But does it hurt their appeal locally by not playing at Pontiac or Proviso West over the holidays or in a couple of the local shootouts?
"I don't know if it does, but that's not really a concern of ours," says Slaughter, who believes the schedule does make his team better while providing unique experiences along the way.
The 2009 Whitney Young team that captured a state championship headed into state tournament play with a modest 19-9 record. The Dolphins were a bit of an afterthought, even though seven of the nine losses that season came to out-of-state opponents, including elite-level national programs like Oak Hill Academy, St. Anthony and Mater Dei. In the Hoops Report state tournament preview issue that year, there were seven different prep basketball writers who made their picks for Peoria, and there were only two who even picked the Dolphins to reach Peoria (Yes, the Hoops Report did!).
"I do know, though, that if other programs in the state of Illinois are presented with these opportunities in the future, I highly recommend taking them," says Slaughter.
The national schedule continues this weekend. Whitney Young travels to West Virginia to face Gonzaga Prep out of Washington, D.C., a nationally-ranked team that is currently unbeaten. That game will be televised nationally by ESPN this Saturday. There will be a trip to Kentucky in late January, as well as a date in California in February with Bishop Gorman out of Las Vegas. Throw in Red-West battles with Farragut and Marshall, a showdown against Curie and the Chicago Public League playoffs in February and the schedule doesn't let up.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," says Slaughter. "We'll take all our kids graduating, going to college, qualifying, striving academically, the high-major offers and the experiences they are getting through the trips we take over being ranked any day."