By Joe Henricksen
To be quite honest, there is a whole lot of mediocrity out there in high school basketball this season. When comparing the 2011-2012 season and eyeballing the strengths and talents of the top teams in the Chicago area, it just doesn't stack up to recent years. It's easy to feel indifferent about what's out there as you head from gym to gym this winter.
While there have been some fun, interesting storylines, most notably from some hotshot newcomers to the scene (Hello, Plainfield East, Metea Valley and Andrew), the talent and overall entertainment value is lacking. There is a whole lot of plain 'ol vanilla.
But not when it comes to Simeon and Proviso East. These two teams have played their role and lived up to the preseason hype. Simeon was everyone's No. 1 team when the season started, while the Hoops Report had Proviso East ranked No. 3. Now they have separated themselves from the rest of the pack.
The good news is this: While Simeon and Proviso East are clearly the two best teams in Illinois, putting them in the category of invincible is a little premature.
Simeon has the potential to evolve into that type of team between now and March, especially after watching coach Robert Smith's team play a first half against Bogan that was the best the Wolverines have looked this season -- at least within state lines. But through the first two months of the season the Wolverines have not yet put their stamp on being one of those truly special, unbeatable-type teams. Time will tell.
Jabari Parker, we know, is special. He showed his full bag of tricks and versatility against Bogan with a game-high 20 points. And Kendrick Nunn was sensational Wednesday night, playing under control, constantly up at the rim and knocking down jumpers. More importantly, senior Jaleni Neely was steady, calm and influential in handling Bogan's relentless pressure.
Proviso East, with its overall lack of size, is not built to be invincible. But again, when it comes to this middle-of-the-road group of top teams, Proviso East looks more and more impressive by the week, especially when coach Donnie Boyce's boys blow you away with how quickly they convert defense to offense.
Then there is the next wave. The following group of teams are the best teams not named Simeon and Proviso East, teams that may not be truly great but are awfully good. These are the teams that have impressed the Hoops Report the most this season. And there is a chance for all of them to get better between now and regional time in March.
Here is a breakdown of those select teams, with the Hoops Report being a little nit-picky in analyzing them and how they can get better.
The Condors have a whole lot going for them, the first being this is a seasoned group of seniors leading a one-loss team. In particular, senior Devin Foster has improved tremendously and become a consistent, productive threat. He has constantly made plays when the Condors have needed them.
Curie is also extremely deep, especially at the guard position. Coach Mike Oliver has the leeway of pushing the buttons of his players, knowing there is a warm body ready and rarin' to go on the bench. Their pressure defense, particularly in the full-court, is better than it was in December, which is a great sign.
And then there is big man Cliff Alexander. The 6-8 sophomore is a force defensively and on the glass, while his offensive game is slowly getting better. With a surplus of speedy, quick and aggressive guards, along with Alexander in the back line of defense, this team can be outstanding defensively. The Condors, though, have not quite yet dominated on the defensive end of the floor. But they're getting there.
Remember, the only loss this team has suffered is to No. 1 ranked Simeon, while picking up impressive wins over Warren and Whitney Young.
The Blue Devils have something no other team on this list has ... two quality players with enormous size and versatility in 6-9 Nathan Boothe and 6-8 Darius Paul. These two present an array of problems for opponents, especially at the high school level. When these two are playing at a high level, Warren is difficult to beat.
This is not exactly an offensive juggernaut we're talking about. There are times, just like a year ago, where Warren can have difficulties scoring consistently. That's due mostly to the fact there is a limited -- and streaky -- amount of perimeter shooting. Warren has cracked 70-plus points just three times this season. In comparison, Proviso East, Simeon, Bogan and Curie have all scored 70-plus at least nine times each this season.
Enter Jovaughn Gaines. When the 6-3 senior is playing at a high level while under control, Warren is difficult to beat and a different team.
As good as Warren is -- remember, this is a team that finished second in the state last season and returned the majority of its roster -- the Hoops Report still isn't quite sure if it's better than last year's team. But the Blue Devils are still one of the favorites to bring home one of the four state trophies from Peoria in March in coach Chuck Ramsey's final season.
The Bengals separate themselves from a lot of other teams with the pressure they put on opponents. We're talking constant pressure. Coach Arthur Goodwin's club puts opponents on their heels at both ends of the floor with its aggressive and energetic style. Bogan speeds the game up, turns opponents over, forces some low-percentage attempts, makes you rush and takes you out of the rhythm a team is trying to establish.
The Hoops Report doesn't believe Bogan is a great offensive team, particularly in the halfcourt, but the Bengals are balanced, with different players stepping up different nights and in different moments. There isn't a star. Plus, Bogan can score off its defense. That, along with their overall toughness and confidence, will keep the Bengals in every game it plays. And a 19-2 record with wins over Morgan Park, West Aurora and Bloom, along with a 3-1 trip to the Centralia Holiday Tournament, is a résumé at least worth checking out.
What it will come down to for Bogan in the city playoffs and in March is whether it can consistently take care of the ball and manufacture points when the tidal wave the Bengals bring subsides. The Bengals rely so heavily on their defense creating transition points, you do worry what will happen when they will have to win big games in the halfcourt this March.
• New Trier
The Hoops Report believes the Trevians are the best team that is talked about the least. They aren't a dominating group, though they do have wins over St. Ignatius, Homewood-Flossmoor and Morgan Park. There were two reasons the Trevians were ranked in the Hoops Report's preseason top 10 back in November. And those reasons are ...
✔ Connor Boehm. The big, rugged 6-7 senior is a crafty battler who doesn't alway pass the look test but seems to always find big results. And at the high school level, having a quality big man who can actually demand attention and produce on a nightly basis, is a treasure.
✔ Guard play. There is nothing more essential for a team to have than quality guard play and coach Scott Fricke has a surplus of it in David Bragiel, sophomore Jordan Thomas, emerging junior Steven Cook, junior Reid Berman and swingman Austin Angel. The guard play will prove pivotal in March.
When you combine the size and presence of Boehm and surround the veteran with distributors and shooters, it's no wonder the Trevians have lost just twice -- and to two teams who happen to grace this very list in Warren and Proviso East.
So what's holding New Trier back? No matter what New Trier team you talk about over the past two decades, the question that always lingers is whether or not it can beat teams that have more speed and athleticism. And the question surrounding New Trier the past two seasons has been how tough are they? The Hoops Report believes this particular team can shed those labels. They will get a chance to when they face a better-than-its-record St. Rita team Feb. 18 in the City-Suburban Showdown at Proviso West.
Unfortunately for New Trier, somehow the north suburban Glenbrook South Sectional winner, which the Trevians will be favored to win, will face the Argo Sectional winner, most likely Simeon, in the supersectional.
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