By Joe Henricksen
Earlier this season, the City/Suburban Hoops Report publication that goes out to subscribers did a massive research project and ranked the top 40 high school basketball programs in the state, using eight different categories for a final point total. Among the top five ranked programs in the state were Simeon, Proviso East and Peoria Central. All three showed why they are among the top five basketball programs in the state this season and added to their star-quality this weekend.
When it was all said and done on Saturday in Peoria, it was about a trio of elite high school basketball programs in Illinois adding hardware to an already impressive trophy case.
First, Simeon won its sixth state championship, which gives the Wolverines more basketball titles than any other program in state history. In addition, coach Robert Smith has now won a state coaching record five state championships, including three in a row. And go ahead and throw in a state runner-up finish in 2008 to the collection. This has been an unprecedented seven-year run in state basketball history, with Simeon averaging a remarkable 29 wins a season while winning five state championships and a state runner-up finish.
Then there is Class 3A champ Peoria Central. In a high school basketball hotbed like Peoria, it's a battle just to be the best in its own town. Since Peoria Central won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004 while still under the two-class system, both Peoria Manual and Peoria Richwoods have been the headliners. But the Lions took center stage in this 2011-2012 season, claiming the program's fifth state championship. That ties Central, which also has an impressive four state runner-up finishes, with Peoria Manual for the second most state titles in state history.
And although Proviso East lost to Simeon in the Class 4A championship game, this proud, tradition-rich program returned the basketball glory to Maywood with a tremendous run this season. The Pirates fell just short of winning their fifth state championship, settling for a second-place trophy for the second time in the program's history.
In all, when you combine Simeon, Peoria and Proviso East, there are a total of 15 state championships and seven second-place trophies between them. And don't be surprised if Simeon and Proviso East are back in Peoria next March adding to that number.
Simeon returns the top player in the country, superstar junior Jabari Parker, along with junior star Kendrick Nunn and key contributors in Jaylon Tate and Kendall Pollard. While Proviso East will lose an instrumental leader and all-stater in Keith Carter, coach Donnie Boyce will welcome back junior Sterling Brown, guard Paris Lee, 6-3 wing Brandon Jenkins and sophomore Javon Carter.
And speaking of Brown, was there a player in Peoria this past weekend who had a bigger individual moment than the 6-4 junior? Brown's championship game performance showed why he's among the top 10 prospects in the Class of 2013. He was assertive, confident and versatile offensively in putting together a killer performance in the biggest game of the year. He scored a game-high 25 points and in impressive fashion in the 50-48 defeat, knocking down threes, hitting pull-up jumpers and driving to the basket. And this was coming off a 13-point, 15-rebound performance in the state semifinal win over Rockford Auburn.
The Proviso East-Simeon championship game was desperately needed. It was the matchup everyone wanted and it lived up to the hype. Both Simeon and Proviso East bounced back from sub-par performances in the semifinals and showed why they were clearly the two best teams in the state. In what was a rather ho-hum basketball season in the state of Illinois, at least it concluded with a pair of heavyweights clashing in a great battle on the final night of the season.
The 2012 championship game won't quite rank up with the following in terms of drama or best games played:
• The 1976 championship where Morgan Park beat West Aurora at the buzzer.
• Mt. Carmel's 46-44 double overtime victory over Springfield Lanphier in 1985.
• Or arguably the best state championship game ever, the 59-57 triple overtime game in 1989 where East St. Louis Lincoln's Lawrence Bradford hit a buzzer-beater to knock off Peoria Central.
But when you include the talent that was on display, the records both teams boasted, the build-up of the game and combine it with the high-level basketball the two teams played over 32 minutes, it was in the collection of top title games played.
Hoops Report's final Peoria points ...
☛ As an Illinois high school basketball purist, really wish Simeon didn't play that Findlay Prep team back in January. That one loss sticks out but shouldn't, due to the fact it was an out-of-state prep school basketball factory. In the end, the experience was beneficial for Simeon and a win over Findlay would have put them in the mythical national title picture, but it sure would be nice to go down as an undefeated state champ.
☛ Without question, the unsung hero in Simeon's state championship is Jaleni Neely. The Big Three of Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn and Steve Taylor typically grab all the attention and headlines, but it was Neely who battled back from last summer's ACL injury and was a behind-the-scenes stalwart who helped keep the Simeon engine running. Neely hit a couple of huge three-pointers when his team needed them in the state title game victory. With all the great players that have come through Simeon over the past three decades, there haven't been any (until Parker graduates next year) who have been involved in more big games and championships than Neely. None. The 5-10 senior was the sixth man on the 2010 title team and was a spot-starter and key contributor on the 2011 title team. Now Neely will leave the program as a key member of three straight state championships.
☛ What an impressive first year turned in by Proviso East coach Donnie Boyce. The local boy came home and did good. No, did great. This team did three things all season that can be credited to a coach: played hard, inspired and unselfish all season. Has there ever been a coach in history who suffered his first loss of his coaching career in the state championship? The ride Boyce was on in his first year as coach was eerily similar to that of both Wayne McClain and Rocky Hill in 1995. McClain and Hill were both in their first year as head coach when they led their respective programs, Peoria Manual and Thornton, to the 1995 championship game. But the two were a combined 61-3 heading into the state final, while Boyce's Pirates were a perfect 32-0 before falling to Simeon.
☛ A coach who hasn't been mentioned enough for the job he's done this season is Hillcrest's Don Houston. He dealt with turmoil this past offseason with the tragic death of Ryan Royall and was there for a team who desperately needed a leader and someone to lean on. Houston took a group of good players and turned it into a great season with a third-place finish, just two years after winning the program's first state championship.
☛ Although Bloom had no intention of returning from Peoria with two losses, no one could have forecasted for this to be the best season this program has had since the mid-1970s. It's a credit to coach Jasper Williams, who does things the right way in the south suburbs.
☛ Simeon's Steve Taylor didn't wow people with his feathery touch from the three-point line or eye-opening athletic plays, but he showed a willingness to battle, grind and become the player the Wolverines needed him to be. The 6-7 senior was a warrior in Peoria, combining for 21 points and an eye-opening 28 rebounds in the two victories.
☛ After catching two Peoria Central games late in the season, I was impressed and sold. Yet I still didn't even pick the Lions to get out of their tough sectional. Silly me. You won't find many state championship teams as balanced as coach Dan Ruffin's club -- five players average between 7-13 points a game -- but unheralded senior Aldonis Foote elevated his play with a game-high 21 points in the semis and 17 in the state title win.
☛ Aaron Simpson of North Chicago wrapped up a brilliant 2,000-plus point career and led the WarHawks to a fourth-place finish as a junior and a runner-up finish as a senior. Though it's clearly not Boatright-esque explosiveness and showmanship, the high-volume scorer certainly can put points on the board and entertain. With the return of a pair of talented sophomores in guard JaVairius Amos-Mays (12 ppg) and 6-4 Kurt Hall (10 ppg), North Chicago will remain a team to watch in 3A over the next two seasons.
☛ If Springfield Lanphier sophomore Larry Austin can do one of two things over the next two years -- become a very reliable point guard or add a jumper that must be respected -- he will develop into the player so many thought he could be coming out of 8th grade.
☛ When you look at the two champions in 4A and 3A, there isn't much debate over one common approach both Simeon and Peoria Central took in finishing where they did: rugged schedules. Of all the eight teams in Peoria this past weekend, no team played tougher schedules than Simeon and Peoria Central. Simeon played a testy schedule that included highly-regarded national foes, a trip to the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and the dogfights in the Chicago Public League. Peoria Central played the likes of Springfield Lanphier, Washington, Crane, St. Joseph in non-conference play, while meeting Peoria Manual twice in league play.
☛ He doesn't get the props he deserves because he plays outside the Chicago area, but what Rockford Auburn's Fred Van Vleet did in leading that team to a third-place finish in 4A is awfully impressive. While the late-season injury to Jaylin Marshall, a player who provided Auburn with the little amount of size and presence it had, definitely hurt, this was not an overly talented team that took home a trophy from Peoria. But Van Vleet's presence and ability to make those around him better is pretty noteworthy. There are many individual players who are vitally important to their team, but there wasn't a player in Illinois this winter who was more important to his team than Van Vleet.
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