By Joe Henricksen
The NFL loves parity. Do you as high school basketball fans? Depends on the fan.
Fans seemed so intrigued in the past when there was a dominant prep basketball team in Illinois. People were excited to watch some of those outrageously talented King teams in the 1980s and 1990s, but there was also a disconnect in that many of those same fans were anxious to see Sonny Cox's boys fall.
Peoria Manual won with class -- and some loaded teams -- during its unprecedented run with four straight championships in the 1990s. There were fans, though, that wanted to see the state title streak end. And it sure was entertaining to watch to see if Thornton could ever get over Mt. Manual in those final three years.
Yes, it's entertaining when there are a handful of legit, contending teams who you can't wait to see, paired up against one another in March. But as Simeon embarks on its third consecutive state title run -- and fifth title in the last seven years -- we don't have that balance and parity in the state's largest class of basketball. We have a clear-cut favorite in Simeon, an unbeaten power in Proviso East that wants a crack at the mighty Wolverines, and two programs in Bloom and Rockford Auburn that are believing in themselves and feel as if they can play the role of spoiler.
(Want some parity? Keep an eye on those four Class 3A semifinal games.)
There is a lot to like in 4A this weekend. And at the top of the list is a potential Simeon-Proviso East title game matchup Saturday night, a game the Hoops Report has been clamoring for since February.
And what about those two other teams in 4A?
What's appealing as we head to the final weekend of the season is that both Bloom and Rockford Auburn have moved up from the "wannabe contender" group from earlier in the season. They are now two teams who are just one upset win away from playing for a state championship. And for these two programs, it's been awhile since either have been in this position.
Here's a look at the four Class 4A semifinalists.
What's at stake? A third straight state championship and a state record sixth state title, which would give the Simeon program more than any other in state history. Lets see if coach Rob Smith's team defends its crown with vigor. Does this group appreciate the significance that is before them? Do these guys LOVE being champs? Not every group is wired that way. We'll see if the Wolverines are.
What's to like? Duh, the Wolverines are the best team in the state and boast the most eye-opening talent. If you're as good as your three best guys, then Simeon is awfully good with Jabari Parker, Steve Taylor and Kendrick Nunn. Plus, the deeper we get into Parker's career, the closer he gets to being one of those rare talents who fans look at as if he's a UFO landing at center court during warmups.
What's the fear? Will the expectations ever tug on Simeon's shoulders? If a game is tight, down to the wire, right down to the last possession -- the Wolverines won every postseason game by double digits with an average victory margin of 24 points -- how will Simeon respond? This team has faced little to no game-like adversity.
What's at stake: Well, why not shoot for the stars and win a tradition-rich program's first-ever state championship? This will be Bloom's first state trophy of any kind in over 35 years. Can the Blazing Trojans get back to the title game for the first time since finishing second in the state in 1974 and 1975?
What's to like? Do people underestimate the Blazing Trojans? Or is it just me? You couldn't blame a few from jumping off the bandwagon in January when losses to Rich South, Bogan and Sandburg created some doubt. But what a terrific job coach Jasper Williams has done with this group that isn't overly talented but sits 28-3 on the year. Unheralded point guard Donald Moore has been an absolute rock. He may not garner the attention other guards in this state tournament have received, but he's been so instrumental in this team's success. Bloom isn't real big, but 6-4 junior Johnny Griffin has stepped up as the coaching staff hoped he would this season. However, what this team really hangs its hat on is the defense it plays. Bloom disrupts things, puts pressure on opposing teams with its ball pressure.
What's the fear? From a pure talent perspective, Bloom doesn't match up with either of the teams it will likely have to knock off in Peoria -- Simeon in the semifinals and Proviso East in the final. And Bloom didn't exactly knock off any juggernauts on its way to Peoria. While Bloom has won 13 straight games, it hasn't played a single ranked team in that span.
What's at stake? Well, when you're Rockford Auburn, you simply cherish the fact you're playing on this final weekend of the season. It's a program that has slowly climbed the mountain, losing in the supersectional last year, and hasn't been to the state finals in over 35 years.
What's to like? Fred Van Vleet. He's a player that simply grows on you. Playing against the Wichita State point guard is a little like that whole numbing process at the dentist. You don't feel a thing while he's going to work on you, but you realize all the damage that was done when it's all over. Van Vleet averages 21.3 points, 6.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds and over 4 steals a game. But beyond the stats, Van Vleet makes those around him better than they really are and does a better job of doing it than anyone in Illinois right now. This is a veteran, senior group that has won a lot of games and gained a lot of confidence.
What's the fear? That what happened in the quarterfinals of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament happens again. That late December loss to Proviso East, a 75-56 whipping, was the last time this Auburn team lost. But it also hasn't played a team anywhere near as good as Proviso East since then. There is also a serious lack of height, which fortunately shouldn't come into play against a small Proviso East team.
What's at stake? Bringing the basketball glory back to Maywood has already happened with a 31-0 record and trip to Peoria. But this is a program that feels it took too long to get back to state after winning back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992. Regardless of the experts and their picks, coach Donnie Boyce's Pirates are here to win it and claim the program's fifth state championship. A title in Peoria this weekend would tie the Pirates with Peoria Manual and Simeon for the most state championships in IHSA history.
What's to like? Speed. Quickness. More speed. Proviso East's guard play, led by the trio of Keith Carter, Paris Lee and Paris Burns, wreaks havoc. In addition to combing for 42 points a game, they just hound you defensively. They're like a bunch of attacking terriers who keep coming and coming and coming. If you don't like playing fast, the Pirates make you play fast. If you do like to play fast, the Pirates play faster. But if Proviso East is to come away with the biggest trophy, junior Sterling Brown (12.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg) is going to have to be a difference-maker.
What's the fear? There are two concerns. First, the larger college floor will be a huge disadvantage to the suffocating, full-court, trapping, pressure defense the Pirates thrive on. There will be fewer transition points for Proviso East in Peoria. Thus can they maintain their poise at the most crucial times and in the halfcourt? When you're creating a chaotic pace and trying to speed the game up, you adopt a certain "I don't give a crap, we're going balls out from the tip" mind-set for the first 29 minutes of the game ... and then those last three minutes come around and you have to slow things down, get good shots and take care of the ball. But it's tough because you've been committed to that "I don't give a crap, we're going balls out from the tip" mind-set for 29 minutes. Luckily, Proviso East has a floor general in Keith Carter who gets it.
And our Class 3A reps ...
• Springfield Lanphier
Many Springfield Lanphier state tournament memories come rushing back as the Lions make their first trip to the state finals since 2002. Most fans will remember superstars Kevin Gamble and Ed Horton in the mid-1980s. Or maybe Andre Igoudala in 2002. Me? I remember the 1983 state championship team, led by Gamble and Horton, with the crowd whooping it up with chants of "Moooooooooose" for unheralded Moose Nika, a 6-3 forward and son of coach Bob Nika.
This Lanphier team is perimeter-dominated. There is Class 3A all-stater Everett Clemons (19 ppg), who is the son of former Springfield great and Fighting Illini star Rennie Clemons. And there is Larry Austin (12.5 ppg), the ballyhooed sophomore guard, who is among the top players in the state in the Class of 2014.
• North Chicago
When it comes to North Chicago basketball, the discussion always starts with senior guard Aaron Simpson. The 5-11 high-scoring guard has scored over 2,000 career points and is averaging 26.3 points a game this season. This North Chicago team is better than the one that finished fourth in the state last March. In addition to Simpson, North Chicago has a pair of up-and-coming talents in sophomores Kurt Hall (9.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and JaVairius Amos-Mays (11.6 ppg), who transferred in from Zion-Benton this year, and a not-talked-about-enough senior in Marzhon Bryant (11.5 ppg).
There isn't a team that has experienced a wider range of emotions since the end of last season than coach Don Houston's Hawks. Last June, Ryan Royall, who was a projected starter for this year's team, was tragically shot and killed by a stray bullet. Now, a little more than nine months later, with Royall's memory still fresh on their minds, Hillcrest is in Peoria shooting for its second state title in three years.
While many don't know much about him, junior Jovan Mooring will provide fans visions of Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson. The stocky, offensive-minded guard leads the Hawks with just over 15 points a game. Hillcrest is balanced, with a pair of hard-nosed seniors, 6-5 Jayon'e Troutman and 6-5 Jalen Loving, combining for 26 points and 14 rebounds a game.
• Peoria Central
In Peoria, the likes of Manual and Richwoods -- even Washington, just outside of Peoria -- have grabbed all the headlines since Peoria Central won back-to-back titles behind Shaun Livingston in 2003 and 2004. This Peoria team, however, might just be the favorite to bring home the program's fifth state title.
Coach Dan Ruffin's team, which owns impressive late-season wins over Washington (twice), Peoria Manual, St. Joseph and Springfield Lanphier, is big, strong and athletic. The Lions will throw 6-7 Trey Kellum (12.6 ppg), 6-4 Aldonis Foote (11.2 ppg), 6-10 Kevin Jordan (7.6 ppg) and 6-6 Shamar Hill (10.9 ppg) at you in a balanced attack. Jordan is one of the two or three most improved players in the senior class since the end of last season.
And the picks ...
Class 3A Semifinals
Springfield Lanphier over North Chicago
Peoria Central over Hillcrest
Class 3A State Final
Peoria Central over Springfield Lanphier
Class 4A Semifinals
Simeon over Bloom
Proviso East over Rockford Auburn
Class 4A State Final
Simeon over Proviso East
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