By Joe Henricksen
Fact: The Illinois high school basketball AAU/club basketball world is dominated by three programs -- Mac Irvin Fire, Illinois Wolves and Meanstreets.
Fiction: The only way to go when it comes to AAU/club basketball is through the Mac Irvin Fire, Illinois Wolves and Meanstreets.
Yes, it's true. When it comes to talking club basketball in Illinois and tracking down the state's top players, the search will typically leave you in a gym watching either the Mac Irvin Fire, Illinois Wolves or Meanstreets. They draw people -- and college coaches when events are "live". When the AAU spring season began, the Fire, Wolves and Meanstreets had secured 20 of the Hoops Report's top 25 players in the Class of 2013 player rankings.
From a talent perspective, there are programs trying to steal a little thunder from the "Big Three", with the D Rose All-Stars and the newly-formed Chicago Magic boasting a few high-level prospects. But at the end of the day, it's the Fire, Wolves and Meanstreets who continue to stockpile loads of Division I talent up and down their rosters.
These three high-profile programs are courted by the big events around the country, college coaches flock to see them and they are all outfitted by shoe companies.
Both the Fire and Meanstreets are part of the best thing going right now in high-level travel circuit basketball -- the EYBL. Nike's Elite Youth Basketball mission isn't perfect, but it's an improved and competitive format that is so much better than 97 percent of the events out there. And the EYBL, which consists of four regular-season events in April and May and concludes with the EYBL finals in July at the prestigious Nike Peach Jam, is a huge selling point for any Nike-involved program.
The Wolves, meanwhile, have created their own brand and identity. This program has done it the right way over the years while growing into not only one of the elite programs in Illinois, but one of the top programs in the Midwest and around the country.
But there is life after the "Big Three" and there is talent beyond the rosters of the Fire, Wolves and Meanstreets. While there are many travel team programs and teams out there doing it the right way in Illinois but with a whole lot less fanfare, the Hoops Report singles out three that are overlooked and underappreciated.
What's to like: You want under the radar? There is no major metropolitan area as the backbone for this central Illinois grassroots program. The Peoria area, in fact, gets pilfered by other programs. Yet founder Jim Rochford and program director Gavin Sullivan have done a terrific job in providing an opportunity for Peoria area and central Illinois basketball prospects. And the Irish have always done a great job playing with and competing against the bigger-named teams. Really, there is no reason for a local to go anywhere else. The practices and workouts are close to home. There is organization, guidance and camaraderie. The Irish play anywhere and everywhere. And despite what others will say, you can and will be found by college coaches.
The Bell Cow: Alec Peters of Washington. Kudos to Peters, a 6-7 Class of 2013 prospect who is among the top 15 players in the class. He stuck with the Peoria Irish. Peters isn't going to receive any fewer offers playing with the Irish than any other club program in Illinois.
Why they're overlooked: As previously mentioned, the Irish aren't in the Chicago area -- or even in the St. Louis area. This is a local brand that has had its share of Division I players (Peters and Preston Wells of Peoria Richwoods this year; Lincoln's Jordan Nelson and Bloomington Central Catholic's Hayden Hoerdemann last year) but has primarily pumped out a whole lot of small college talent at the Division II and Division III levels. Unfortunately, that doesn't always have enough pizzazz for some.
Southwest Illinois Jets
What's to like: First, it's not an AAU/club basketball conglomerate with dozens of teams in different age groups trying to rake in as much money as it can. That's refreshing. Second, talk with anyone familiar with the Jets and they will tell you it's a whole lot more than just basketball with this basketball club program. Many programs talk the talk, but the Jets have stood behind their beliefs and mission statement. They are there to help these kids. That's a credit to founder Steve Lanter, director Todd Hill and assistant director Dana Morgan. Morgan, in particular, goes above and beyond for the kids in the boys program. The Jets have become a very recognizable name as a result of producing quality players and playing a competitive and top-notch schedule.
The Bell Cow: The Jets have a big one. The presence of its biggest star to date, Belleville East's Malcolm Hill, is a reward for a program that has done a heck of a job over the years. The 6-6 junior and Illinois commit is the Hoops Report's No. 2 prospect in the state in the Class of 2013.
Why they're overlooked: Too many people in Illinois ignore anything south of Interstate 80. And when you go that far south of I-80, good luck. While the Jets are highly respected in and around the St. Louis area, they have to earn -- fair or unfair -- every little bit of recognition and respect they get from those in the Chicago area. As the Jets continue to compete at a high level, while churning out players like Hill, Belleville East's Darreon Reddick, Chatham-Glenwood's Peyton Allen and Cahokia's Keenan Minor and Darius Austin, the respect statewide will come.
What's to like: Unlike all others in Illinois, this is just an old fashioned team of local high school kids that wanted to team up and play together under a guy they know and trust. Mike Weinstein, who built up and ran the Rising Stars program for many years, is back in the game, albeit on a smaller scale. While Weinstein has helped pump out 200-plus college basketball players at all levels, from Division I to Division III to NAIA, over his final 10 years of running the Rising Stars, Fundamental U is a single team. This is a group of players from the north suburbs that does have some talent, including a handful of Division I prospects. And it's a team that is clearly taught, fundamentally sound, will get better, plays together and with discipline under the direction of Weinstein.
The Bell Cow: Big man Andrew McAuliffe of Glenbrook North is among the top 25 prospects in the Class of 2013. McAuliffe will sort through a number of mid-major and mid-major plus offers between now and November.
Why they're underappreciated: For starters, it's a one-trick pony. Weinstein does not have a "program" or a pool of players. This is one team that was put together to really accomplish two things: have fun playing with one another and to try and get better under an experienced and organized coach. While the team is new to the scene, the approach that Weinstein has used and had so much success with over nearly two decades remains the same.
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