By Joe Henricksen
It's August, the slowest basketball month of year, and I'm still thinking hoops. My creative juices, out-of-the-box thinking is flowing.
In the Olympic spirit, I had a dreamy vision the other day while watching USA Basketball in London. What if in my make-believe-world there was this massive prep event in the United States centered on high school basketball? All 50 states put their top high school talent together, were coached up in a couple of mini-camps in preparation for the event and then competed in play-in pools until we had the top 16 states matched up in a tournament format?
Each state would put together its best "team" possible. The roster could include anyone in high school -- seniors, juniors, sophomores or incoming freshmen. The competition could take place every two years.
Sure, there would be some games similar to the USA-Nigeria debacle, the 156-73 drudgery a few days back -- say Illinois vs. Hawaii or Texas vs. Wyoming in pool play games? -- but it would be a whole lot of fun when we got down to the final 16 or the quarterfinals.
On paper, Texas would be the favorite in our U.S. Basketball States Cup Challenge (Yes, that's the name I came up with just as I was typing seconds ago, so we'll go with it. No real thought put into it. Name suggestions anyone for our make-believe national prep basketball event?).
But again, on paper, Texas would potentially feature Julius Randle, the No. 2 player in the country behind Jabari Parker of Simeon, along with Andrew and Aaron Harrison, twin brothers from Texas who are among the top five players in the country. There is also Duke-bound guard Matt Jones and another top 20 talent in guard Keith Frazier.
Yep, that's five Texans among the top 30 players in the country in the senior class, including three of the top five. And that's not even including two more Texans -- Emmanuel Mudlay and Justise Winslow -- who are among the top 10 players nationally in 2014. And, oh, a top five talent in 2015, Mickey Mitchell, is from Texas, too.
Yes, Texas is ridiculously loaded with elite high school talent and would be the heavy favorite in Vegas. But right now, the summer of 2012, Illinois could piece together a pretty special team of its own, one that would be in that second group behind favored Texas. The likes of Illinois, California, New Jersey, Florida, Indiana, Tennessee, Georgia, New York and Virginia would make a solid tournament nucleus.
So let me pretend to be Jerry Colangelo-like, the director of USA Basketball, as I assemble the ideal roster to contend in the U.S. Basketball States Cup Challenge. This is my blog, so this is my baby. There will surely be some debate on the final roster. No problem. (Just remember, people, it's make-believe! So you crazy parents out there, don't get all riled up. There really isn't any potential two-week, cross-country trip out there for your kid!)
There will be careful thought put into the construction of our Illinois team. It can't simply be the best "prospects" out there. We can't just go with the "wow factor" with the big names as we piece this group of 12 players together. The players have to fit, have the right attitude, become a cohesive unit. Sure, we need a few stars for sure, but we need a true point guard and ballhandlers, the designated shooter, the role-playing tough guy, some size inside, the defender, etc.
Here we go ...
We immediately have the luxury of having the cornerstone of this year's team in Simeon's Jabari Parker and Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor. Talk about two ideal players to build around.
Both Parker and Okafor have national team experience playing on gold medal-winning USA Basketball teams in their age group. Parker is the No. 1 prep player in the country, brings size at 6-8 and tremendous versatility. We can play Parker at a number of different positions, create mismatches all over the floor and, if we want, go really big in size or go small and versatile.
And with Okafor we have a true, legit 6-10 ½ monster on the block who will be a matchup nightmare. There are few states who are going to be able to put a true back-to-the-basket difference-maker in the middle like we can with Okafor, who must be accounted for every single minute he's on the floor.
What I like most about Parker and Okafor on this type of team, however, is that even with the "top dog" label they will receive, these two are unselfish stars. They will do whatever it takes for Team Illinois.
With Parker and Okafor locked in, it's time I turn to the point guard position. When assembling an all-star type group it's imperative to find the right point guard. Remember, this team needs to come together because winning is a priority, which is why the point guard position is critical. Anyone who reads this blog religiously knows exactly who Joe Henricksen, Director of Team Illinois Basketball, wants running his team: Tyler Ulis.
The 5-8 junior from Marian Catholic will be Team Illinois' starting point guard. He brings all the intangibles I need in a lead guard, including the most important one: making those around him better. He makes the decisions you want to be made. He's a pure point guard. And if you look throughout the state of Illinois, there really aren't many of those around. This is the guy.
For the most part, I want my wing and 4-man to be interchangeable pieces, which is why Parker is so nice to have as he can easily swing between the two. With a big man like Okafor, along with the occasional post-up ability of Parker, we need room for them to operate. We don't need another down low, on-the-block traditional 4-man clogging things up.
That brings me to Keita Bates-Diop of Normal U-High, the fast-rising 6-8 junior who brings length, athleticism and the versatility we need. Like Parker, he can play both forward spots. As a 4-man he can step away from the basket, face up and be the multi-dimensional guy we need. He has the length to disrupt things in a variety of ways. We don't have to label Parker or Bates-Diop as they both can play either of the forward spots efficiently for what we need them to do at those positions.
The 2-guard spot will come down to a pair of players: Simeon's Kendrick Nunn and St. Charles East's Kendall Stephens. These two will complement one another well. Between the two of them we will get everything we need from our 2-guard.
Nunn, a 6-1 senior, is the big-time athlete with toughness. He will defend, make plays at the rim and in transition. Plus, he has USA Basketball experience. Stephens brings length at 6-5 and will be one of our most valuable shooters with his perimeter shooting ability. When you put Stephens on the floor with the likes of Ulis, Parker and Okafor, you'll see the best of him as he's surrounded by elite talent. He will help space the floor.
So we have Ulis at the point guard position, with Okafor in the middle, Parker and Bates-Diop at the two forward spots and then Nunn and Stephens interchangeable at the shooting guard position. We have half the team assembled. The remaining six spots need to be players who will fill roles -- and accept those roles -- while filling any holes we may have.
First, we need another knockdown shooter to bring off the bench. Right now we have Stephens as our best, most consistent 3-point shooter. I want Alec Peters of Washington, the 6-7 senior who is arguably the best shooter in the state. He brings size and can get his shot off when he wants. With the likes of Parker and Bates-Diop, Peters won't get a lot of time. But he is on this team for one reason: shooting. And with that an ability to stretch a defense. If we're scuffling from the perimeter, having trouble scoring and shots just aren't falling, we'll plug in Peters. Think Kyle Korver.
Our backup big man is going to be Curie's Cliff Alexander, one of the premier prospects nationally in the Class of 2014. There will be few states, if any, who can bring a player of this size and quality off the bench. Alexander is the big body and rebounder we need, athletic and an interior presence.
Alexander will be able to spell Okafor sufficiently. With the way we want to play and run things offensively, I'm not sure if Okafor and Alexander on the floor together will happen all that often. But the option is there to go big if we have to with a frontline of Okafor, at 6-10 ½, Alexander at 6-9 and Parker at 6-8.
For this team, at this time, for specific purposes, I have to put Kendall Pollard of Simeon on this team. There may be other players ranked higher or are considered higher-level "prospects," but Pollard is ideal for the make-up of this team. He won't be asked to do a lot on this team, but he will be great in practice and off the bench. He has a little size at 6-5. He has some versatility in that he can play both forward spots. And, most importantly, he has the ability to defend multiple positions.
If Julius Randle or Aaron Harrison are killing us in our matchup with Texas, I have no problem putting Pollard in there to disrupt their flow and get them out of sync offensively for a stretch. And Pollard, with his combination of strength, size, athleticism, toughness and instincts, can do just that.
This next roster spot is tricky. We either need a quality, veteran guard who can knock down a shot from the perimeter and run a team from the point guard position, or we need a slasher who can create a little and get to the rim. That leaves us with one spot among these three: Morgan Park's Billy Garrett, Belleville East's Malcolm Hill and Proviso East's Sterling Brown. Since Hill is still recuperating from an injury, we're going to have to go with either Garrett or Brown. Tough call.
But the faith I have in our final two players at the end of the bench (keep reading), who are both guards, leads me to taking Brown. Here is another true versatile player for us off the bench, who has also shown the ability to come up big when it matters: last year's state championship game vs. Simeon.
Our backup point guard needs to be able to come in and change the tempo, put relentless pressure on opposing guards and wreak havoc in the limited minutes he will receive playing behind Ulis. I'm going with Paris Lee of Proviso East, who brings ultra-quickness, energy, a positive attitude and will be a pesky, defensive dog. The kid is a winner and has an infectious positive personality for this team off the bench.
I want our final spot taken by a young player. If we're going to be doing this competition every two years, Team Illinois will need a holdover in the sophomore class for the summer of 2014. This player will gain valuable experience in 2012. He may not be asked to do a ton as probably the 11th or 12th man, but who knows how he will respond.
The young talent we're going to bring along is Charles Matthews of St. Rita. The 6-4 guard is versatile, gives us some length on the perimeter and will certainly be one of our go-to guys when the 2014 team is assembled. He can play both guard spots if needed.
So that leaves us with a roster that looks like this.
☛ Point Guard
Ulis will be our starter, probably play anywhere from 24-26 minutes a game, with Lee as his primary backup playing 6-8 minutes. We have Mathews around as well if needed.
☛ Shooting Guard
The bulk of the 32 minutes will be split between Nunn and Stephens. In a pinch and if we wanted to go really big, we could slide Parker in at the 2-guard spot. In pool play games, where we should dominate, Matthews can gain some valuable minutes here as well.
Okafor will get 25-plus minutes in the middle, with Alexander backing him up. We don't have a lot of depth at this position, but we don't need a lot when you have Okafor and Alexander.
☛ Power Forward
With how we want to play, we'll start Bates-Diop at the 4-spot. But we have a variety of players we can plug in here, including Parker, Pollard, Peters and even Brown if we want to go with a small, quick lineup.
☛ Small Forward
Parker will play all over, but he will take the majority of the minutes on the wing. We also have Pollard and Brown backing him up.
What I love most about this team is that we have bonafide stars in Parker and Okafor, along with a ton of versatility. There are so many different types of lineups we can put out there with this group. Concerns? Lets take a look at a couple of potential concerns with this team.
The one area we may be lacking is that ideal, quintessential skilled and athletic wing who can just go break any defender down and get his points when he wants to. Then again, we have the nation's No. 1 prospect at the wing position. We are also pretty small at the point guard position with both Ulis and Lee.
First, I have to tinker with the evaluation calendar for basketball to make this work. So lets pretend in our make-believe hoops world that we can go back in time here in 2012.
I'm going to eliminate the final weekend of the current AAU evaluation calendar in July. Thus, the AAU basketball evaluation periods for college coaches will include two weekends in April (as it is right now) and the two current long weekends in July. We're going to open one week in June, where college coaches can go evaluate true, traditional high school events of their choosing, which could include shootouts, tournaments and camps with their high school teams.
College coaches will also be allowed to follow and evaluate our U.S. Basketball States Cup Challenge in the final 15 days of July.
There are 50 states. We will have 16 different pools with 3 states in each pool, playing two games each before tournament play includes the top 16 states from across the country. That number obviously equals 48, so we have to eliminate 2 states. Here's how we will do that ...
We're going to put the eight worst states in two separate play-in pools. The last-place team in each pool will be eliminated from U.S. Basketball States Cup Challenge competition. These eight states are the ones who have produced the fewest top 100 players since 1998. There are four -- Hawaii, Vermont, Montana and Idaho -- who have not churned out a single top 100 talent during that time. There are four others who have produced just a single top 100 player, according to consensus top 100 lists: Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming.
I know, you basketball junkies are so wanting to know what one player each of those states has produced since 1998. Here goes:
■ Wyoming produced Wake Forest star James Johnson in 2007, who was ultimately drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 2009 with the No. 16 pick. He was out of the Wyoming hoops hotbed of Cheyenne East High School.
■ Gonzaga nabbed Colorado's 2006 Prep Player of the Year Matt Bouldin from ThunderRidge High School in Highlands Ranch, a 6-4 guard and the lone top 100 player out of Colorado since 1998 (before Chauncey Billups' time starring in Colorado in the mid-1990s).
■ In 1998, Kansas signed the top player out of North Dakota -- 6-1 guard Jeff Boschee, a McDonald's All-American who became a four-year starter for Roy Williams.
■ Wes Wilkinson was a borderline top 100 player out of Nebraska in 2002, but the 6-8 forward was top 100, nonetheless. He signed with Nebraska and put together a decent career.
What state has produced the most top 100 talent, according to the rankings, since 1998? It's California in a landslide, followed by Texas.
Back to our format ... The 16 pools will be headed by a "top seed," which in 2012 our 16 top-seeded teams --which will be separated in 16 different pools -- will be (in no particular order): Illinois, Texas, California, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Alabama.
After the conclusion of pool play, we will bring the top 16 teams to Chicago (Remember, this is my baby!) for a week to play out the 16-team tournament bracket. The winning state then gets to host the tournament in two years.
There. Done. Some very difficult decisions in assembling the team. Already second-guessing myself at a couple spots.
Now, who's going to coach our Illinois team? Suggestions?
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