And we're off!
Practices officially began Monday for high school basketball teams across the state. The storylines from a year ago -- Simeon's three-peat, Bloom's first state trophy since 1975, Proviso East's return to glory and prominence, Andrew's first conference title, second 20-win season and second regional title in 35 years of existence, Evanston's Cinderella run in March, Marist's upsets in March, St. Viator's record-breaking season, the arrival of Metea Valley and Plainfield East on the scene, and the likes of Lemont and DuSable basketball actually being talked about -- will soon be replaced.
There are many questions to be answered over the next four months, but in these first few days of practice, the Hoops Report looks at a few pressing questions in forecasting the 2012-2013 season.
◆ What league race will be the most competitive and exciting to watch this season?
While the Public League's Red-South and Red-West are the two toughest leagues in the city and suburbs, there are clear-cut favorites in both: Simeon in the Red-South and Young in the Red-West. The East Suburban Catholic, on the other hand, has a favorite in Marist but a lengthy list of contenders, including Niles Notre Dame, Benet Academy, St. Viator, St. Patrick and Marian Catholic who all boast enough talent to beat anyone on any given night in the ESCC. This will be the deepest, most competitive league race to watch this winter.
◆ What is the team no one is talking about now but will be sooner or later?
We won't be confusing this Providence St. Mel team with the ones that grabbed every basketball fan's attention in the mid-1980s, but the Knights are going to be better than last year's 23-win team that won regional and sectional championships.
Coach Tim Ervin doesn't have much size, but he has a whole bunch of talent with seven key players returning. An exciting four-guard attack with junior star Tevin King (16 ppg), sophomore Ant Mosley and seniors Khalil Small (18 ppg) and Teadric Anderson makes St. Mel a serious threat in Class 2A.
Go ahead and circle Jan. 15 on the calendar. That's when fellow 2A power Seton Academy, which beat St. Mel 61-51 in the supersectional last March, faces off with the Knights.
◆ Will Whitney Young, the Hoops Report's preseason No. 2 team, have the depth and point guard play to challenge Simeon?
With 6-11 Jahlil Okafor, 6-9 Paul White and 6-5 L.J. Peak, all ranked among the top 65 players in the country in the Class of 2014, along with a seasoned junior in Miles Reynolds, the Dolphins have elite talent that can play with anyone. But point guard play will be imperative for coach Tyrone Slaughter's team. The combination of Reynolds and Ausar Madison, a point guard transfer from California, must provide the type of backcourt that understands their role and recognizes who butters the bread on this team. Depth on the Dolphins is still evolving, but promising 6-5 sophomore Joseph Toye could provide it with his size, length and athleticism.
◆ Who will be the area's most improved team?
With the amount of returning players back at places like Eisenhower (10-18), Lincoln-Way North (10-19), Conant (14-14) and Fenwick (12-14), these four will be much better than their records last season. But the most improved team will be Loyola Academy.
First, coach Tom Livatino must get some of his key players off the football field as he will open practice on Monday shorthanded as the Ramblers continue to advance in the Class 8A football playoffs.
Last season Loyola went 9-18 (4-6 in the Catholic League). Those records could be flip-flopped this season as the Ramblers return almost everyone, led by 6-1 sharpshooting junior Jack Morrissey. There will be solid guard play with junior combo guard James Clarke, senior Rich Wehman, junior point guard Kevin Kucera and Morrissey. There will be added depth and, most importantly, this group knows and understands Livatino's system and expectations after spending the last three years in the program.
◆ What mega-star will have to carry the biggest load this season? Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor or Cliff Alexander?
Answer this question: Would Simeon be a state title contender if Jabari Parker was not on the roster? While obviously not an overwhelming favorite as they are with Parker, the Wolverines would still be ranked either No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 in the state. So the answer is yes.
Okafor, meanwhile, is surrounded by two players, Paul White and L.J. Peak, who are among the top 65 players in the country in the Class of 2014. Okafor will be dominant but should receive ample support from those two juniors who have varsity experience.
Meanwhile, there will certainly be times where Alexander will have to carry the Condors this season, especially when matched up against the state's elite teams. Coach Mike Oliver has talent around the 6-8 junior star, but Alexander is going to need to expand his presence, going from a rebounder/shot blocker who scored off dunks and putbacks as a sophomore to a consistent offensive threat that makes those around him better as a junior.
◆ What underclassman who has yet to play varsity will make the biggest impact this season?
As far as freshmen go, it's going to be a year where the impact is minimal in the state. And the majority of the most highly-regarded sophomores received some varsity experience last year as freshmen. The biggest impact from a varsity newbie should come from St. Joseph, where the super sophomore tandem of Jordan Ash and Glynn Watson will be the difference between the Chargers being good and very good. If Ash and Watson don't resemble first-year varsity players, St. Joe's will be just fine. Relying on young players has not been the norm at tradition-rich St. Joseph, but legendary coach Gene Pingatore may need to lean on Ash and Watson more than he would like -- or is at least used to.
◆ What is the one event you can't miss?
Every year the state of Illinois offers intriguing individual matchups, enticing shootouts and must-see holiday tournaments. This year, however, starts with a bang. No, make that a massive KABOOM! The Chicago Elite Classic on Dec. 1 at the UIC Pavilion is the only event where you will be able to see the state's top three teams -- Simeon, Whitney Young and Proviso East -- and the likes of Simeon's Jabari Parker, Young's Jahlil Okafor and Normal U-High's Keita Bates-Diop all together in one day and on one floor.
Nationally-ranked teams like Mater Dei out of California and DeMatha Catholic out of Maryland highlight five out-of-state powers who will take on five of the top programs in Illinois. For more information go to www.chicagoeliteclassic.com.
◆ And finally ... Will (or can?) anyone in Illinois beat Simeon?
Almost two questions in that one question, as there is a difference between "will" and "can" when it comes to whether or not anyone is beating Simeon this season. Yes, Simeon is once again the favorite -- a big favorite. But it's not as if coach Rob Smith is getting his players sized for rings on the first day of practice. It's still high school basketball with teen-aged kids. There are still things like injuries and chemistry. Simeon just happens to have a dozen-plus players in the program that will play Division I basketball. So, can someone beat Simeon? Yes. Will someone beat Simeon? The Hoops Report says no. Too good, too deep, too disciplined.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport