By Joe Henricksen

What I learned this basketball season: No. 7

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The City/Suburban Hoops Report continues its list of 10 things it learned this high school basketball season.

#7: The Class of 2014 is worth the hype.
With massive attention thrown Jahlil Okafor's way as early as 8th grader--and the Whitney Young big fella living up to the expectations through his high school career--the Class of 2014 has received a heavy dose of hype and college interest from the get-go.

Soon, Curie's Cliff Alexander joined Okafor among the top 10 national talents in the Class of 2014, while Normal U-High's Keita Bates-Diop became a consensus top 25 prospect in the country. The class had its star power at the top, so the hype ensued.

But what materialized over the course of this past season is a group of juniors that solidified themselves as legitimate prospects. Yes, the eye-catching, high-level talent at the top is impressive, but the class also has tremendous Division I depth. Right now the Hoops Report envisions not just 30-plus Division I prospects, but 30-plus mid-major Division I prospects.

The most recent Rivals.com player rankings has 10 players from Illinois ranked among its top 100 players in the Class of 2014 and 14 among the top 150.

While the Hoops Report doesn't always agree with the national rankings when it comes to players it watches the most here in Illinois, the fact 10 percent of the top 100 players in the country are from Illinois is an eye-opener.

And although the Hoops Report may not truly believe there are more than two dozen legit high-major players in the junior class, as is being projected, it won't be a surprise if that number ends up signing with programs in high-major conferences next November.

The Class of 2011 in Illinois was loaded, the best this state has produced since 1998. The Class of 2014 is on track to be better and deeper than 2011.

#8: Malachi Nix was the most underappreciated senior
While it's true you could replace Malachi Nix's name here with a number of different "underappreciated" players from this 2012-2013 season--New Trier's Steven Cook, Oswego's Elliot McGaughey, Benet's Pat McInerney and Lemont's Juozas Balciunas to name a few--and I wouldn't argue with you, the 5-6 point guard gets the nod. He's just done so much as a player for a once-downtrodden Niles North basketball program.

In fact, he's been so influential that Niles North basketball may have to count years by using the abbreviation BN--"before Nix."

Prior to Nix entering the halls of Niles North, the basketball program won 34 games the previous eight seasons. This past year alone Nix and the Vikings won 27.

Before Nix, the Niles North basketball program had won one regional title and produced two 20-win seasons--in the previous 50 years. During Nix's sophomore, junior and senior years, Niles North averaged 24 wins a year, won three straight regional championships and won the school's first-ever sectional title. Yes, "BN" works for Niles North basketball.

"First and foremost, he is a competitor and a winner," says Niles North coach Glenn Olson of his star point guard. "People question his size, but I have watched him every day and realize how little of a factor his size is."

Even with all the team success (84 career wins, 3 straight regional titles, 1 sectional championship and two CSL North titles) and despite significant numbers Nix put up (Nix scored 44 in a win over Morton), he's been underappreciated, somewhat overlooked.

Nix didn't receive the headlines or attention other top guards in the senior class have received. He didn't land on the Chicago Sun-Times all-area team. The recruiting interest has been tepid.

Nix graduates with 1,532 career points after averaging 18 points a game as a senior. He's also the career leader in steals with 215.

Loyola Academy coach Tom Livatino watched Nix beat his Ramblers team twice during their 22-6 season, including a regional final loss to end the season as Nix poured in a whopping 39 points.

"He's a warrior with a toughness and a will to win," says Livatino, who says Nix reminds him of a former player he coached at Lincoln Park, Northwestern standout point guard Michael Thompson. "I would not be concerned about his size. You can't stay in front of him and has a knack for scoring. He's relentless on defense."

#9: Simeon's place nationally is solidified
Rob Smith really doesn't need any further validation that his goal of becoming a national program has been accomplished, but here is some anyway.

You know the notion of Simeon being recognized nationally is valid when you're at a swim up bar in a resort pool in Mexico and, without any provoking, Simeon basketball pops up in the conversation. When a man sipping a Bahama Mama finds out you're from Chicago, he brings up -- of all things -- Simeon.

The conversation with this Boston sports fan -- who I can't even put in the avid sports fan category since he forgot his very own Celtic Rajon Rondo was out with an injury (Although he was a wee bit inebriated) -- began casually. But within minutes of Boston/Chicago conversation, he brings up Jabari Parker, how he was aware of Parker and Simeon with all the media attention thrown their way, and "Isn't that where Derrick Rose went to high school as well?"

Simeon is arguably -- no, not arguably anymore -- Simeon basketball IS, nationally, this state's most recognizable high school athletic program in history. Prior to Simeon basketball, that distinction probably went to Frank Lenti and Mt. Carmel football when the Caravan played in 10 state championships from 1989-2003, winning nine, and were prominently mentioned nationally.

Now it's Simeon, thanks to Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, mass media exposure, national TV appearances and championships. The Wolverines reached the national level prior to this season, but the program reached new, greater heights during this 2012-2013 campaign.

#10: The IHSA needs set rules for state tournament dates and cancellations
Now that we have been reminded that snowstorms can occur in March, can the IHSA -- no, the IHSA must -- put something in place to properly handle the cancellation of regional and sectional games?

The fact teams had to play sectional semifinal games Thursday night, while the other sectional winner had the night off while waiting for its sectional final opponent, is ludicrous.

Every step of the way along the state tournament trail becomes more taxing and emotionally draining. There is no question there was a distinct disadvantage for any team that played and won the Thursday night sectional game this year.

While one sectional semifinal winner had the luxury of "coming back down" emotionally from its win, having a night off and preparing for the sectional final with an actual practice, the other winner had to come back and play less than 24 hours later the following night for a sectional championship.

You can say teams play back-to-back nights all season or they do it for the State Finals in Peoria the very next weekend. But EVERYONE is doing it then, not just one of the two teams, so it remains competitively fair.

These high school teams--the players and the coaches--put in so much time and energy, both out of season and during the season to prepare for this moment. The least we can do is when games mean the most and they are playing for what they've worked so hard for is give them all a balanced playing field and an equal, fair shot.
 
The IHSA can claim this was the only way due to scheduling conflicts and availability with sectional sites, facilities and workers. Maybe scheduling snafus were an issue at a sectional site or two--I know the Class 3A sectional at Nazareth was one (the sectional was moved to Riverside-Brookfield as a result).

I also know I called three sectional hosts and asked if moving the championship game to Saturday night would have been a problem. Each one said there would be no problem in moving the title game one day back.
 
But the bigger question is why isn't there something more concrete already in place for situations like this?

I guess that shouldn't be a surprise since the IHSA leaves regional scheduling to the discretion of the host school. Huh? This is a whole other story, but look at the various regional scheduling around the state. They're all different from regional to regional with the opportunity (power) to add competitive advantages when they see fit. Why wouldn't they all be uniform across the state?

When it comes to hosting a sectional, would it be that difficult to put in writing that sectional hosts must, in the rare event there is a cancellation, have their gym available all week, including Saturday night?

What took place this past year can't happen again. And I would think every high school coach would agree.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on April 2, 2013 9:39 AM.

What I learned this basketball season: No. 8 was the previous entry in this blog.

Collins big step in right direction for NU is the next entry in this blog.

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