By Joe Henricksen

Compelling offseason storylines to follow, Part I

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With the AAU spring run coming to a close this past weekend, high school teams start gearing up for next season with a plethora of team camps and shootouts throughout the month of June.

This is a time for high school coaches to see how much improvement their players have made since March. It's a chance to build some team chemistry, work in a few new parts, for youngsters to get some seasoning and for a coach and team to turn the page.

It's time to start looking ahead to next season. Here is Part I of the Hoops Report's pressing offseason storylines (Public League edition) as we are six months away from the start of the 2013-2014 season.

Is this the Curie team that takes the big step?
Curie has been a consistent winner and constant threat for well over a decade. Coach Mike Oliver has led the Condors to countless Red-Central titles and been in the hunt for Pontiac Holiday Tournament titles, city championships and sectional runs.

But Curie is also the best program in the state not to have reached Peoria. There was a time when Brother Rice held that label, before coach Pat Richardson's Crusaders broke through in 2005 behind star Bobby Frasor. After winning regional and sectional titles and averaging 23 wins a season over an 11-year stretch, Brother Rice finally got over the hump and made the trip to Peoria.

Today, Curie and Neuqua Valley hold that distinction.

On paper, this will be the best Curie team in the Mike Oliver era, with the return of 6-9 Cliff Alexander and a rising talent in junior Joshua Stamps. Alexander turned into a force last season. But what fans and opponents saw this past season from Alexander is nothing like what they will see from "Big Cliff" this winter. That's how dominating the coveted prospect has been this spring on the AAU circuit. He's made tremendous strides, particularly in the area of realizing how good and impactful he can be every trip down the floor.

This Curie team can be as good as anyone in the city and the state. The key just might be the development of freshman point guard Devin Gage, an emerging dynamic talent. Gage gained some valuable varsity experience last season. Oliver will be more than comfortable putting the ball in his sophomore-to-be hands as Curie embarks on what could be a watershed moment for Oliver and the Curie program he's built.

How will this Simeon team handle a bulls-eye on its chest?
The four-time defending state champs are talented enough to win another title. But it's young, inexperienced talent. And every team knows it and believes this is the year to get the Wolverines. Think Chicago Bulls, circa 1993-94.

Everyone in the NBA was both shocked and drooling over Michael Jordan's retirement. The three-time defending world champs were toast. But behind one of the most underrated individual seasons in NBA history from Scottie Pippen (22 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, 2.9 spg), the Bulls went 55-27. The Bulls lost to the Knicks in a seven-game playoff series but showed they were more than just competitive.

Now Simeon is poised to contend without a Derrick Rose or a Jabari Parker. How this new crop of talent handles the spotlight will go a long way in determining if Peoria is within reach.

After talking with Simeon coach Robert Smith this week, the month of June, where high school teams are back playing together, is as critical of an offseason month as the program will have had in years. There are minutes to be earned, roles to be learned, player improvement to be made and chemistry to be developed.

Who will be the difference-makers for Morgan Park?
It's not as if coach Nick Irvin doesn't have any horses in the stable; talent is still oozing for the defending 3A state champs. Morgan Park's hopes for a repeat, however, depend heavily on finding a way to replace true difference-makers in Billy Garrett, Jr. and Kyle Davis. As backcourt mates, the ball was constantly in their hands and both were huge all season long in making big plays in crucial moments.

Josh Cunningham, a 6-6 junior who has seen his recruiting stock soar the past two months, is a safe bet to be a difference-maker. But again, in Morgan Park's system it's really about game-changing guards. That means the job of the other difference-maker(s) will fall to a veteran role player from a year ago (Lamont Walker or Torry Johnson) or a youngster (sophomore Kain Harris or freshman Charlie Moore), guards who have the potential to impact games.

No, the backcourt combination will not match the Garrett-Davis duo, but there is enough talent at Morgan Park to win another state championship in what will be a wide open Class 3A field, especially if a difference-maker or two develops in the backcourt this offseason.

How will Orr replace its heart and soul?
A returning junior group of 6-8 Marlon Jones, 6-6 Tyquone Greer and 6-3 Louis Adams, Jr. is dynamite and capable of getting Orr back to Peoria. Those are three Division I talents to build around with size, length and athleticism. But trying to replace its unheralded leader, point guard Jamal McDowell, will be daunting.

McDowell was a physical guard who set the tone at both ends of the floor. Although he didn't put up big numbers, there was a whole lot of toughness, heart and leadership lost with the graduation of McDowell. Plus, he wasn't afraid when the game was on the line. Just ask Whitney Young, which lost to Orr in the regular season when McDowell drained a three-pointer at the buzzer.

However, the addition of guard Isaiah Hayes, a talented transfer from Crane, lessens the blow. Orr needed a playmaker in the backcourt and got one in Hayes, one of the top 30 prospects in the Class of 2014.

What does the loss of L.J. Peak mean for Whitney Young?
For all the talk of Jahlil Okafor's stardom and the versatile play of Paul White, it was L.J. Peak that bailed the Dolphins out a time or three last season in big games. In both matchups with Simeon last season, it was Peak who was the best player on the floor for the Dolphins in those two monster showdowns.

Peak has transferred back to South Carolina and leaves a gaping hole for what will likely be the preseason No. 1 team in the state. Peak was a big, tough, physical perimeter player who was one of the top five players in the state in the Class of 2014 and a top 50 player nationally. You don't just wake up, roll out and replace a player of that caliber.

The loss of Peak is huge for coach Tyrone Slaughter and the Dolphins, especially with the schedule Whitney Young will be playing in 2013-2014. No one in Illinois will come close to playing the type of schedule the Dolphins will face next winter.

But don't feel too sorry for Whitney Young; Okafor, the nation's top-ranked player, is back and better than ever. And both White and guard Miles Reynolds, a pair of three-year starters, have both put together very good springs on the AAU circuit.

But instead of being an overwhelming favorite as the preseason No. 1 team in Illinois, the loss of Peak has brought the Dolphins back to the rest of the pack a bit. Nonetheless, Whitney Young will sit atop the polls when they're rolled out in November.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on May 27, 2013 7:18 AM.

What I learned this basketball season: No. 2 was the previous entry in this blog.

Loaded R-B Shootout this weekend is the next entry in this blog.

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