A year ago, in the 2012 Summer Olympic spirit, I wrote a column with a vision of a one-of-a-kind prep basketball event. In that blog, which you can read here for the specifics, 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 a top 16 matched up in a tournament format.
I had a name for it -- the U.S. Basketball States Cup Challenge -- and gave myself a title (Joe Henricksen: Director of Team Illinois Basketball), a la Jerry Colangelo, the real director of USA Basketball. My vision. My dream. My team.
So here is the roster I would construct this year as we head into battle with states like Texas, the favorite in my mind on paper with four 2014 prospects among the top 15 and another 2015 prospect in the top 10, California, Florida, Indiana and others.
We'll start with our interior play. Lets see, where could we find a couple of big men? We need two players who could play the 4 and 5 spots effectively for Team Illinois. Thinking ...
Oh, I kid you readers ... Yep, no one in the country is matching up inside against Team Illinois. We can slide Whitney Young's 6-11 Jahlil Okafor in at center and Curie's 6-9 Cliff Alexander at power forward. That right there is the reason this year's Team Illinois is going to be so darn good. That's a high school version of a center/power forward combination like McHale and Parrish, Duncan and Robinson, Hayes and Unseld.
In addition to the two monsters inside, we have a point guard who is all about winning, distributing and making a play when he needs to: Tyler Ulis. For what this team needs, the 5-8 Marian Catholic point guard is the ideal fit and brings every point guard intangible a loaded team needs. Look what Ulis does with his high school and AAU team! Imagine one where he can feed and play off Big Cliff and Jahlil!
Remember, this isn't about assembling the five best players and/or prospects and putting them on the floor together. This is about mixing and matching. And with Alexander and Okafor inside, along with Ulis' ability to get in the lane, penetrate a defense and make great decisions, it's imperative we spread the floor with a knockdown shooter or two.
With Big Cliff and Jahlil inside, Team Illinois is going to go with three guards in the starting lineup. Although Stevenson's Jalen Brunson is best with the ball in his hands, we're going to slide the 6-2 junior off the ball because of his shooting ability. Add his moxie, competitiveness and basketball I.Q. to a starting five that includes Ulis, and Team Illinois is set in the backcourt.
Charles Matthews, the junior guard from St. Rita, will be a valuable weapon as he fills in any missing holes left from the foursome of Okafor, Alexander, Ulis and Brunson. The 6-5 guard brings size on the perimeter and a player who can go get a basket off the dribble. Plus, he will be groomed for next year's U.S. Basketball States Cup Challenge when he and Brunson team up to lead Team Illinois.
The bench will have seven players and will be a mix-and-match that offers versatility and players that bring specific characteristics and have defined roles. Our ideal sixth man is going to bring size, athleticism, length and some versatility. That's why Normal U-High's Keita Bates-Diop, who can play both forward spots, is perfect. We can go big with him at the wing and do some different things defensively. Bates-Diop is one of those "sixth-man starter" types.
Any "team" I'm putting together from Illinois has to include toughness and players willing to battle and defend. That means Malek Harris of Sandburg and Springfield Lanphier's Larry Austin will be welcomed with open arms.
Harris brings energy and a competitive spirit, along with being a versatile forward who can handle it, rebound and able to defend multiple positions. That's a valuable tool off the bench. While the Hoops Report may not have Austin ranked as high as others do, he is the type of defensive stopper on the perimeter you need off the bench.
We need a shooter off the bench, someone who has other qualities but is able to spot up and knock a shot down when defenses collapse on Okafor, Alexander and Ulis' penetration. We're taking Plainfield East's Aaron Jordan, a junior guard with some size at 6-3 who shot nearly 50 percent from the three-point line as a sophomore.
Now for our role-playing big men off the bench backing up Okafor and Alexander, who aren't leaving the floor unless in foul trouble or in need of a breather. Benet's Sean O'Mara brings legit size at 6-9 and is one player who is willing to get on the block. I also want a face-up, spread-the-floor 4-man who will allow us to space the floor when he's in the game. Michael Finke of Champaign Centennial, a 6-9 shooter and passer, is an ideal role player off the bench for this team.
With our final roster spot, Team Illinois needs a little more size and a little more versatility in the frontcourt. Wisconsin recruit Ethan Happ of Rockridge, a 6-7½ forward, can play both forward spots.
➥ Point Guard
With Tyler Ulis, we have a point guard who won't leave the floor much at all, playing anywhere from 25-28 minutes a game. We will slide Jalen Brunson over when needed and not miss a beat with 32 minutes of high-level point guard play.
➥ Shooting Guard
The majority of the minutes will come from Brunson, but he will also be playing 5-7 minutes at point guard. So plug 15-18 minutes in at the 2-guard for Brunson, with the ability to move Charles Matthews to the 2-guard and play Aaron Jordan there as well as a much-needed shooter off the bench.
➥ Small Forward
We're going with the three-guard lineup, so Matthews will play 15-plus minutes here and a few minutes at the 2-guard spot. Keita Bates-Diop and Malek Harris are both versatile enough to play on the wing, while Larry Austin can also play in a three-guard lineup.
➥ Power Forward
Cliff Alexander never wants to leave the floor. But we have so many options at this position with Bates-Diop, Harris, Happ and Finke. Love the versatility at this spot with some athleticism, length, blue-collar work and shooting ability in the mix.
When Jahlil Okafor leaves the game, Alexander will slide in to take the majority of his minutes at the 5-spot. So that's 32 minutes of Okafor and Alexander on the interior, with Sean O'Mara ready at the 5-spot in an emergency.
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