Chicago Sun-Times
By Joe Henricksen

November 2013 Archives

Nick Rakocevic headlines list of no-namers no more

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It happens every year. A handful of young prospects, some who've already received a little recognition and others who haven't even registered a blip on the radar yet, break out over the course of their sophomore and junior seasons.

There will be several new names both the fans around Illinois will become a little more familiar with and college coaches will pay more attention to as the season plays out.

Go ahead and bank on several new names popping up and gaining way more interest between now and March, with the City/Suburban Hoops Report's best bet being St. Joseph's Nick Rakocevic.

It's debatable what turns on a scout and college coach faster: The freaky athletic specimen with size or the highly-skilled player with size. Rakocevic, who is just a sophomore, is the latter, though he's far from a stiff athletically.

Rakocevic is long, lanky, moves well laterally, gets up and down the floor and is a decent enough athlete to make an impact around the rim. But it's his 6-9 size and skill level for his age that clearly jumps Rakocevic into the Hoops Report's top five prospects in the Class of 2016. He was solid at the Pangos Midwest All-Star Camp this fall, but he put it all on display earlier this week when he scored an easy 28 points in a win over East Aurora in the 55th annual Ron Johnson Thanksgiving Tournament at St. Charles East.

He will stick a mid-range jumper, roam the perimeter and bury three-pointers with a good-looking, fluid stroke in good speed for a 6-9 forward. His shooting touch and ability to knock down shots is his bread and butter right now. And because of his size, length and ability to get off the floor from a stand-still position, he's a factor on the offensive glass with tip-ins and put-backs.

It's very early when discussing any player who is just beginning their sophomore year of basketball, but you could make an argument right now that, strictly as a prospect, Rakocevic is the No. 2 prospect behind Simeon's Zach Norvell.

Yes, we know, the Class of 2016 has been dogged a bit by yours truly and plenty of others for being, well, a bit challenged when it comes to the depth in the class and high-level college prospects. Rakocevic, though, gives this class a little more hope at the top.

"He's skilled and talented," says St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore, who has seen his share of skilled and talented players in four decades of coaching at the powerhouse program. "He has a ways to go still, but he's really gotten a lot better in the last year."

Many of the areas Rakocevic is lacking, including a wispy frame, lack of strength and a need to become more physical, will be taken care of over time as he physically fills out, matures and grows into the player he can become. Rakocevic is at least willing to get on the block, so if he can just develop a little bit of an offensive presence with his back to the basket, he becomes all the more tantalizing.

While Rakocevic is the Hoops Report's choice as the breakout player in the sophomore class this upcoming season, here is a list of players in the Class of 2015 -- this year's juniors -- who have little to no name recognition but are more than ready to be noticed.

Class of 2015 prospects poised to break out ...
➤ Admiral Schofield, 6-5, WF, Zion-Benton
This one is easy to add to the list as so few people know or are aware of the 6-5, 210-pound junior wing who will team up with senior star Milik Yarbrough for what should be a dynamite Zee-Bees team.

The big-bodied junior opened the eyes of the Hoops Report repeatedly this past summer and will blossom this winter because he does what the Hoops Report loves: Schofield puts the ball in the basket. He combines great body strength with outstanding scoring ability, including a jumper that extends out to the three-point line and the ability to take the ball into traffic and finish with contact. He's the brother of NFL linebacker O'Brien Schofield, and he brings a little bit of football mentality to the court.

➤ Armani Chaney, 5-9, PG, St. Rita
Once college coaches look past his size -- never an easy thing to do for coaches -- they will find a point guard with the capability to facilitate but one with serious offensive abilities. Chaney, who the Hoops Report believes will prove he can play at the mid-major level, can really shoot it and score. Despite being an undersized commodity, he creates space for himself pretty comfortably with an ability to stop on a dime with his pull-up mid-range jumper and easy range out to the three-point line. Chaney will put pressure on opposing defenses and needs to be accounted for at all times.

➤ Zach West, 6-5, WF, Oswego
The junior wing has grown to 6-5 and can flat-out shoot the basketball. His release is quicker, he's putting the ball on the floor better and just put up some whopping numbers in his first three games of the season. In Oswego's 2-1 start, West scored 95 points while knocking down 13 three-pointers and making 28 of 33 free throws. He hauled in 21 rebounds in a win over Metea Valley and made a game-winning free-throw with no time on the clock to beat Waukegan. The highly overlooked West should be on the radar of Division I college coaches.

➤ Tyler Hall, 6-3, 2G, Rock Island
Of all the players on this list, Hall has the least amount of varsity minutes -- he started his first varsity game on Wednesday. But there aren't many players in the class with a better shooting stroke than Hall, who is beginning to expand his game and offensive repertoire. Playing along side point guard C.J. Carr this season will create even more spot-up shooting and scoring opportunities for him. Hall had a solid summer with his high school team and on the AAU circuit.

➤ Gavin Block, 6-6, WF, Lincoln
After playing the jack-of-all-trades role for his Illinois Net Gain AAU team this past summer, Block becomes one of the centerpieces for a solid Lincoln team this winter. Block, who scored 22 points with a trio of three-pointers in his first game of the season in a win over Champaign Centennial and Michael Finke, has size, length and versatility. He provides an added ballhandler from the wing position, rebounds well, can step out and space the floor with range out to the three-point line.

➤ Nate Navigato, 6-6, WF/PF, Geneva
OK, so technically Navigato's breakout year came last season as a sophomore when he averaged 15.7 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, converting 48 three-pointers while shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc. Impressive. Still, very few noticed or appreciated the production outside Geneva or the Upstate Eight Conference. By mid-summer, UIC was the only offer Navigato had secured.

Navigato's quickness and agility are in question as a wing, while his size at 6-6 is in question as a true 4-man. But he's a little more athletic than he appears, is crafty around the basket and can flat-out shoot the basketball from the perimeter. His shooting ability and consistent production will eventually win over more Division I coaches.

➤ Christian Romine, 6-9, PF, Mahomet-Seymour
Right now his offensive canvas remains raw without any true or refined go-to move offensively. But as he tries to establish an offensive identity, college coaches quickly notice he's pushing 6-9 with plus-athleticism for a player his size. Romine rebounds, alters shots, plays above the rim and finishes with thunderous dunks. Those attributes alone will turn heads when you're talking about any player with so-hard-to-find size.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter all season @joehoopsreport

City/Suburban Hoops Report's Preseason Top 25

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The 2013-2014 season is here. And it's shaping up as a great one with superstar talent headlining the top teams.

When do you ever get arguably the best, most dominating high school players leading what very well could be the best teams: Jahlil Okafor and No. 1 Whitney Young, Cliff Alexander and No. 2 Curie, Jalen Brunson and No. 3 Stevenson, Tyler Ulis and No. 4 Marian Catholic, D.J. Williams, Zach Norvell and No. 5 Simeon and Charles Matthews and No. 6 St. Rita. When it comes to top players and the best teams, it doesn't get any better than that. Here is a look at the City/Suburban Hoops Reports preseason Top 25.

#1 WHITNEY YOUNG
What's to like: For starters, the nation's best player is back for another year as Duke-bound Jahlil Okafor is one of three starters returning from a team that won a city championship and reached a sectional final. With Okafor, yes, it's about his talent, but it's also his imposing 6-10 size, particularly at the high school level, that makes him so dominating. Okafor gives the Dolphins such a decisive matchup advantage. Versatile 6-8 Paul White and Saint Louis recruit Miles Reynolds are three-year starters to lean on. Newcomers Ant Mosely, a junior point guard who adds an offensive dimension Young didn't have at the position a year ago, and 6-4 sophomore wing Skyler Nash won't be asked to carry the load. However, these two will need to provide some added production for balance.
Biggest concern: Depth. L.J. Peak, last year's second leading scorer, moved back to South Carolina, while promising 6-7 junior Joseph Toye, last year's sixth man, transferred out. Coach Tyrone Slaughter had very little depth a year ago, either, so navigating that concern -- hopefully -- won't be an issue.
X-Factor: One wouldn't think Paul White, a consensus top 100 player nationally headed to Georgetown, would be an X-Factor. His talent and potential is immense, but the consistency and ability to dominate at a high level regularly may be the difference between being a really good team and a great team.


#2 CURIE
What's to like: Superstar Cliff Alexander was outstanding last year, dominating at times. The good news for coach Mike Oliver and Curie -- and bad news for all their opponents -- is the consensus top five player in the country has made a huge jump forward. He's still a physical and athletic specimen at 6-9, but his mindset is to now dominate entire games with his rim-rattling, rebounding and shot-blocking abilities. There is some impressive talent around Alexander, including a rejuvenated Joseph Stamps, a 6-4 senior who has had an embattled career, super sophomore guard Devin Gage and 6-5 junior sniper Joshua Stamps. There is depth with guard Kamar Marshall, 6-5 junior Malik Washington and Foreman transfer Marcus Gathling.
Biggest concern: The point guard play will be imperative if Curie wants to do things this successful program has never done before -- i.e. city title, reach Peoria. Gage doesn't have to carry Curie, but he has to lead, be composed and make good decisions. That's a lot to ask out of a sophomore.
X-Factor: Experience. A year ago Alexander was the only regular who made major varsity contributions the previous year for Curie. This year there are seven seniors, along with a couple of youngsters, who have all tasted varsity basketball to some degree.


#3 STEVENSON
What's to like: The Patriots return three starters, 56 points of offense and five key players who were part of a Class 4A state runner-up team. But lets not kid ourselves. Jalen Brunson (22 ppg) is the catalyst that carried the team a year ago and vaults the Patriots into a top five ranking. Brunson's level of play last year as a sophomore was off the charts, and it raised everyone else's. Division I prospect Connor Cashaw (16 ppg), a 6-4 junior, is one heck of a running mate on the wing. So much was made of the super sophomore tandem of Brunson and Cashaw, that many forget the strides two other sophomores, 6-3 Cameron Green and 6-4 Parker Nichols, made last year. And don't forget about 6-3 Matt Morrissey (8 ppg), a Michigan State football recruit, who provides production and intangibles.
Biggest concern: For the most part, Stevenson snuck up on everyone outside the North Suburban Conference last year as a legitimate state power. How will this group handle the pressure of headlines and heavy expectations right out of the box? Will they stay as hungry?
X-Factor: While it's true coach Pat Ambrose has his biggest star ever, there's a reason Stevenson has made two trips to Peoria and averaged 19 wins a year over the past 14 seasons. Ambrose is one of the real underrated coaches in the state. His teams are disciplined, defensive-minded and so well prepared.


#4 MARIAN CATHOLIC
What's to like: There isn't a bigger or better catalyst in the state than dynamic star Tyler Ulis. He scores, creates, makes those around him better and provides any team he plays on with an oozing confidence. Ulis is the rare player who produces monster numbers but remains team-first and completely unselfish. The Kentucky-bound point guard led the Spartans to a school-record 29 wins and a sectional title last season and is one of five returning starters. With Ulis and his supporting cast, led by 6-6 T.J. Parham and guard Ki-Jana Crawford, there isn't a more seasoned or experienced team in the state. They all just seem to get it, truly enjoy playing with one another and flourish in all knowing who their go-to guy is on the floor.
Biggest concern: There's been a lot of chatter since last season ended just how good this team will be in 2013-2014 after a historical and magical season last year. But how will Marian adjust to being the hunted rather than the no-named team trying to earn respect?
X-Factor: Chemistry. This is a group of players who have played together and, more importantly, stuck together throughout their high school careers. Any flaws or weaknesses you find with this team is often taken care of with that key ingredient: chemistry.


#5 SIMEON
What's to like: The talent in place, albeit young and inexperienced talent, is still pretty special. All five starters graduated, including Mr. Basketball winner Jabari Parker, so the Wolverines will rely heavily on the unknown. But does this sound like a roster that is hurting: Illinois commit D.J. Williams is a 6-7 wing and a consensus top 50 player nationally in the Class of 2015; 6-4 sophomore guard Zach Norvell is the top prospect in Illinois in the Class of 2016; Donte Ingram, a 6-5 senior, has signed with Loyola; and 6-6 junior Edward Morrow has multiple Division I offers.
Biggest concern: The lack of players who have been in significant situations and have never had to carry any type of burden on the floor is a monumental concern. That's not the recipe for high-level success. But there is no question this team will be a whole lot better in February and March than December and January. It's just a matter of how much better.
X-Factor: THE goal is not winning a city championship or getting back to Peoria. The GOAL is to win a state championship. That's the mindset at Simeon, regardless of who has graduated, and it's one that is engrained in their mind. That right there is a different type of basketball program.


#6 ST. RITA
What's to like: There is size, athleticism, experience and some big-time weapons up and down the roster. Northwestern recruit Vic Law, a versatile 6-7 forward, and 6-5 guard Charles Matthews, the top prospect in the state in the Class of 2015, are as good of a 1-2 combo as you'll find. And four-year guard Dominique Matthews is back after averaging 16 points a game last season. The talent continues with two more Division I prospects in juniors Armani Chaney and Myles Carter. Chaney is a point guard who will be leaned on heavily to free up the likes of Law and Matthews, while is a 6-8 athletic rim protector and rebounder. There are enough talented pieces in place to pose nightmarish matchups for opposing teams.
Biggest concern: The program has gone from non-existent to one ranked in preseason polls under coach Gary DeCesare. Yet it's one that is lacking big, defining, in-state wins. Last year's disappointing experience of falling in the regional to DuSable on its home floor needs to be a motivator rather than one that leaves doubt. It's time to turn that talent and potential into some grit and March success.
X-Factor: Experience. Despite all the expectations last season, the Mustangs were still very young. Now, with five returning starters, including four-year varsity players in Dominique Matthews and Law, along with three-year varsity player Charles Matthews, it's a team built around talented veterans.


#7 MORGAN PARK
What's to like: You look at the nucleus of this team and you say, this team is very similar to the one that won a state championship last year with their speed, quickness and defensive pressure. It's just more of the same. Lamont Walker, a 6-4 guard and UMKC recruit, and 6-7 Josh Cunningham, the top uncommitted senior in Illinois, are returning starters and impact players. Cunningham was a high-level producer a year ago and is much improved. Senior Torry Johnson and sophomore point guard Charlie Moore both gained valuable experience last season.
Biggest concern: With four-year star Billy Garrett, Jr. off to DePaul and Kyle Davis now at Dayton, coach Nick Irvin has a full slate of work ahead trying to fill voids and mix pieces to make up for the loss of arguably the state's best backcourt. But all the necessary ingredients are in place for a second straight Class 3A state title.
X-Factor: Kain Harris. His role last year was limited. But the 6-4 junior is a big, strong guard with big-time scoring potential. If Irvin can lean on Harris this season, the offense lost with Garrett and Davis graduating will be felt a little less.


#8 NORTH CHICAGO
What's to like: Three names for you: JayQuan McCloud, JaVairious Amos-Mays and Kurt Hall. All three attack the offensive end with abandon. McCloud (17.4 ppg), a Murray State recruit, is a skilled and smooth 6-2 scoring guard. The high-motored Amos-Mays is tough and versatile. And Hall is a classic big-bodied hybrid forward, a finisher at the rim with improving perimeter skills. Who knows or cares who's really the third option -- McCloud? Amos-Mays? Hall? -- there aren't many teams who have the luxury of having a great third option capable of carrying a team like North Chicago has. This threesome will put a fear into any defensive game plan and gives North Chicago a realistic shot of winning a 3A state championship.
Biggest concern: They will put up points -- 100 if you let'em -- but will the Warhawks ever totally buy into being a defensive-minded team? The belief internally is defense will be a higher priority this season. With all the success North Chicago has had over the past seven years (167 wins, six sectional titles with two trips to Peoria), maybe the question should be: Does it matter?
X-Factor: Chemistry and leadership. For North Chicago, these two words should and won't be underestimated after seeing what a lack of it did last year. It led to, at times, uninspired play, off-the-court issues and one lackluster performance in the biggest game of the year -- a supersectional loss to Orr.


#9 ORR
What's to like: The Spartans have continuity with the roster returning nearly intact from a team that finished fourth in the state in Class 3A last March. Among the six key returnees, Orr has a trio of athletes with size, experience and talent in 6-8 Marlon Jones, 6-7 Tyquone Greer and 6-3 guard Louis Adams. All three are uncommitted Division I prospects. Jones, in particular, has a chance to be one of the elite players in the state with his ability to impact games around the basket at both ends of the floor.
Biggest concern: Don't underestimate all that unheralded Jamal McDowell, last year's senior leader at point guard, meant to this team. He wasn't the biggest name, but he's a big hole to fill due to all the attributes he brought.
X-Factor: With Jones, Greer and Adams the focal point of most defenses, it's an opportune time for Crane transfer Isaiah Hayes to blossom into the catalyst Orr needs at the point guard position. If Hayes can fill McDowell's shoes, Orr will be more dangerous offensively than last season.


#10 ST. VIATOR
What's to like: This was a preseason top 25 team before the arrival of Palatine transfer Roosevelt Smart, a 6-2 junior who averaged 18 points a game last season as a sophomore and boasts Division I offers. He joins Drake recruit and seasoned veteran Ore Arogundade, who can fill a stat sheet. The 6-2 Arogundade averaged 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2 steals a game. Add in returning point guard Mark Falotico (10 ppg, 4 apg) and there is enough talent to make a run at an East Suburban Catholic Conference title.
Biggest concern: Maybe it just won't matter with all the perimeter firepower, but the Lions will lack size and a presence inside -- at both ends of the floor. Sal Canella, a 6-5 junior, brings some size but is a more skilled, lanky big.
X-Factor: Pat McNamara, a 6-4 junior, should flourish as a sharpshooter who can space the floor for a solid point guard in Falotico and dynamic slashers and scorers in Smart and Arogundade. McNamara is the one who could provide those back-breaking moments for opposing teams from beyond the arc.


#11 BOLINGBROOK
What's to like: The talent-level. Despite the loss of Ben Moore, who graduated and is playing at SMU, coach Rob Brost has pieces to play with. It starts with junior scoring guard Prentiss Nixon, who averaged over 16 points a game last season with eight games of 20-plus points. The emerging Gage Davis, a 6-2 shooting guard headed to IPFW, appears destined for a breakout season. Then there is the size, with 6-6 Kenny Williams (signed with Division II Northern Michigan) and ever-improving Julian Torres, a 6-8 junior.
Biggest concern: In order for the Raiders to surpass last year's 20-win total, they're going to have to be more consistent and handle adverse situations better. Is this Bolingbrook team ready for that? Can this team stay away from stretches of looking like a very good team and then stretches of being average?
X-Factor: Depth. It goes so much deeper than Nixon, Davis, Williams and Torres. Senior guard C.J. Redmond started last season. Josh Dillingham, a rough-and-tumble 6-4 senior, was last year's sixth man. Sophomore guard Devon Sams is beginning to blossom. And 6-6 senior Shakur Triplett can be a major factor with his length and athleticism.


#12 BENET ACADEMY
What's to like: There is no question the backbone of this team is Xavier recruit Sean O'Mara, a 6-9, big-bodied, true back-to-the-basket threat who makes those around him better with his presence and passing ability. The productive O'Mara (17 ppg, 8 rpg as a junior) is a player capable of dominating at the high school level and is able to take pressure off those around him. The beneficiaries will be much-improved senior guard Collin Pellettieri and 6-3 junior Colin Bonnett, who can space the floor with his shooting ability.
Biggest concern: Last season, when the Redwings needed, well, just about anything, battle-tested Pat McInerney provided it. But most importantly he brought mental and physical toughness. Who will provide that this season?
X-Factor: Little-known Liam Nelligan, a 6-4 senior, moved back from Singapore after attending Benet as a freshman. He brings many different positives -- some size, toughness and versatility -- for a team looking for another weapon.


#13 ZION-BENTON
What's to like: When prepping to play the Zee-Bees, two things will jump out at any opposing coach in the film session: Milik Yarbrough's dynamic offensive talent and the pure strength and size of underrated 6-5 junior Admiral Schofield, 6-6 Jerome Davis, a transfer from Waukegan, and the 6-5 Yarbrough. Both Yarbrough, who is on pace to become the all-time leading scorer in Lake Country prep hoops history, and Schofield possess offensive gifts.
Biggest concern: Is there a player who can consistently run the offense, get teammates good shots while creating offense? The guard play will have to evolve over the course of the season if the Zee-Bees want to do anything special when March rolls around.
X-Factor: It sounds crazy to label Yarbrough as an "X-Factor" when he's a what you see is what you get plus-scorer. But even with his scoring forays, is Yarbrough poised to raise his overall game to the level where he's one of the handful of elite difference-makers in the state?


#14 LOYOLA ACADEMY
What's to like: You'll be hard pressed to find any team with a better basketball acumen than the Ramblers, whose guards are smart, tough, savvy and experienced. That will bode well for Loyola in crunch time of tight games as point guard Kevin Kucera, one of the most improved players in the area, combo guard James Clarke (14 ppg) and shooter Jack Morrissey (18.5 ppg) complement one another so well. The development of 6-4 junior Griffin Boehm inside will be a key for a team that went 22-6 a year ago but doesn't have much size.
Biggest concern: When push comes to shove and the Ramblers are playing the best of the best, do they have a) enough size, and b) enough athleticism? Coach Tom Livatino's club is lacking both.
X-Factor: The experience of the players and the continuity within the program should pay dividends this season. Livatino is now in his fifth year as head coach at Loyola, and he has a matter-of-fact honesty players respect and a system that has been embraced.


#15 FENWICK
What's to like: There is so much to like that this Friars team may be the best since Corey Maggette led Fenwick to Peoria and the Elite Eight 15 years ago. There is experience (four returning starters), there is size (three key players over 6-5, including improving 6-8 Dan Dwyer) and there is a star player in Northwestern recruit Scott Lindsey, whose ascent will be eye-opening to those who watched him as a junior. Lindsey truly blossomed this offseason after an up-and-down junior year. How big of jump point guard Mike Smith makes since starting last year as a freshman will go a long way in Fenwick's success.
Biggest concern: Lindsey is still recuperating from a broken leg he suffered this past fall. If the Friars intend on competing with the state's top teams, the versatile Lindsey will need to be at 100 percent -- and the sooner the better.
X-Factor: Rick Malnati. The first-year coach returns to the high school game following two years in the college game as part of Loyola's coaching staff. Simply put, Malnati is one of the best in the business. Expect Fenwick to be efficient offensively, defend and buy into a whole new vibe.


#16 PROVISO EAST
What's to like: Speed, quickness and guard play. It is Proviso East, so what else would you expect? West Virginia recruit Jevon Carter (13.3 ppg) was the leading scorer a year ago for a team that reached Peoria and finished fourth in the state. That's a nice place to start for coach Donnie Boyce. Plus, 6-2 junior Kalin Fisher should be a double-digit scorer after providing a little offensive pop as a sophomore.
Biggest concern: There are a couple concerns. First, there is no proven size to speak of. Second, while Carter is a weapon capable of carrying a team with his streaky scoring outbursts, how will he adjust to being the focal point of opposing defenses with stars Sterling Brown and Paris Lee having graduated? Carter must provide a high-level of leadership.
X-Factor: A pair of young guards named Williams -- sophomore Antonio Williams and freshman Mahir Williams. Antonio is capable of providing a real offensive boost with his explosiveness, while Mahir is special with the ball in his hands and making decisions -- yes, even as a freshman. Look for these two players, and this team, to gain more and more confidence as the year plays out.


#17 ST. JOSEPH
What's to like: Few guards can match the hype Glynn Watson and Jordan Ash have received since entering high school. Now it's their time to shine. The pairing of Watson, a pure point guard, and Ash, a 6-2 athletic guard, is one of the top guard combos in the state. Their maturation over the next three months will ultimately determine if this is a team capable of making a Class 3A run to Peoria in March.
Biggest concern: In a perfect world, you would like to rely on seniors. When the going gets tough in a rugged Chicago Catholic League this winter, coach Gene Pingatore can only turn to young players. That's cause for concern for any team, but at least Watson, Ash and guard Joffrey Brown are seasoned juniors.
X-Factor: The big men. Jon Johnson, a 6-6 senior, has to be a consistent factor on the glass and defensively. Nick Rakocevic, a 6-9 sophomore with length and skill, is a terrific talent who can knock down perimeter shots. But can these two be rim protectors on the defensive end?


#18 LARKIN
What's to like: A solid nucleus returns from a team that won more games last season (23) than any Larkin team in 20 years. And it starts with the guard play of underrated Kendale McCullum, who averaged 11 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds a game as a junior, and four-year varsity player Derrick Streety. Both will be counted on for even more productivity, as will three-year starter Drew Jones, a 6-5 senior forward. Throw in 6-5 veteran Brayden Royse and coach Deryn Carter's club is loaded with returning talent and experience.
Biggest concern: Gone are last year's top two scorers, Quantice Hunter and Quentin Ruff. More importantly, some perimeter shooting was lost. But Larkin hardly missed a beat offensively when watching them during an impressive summer.
X-Factor: There are some significant reinforcements on the way, led by exciting 6-5 freshman Christian Negron. This team has relied so heavily on guard play, that Negron provides a dimension -- an athlete with size and high-level ability -- this team will welcome with open arms.


#19 DE LA SALLE
What's to like: The eye-opening play and development of rugged 6-5 junior Brandon Hutton is the reason the Meteors have vaulted into the top 20. His motor and competitiveness, combined with his physical and athletic presence, make him a matchup nightmare at the high school level. There is balance and depth, with junior guards Martez Cameron and 6-4 Karl Harris both poised to blossom. Keep an eye on a couple of under-the-radar young players: athletic sophomore guard George Wilborn, III and 6-7 junior Isaiah Robinson.
Biggest concern: There is talent in place, but it's still a relatively young team that may be a year away with only two seniors among the top eight. Plus, there is no getting around the fact of what Alvin Ellis, who is now at Michigan State, did for this team last year.
X-Factor: Can the Meteors turn their combination of athleticism, quickness and some decent size into not only a functional halfcourt defensive team, but a difference-making one?


#20 BLOOM
What's to like: First-year coach Ron Ashlaw, who takes over after a strong run as head coach at Waukegan, will be opening things up and will get out and run a little more than past Bloom teams, which should fit his personnel perfectly. This should be a more versatile team at both ends of the floor. Plus, there is a veteran presence back in point guard Zerell Jackson, rugged 6-4 James Coleman and 6-4 wing Jared Johnson. A real key could be the steady and consistent play of senior Dalvin Echols at the 2-guard position.
Biggest concern: There could be some early growing pains with a tough early-season schedule and a new head coach in place. As is always the case with any coach taking over a program, especially a team with so many pieces and double-digit depth, developing chemistry -- and "buying in" -- will be a key.
X-Factor: It may take some time, but the development of 6-3 junior Mickhiell Harris, an exciting and promising talent, could prove to be pivotal.


#21 BOGAN
What's to like: There is tremendous speed and athleticism at every position, along with a program that always gets after it. With talented guards Luwane Pipkins and Bryce Barnes returning, coach Arthur Goodwin's strength is in its backcourt. Pipkins, a 5-10 junior, averaged over 20 a game last season, while Barnes is a playmaking sophomore. An influx of under-the-radar young talent within the program who bring size and athleticism in 6-6 junior Antonio Thomas and 6-4 wing James Jones will be a big help.
Biggest concern: Getting over the psychological hump of playing -- and finding a way to beat -- the defending state champs in 3A (Morgan Park) and 4A (Simeon) in the rugged South Side of Chicago. Also, is this young team -- there isn't a senior in the regular rotation -- a year away from being a true force?
X-Factor: It's undoubtedly Pipkins, who will have to find the right mix of scoring and distributing to help this team beat the city and state powers.


#22 DEERFIELD
What's to like: Coach Dan McKendrick's club loses virtually nothing from last year's squad, while welcoming a junior group that went 20-4 as sophomores last season. That experience/newcomer mix -- and an impressive offseason -- makes the Warriors the favorite in the Central Suburban North. Leading scorer Eric Porter (12.3 ppg) has become more than a scorer, while 6-4 Michael Alfieri (10.4 ppg, 6 rpg) is a jack-of-all-trades.
Biggest concern: Is this program ready to compete at a high level and win big games after going a combined 22-34 the past two seasons?
X-Factor: Newcomers. The veterans will be the backbone. But there is incoming talent that's going to make this team better than people realize. Jordan Baum is a talented 6-3 sophomore who showed well this past summer. Jack Lieb is a 6-8 junior who missed all of last season with an injury. And Stefanos Fasianos is a skilled, wiry 6-4 athlete on the perimeter who transferred in this summer.


#23 HILLCREST
What's to like: There are three key contributors back from a 24-win team that rolled through the South Suburban Blue unbeaten. But one of those three, 6-7 Taylor Adway, will be looked upon to become a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. Allen Jones is a perimeter threat, while 6-4 junior DeAngelo Isby can be a mismatch with his size, strength and athleticism. Almari Daniels progression at point guard will be a key.
Biggest concern: The Hawks relied so heavily on Jovan Mooring for scoring a year ago. Who will pick up the slack? Coach Don Houston, however, is excited about the balance he thinks he will have offensively.
X-Factor: Although this has been a consistent Top 25 program over the years -- and squeezed itself into the rankings again this year -- the Hawks are far from hyped. For once Hillcrest can use the "no respect" card heading into the season.


#24 PLAINFIELD EAST
What's to like: Aaron Jordan. He averaged 16 points a game and shot nearly 50 percent from the three-point line as a sophomore. Now he's a more dynamic, confident talent with high-major offers. His return, along with four other starters, instantly makes the Bengals the favorite in the Southwest Prairie. Sharpshooter Nick Novak (50 three-pointers a year ago) will help space the floor and keep defenses honest.
Biggest concern: The perimeter talent, including a star piece in Jordan, is in place. Will there be enough of an inside presence at both ends of the floor?
X-Factor: Although coach Branden Adkins has chemistry and experience with five returning starters, there is some impressive young talent in the program that will provide depth in 6-4 sophomore Elyjah Goss, sophomore guard Jordan Reed and 6-4 freshman Malik Benns.


#25 THORNTON
What's to like: Look who's back! Although just 14-12 a year ago, Thornton has depth, quickness and plenty of scoring options on the perimeter. A veteran trio returns in three-year starter Justin Taylor and guards Justin Montgomery and DeMarcus Turner.
Biggest concern: With only one player at 6-4, the Wildcats have little to no size inside. The quickness, depth and defensive pressure must take some of the pressure off a potential problem on the glass.
X-Factor: Is it premature to put the Wildcats back in the Top 25 after a couple of so-so seasons? Coach Troy Jackson has plenty of experience returning in six key seniors. But the keep an eye on a talented junior group, highlighted by guard Leslie Wilson, 6-2 DeQuan Applewhite and 6-4 Brian Davis, who is long and rangy. The juniors went 24-0 a year ago at the sophomore level.


Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter throughout the season @joehoopsreport

Hoops Report's preseason rankings: 6-10

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The City/Suburban Hoops Report's look at the top teams in the Chicago area continues as it begins to dive into the preseason rankings of the top 10 teams.

#6 ST. RITA
What's to like: There is size, athleticism, experience and some big-time weapons up and down the roster. Northwestern recruit Vic Law, a versatile 6-7 forward, and 6-5 guard Charles Matthews, the top prospect in the state in the Class of 2015, are as good of a 1-2 combo as you'll find. And four-year guard Dominique Matthews is back after averaging 16 points a game last season. The talent continues with two more Division I prospects in juniors Armani Chaney and Myles Carter. Chaney is a point guard who will be leaned on heavily to free up the likes of Law and Matthews, while is a 6-8 athletic rim protector and rebounder. There are enough talented pieces in place to pose nightmarish matchups for opposing teams.
Biggest concern: The program has gone from non-existent to one ranked in preseason polls under coach Gary DeCesare. Yet it's one that is lacking big, defining, in-state wins. Last year's disappointing experience of falling in the regional to DuSable on its home floor needs to be a motivator rather than one that leaves doubt. It's time to turn that talent and potential into some grit and March success.
X-Factor: Experience. Despite all the expectations last season, the Mustangs were still very young. Now, with five returning starters, including four-year varsity players in Dominique Matthews and Law, along with three-year varsity player Charles Matthews, it's a team built around talented veterans.


#7 MORGAN PARK
What's to like: You look at the nucleus of this team and you say, this team is very similar to the one that won a state championship last year with their speed, quickness and defensive pressure. It's just more of the same. Lamont Walker, a 6-4 guard and UMKC recruit, and 6-7 Josh Cunningham, the top uncommitted senior in Illinois, are returning starters and impact players. Cunningham was a high-level producer a year ago and is much improved. Senior Torry Johnson and sophomore point guard Charlie Moore both gained valuable experience last season.
Biggest concern: With four-year star Billy Garrett, Jr. off to DePaul and Kyle Davis now at Dayton, coach Nick Irvin has a full slate of work ahead trying to fill voids and mix pieces to make up for the loss of arguably the state's best backcourt. But all the necessary ingredients are in place for a second straight Class 3A state title.
X-Factor: Kain Harris. His role last year was limited. But the 6-4 junior is a big, strong guard with big-time scoring potential. If Irvin can lean on Harris this season, the offense lost with Garrett and Davis graduating will be felt a little less.


#8 NORTH CHICAGO
What's to like: Three names for you: JayQuan McCloud, JaVairious Amos-Mays and Kurt Hall. All three attack the offensive end with abandon. McCloud (17.4 ppg), a Murray State recruit, is a skilled and smooth 6-2 scoring guard. The high-motored Amos-Mays is tough and versatile. And Hall is a classic big-bodied hybrid forward, a finisher at the rim with improving perimeter skills. Who knows or cares who's really the third option -- McCloud? Amos-Mays? Hall? -- there aren't many teams who have the luxury of having a great third option capable of carrying a team like North Chicago has. This threesome will put a fear into any defensive game plan and gives North Chicago a realistic shot of winning a 3A state championship.
Biggest concern: They will put up points -- 100 if you let'em -- but will the Warhawks ever totally buy into being a defensive-minded team? The belief internally is defense will be a higher priority this season. With all the success North Chicago has had over the past seven years (167 wins, six sectional titles with two trips to Peoria), maybe the question should be: Does it matter?
X-Factor: Chemistry and leadership. For North Chicago, these two words should and won't be underestimated after seeing what a lack of it did last year. It led to, at times, uninspired play, off-the-court issues and one lackluster performance in the biggest game of the year -- a supersectional loss to Orr.


#9 ORR
What's to like: The Spartans have continuity with the roster returning nearly intact from a team that finished fourth in the state in Class 3A last March. Among the six key returnees, Orr has a trio of athletes with size, experience and talent in 6-8 Marlon Jones, 6-7 Tyquone Greer and 6-3 guard Louis Adams. All three are uncommitted Division I prospects. Jones, in particular, has a chance to be one of the elite players in the state with his ability to impact games around the basket at both ends of the floor.
Biggest concern: Don't underestimate all that unheralded Jamal McDowell, last year's senior leader at point guard, meant to this team. He wasn't the biggest name, but he's a big hole to fill due to all the attributes he brought.
X-Factor: With Jones, Greer and Adams the focal point of most defenses, it's an opportune time for Crane transfer Isaiah Hayes to blossom into the catalyst Orr needs at the point guard position. If Hayes can fill McDowell's shoes, Orr will be more dangerous offensively than last season.


#10 ST. VIATOR
What's to like: This was a preseason top 25 team before the arrival of Palatine transfer Roosevelt Smart, a 6-2 junior who averaged 18 points a game last season as a sophomore and boasts Division I offers. He joins Drake recruit and seasoned veteran Ore Arogundade, who can fill a stat sheet. The 6-2 Arogundade averaged 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2 steals a game. Add in returning point guard Mark Falotico (10 ppg, 4 apg) and there is enough talent to make a run at an East Suburban Catholic Conference title.
Biggest concern: Maybe it just won't matter with all the perimeter firepower, but the Lions will lack size and a presence inside -- at both ends of the floor. Sal Canella, a 6-5 junior, brings some size but is a more skilled, lanky big.
X-Factor: Pat McNamara, a 6-4 junior, should flourish as a sharpshooter who can space the floor for a solid point guard in Falotico and dynamic slashers and scorers in Smart and Arogundade. McNamara is the one who could provide those back-breaking moments for opposing teams from beyond the arc.

Go HERE for a look at the City/Suburban Hoops Report's preseason rankings of teams 11-15.

Go HERE for a look at the City/Suburban Hoops Report's preseason rankings of teams 16-25.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report throughout this high school basketball season on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Curie-St. Rita headline Team Rose Classic

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When Thanksgiving tournaments wrap up next weekend, a single-day event on Dec. 1 will take center stage as the annual Team Rose Basketball Classic at Curie will feature a five-game lineup, highlighted by a Curie-St. Rita showdown.

The headliner
Although the Curie-St. Rita rivalry still has that new car smell to it, it's an intriguing one.

Last year Curie went into St. Rita and won behind star Cliff Alexander's 21 points and 20 rebounds.

This year the two programs, which are located less than six miles from one another, are both ranked among the top half dozen teams in the Chicago area and will undoubtedly be placed in the same sectional once again this March. And both programs are -- and have been -- looking to put together multiple high-profile wins. Yes, it's only Dec. 1, but this game matters.

The talent level on display in the Curie-St. Rita tussle is about as good as it gets. Alexander, among the top five prospects in the country, leads a Curie team that, on paper, is the best coach Mike Oliver has ever had in his long, successful run at the Southwest Side Public League school. Joshua Stamps is one of the top 15 prospects in the Class of 2015, while guard Devin Gage is one of the top 10 prospects in the sophomore class.

St. Rita is loaded, led by the 1-2 punch of Northwestern recruit Vic Law, a versatile 6-7 forward, and 6-5 guard Charles Matthews, the top-rated prospect in Illinois in the Class of 2015. Law and senior guard Dominique Matthews, who averaged 16 points a game as a junior and is one of the top uncommitted prospects remaining in the Class of 2014, are both four-year varsity players.

The schedule
There will be two separate sessions, with the first two games in Session I and the final three games in Session II. The cost is $7 per session or $10 for an all-day pass.


Von Steuben vs. Gordon Tech @ 11:00 a.m.
North Side Catholic League vs. North Side Public League. Von Steuben welcomes back three starters, including promising sophomore Meriton Bunjaku. Big Rac Williams and point guard Chris Harrell return for an improving Gordon Tech program.

Farragut vs. Providence St. Mel @ 12:30 p.m.
A pair of two strong, physical senior guards -- Farragut's Ashawn Jones and St. Mel's Tevin King -- go at it in this one.

East St. Louis vs. Marshall @ 2:00 p.m.
A chance for Chicago area fans to catch a glimpse of the Hoops Report's top-rated prospect in the Class of 2017 -- 6-8 freshman Jeremiah Tillman of East St. Louis.

Curie vs. St. Rita @ 3:30 p.m.
A couple of the state's top teams square off in the best opening-weekend game with two of the premier talents in the state: Curie's Cliff Alexander and St. Rita's Charles Matthews.

Morton vs. Homewood-Flossmoor @ 5:00 p.m.
H-F and UIC recruit Tai Odiase face a real sleeper in Morton, a team just on the outside looking in of the Hoops Report's preseason Top 25.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Hoops Report's preseason rankings: No. 11-15

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The City/Suburban Hoops Report continues to break down the Chicago area's top teams. Here is a look at teams ranked No. 11-15. You can find the Hoops Report's 16-25 teams in this earlier blog, with the top 10 coming this weekend.

#11 BOLINGBROOK
What's to like: The talent-level. Despite the loss of Ben Moore, who graduated and is playing at SMU, coach Rob Brost has pieces to play with. It starts with junior scoring guard Prentiss Nixon, who averaged over 16 points a game last season with eight games of 20-plus points. The emerging Gage Davis, a 6-2 shooting guard headed to IPFW, appears destined for a breakout season. Then there is the size, with 6-6 Kenny Williams (signed with Division II Northern Michigan) and ever-improving Julian Torres, a 6-8 junior.
Biggest concern: In order for the Raiders to surpass last year's 20-win total, they're going to have to be more consistent and handle adverse situations better. Is this Bolingbrook team ready for that? Can this team stay away from stretches of looking like a very good team and then stretches of being average?
X-Factor: Depth. It goes so much deeper than Nixon, Davis, Williams and Torres. Senior guard C.J. Redmond started last season. Josh Dillingham, a rough-and-tumble 6-4 senior, was last year's sixth man. Sophomore guard Devon Sams is beginning to blossom. And 6-6 senior Shakur Triplett can be a major factor with his length and athleticism.


#12 BENET ACADEMY
What's to like: There is no question the backbone of this team is Xavier recruit Sean O'Mara, a 6-9, big-bodied, true back-to-the-basket threat who makes those around him better with his presence and passing ability. The productive O'Mara (17 ppg, 8 rpg as a junior) is a player capable of dominating at the high school level and is able to take pressure off those around him. The beneficiaries will be much-improved senior guard Collin Pellettieri and 6-3 junior Colin Bonnett, who can space the floor with his shooting ability.
Biggest concern: Last season, when the Redwings needed, well, just about anything, battle-tested Pat McInerney provided it. But most importantly he brought mental and physical toughness. Who will provide that this season?
X-Factor: Little-known Liam Nelligan, a 6-4 senior, moved back from Singapore after attending Benet as a freshman. He brings many different positives -- some size, toughness and versatility -- for a team looking for another weapon.


#13 ZION-BENTON
What's to like: When prepping to play the Zee-Bees, two things will jump out at any opposing coach in the film session: Milik Yarbrough's dynamic offensive talent and the pure strength and size of underrated 6-5 junior Admiral Schofield, 6-6 Jerome Davis, a transfer from Waukegan, and the 6-5 Yarbrough. Both Yarbrough, who is on pace to become the all-time leading scorer in Lake Country prep hoops history, and Schofield possess offensive gifts.
Biggest concern: Is there a player who can consistently run the offense, get teammates good shots while creating offense? The guard play will have to evolve over the course of the season if the Zee-Bees want to do anything special when March rolls around.
X-Factor: It sounds crazy to label Yarbrough as an "X-Factor" when he's a what you see is what you get plus-scorer. But even with his scoring forays, is Yarbrough poised to raise his overall game to the level where he's one of the handful of elite difference-makers in the state?


#14 LOYOLA ACADEMY
What's to like: You'll be hard pressed to find any team with a better basketball acumen than the Ramblers, whose guards are smart, tough, savvy and experienced. That will bode well for Loyola in crunch time of tight games as point guard Kevin Kucera, one of the most improved players in the area, combo guard James Clarke (14 ppg) and shooter Jack Morrissey (18.5 ppg) complement one another so well. The development of 6-4 junior Griffin Boehm inside will be a key for a team that went 22-6 a year ago but doesn't have much size.
Biggest concern: When push comes to shove and the Ramblers are playing the best of the best, do they have a) enough size, and b) enough athleticism? Coach Tom Livatino's club is lacking both.
X-Factor: The experience of the players and the continuity within the program should pay dividends this season. Livatino is now in his fifth year as head coach at Loyola, and he has a matter-of-fact honesty players respect and a system that has been embraced.


#15 FENWICK
What's to like: There is so much to like that this Friars team may be the best since Corey Maggette led Fenwick to Peoria and the Elite Eight 15 years ago. There is experience (four returning starters), there is size (three key players over 6-5, including improving 6-8 Dan Dwyer) and there is a star player in Northwestern recruit Scott Lindsey, whose ascent will be eye-opening to those who watched him as a junior. Lindsey truly blossomed this offseason after an up-and-down junior year. How big of jump point guard Mike Smith makes since starting last year as a freshman will go a long way in Fenwick's success.
Biggest concern: Lindsey is still recuperating from a broken leg he suffered this past fall. If the Friars intend on competing with the state's top teams, the versatile Lindsey will need to be at 100 percent -- and the sooner the better.
X-Factor: Rick Malnati. The first-year coach returns to the high school game following two years in the college game as part of Loyola's coaching staff. Simply put, Malnati is one of the best in the business. Expect Fenwick to be efficient offensively, defend and buy into a whole new vibe.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Simeon sophomore Zach Norvell tops in 2016

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The likelihood of Simeon, a monster basketball program with national name recognition and four straight state titles, producing another player the caliber or magnitude of either Derrick Rose or Jabari Parker is slim to none.

So don't go thinking there is another one.

But the program on Vincennes Ave., with just two coaches over the past 33 years grooming and overseeing dozens of Division I prospects, is still churning out top-level talent.

There were plenty of Division I players prior to Rose and Parker walking into Simeon's gym as freshmen in 2003 and 2009, respectively. Remember, this is the place where high-profile stars Ben Wilson, Deon Thomas, Nick Anderson and Bobby Simmons all played. There was Ervin Small, Bryant Notree, Kevin Turner, Calvin Brock, Stan Simpson and Brandon Spearman.

There have been plenty in between the two as well: Steve Taylor was the No. 1 prospect in the state in the Class of 2012, while just last year both Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate landed at Illinois, and Kendall Pollard signed with Dayton.

And there are more to come.

Current junior D.J. Williams has been groomed slowly, as coach Rob Smith has allowed his versatile but still maturing 6-7 wing time to grow into the player he will ultimately become. But his name it out there, an Illinois recruit and recognizable as the No. 29 ranked player in the country in the Class of 2015 by ESPN.com.

But the next name to get accustomed to at Simeon, the one who hasn't been talked about or even seen at the varsity level, is super sophomore Zach Norvell. The 6-4 Norvell has yet to be pumped up much, but he's coming -- and fast.

Norvell isn't buying into any superlatives thrown his way.

"I've learned a lot at Simeon by being around a lot of great players and coaches, but I have a lot more to learn," says the so-easy-to-talk-to Norvell.

In a culture that provides elite players myriad opportunities to play the game rather than work at it, Norvell seems fixated on sharpening his skills and getting better. You listen to him and you hear -- and see through him -- the importance in earning and acting with genuine respect. He's grown quite a bit in a short time at Simeon, and he understands what it takes to follow in the footsteps of the great players before him.

"I learned and took a lot from those guys," says Norvell of watching Parker, Nunn, Tate and Pollard last season. "What I really learned was how to carry yourself and how to be humble. Those guys received a lot of hype, but they always stayed humble. I watched how hard they played, how hard they practiced and what it took to win. And I saw through them how to be respectful."

When talking with Norvell, he is what he says he wants to be: humble, respectful and, even at this young age, an outgoing and classy kid. And at a Simeon open gym earlier this fall, Norvell impressed anyone who was watching. Though Simeon open gyms are a little different than most due to the talent level and competitiveness, it was an open gym, nonetheless. And anyone in that open gym couldn't help but come away talking about Norvell.

Norvell drained a pair of three-pointers from the volleyball line. He made clear, crisp, smart passes you don't see from sophomores. He used his solid frame and true 6-4 size to take contact and finish at the rim. He rebounded. He even made the effort to defend.

Most importantly, he was the player willing his team to wins in games up to seven with his know-how and a strength of purpose -- even on a Tuesday night in October.

Throw-down dunks, blazing speed and raw athleticism is what seems to draw the eyes and wows from fans, evaluators and coaches. Norvell is not that. He has a more savvy way about him, with an old school game and an understanding of who he is as a player.

"He's just a player," says Smith. "You don't have to even say he's a 1 or a 2, he's just a player. Right now, he might be our most complete player."

Norvell is ready. He's ready to be part of a basketball power and step into a new and bigger role. He's ready to start living up to the promise, to learn, to get better as a player.

"I'm excited," says Norvell. "I'm excited to be a key piece of what we are trying to accomplish and to just be out there contributing. I'm comfortable playing either guard spot and can play both based on the matchup."

Norvell, the Hoops Report's top prospect and player in the rather non-descript Class of 2016 -- and it's really not even close -- is a 2-guard by trait. But his progression as a prospect and development as a player will be enhanced quickly, thanks to Smith putting the ball in his hands at the point guard position as a sophomore. When he walks out of Simeon in three years he will be your ideal high-major combo guard.

And right now he's the best sophomore prospect in the state and another prime talent in the Simeon pipeline.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Hoops Report's preseason rankings: No. 16-25

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The City/Suburban Hoops Report continues to break down its preseason Top 25, with a look at the teams ranked No. 16-25. The top 15 teams will be released throughout the week.

#16 PROVISO EAST
What's to like: Speed, quickness and guard play. It is Proviso East, so what else would you expect? West Virginia recruit Jevon Carter (13.3 ppg) was the leading scorer a year ago for a team that reached Peoria and finished fourth in the state. That's a nice place to start for coach Donnie Boyce. Plus, 6-2 junior Kalin Fisher should be a double-digit scorer after providing a little offensive pop as a sophomore.
Biggest concern: There are a couple concerns. First, there is no proven size to speak of. Second, while Carter is a weapon capable of carrying a team with his streaky scoring outbursts, how will he adjust to being the focal point of opposing defenses with stars Sterling Brown and Paris Lee having graduated? Carter must provide a high-level of leadership.
X-Factor: A pair of young guards named Williams -- sophomore Antonio Williams and freshman Mahir Williams. Antonio is capable of providing a real offensive boost with his explosiveness, while Mahir is special with the ball in his hands and making decisions -- yes, even as a freshman. Look for these two players, and this team, to gain more and more confidence as the year plays out.

#17 ST. JOSEPH
What's to like: Few guards can match the hype Glynn Watson and Jordan Ash have received since entering high school. Now it's their time to shine. The pairing of Watson, a pure point guard, and Ash, a 6-2 athletic guard, is one of the top guard combos in the state. Their maturation over the next three months will ultimately determine if this is a team capable of making a Class 3A run to Peoria in March.
Biggest concern: In a perfect world, you would like to rely on seniors. When the going gets tough in a rugged Chicago Catholic League this winter, coach Gene Pingatore can only turn to young players. That's cause for concern for any team, but at least Watson, Ash and guard Joffrey Brown are seasoned juniors.
X-Factor: The big men. Jon Johnson, a 6-6 senior, has to be a consistent factor on the glass and defensively. Nick Rakocevic, a 6-9 sophomore with length and skill, is a terrific talent who can knock down perimeter shots. But can these two be rim protectors on the defensive end?

#18 LARKIN
What's to like: A solid nucleus returns from a team that won more games last season (23) than any Larkin team in 20 years. And it starts with the guard play of underrated Kendale McCullum, who averaged 11 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds a game as a junior, and four-year varsity player Derrick Streety. Both will be counted on for even more productivity, as will three-year starter Drew Jones, a 6-5 senior forward. Throw in 6-5 veteran Brayden Royse and coach Deryn Carter's club is loaded with returning talent and experience.
Biggest concern: Gone are last year's top two scorers, Quantice Hunter and Quentin Ruff. More importantly, some perimeter shooting was lost. But Larkin hardly missed a beat offensively when watching them during an impressive summer.
X-Factor: There are some significant reinforcements on the way, led by exciting 6-5 freshman Christian Negron. This team has relied so heavily on guard play, that Negron provides a dimension -- an athlete with size and high-level ability -- this team will welcome with open arms.

#19 DE LA SALLE
What's to like: The eye-opening play and development of rugged 6-5 junior Brandon Hutton is the reason the Meteors have vaulted into the top 20. His motor and competitiveness, combined with his physical and athletic presence, make him a matchup nightmare at the high school level. There is balance and depth, with junior guards Martez Cameron and 6-4 Karl Harris both poised to blossom. Keep an eye on a couple of under-the-radar young players: athletic sophomore guard George Wilborn, III and 6-7 junior Isaiah Robinson.
Biggest concern: There is talent in place, but it's still a relatively young team that may be a year away with only two seniors among the top eight. Plus, there is no getting around the fact of what Alvin Ellis, who is now at Michigan State, did for this team last year.
X-Factor: Can the Meteors turn their combination of athleticism, quickness and some decent size into not only a functional halfcourt defensive team, but a difference-making one?

#20 BLOOM
What's to like: First-year coach Ron Ashlaw, who takes over after a strong run as head coach at Waukegan, will be opening things up and will get out and run a little more than past Bloom teams, which should fit his personnel perfectly. This should be a more versatile team at both ends of the floor. Plus, there is a veteran presence back in point guard Zerell Jackson, rugged 6-4 James Coleman and 6-4 wing Jared Johnson. A real key could be the steady and consistent play of senior Dalvin Echols at the 2-guard position.
Biggest concern: There could be some early growing pains with a tough early-season schedule and a new head coach in place. As is always the case with any coach taking over a program, especially a team with so many pieces and double-digit depth, developing chemistry -- and "buying in" -- will be a key.
X-Factor: It may take some time, but the development of 6-3 junior Mickhiell Harris, an exciting and promising talent, could prove to be pivotal.

#21 BOGAN
What's to like: There is tremendous speed and athleticism at every position, along with a program that always gets after it. With talented guards Luwane Pipkins and Bryce Barnes returning, coach Arthur Goodwin's strength is in its backcourt. Pipkins, a 5-10 junior, averaged over 20 a game last season, while Barnes is a playmaking sophomore. An influx of under-the-radar young talent within the program who bring size and athleticism in 6-6 junior Antonio Thomas and 6-4 wing James Jones will be a big help.
Biggest concern: Getting over the psychological hump of playing -- and finding a way to beat -- the defending state champs in 3A (Morgan Park) and 4A (Simeon) in the rugged South Side of Chicago. Also, is this young team -- there isn't a senior in the regular rotation -- a year away from being a true force?
X-Factor: It's undoubtedly Pipkins, who will have to find the right mix of scoring and distributing to help this team beat the city and state powers.

#22 DEERFIELD
What's to like: Coach Dan McKendrick's club loses virtually nothing from last year's squad, while welcoming a junior group that went 20-4 as sophomores last season. That experience/newcomer mix -- and an impressive offseason -- makes the Warriors the favorite in the Central Suburban North. Leading scorer Eric Porter (12.3 ppg) has become more than a scorer, while 6-4 Michael Alfieri (10.4 ppg, 6 rpg) is a jack-of-all-trades.
Biggest concern: Is this program ready to compete at a high level and win big games after going a combined 22-34 the past two seasons?
X-Factor: Newcomers. The veterans will be the backbone. But there is incoming talent that's going to make this team better than people realize. Jordan Baum is a talented 6-3 sophomore who showed well this past summer. Jack Lieb is a 6-8 junior who missed all of last season with an injury. And Stefanos Fasianos is a skilled, wiry 6-4 athlete on the perimeter who transferred in this summer.

#23 HILLCREST
What's to like: There are three key contributors back from a 24-win team that rolled through the South Suburban Blue unbeaten. But one of those three, 6-7 Taylor Adway, will be looked upon to become a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. Allen Jones is a perimeter threat, while 6-4 junior DeAngelo Isby can be a mismatch with his size, strength and athleticism. Almari Daniels progression at point guard will be a key.
Biggest concern: The Hawks relied so heavily on Jovan Mooring for scoring a year ago. Who will pick up the slack? Coach Don Houston, however, is excited about the balance he thinks he will have offensively.
X-Factor: Although this has been a consistent Top 25 program over the years -- and squeezed itself into the rankings again this year -- the Hawks are far from hyped. For once Hillcrest can use the "no respect" card heading into the season.

#24 PLAINFIELD EAST
What's to like: Aaron Jordan. He averaged 16 points a game and shot nearly 50 percent from the three-point line as a sophomore. Now he's a more dynamic, confident talent with high-major offers. His return, along with four other starters, instantly makes the Bengals the favorite in the Southwest Prairie. Sharpshooter Nick Novak (50 three-pointers a year ago) will help space the floor and keep defenses honest.
Biggest concern: The perimeter talent, including a star piece in Jordan, is in place. Will there be enough of an inside presence at both ends of the floor?
X-Factor: Although coach Branden Adkins has chemistry and experience with five returning starters, there is some impressive young talent in the program that will provide depth in 6-4 sophomore Elyjah Goss, sophomore guard Jordan Reed and 6-4 freshman Malik Benns.

#25 THORNTON
What's to like: Look who's back! Although just 14-12 a year ago, Thornton has depth, quickness and plenty of scoring options on the perimeter. A veteran trio returns in three-year starter Justin Taylor and guards Justin Montgomery and DeMarcus Turner.
Biggest concern: With only one player at 6-4, the Wildcats have little to no size inside. The quickness, depth and defensive pressure must take some of the pressure off a potential problem on the glass.
X-Factor: Is it premature to put the Wildcats back in the Top 25 after a couple of so-so seasons? Coach Troy Jackson has plenty of experience returning in six key seniors. But the keep an eye on a talented junior group, highlighted by guard Leslie Wilson, 6-2 DeQuan Applewhite and 6-4 Brian Davis, who is long and rangy. The juniors went 24-0 a year ago at the sophomore level.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Hoops Report's preseason rankings: No. 21-25

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We are a week away from tipping off the 2013-2014 season. The City/Suburban Hoops Report begins breaking down its preseason Top 25, beginning with teams ranked No. 21-25, with the remaining 20 teams to be released throughout the week.

#25 THORNTON
What's to like: Look who's back! Although just 14-12 a year ago, Thornton has depth, quickness and plenty of scoring options on the perimeter. A veteran trio returns in three-year starter Justin Taylor and guards Justin Montgomery and DeMarcus Turner.
Biggest concern: With only one player at 6-4, the Wildcats have little to no size inside. The quickness, depth and defensive pressure must take some of the pressure off a potential problem on the glass.
X-Factor: Is it premature to put the Wildcats back in the Top 25 after a couple of so-so seasons? Coach Troy Jackson has plenty of experience returning in six key seniors. But the keep an eye on a talented junior group, highlighted by guard Leslie Wilson, 6-2 DeQuan Applewhite and 6-4 Brian Davis, who is long and rangy. The juniors went 24-0 a year ago at the sophomore level.

#24 PLAINFIELD EAST
What's to like: Aaron Jordan. He averaged 16 points a game and shot nearly 50 percent from the three-point line as a sophomore. Now he's a more dynamic, confident talent with high-major offers. His return, along with four other starters, instantly makes the Bengals the favorite in the Southwest Prairie. Sharpshooter Nick Novak (50 three-pointers a year ago) will help space the floor and keep defenses honest.
Biggest concern: The perimeter talent, including a star piece in Jordan, is in place. Will there be enough of an inside presence at both ends of the floor?
X-Factor: Although coach Branden Adkins has chemistry and experience with five returning starters, there is some impressive young talent in the program that will provide depth in 6-4 sophomore Elyjah Goss, sophomore guard Jordan Reed and 6-4 freshman Malik Benns.

#23 HILLCREST
What's to like: There are three key contributors back from a 24-win team that rolled through the South Suburban Blue unbeaten. But one of those three, 6-7 Taylor Adway, will be looked upon to become a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. Allen Jones is a perimeter threat, while 6-4 junior DeAngelo Isby can be a mismatch with his size, strength and athleticism. Almari Daniels progression at point guard will be a key.
Biggest concern: The Hawks relied so heavily on Jovan Mooring for scoring a year ago. Who will pick up the slack? Coach Don Houston, however, is excited about the balance he thinks he will have offensively.
X-Factor: Although this has been a consistent Top 25 program over the years -- and squeezed itself into the rankings again this year -- the Hawks are far from hyped. For once Hillcrest can use the "no respect" card heading into the season.

#22 DEERFIELD
What's to like: Coach Dan McKendrick's club loses virtually nothing from last year's squad, while welcoming a junior group that went 20-4 as sophomores last season. That experience/newcomer mix -- and an impressive offseason -- makes the Warriors the favorite in the Central Suburban North. Leading scorer Eric Porter (12.3 ppg) has become more than a scorer, while 6-4 Michael Alfieri (10.4 ppg, 6 rpg) is a jack-of-all-trades.
Biggest concern: Is this program ready to compete at a high level and win big games after going a combined 22-34 the past two seasons?
X-Factor: Newcomers. The veterans will be the backbone. But there is incoming talent that's going to make this team better than people realize. Jordan Baum is a talented 6-3 sophomore who showed well this past summer. Jack Lieb is a 6-8 junior who missed all of last season with an injury. And Stefanos Fasianos is a skilled, wiry 6-4 athlete on the perimeter who transferred in this summer.

#21 BOGAN
What's to like: There is tremendous speed and athleticism at every position, along with a program that always gets after it. With talented guards Luwane Pipkins and Bryce Barnes returning, coach Arthur Goodwin's strength is in its backcourt. Pipkins, a 5-10 junior, averaged over 20 a game last season, while Barnes is a playmaking sophomore. An influx of under-the-radar young talent within the program who bring size and athleticism in 6-6 junior Antonio Thomas and 6-4 wing James Jones will be a big help.
Biggest concern: Getting over the psychological hump of playing -- and finding a way to beat -- the defending state champs in 3A (Morgan Park) and 4A (Simeon) in the rugged South Side of Chicago. Also, is this young team -- there isn't a senior in the regular rotation -- a year away from being a true force?
X-Factor: It's undoubtedly Pipkins, who will have to find the right mix of scoring and distributing to help this team beat the city and state powers.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

A look back at one wild day on recruiting front

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With one of the wildest local recruiting days in memory (maybe in history?) now in the books, it's time to take a look and provide a few thoughts on just what transpired -- good and bad.

There was drama and intrigue shining down on Chicago and the state of Illinois this past Friday. The nation's No. 1 player, Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor, was making his college choice, as was consensus top five prospect, Curie's Cliff Alexander. They did so with a national television audience looking on, courtesy of ESPN.

Throw in the fact local schools Illinois and DePaul were among Alexander's final four, and the day captivated the fan bases of those schools, high school prep basketball fans and all those who follow recruiting as if it's a sport.

The hat drama
Unfortunately, a day that should be 100 percent celebration instead ended with controversy and ill will in these parts due to Alexander's rope-a-dope hat trick, dropping the Illinois hat he initially grabbed before putting on the KU hat and announcing he's headed to Lawrence. The hat trick went viral locally and nationally, with Illinois fans feeling duped.

Though there was zero reason to tease and taunt a fan base that treated Alexander like royalty in the months leading up to the announcement, it's not the fans who should have felt the most disrespected or whom outsiders should feel for the most. No, those feelings should be directed towards the Illinois coaching staff, including head coach John Groce and Alexander's lead recruiter, assistant coach Paris Parham. You certainly would have thought Alexander would feel a little something for the second-place finishers in his long and intense recruiting derby.

Groce, Parham -- or any college coach for that matter -- doesn't need or ask for sympathy; they've already turned the page and are on to the next group of prospects they will target and try to sign next November. And, yes, a large part of coaching at the collegiate level is spent recruiting. It's a critical and, often times, thankless part of the job.

Nonetheless, the hat act is more disconcerting when you consider the time, effort and energy put in by coaches, and the fact they pour their heart and soul into recruiting. During the recruiting process, especially intense battles like this, a prospect and coach build a real relationship. Coaches spend hundreds of hours, thousands of the school's dollars, time away from their families in traveling the state and country, talking on the phone, making trips to the high school, planning official and unofficial visits, doing anything they can to show what it seems so many prospects clamor for -- "the love."

At the end of the day, no matter the outcome -- again, only one school gets that signature -- there isn't a coach in the country that deserves the slap in the face from a recruit, especially with the stakes so high, that the Illinois staff received from the Curie star.

Whether you want to believe it or not, or it makes you feel a little uneasy because we're talking about kids still in high school, these are big dollar decisions. These decisions mean wins and losses, television and radio deals, ticket and advertising sales, coaching contracts and can impact the economy of a college town.

The high-profile recruiting blueprint
When you consider it involved the nation's top-ranked prospect, the Okafor recruitment was about as tame and harmless as you could imagine. About the only drama throughout the process was whether or not he and Tyus Jones would stick to their original idea of playing together in college.

In August, in this very space, I wrote a column stating the Jahlil Okafor recruitment playbook could be a best seller. There was no evidence or examples of anything "getting out of control" or "turning into a circus" when it came to his recruitment. Again, highly unusual when dealing with a prospect of this magnitude in the sport of basketball and playing in a major city like Chicago.

But that was August. So much could have easily changed between then and his announcement roughly three months later. It never did. Okafor, nor those around him, didn't disappoint in avoiding all the many potential pitfalls a big-named recruit could succumb to along the way. He handled the process with class, integrity and didn't add any theatricals.

Thank you, Jahlil!

No, No, No ... the sky is hardly falling at Illinois
I would totally understand if coach Tim Beckman and Illinois football were getting ridiculed with derogatory headlines and subtitles. That's easy to see and very explainable, even expected at this point.

But one very rough day on the recruiting front is cause for misinformed and inaccurate headlines and stories on Illinois basketball?

Huh?

For a program that just last season secured a memorable and monumental win over the No. 1 team in the country (beating Indiana), captured the Maui Invitational, won 23 games, reached the NCAA Tournament and got to the round of 32?

For a program with a head coach who has won over fans, media and, most important, the players within the program who publicly appear, and behind closed doors, to truly love playing for him?

For a program whose arrow is pointing up with every player (including the transfers sitting out) basically returning next season? For a program doing well on the recruiting front and has invested millions of dollars in refurbishing and updating their arena?

So with all that being said, what's the point for over-the-top negativity for a basketball program -- and its fan base, for that matter -- when it really isn't warranted or make sense?

Being right there to the very end for Alexander and finishing as the runner-up does, well, in a word: suck. But even in that lost cause -- and I admit, this is totally looking through things with rose-colored glasses -- the fact Illinois is back in the hunt with players like Alexander says something. Illinois was not in that position a year or two ago. Heck Illinois hasn't been in that position for quite some time.

Sure, the loss of point guard Quentin Snider was big in the grand scheme of things. It's going to sting. He's a consensus top 50 recruit at a critically important position for Groce and the Illinois basketball program. There's no getting around the fact a very talented piece of the future was lost.

But here's why the Snider de-commitment was far from debilitating.

A part of the reason Snider isn't coming to Illinois is the fact he sees three guards next year standing in his way: Tracy Abrams, who will be a four-year player with over 80-plus starts; Ahmad Starks, a double-digit high-major scorer in Ahmad Starks who is sitting out this season; and current freshman Jaylon Tate who, in the early going, has shown he more than belongs.

Would Snider have forged his way into the mix and received minutes as a freshman? Certainly. He's talented enough, but Illinois will still have three veteran players with point guard ability for the 2014-2015 season. The consequences of losing Snider become bigger long term -- IF Groce and Illinois can't land a top-notch point guard prospect in the Class of 2015. But if it can, the loss of Snider basically becomes a moot point.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Hoops Report's signing day rewind

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Lets face it, recruiting has become a closely-followed sport with ups, downs and emotions like any fan has with any team. And the Super Bowl/Final Four/World Series/Grand Slam of the sport is the early signing period in November. And it's here.

While everyone waits in anticipation for the announcement of Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor and Curie's Cliff Alexander, the top two players in the state and arguably the two best in the country, there actually are some other recruiting storylines that have unfolded.

Here is the City/Suburban Hoops Report's early signing period rewind.

Biggest Recruiting Coup
North Chicago's JayQuan McCloud to Murray State
There were several mid-majors involved with McCloud, a smooth scoring 2-guard, but for an Ohio Valley Conference school to land a player with this much potential was a steal. Now, Murray State is not your ordinary OVC program, but the Racers have themselves a player who can shoot and score at a very high level.

Biggest Statement
Wait until 3 p.m. on Friday
Lets wait another day before answering this one, because this one writes itself if Curie's Cliff Alexander stays home and commits to either DePaul or Illinois.

Most Important Recruit
Northwestern landing St. Rita's Vic Law
What else would you call the highest-ranked player the Northwestern basketball program has ever signed? Law is currently ranked No. 66 by ESPN.com, No. 70 by Scout.com and No. 86 by Rivals.com. Throw in the fact he's a local product, and it's something for the NU fanbase to get excited about. Maybe even more important, Law spearheads what is the best recruiting class in Northwestern basketball history, which is a boon for any first-year head coach.

Biggest Recruiting Battle
The fight for Curie's Cliff Alexander
The slugfest for a commitment from Alexander is one that will likely go down among the all-time recruiting battles in state history, especially considering two local programs were in the hunt right down to the final day. Drama, rumors and constant speculation surrounded the fact the final four schools, Memphis, DePaul, Illinois and Kansas, were all so deeply entrenched.

Biggest Recruiting Battle II
The fight for Benet's Sean O'Mara
While the fight for Alexander made major headlines for the past couple of months, an underrated recruiting battle was Xavier vs. Loyola for the Benet big man. O'Mara finished up his official visits to Loyola and Xavier on back-to-back weekends and couldn't immediately pull the trigger. There was deliberation, tossing-and-turning and, in the end, O'Mara broke Loyola's hearts and chance to land a truly marquee recruit. Instead, O'Mara is part of one of the top recruiting classes in the country at Xavier.

Most Underrated Signing
Simeon's Donte Ingram to Loyola
Last year was basically like a redshirt season for Ingram, who transferred in from Danville and played a minimal role for a state championship team. The AAU scene didn't do a whole lot for Ingram's stock, either. So not a whole lot of people in college basketball have been able to get a good read on just what Ingram is and can become. Loyola did its homework this fall, checking in on Simeon open gyms multiple times and found a player who has grown to 6-5 and become more comfortable and confident while no one was really looking. Ingram, brings dynamite perimeter size, length and playmaking ability, may be just as valuable as the other bigger-named wings in the class.

Other Underrated Signings
Rock Island's C.J. Carr to SIUE ... Despite proving as much as he possibly could in July, many Division I programs remained scared by his diminutive size. But SIUE had no reservations, nor should they have, and now coach Lennox Forrester has a Hoops Report favorite and underrated player in the 5-6 Carr.

Richards' Josh Meier to Chicago State ... He's more athletic than he looks. And despite the lack of headlines, he's ultra-productive. Coach Tracy Dildy has a valuable local piece he's adding to his program.

Homewood-Flossmoor's Tai Odiase to UIC ... A true big man with agility, great feet and the potential to be a real presence defensively. He's still a bit of a project, but he's got a bundle to work with.

Biggest "I told you so!"
Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis to Kentucky
It's commonly accepted now that Ulis is a legit, high-major prospect and consensus top 50 player in the country. But a year ago the 5-8 point guard was still trying to quiet the critics, grab the respect of national evaluators who rank players and the attention of high-major college coaches. Eventually, they were all on board. But even when big, bad Kentucky was getting involved in recruiting Ulis, some still scoffed at the notion and the reality of it all. With all that behind him, the oh-so-fun-to-watch Ulis can just go out and put together a whopper of a senior campaign. 

The Rising Recruit
Fenwick's Scott Lindsey
A year ago it was Bolingbrook's Ben Moore. This year it was Lindsey, whose stock skyrocketed in July when he added multiple high-major offers. The versatile Lindsey, who is blessed with terrific size on the perimeter, is still recovering from a broken leg. But Northwestern may have landed a diamond-in-the-rough. There's still a tremendous amount of room for Lindsey to grow as a player. He's still learning as he plays. He shoots it well and is now making plays in transition and finishing at the rim.

Biggest Surprise
Proviso East's Jevon Carter to West Virginia
A host of mid-major programs who had been courting Carter for a lengthy period of time were left a little shellshocked in this one. When West Virginia suddenly jumped into the mix for the first time in July, had him on campus over Labor Day and wrapped it up a few days later. Boom! Done. Just like that.

New to the scene
Drake and UMKC
Last year both Dayton and Valpo invaded Illinois and did a terrific job filling their Class of 2013 recruiting classes with Illinois products. This year it was Drake and UMKC, both with first-year head coaches in Ray Giacoletti and Kareem Richardson, respectively, and assistants with strong recruiting ties in the state. Drake landed a pair of guards in St. Viator's Ore Arogundade and Cahokia's C.J. Rivers, while UMKC will welcome Morgan Park's Lamont Walker and Cahokia's Darius Austin. Look for both Drake and UMKC to continue to be fixtures recruiting the state going forward.

Best Fit, Best Level
Morgan Park's Lamont Walker to UMKC
Look for the ultra-competitive and hard-nosed Walker, a 6-4 lockdown defender, to flourish in the type of style and system first-year head coach Kareem Richardson wants to implement. UMKC wants to extend its defense, trap and get after it. What better player to do that with than arguably the best defensive player in Illinois who has size, length, quickness and a motor that makes him the player you hate to play against.

Best Uncommitted Player
Josh Cunningham, Morgan Park
When all the commitments have been given and letters-of-intent signed, there will be one name left on the board that will keep college programs coming back to Chicago this winter: Cunningham. The highly-athletic 6-7 forward is active, plays with a high-motor and has decided to play out his senior year and sign in the spring. As it the case with most spring signees, Cunningham's stock could soar. Interestingly, Cunningham has already used four of his five official visits, with trips to Bradley, Creighton, Iowa State and Oklahoma.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Biggest and best games in 2013-2014

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We are two weeks away from tipping off the 2013-2014 season with Thanksgiving Tournament play jumpstarting the season. The City/Suburban Hoops Report has singled out these games as ones to circle and see for various reasons this winter.

• St. Rita at Curie, Dec. 1
The best early-season game on the docket as two top 10 teams loaded with talent (Cliff Alexander, Vic Law, Charles Matthews) collide in a Catholic League vs. Public League battle.

• St. Charles East at Larkin, Dec. 5
These two expect to battle for the top spot in the Upstate Eight Valley. This early matchup could set the tone in this league race.

• Hinsdale Central at York, Dec. 7
If York, a sleeper in the West Suburban Silver, wants to make a run at favored Hinsdale Central, maybe it can get this early one at home. York's 6-7 Frank Toohey faces Hinsdale Central's 6-7 Matt Rafferty.

• Morgan Park at Simeon, Dec. 19
The defending 3A champs take on the defending 4A champs in what has evolved into one of the most heated rivalries in the state.

• Benet at Marian Catholic, Dec. 20
This was an absolute thriller last season and should be again. A key East Suburban Catholic Conference tilt as the state's best point guard, Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, takes on one of the premier big men, Benet's Sean O'Mara.

• Oak Park-River Forest at Fenwick, Dec. 21
Many may not appreciate the intensity in this one. The battle of Oak Park a terrific primer for holiday tournament time for both teams. The big question is whether Fenwick star Scott Lindsey be back for it?

• Larkin at Benet, Jan. 7
How good is Larkin? This terrific non-conference road tilt for the Royals will tell us a lot.

• Stevenson at Zion-Benton, Jan. 10
Plenty of star power and two ranked teams in this one as Jalen Brunson and Company travel to face high-scoring Milik Yarbrough and the Zee-Bees.

• St. Viator at Marian Catholic, Jan. 10
Should be one of the most entertaining conference games in the Chicago area all season with so much perimeter punch on the floor in Tyler Ulis, Ki-Jana Crawford, Ore Arogundade, Mark Falotico and Roosevelt Smart.

• Loyola Academy at St. Rita, Jan. 14
A key Catholic League matchup. The three-guard attack of Loyola will be poised and ready for a road date against a talent-filled St. Rita team led by Vic Law and Charles Matthews.

• Whitney Young at Orr, Jan. 15
Orr has beaten Whitney Young in each of the last two seasons in Red-West play, including last year's buzzer-beating win.

• Benet at St. Viator, Jan. 24
Like last year, every top-of-the-league matchup in the East Suburban Catholic is going to be a good one this winter.

• Deerfield at Highland Park, Jan. 24
Forget Niles North and Glenbrook North in the CSL North. It's time for Deerfield and Highland Park to take center stage.

• Marian Catholic vs. Stevenson, @ Glenbard East Shootout, Jan. 25
A circle-the-date, must-see showdown featuring two of the top teams in the state and the two best point guards around -- Stevenson's Jalen Brunson and Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis.

• Simeon at Bogan, Jan. 28
This one is always fun and feisty on the South Side. Throw in the tiny Bogan gym in late January and these two will be ready to go at it.

• St. Viator at Loyola Academy, Feb. 1
East Suburban Catholic vs. Chicago Catholic League in a north suburban slugfest between two teams with outstanding guard play.

• Oak Park-River Forest at Hinsdale Central, Feb. 1
While most will have Hinsdale Central pegged as the favorite in the West Suburban Silver, Oak Park-River Forest is a sleeper. This one could go a long way in deciding the Silver champ.

• Geneva at St. Charles East, Feb. 1
Even though Geneva lost prized prospect K.J. Santos, the Vikings are still solid with junior Nate Navigato and a host of returning players. These two neighboring communities along the Fox River meet in a game that could have heavy conference UEC Valley implications.

• Lakes at North Chicago, Feb. 4
Don't forget: Lakes won 24 games a year ago and shared the North Suburban Prairie title with North Chicago with identical 11-1 records last season. Can they pull off another surprise this year?

• Thornwood at Thornton, Feb. 4
It's been awhile since Thornwood-Thornton mattered this much. The second of two matchups between these two Southwest Suburban Red contenders could decide a league title.

• Naperville Central at West Aurora, Feb. 7
The DuPage Valley Conference favorites meet for the second time.

• Stevenson vs. Benet @ Batavia Shootout, Feb. 8
The perimeter stars from Stevenson, led by all-everything Jalen Brunson, will try to find a way to handle a player with true size in 6-9 Sean O'Mara of Benet.

• Conant at Fremd, Feb. 14
They won't be preseason top 25 teams, but they're solid northwest suburban teams who will be squaring off in a game that could decide the MSL West.

• Morton at Proviso East, Feb. 15
This is a Morton team that will give Proviso East, the defending West Suburban Gold champs, everything it can handle.

• Homewood-Flossmoor @ Bolingbrook, Feb. 21
H-F is the defending Southwest Suburban Blue champs. Bolingbrook is favored in 2013-2014. This late-season showdown could decide it.

• Neuqua Valley at Plainfield East, Feb. 22
Hotshot junior prospect Aaron Jordan and Plainfield East take on a local heavyweight in Neuqua in what could be a preview of a postseason showdown a couple of weeks later.

• Stevenson vs. Simeon @ City/Suburban Showdown, Feb. 22
A rematch of last year's Class 4A state championship and two teams with legitimate state title hopes this season.

• St. Joseph at St. Rita, Feb. 28
Another key Catholic League matchup with a host of highly-regarded junior guards on the floor in St. Rita's Charles Matthews and St. Joseph's Glynn Watson and Jordan Ash.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Chicago Elite Classic start times for Dec. 7 event

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The Chicago Elite Classic, set for Dec. 7 at the UIC Pavilion, has released the start times for the seven-game lineup featuring many of the nation's best teams and top players.

Session 1
• Fenwick vs. Normal U-High @ 10:00 a.m.
If Northwestern recruit Scott Lindsey makes it back from his injury, this game will feature a pair of Big Ten recruits in the 6-6 Lindsey and U-High's 6-7 Keita Bates-Diop, an Ohio State commitment and one of the top 30 players in the country in the senior class.

• St. Rita vs. Gonzaga College High (Washington, D.C.) @ 11:30 a.m.
Coach Gary DeCesare's club, led by Northwestern recruit Vic Law and highly-regarded junior Charles Matthews, starts the season out with a bang, playing at Curie Dec. 1 and then meeting up with Gonzaga a week later. Gonzaga won 26 games a year ago and features star junior guard Bryant Crawford, who sports offers from UConn, Georgetown, Indiana and other high-major programs.

• Marian Catholic vs. Etiwanda (Etiwanda, Calif.) @ 1:00 p.m.
A terrific pairing as two talented point guards both ranked among the top 50 in the nation go head-to-head. Marian Catholic's dynamic Tyler Ulis, who is headed to Kentucky, squares off with Etiwanda's 5-11 Jordan McLaughlin, who committed to USC over offers from Arizona, Connecticut, Gonzaga and Indiana.

• Benet Academy vs. Redondo Union (Redondo Beach, Calif.) @ 2:30 p.m.
Led by Xavier-bound Sean O'Mara, a veteran 6-9 presence, Benet will face the defending Division II CIF State Basketball champs from a year ago. Redondo Union won 28 games last season and returns a boatload of talent from that team, led by senior point guard Ian Fox, the Southern Section 2A Player of the Year, and talented 6-6 junior Jeremiah Headley, a Division I prospect. Plus, Redondo Union will welcome the addition of transfer Terrell Carter, a 6-8, 270-pound post player who will go head-to-head with O'Mara in an intriguing matchup inside.

Session 2
• Simeon vs. Hamilton (Memphis, Tenn.) @ 6:00 p.m.
The four-time defending state champs reload with 6-5 senior Donte Ingram and a bevy of young players, including 6-7 junior D.J. Williams, 6-6 junior Ed Morrow and 6-4 sophomore Zach Norvell. Hamilton features the brother tandem of 6-7 senior K.J. Lawson, a Memphis recruit, and 6-7 sophomore Dedric Lawson, who is currently ESPN.com's No. 4 ranked player in the Class of 2016.

• Curie vs. Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nev.) @ 7:30 p.m.
A battle of elite big men as Curie's 6-9 Cliff Alexander leads the Condors against Bishop Gorman's 7-footer Stephen Zimmerman, currently the No. 2 ranked prospect in the country in the Class of 2015. Another talented junior, 6-8 Chase Jeter, has offers from Arizona, Kansas and North Carolina among other high-major programs and returns from last year's 29-3 team.

• Whitney Young vs. St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) @ 9:00 p.m.
The season opener for Jahlil Okafor & Company will be a dandy with true star power. Okafor, the nation's top prospect, along with Georgetown commit Paul White and Saint Louis-bound Miles Reynolds, face a loaded St. John Bosco team, which boasts a pair of superstars in UConn commit Daniel Hamilton, a 6-6 wing ranked among the top 25 prospects in the country, and 6-4 combo guard Tyler Dorsey, who is the No. 5 ranked player in the country, according to Rivals.com.

For more information on the event go to ChicagoEliteClassic.com

Prep coaches who could really hoop back in the day

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The hiring of Marlo Finner this fall as head coach at Chicago Lab added to the list of former standout prep players who've made it back into the high school game via coaching.

Here is a starting five of current head coaches in the city and suburbs who were the biggest and best prep players back in the day.

Nick Irvin, Morgan Park (Carver)
In five seasons as head coach at Morgan Park, Irvin has compiled a 132-37 overall record, with the highlight being last year's Class 3A state championship.

The youngest of six Irvin children in a basketball-crazed family, Irvin was one heck of a player in his day. The 6-1 guard was a big-time scorer in the mid-1990s at Carver as a three-time all-state selection and a part of Carver teams that went a combined 114-13. Irvin went on to play for Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State from 1999-2001.

Donnie Boyce, Proviso East (Proviso East)
Since returning to the Maywood school, all Boyce has done is go 61-6 in two years with a state runner-up finish in 2012 and fourth-place finish last season.

As a player, Boyce was part of the famed "Three Amigos" in 1991 at Proviso East, teaming up with Michael Finley and Sherell Ford in leading the Pirates to a state championship. Boyce also put together an outstanding career at Colorado, where he remains the No. 2 scorer in school history with 1,995 career points and a  single-game school record of 46 points.

Tom Kleinschmidt, Gordon Tech (Gordon Tech)
After a brief stop as head coach at York, Kleinschmidt returned to his alma mater and has become a presence in rebuilding Gordon Tech, where as a senior he was a McDonald's All-American. Kleinschmidt was a two-time all-stater and carried Gordon Tech to a state runner-up finish in 1990. Kleinschmidt then went on to become one of the top five scorers in DePaul history with 1,837 career points.

Marlo Finner, Chicago Lab (Phillips)
After spending the past four years as an assistant and a part of four consecutive state championships at Simeon, Finner gets his first crack as a head coach. Finner is arguably one of the most underrated high school players to come out of the Public League. He was a scoring machine, averaging over 30 points a game as a senior at Phillips before going on to play collegiately at Missouri.

Lloyd Batts, Julian (Thornton)
After seven seasons as head coach at South Shore, Batts begins his second at Julian at the age of 62. A superstar prep career at Thornton in the 1960s led to Batts becoming the second all-time leading scorer in Cincinnati Bearcat history behind Oscar Robertson. He had a short stint with the Virginia Squires in the ABA before heading off to Europe for a nine-year professional career.

Sixth Man
Tim Bankston, T.F. North (Simeon)
Bankston begins his 12th season as head coach at T.F North, where he's turned the program into one of the south suburbs best with four regional titles and a sectional championship since 2007. His playing days at Simeon were highlighted by a 25-point, 12-rebound performance in a state championship win over Evanston in 1984, playing with the late Ben WIlson. Bankston went on to play collegiately at Bradley and Loyola.

The Bench
Rick Malnati, Fenwick (New Trier) ... Regarded as one of the top high school coaches in the state, Malnati was a standout player at New Trier and put together a solid career at Bradley.
Jim Maley, Kenwood (Lyons Twp.) ... The star of a Lyons team that won 28 games and finished fourth in the state in 2001 before signing with Northwestern, where he was a regular his freshman year before leaving the basketball program.
Mike Howland, St. Viator (St. Viator) ... Terrific player at St. Viator in the 1990s who went on to score over 1,200 career points at Division III power DePauw.
Gerald Coleman, North Chicago (North Chicago) ... An all-stater in the early 1970s who scored over 1,300 career points in leading North Chicago to a sectional title in 1972.
Rick Harrigan, Brother Rice (Brother Rice) ... One of the most decorated players in Brother Rice history. As a senior he was the Catholic League Player of the Year and all-stater, averaging over 24 points a game. He went on to play at Division III Augustana.

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Loyola lands Simeon's Donte Ingram

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Coach Porter Moser, who will be leading the Loyola basketball program into the Missouri Valley Conference this season, tapped into the Simeon talent pool with a commitment from senior Donte Ingram.

Ingram took three unofficial visits to the Loyola campus and pulled the trigger Tuesday night, ending a recruitment that was just beginning to heat up for the up-and-coming 6-5 guard.

A solid student, Ingram was looking for the right combination of basketball and academics and found it with Loyola

"The academics were really important to me, and Loyola's academics are very strong," Ingram was quick to point out. "Basketball wise, the biggest thing for me was each time I went and visited I just could picture myself there, playing in their system and how it fits my style of play. I think Loyola is the place for me to better myself as a player and person."

Ingram's older brother, DaJuan Gouard, who is now the head basketball coach at Danville Community College, played at Loyola from 2001-2005 and was the Ramblers' leading scorer during the 2004-2005 season.

Moser will welcome a big-bodied perimeter player who will bring great versatility and an ability to impact the game in a variety of ways with his defense, rebounding and growing offensive game. Ingram has terrific size and length, a maturing body and, more importantly, a rapidly improving perimeter shot.

As Ingram has grown more and more comfortable and confident in the Simeon system after transferring in from Danville prior to his junior year, his overall game has blossomed. He's elevated himself into the City/Suburban Hoops Report's top 20 prospects in the Class of 2014.

Loyola's recruiting class also includes sharpshooting guard Ben Richardson, a 6-2 senior out of Kansas.

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Illinois snags early commitment from D.J. Williams

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Coach John Groce and Illinois basketball are on a recruiting roll. How big? Groce and his staff can even get a Simeon product to commit early.

Simeon's D.J. Williams, a 6-7 junior ranked among the top players in the country, becomes the first Illini recruit in the Class of 2015. He also becomes the first Simeon player in history to commit before his senior year.

"I just love that school," says Williams of his future college destination. "And it's just the way they recruited me. They've been so loyal and have showed me so much love."

The ultra-versatile Williams, who had offers from Florida, DePaul and growing interest from several high-majors, is a consensus top 50 player in the country in the Class of 2015 and is ESPN.com's 29th ranked player in the nation.

Williams has made multiple trips to the Illinois campus and been around the basketball program over the past year. That comfort level made it easier to pull the trigger early.

"I think coach Groce is one of the best coaches in the country," says Williams. "I have a great relationship with the coaches there. Coach P [assistant coach Paris Parham] is my man, and he's been recruiting me since the day he got the job at Illinois. I was able to spend time there, and when I would watch their practices I could just see myself playing for them, playing at Illinois."

After waiting in the wings behind last year's stellar senior class, led by All-American Jabari Parker, Williams becomes a focal point this season for a Simeon team shooting for an unprecedented fifth straight state championship.

"Committing now does take a little pressure off and puts the focus on getting better as a player and winning another state championship," says Williams.

Blessed with size and skill, Williams is the prototype small forward with upside and untapped potential. A more fluid athlete than explosive, Williams is a solid ballhandler and unselfish passer for his size on the perimeter with a smooth shooting stroke and range out to the three-point line.

Williams joins a long list of Simeon products who have played at Illinois over the past three decades, including Illinois' all-time leading scorer, Deon Thomas. Current Illinois freshmen and Simeon graduates Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate recently added to the Simeon-to-Illinois pipeline that includes Nick Anderson, Ervin Small, Bryant Notree, Kevin Turner, Stan Simpson and Calvin Brock. But Williams is the first to commit prior to his senior year.

Under its former legendary coach, the late Bob Hambric, Simeon players were not even allowed to commit or sign before the spring signing period of their senior year. Simeon coach Robert Smith, however, believes players do need to adjust to the changing culture in recruiting.

"So many kids are getting offers early now and committing earlier, so you don't want to miss out on a great opportunity and situation by waiting," Smith points out. "At the end of the day, it's up to the family and about them feeling comfortable with the choice and the timing of the decision."

Smith says the Simeon connection to the Illinois basketball program began with Hambric and continues today. He understands "not everyone can go to Illinois," but like Hambric, he sees the benefits of playing for the major state university.

"He wanted kids to stay home, to go to Illinois," says Smith of his mentor, Hambric. "But he always believed it was more than just basketball. It was about life after basketball, and nine times out of 10 they're going to be living in Illinois, so it can serve those kids well to stay at home."

For Illinois, Williams jump-starts the Class of 2015 recruiting class, with St. Rita's Charles Matthews and Plainfield East's Aaron Jordan among the local players Groce and his staff are heavily involved with. Groce hopes to close out his stellar 2014 recruiting class with a bang next week as he hopes to add Curie star Cliff Alexander to the mix.

Illinois has already secured commitments from top 50 talents in point guard Quentin Snider out of Louisville and 6-7 forward Leron Black out of Memphis, along with Champaign Centennial's 6-9 Michael Finke.

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Top Illinois prep prospects of the 2000s

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You want a tall basketball task? Go ahead and try ranking the top basketball prospects, as seen coming out as high school seniors, from the state of Illinois since the turn of the century in 2000.

You will notice an asterisk next to the names Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander when they appear on this list. That's because their prospect grade remains incomplete. Their respective body of work is, well, still a work in progress. The fact they are already among the top 10 without having played and completed their senior year of high school says a lot.

Okafor and Alexander are the only two on this list that can move up depending on their senior year and their continued development over the next five months. Alexander, in particular, has come so far since last season, so when looking at the jump he's made, it's tantalizing to think what he can become.

Much has been made of the recent run of true stars the Chicago area has pumped out since Derrick Rose moved on from Simeon in 2007, led Memphis to a NCAA title game appearance in 2008 and became a NBA star and league MVP. He was followed by Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker and now, Okafor and Alexander.

What's challenging and difficult is to match up and compare eras. Where would the likes of Thornridge's Quinn Buckner, East Leyden's Glen Grunwald, Manley's Russell Cross, Westinghouse's Mark Aguirre or (choose the name of a super prep player and prospect and enter here) fall in the following list? It's extremely difficult to effectively compare players from different eras. How would the plethora of modern athletes with the size, strength and speed we now see match up against the sound, fundamental players of 25 or 35 years ago?

Also, the list isn't comprised of the best high school players (you couldn't leave Jon Scheyer of Glenbrook North off that list) or the best post-high school players (i.e. Dwyane Wade of Richards, Evan Turner of St. Joseph, and Springfield Lanphier's Andre Igoudala).

For example, the City/Suburban Hoops Report's Player of the Year in 2000 was Dwayne Wade. He received that award over bigger, more highly regarded prospects named Darius Miles and Andre Brown. Although some liked Wade more than others (He was clearly a better prospect than Andre Brown in the eyes of the Hoops Report despite the national rankings), no one could have imagined or forecasted just what Wade would become after leaving Richards.

While Rose was clearly the top dog in the Class of 2007, Evan Turner wasn't too shabby. But even as a prospect at St. Joseph -- he finished as the No. 54 ranked player in the country in the final RSCI rankings -- Turner wasn't quite viewed as a Big Ten Conference scoring champ, NCAA National Player of the Year type and No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft material.

In 2002 it was Providence's Michael Thompson, Julian's Sean Dockery and Proviso East's Dee Brown all playing in the McDonald's All-American game, while Springfield Lanphier's Andre Igoudala, a future NBA star, was home watching.

While it is extremely difficult to effectively compare players from different eras, it's somewhat more doable when keeping it within the turn of the century, which is why this list -- a compilation of prospects since the graduating Class of 2000 -- is presented today. It's not as if Igoudala was this unknown, overlooked player. But nationally he wasn't even a consensus top 25 prospect in the class, while names like Shavlik Randolph, Evan Burns, Sean Dockery, Antoine Wright and DeAngelo Collins were.

No doubt any list like this is debatable. It should be. There isn't any one exact answer or one opinion. Kobe? The Big O? Jerry West? Magic? Bird? That's tough.

And this is a tough list to crack, too, and an even tougher list to rank. I went back and forth, over and over, moved players up and down the list multiple times, conversed with several prep and college coaches about the list. Plus, you always need to go back and remember them as the prospect they were as seniors in high school, which includes their national ranking, their distinct strengths, their defining games and where you thought they would peak as basketball players.

After some careful deliberation, here goes ...

#1 Anthony Davis, Perspectives (Class of 2011)
This one could cause a lightning rod among some purists, simply because he came on so fast, so late and, really, had one of the most bizarre high school careers in history.

Here was a player who was the consensus No. 1 player in the country as a senior, from Chicago, who hardly anyone saw play outside of basketball junkies and the limited number of college coaches who actually recruited him. No one knew his name his first three years of high school, and then no one cared to watch a terrible Perspectives team his senior year once he was an established basketball figure. He is without a doubt the least watched prep superstar from Chicago in the modern era.

Nonetheless, it's amazing that a player no one paid attention to as a freshman, sophomore or junior could be at the top of THIS list in this basketball hotbed and in this particular era. But by the time Davis completed his senior year, the 6-11 Kentucky-bound versatile freak was too tall, too long, too skilled, too talented to put him anywhere else but in the top spot.

I tried to find ways to not put him in this top spot, with others behind him that just seemed more legitimate and had longer résumés. But he was the consensus No. 1 player in the country in the Class of 2011 by the time the summer rolled around and, he never relinquished that spot -- maintaining that ranking throughout his senior year, which led to National Player of the Year as a freshman in college to the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Through it all, his upside as a prospect, from the day he was "discovered," was through the roof.

#2 Jabari Parker, Simeon (Class of 2013)
Of all the names on this list, this one might create the biggest stir among fans out there as to how high he's ranked. But not among those who really followed and watched Parker over the course of his high school years.

The Jabari Parker-Derrick Rose argument as high school players and prospects mirrors other great player vs. player comparisons at adifferent levels: Bird-Magic, Chamberlain-Russell, LeBron-Kobe, etc. Rose is so darn special now and so beyond what he was, it's hard to imagine that it would or could ever be a debate. But it's the high school player we are analyzing as a prospect. Simeon coach Robert Smith has always said Parker is the best "prospect" to come through Simeon, which is saying something considering who has come and gone through that hoops factory.

Parker, though, was unfortunately never at his peak during his senior year due to his five-month layoff from a foot injury. Those that saw him only in the winter months, especially in December and January games, were left a bit skeptical. He wasn't in shape, he was overweight, his timing was missing, and he was far from dominant.

But in the months just prior to his injury in the summer of 2012, Parker was playing at an elite level. Watching him at that time was like watching a human basketball camp. From a technical perspective, he was about as ideal as you could get for a high school player. And with his 6-8 size, it just all seemed perfect -- another Paul Pierce. He began to round back into that player late last season, but only now are we seeing and hearing, albeit a very brief snapshot in his early days at Duke, of the type of player those closest to him knew he would be.

#3 Derrick Rose (Class of 2007)
Did people envision the breathtaking athletic and explosive guard to ultimately become MVP of the NBA? And before the age of 25? No. But he was still a remarkable, bound-for-the-pros prospect who was destined for greatness because of his physical attributes and mental makeup.

Of the 10 players on this list, there isn't a more fierce competitor than Rose. A lot of what Rose did could not be measured by statistics. And when you combine that, which isn't always noticed at the high school level by the average fan, with his physical gifts, you do have a special prospect.

With his wonderfully powerful but in-control game, along with jaw-dropping explosiveness, Rose had that "I need to see that guy" wow factor. But he was also different in that he was a winner who made those around him better. Nonetheless, there were even skeptics while he dazzled in high school, partly due to an inconsistent jumper (but far from broken), his lack of true NBA-like size at 6-2, and the fact he rarely ever put up monster offensive numbers.

Through it all, Rose was always included in the mix of tremendous prospects in a Class of 2007 that was absolutely loaded. O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon and Michael Beasley all joined Rose at the top, but the class also included Blake Griffin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Cole Aldrich, DeAndre Jordan and several others who are playing in the NBA today. At the end of the day, Rose was THAT big of a prospect in high school.

#4 Shaun Livingston, Peoria Central (Class of 2004)
Maybe more than any player on this list, the ultra-smooth pure point guard with tremendous size at 6-7 and a wingspan of 6-11 was about projection when taken with the 4th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft straight out of high school.

Livingston, who led Peoria Central to back-to-back state titles, was the consensus No. 2 ranked player nationally in the class. But even those who loved watching him play have trouble putting his career, or path as a prospect, in context.

He was far from being a dominant scorer, even at the high school level. But Livingston had that rare ability, like Derrick Rose, of being an unselfish winner. True point guards at his size, with his feel, vision, passing ability and I.Q., are rare. He had a game that is so hard -- no, impossible -- to try and re-create at the high school level. Of all the players on this list, this is the guy that you most wonder if there will ever be a player LIKE him again. He did things you never saw from a 6-7 player at that age. THAT'S why Livingston translated so high two levels beyond high school and went straight to the NBA.

Sure, there were questions about his perimeter jumper and whether his body type would hold up to the rigors of the NBA, but you could make a small case for bumping Livingston up a spot or two on this list. That's how highly thought of he was by NBA executives coming out of high school.

Unfortunately, in 2007, in what looked to be his breakout third season in the NBA at the tender age of 22 (he was averaging 9.3 points a game), Livingston suffered a gruesome injury. He injured nearly every part of his knee, tearing his ACL, PCL and the lateral meniscus. He badly sprained his MCL, dislocated his patella and tibia-femoral. No one was ever able to see what Livingston would have become.

* #5 Jahlil Okafor, Whitney Young (Class of 2014)
What Okafor has going for him is that he's a true 5-man -- What!?!? A true, honest-to-goodness, on-the-block 5-man? -- in an era when it's impossible to find one. He's also baggage-free. The other big plus is you know what you're going to get with him more than typical high school prospects because he is so advanced and polished, but it's also a reason why some believe his ceiling isn't quite as high as some others.

Nonetheless, college coaches have marveled at how advanced Okafor is for a player his age and size. Big men develop slowly while adapting to the speed of the game, their footwork and low-post moves on the block. Okafor is the anti-everything in that belief.

When comparing Okafor to former big man star Eddy Curry of Thornwood, two aspects must be taken into account: Okafor's overall individual make-up and the competition he's faced throughout his high school career. Okafor has some competitive chops to him, and when you combine the schedule Whitney Young plays on the national stage in the winter, the EYBL circuit in the offseason, and his experience with USA Basketball, it could be argued no high school player has ever faced a more demanding schedule in his high school career.

This is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country, maybe the best pure big man the state has produced since ... waiting ... waiting ... since??? The odds of seeing another big man with the talent and potential of Okafor gracing our presence again? Very slim.

* #6 Cliff Alexander, Curie (Class of 2014)
Early in his high school career Alexander was a two-trick pony: He rebounded and dunked. This wasn't all he showcased as a prospect -- he was big, ran the floor and was a terrific athlete -- but his rebounding and finishing around the basket brought him early success. As a rebounder he's the best at the high school level since Quentin Richardson in 1998 and Jonathan Mills in 2009.

But those who've watched him morph into a much more complete player have to be impressed with how far he's come in the last 9-12 months. Alexander is a completely different player than he was when fans watched him at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament last December. As a result, he's elevated himself as a prospect, with offensive weapons that go beyond dunking and finishing at the rim. An absolutely exciting talent who -- and this is what really gets you excited -- seems to be just putting it all together and scratching the surface of what he will become. Plus, he just appears to love to play the game, work and play with a chip on his shoulder no matter the fanfare he receives.

#7 Eddy Curry, Thornwood (Class of 2001)
People will focus and immediately preach that Curry was a bust, a NBA Lottery Pick of the hometown Bulls who never reached the level many projected. There were some unfortunate turns in his career, but Curry actually produced at various points, leading the NBA in field goal percentage in the 2002-2003 season and then averaging 14.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks a game in just his third year out of high school.

With the Knicks in 2006-2007, Curry averaged career bests 19.5 points and 7 rebounds a game as a 25-year old. But the fall from that point on was rapid. And this question always surrounded Curry as player and prospect: How badly did Eddy Curry want it? How dedicated was he to the game, to staying in shape and to improving as a player?

All of THAT has diminished how Curry was viewed as a prospect in high school. Regardless of what he became (or what he didn't become), Curry was an absolute beast in high school with enormous potential at his size. A dominating physical presence at 6-11 with nimble feet and terrific hands, there was a reason he was the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country, MVP of the McDonald's All-Star game, went straight to the pros and was the No. 4 pick in the 2001 NBA Draft.

#8 Darius Miles, East St. Louis (Class of 2000)
On a recent list of the 50 most overhyped prospects in NBA history, Darius Miles checked in at No. 21. Ouch.

Nonetheless, when Miles was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers with the third pick in the 2000 NBA Draft, yours truly (and plenty other basketball fans from Illinois) was ecstatic knowing this young, dynamic talent was joining Chicagoans Quentin Richardson and Corey Maggette on what was the damn coolest NBA roster imaginable.

Attitude, personality traits and commitment always dogged Miles throughout his short and rather unproductive NBA career. A severe knee injury didn't help, nor did an undeveloped perimeter jumper.

He dazzled, though, during his time at East St. Louis, leading the Flyers to Peoria and the Elite Eight his senior year. He was a high school prodigy, a thoroughbred, generating a buzz throughout Illinois -- partly due to his talents and partly due to the fact so few people saw him play. Miles was ranked No. 3 in the country following his senior year, behind only Zach Randolph and Eddie Griffin. The 6-9 forward would block shots, pass, slash, rebound, lead the break and showcase the coveted length, versatility and athleticism NBA general managers became enamored with.

#9 Shannon Brown, Proviso East (Class of 2003)
Although Brown was cut by the Washington Wizards a little more than 24 hours ago, overall he's been a little underappreciated as a prospect and player. He started 89 games in his three years at Michigan State, averaging over 17 points a game as a junior, was a first-round draft pick and, after a slow start in his professional career, found a niche in his seven years in the NBA.

People forget how highly the 2003 Mr. Basketball winner in Illinois was thought of as a prospect nationally. The athletic 6-3 guard was the No. 3 ranked player in the country his senior year, behind only LeBron James and Luol Deng -- and ahead of Chris Paul.

#10 Julian Wright, Homewood-Flossmoor (Class of 2005)
A terrific athlete at 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, Wright was a McDonald's All-American and the No. 6 ranked player in the country as a senior, behind Josh McRoberts (Carmel, Ind.). Monta Ellis (Jackson, Miss.), Martell Webster (Seattle, Wash.), Tyler Hansbrough (Poplar Bluff, Mo.) and Louis Williams (Snellville, Ga.). All five of those players remain on a NBA roster today, while Wright, the No. 13 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, hasn't played in the NBA since 2011 and signed with Krasnye Krylia of the Russian Professional Basketball League in September.

A player on this list the City/Suburban Hoops Report wasn't as ga-ga over as others were in terms of his projection, Wright was a coveted prospect who played two seasons at Kansas. But a somewhat soft side and lack of any kind of perimeter shot tempered the Hoops Report's enthusiasm over Wright over the course of his high school career.

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

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