(This is one of several City/Suburban Hoops Report holiday tournament previews)
Where: Rich South High School
When: Dec. 26, 27, 28, 30
➤ NEED TO KNOW: In 39 years of this tournament, Marian Catholic had never won the Dipper until last season. In fact, the Spartans had never even played in the championship and had just one semifinal appearance -- all the way back in 1978. So you'll have to excuse the euphoria sweeping over Marian's fan base as their Spartans are the defending champs and favored to repeat.
➤ BUZZ WORD: Ulis. You may have heard of him -- Tyler Ulis. The Marian Catholic point guard and Kentucky-bound recruit is arguably the most exciting player to watch in the state of Illinois right now. And over the holidays you'll only see this special and dynamic talent at the McDipper.
➤ THE FAVORITE: There is a big favorite: Marian Catholic. Yes, coach Mike Taylor has 2012 tournament MVP and all-stater Tyler Ulis leading the way, but the Spartans just fit together like a hand in a glove. Even with a high-scoring star, this team fits together like a hand in a glove. The likes of John Oliver, Ki-Jana Crawford, T.J. Parham, Josh Cohn and others give this team experience and parts that complement each other well.
➤ TOP CONTENDER: Bolingbrook, led by scoring guard Prentiss Nixon, has talent and boasts a 6-1 record. Plus, the Raiders have something Marian Catholic doesn't -- size. The trio of 6-8 junior Julian Torres, 6-6 Kenny Williams and 6-6 Shakur Triplett would be a nice test for an undersized Marian Catholic team if the two teams were to meet.
➤ SLEEPERS: Very few people have noticed but both Rich South and Joliet Central jumped off to solid 6-2 starts. ... It's still not the Thornton of old, but it's an improved Wildcats team over the past couple of years with depth and experience -- and a dangerous one at the McDipper.
➤ CHANCE TO BREAK OUT: Has Thornton really failed to reach the semifinals in each of the past two years? Here's a chance for the Wildcats, who have been a Dipper semifinal regular over the past few decades, to reclaim a little of that south suburban respect.
➤ STORYLINES TO FOLLOW: Any Tyler Ulis heroics at the Dipper will only enhance his reputation and odds of making a run at any end-of-the-year POY awards. ... There are many teams around the Chicago area looking to make a statement over the holidays. Bolingbrook is that team at the McDipper. ... The best opening-round game at the McDipper is the Rich South-University High battle. The winner could give highly-regarded Bolingbrook issues in the second round.
➤ MATCHUP YOU HOPE MATERIALIZES: With no hope of another all-Chicago Heights matchup between Marian Catholic and Bloom (Bloom has moved on to the Pontiac Holiday Tournament), the most enticing matchup from a talent perspective and rankings is Marian Catholic-Bolingbrook.
➤ TOP FIVE PROSPECTS: Tyler Ulis, 5-9, Sr., Marian Catholic; Prentiss Nixon, 6-0, Jr., Bolingbrook; Julian Torres, 6-8, Jr., Bolingbrook; Zion Morgan, 6-2, So., King; Max Rothschild, 6-8, University High.
➤ UNDERRATED PLAYERS TO WATCH: Bolingbrook's shooting guard Gage Davis is an IPFW recruit. ... Unheralded Jonah Cable of Joliet Central, a 6-0 senior guard, was an all-tournament selection here last December. ... Keep an eye on up-and-coming U-High junior Jordan Moran, a big-bodied perimeter talent at 6-3. ... When T.J. Parham, a 6-6 senior who is committed to Army, is playing consistently and at a high level, Marian Catholic is so much more dangerous. ... Rich East 6-5 senior Don Henderson will showcase his athleticism. Can he lead the Rockets past out-of-state foe Barron Collier (Fla.)?
➤ HOOPS REPORT PICK: Marian Catholic