By Joe Henricksen
With the arrival of four-class basketball in the state of Illinois and the "who cares who wins what AAU circuit," holiday tournament time could arguably be called the most enjoyable part of high school basketball. That tradition held up once again in late December.
Interestingly, in a prior blog here on the Sun-Times website, the Hoops Report listed five teams that had the most to prove and gain this holiday tournament season. Here is how it shook out for those five teams.
Morton. Won the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. Proven? Check.
Schaumburg. The Saxons went into Pontiac unbeaten and, behind Cully Payne, reached the final before falling to Warren. This team is better than anyone thought back in November.
Curie. Beat Simeon for the first time ever and advanced to the semifinals at Pontiac. However, Curie sputtered following the win, losing to both Warren and Plainfield North to finish fourth. The verdict is still out whether this team is ready to challenge for Chicago Public League title and a trip to Peoria.
R-B. The previously unbeaten Bulldogs did advance to the semifinals at York but lost its best player, Dan Oswald, to injury earlier in the tournament and fell to tournament favorite St. Ignatius in the semis.
Anyone at the Big Dipper. No, not a specific team. But there were several teams aching for some respect. Of all those possibilities (Crete-Monee, Leo, Rich East, Bolingbrook, etc.) it was Rich East that took advantage of the opportunity. Rich East made its first-ever Big Dipper title game appearance and lost a heartbreaker to arguably the best team in Illinois, Thornton.
The story of the holiday tournament season, whether you were at the Big Dipper, Pontiac or Proviso West -- the three elite tournaments in the state -- could be summed up in one word: surprise. You could have handed out 10,000 bracket sheets to high school basketball fans and would have been lucky to get one that had Morton beating Proviso West in the title game in Hillside. In the south suburbs, Rich East made its first appearance ever in the Big Dipper title game, with the host school Rich South reaching the semis. And down in Pontiac, Simeon played in the fifth-place game, while Waukegan, the state's top-ranked team, went 1-2. It was little-known Plainfield North stealing the show with as dramatic of a win as you could imagine in the quarterfinals over Waukegan and Jereme Richmond. Then Plainfield North knocked off Curie in the third-place game. Even in downstate Pekin, little-known Moline walked away with a title in a tournament that included Mt. Carmel, Washington and Peoria Richwoods.
The Hoops Report's favorite? While Morton was probably the best story, the Plainfield North-Waukegan game was the best single moment. The entire game felt as if it were one of those #15 seed NCAA Tournament teams giving the No. 2 seed all it could handle in the opening round. After bouncing back from a 10-0 deficit, Plainfield North played as well as it possibly could and just hung around. And the longer they hung around the more the fans in Pontiac became enamored with the big underdog, just as those NCAA Tournament crowds start cheering for the No. 15 seed.
Robert Covington, 6-7, Proviso West .... With the long, wiry Covington it's been about consistent production. And up until recently, that production wasn't always there. In four games at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament, where he helped lead his team to a second-place finish, Covington averaged 16.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 blocks a game, while also showing the ability to hit a perimeter shot. Now Covington has attracted interest from several Division I schools, including Indiana State and Ball State.
Luke Scarlata, 6-7, Morton .... What more can you say? The big kid had plenty to prove to college coaches and, with all eyes on him, delivered. He helped lead Morton to the Proviso West Tournament title and grabbed MVP honors along the way. In the final three games of the tournament, Scarlata averaged 16 points, 10.6 rebounds and blocked 16 shots.
Aaron Nelson, 6-6, Bloom .... The Hoops Report has not given this kid his props. He has vaulted up the player rankings in the senior class and has literally carried a Bloom team that has had its share of turmoil. He's very limited athletically, but he uses his size extremely well and has an incredibly soft touch and solid face-up abilities, with range out to the three-point line. He will be one heck of a recruit for a junior college program.
Karl Madison, 5-9, Springfield (Lanphier) .... His name has been on the radar but the diminutive point guard is a talent and is better than a lot of the players in the junior class that are ranked ahead of him. While Lanphier is not a real strong team, Madison is now one of the top 15 players in the junior class and is a perfect mid-major prospect. He averaged 20 points a game at Pekin as he combines point guard intangibles with scoring ability.
Antoine Cox, 6-3, Bolingbrook .... While the senior duo of Diamond Taylor and Troy Snyder, who have signed with Wisconsin and Wisconsin-Green Bay, respectively, get the headlines, it's been this athletic junior who has opened the Hoops Report's eyes in the first half of this season. He's not on the AAU circuit so he has been absent from the player rankings. Known for his great athleticism, he's more than just a player that jumps out of the gym. Cox is strong with a great body and has shown the ability to hit the perimeter shot, both from mid-range and out to the three-point line. He still has to get a better feel for the game and begin to work on his game off the dribble, but Cox is clearly a prospect worth watching.
Macari Brooks, 6-2, Rich South .... Another one of those eye-popping athletes. Although he came off the bench for the Stars at the Big Dipper, he provided instant energy. He's clearly one of the top athletes in the class, doesn't play scared and even showcased a bit of a mid-range game. While his overall skill level needs to improve, Brooks is another name to add to the growing list of 2011 players.
And here are some other observations following the holidays.
..... Brandon Paul of Warren is without question the best senior and top college prospect in the state.
.... Wayne Blackshear of Crane and Tracy Abrams of Mount Carmel are at the top of the stock-filled Class of 2011 in the mind of the Hoops Report. Blackshear, though, has the body, explosiveness, athleticism and potential that could set him apart from everyone else in the class and probably gives him the edge as the best college prospect in the class.
.... As expected, the Big Ten Conference coaches are salivating over the crop of talent in Illinois in the Class of 2011. And as expected, the recruiting battles will intensify for those players in the sophomore class over the next 18 months. Wisconsin just recently offered a trio of players in the Class of 2011 -- Rock Island's Chasson Randle, St. Ignatius' Nanna Egwu and Romeoville's Devon Hodges, according to Illinois Wolves coach Mike Mullins. And Purdue's staff was busy and active over the holidays in Illinois. There was no assistant more visible over the holidays than Purdue assistant Rick Ray. He alone caught two of Chasson Randle's games and watched the De La Salle duo of Mike Shaw and Dre Henley as well. Purdue also had someone watching Curie's Wayne Blackshear each and every day at Pontiac, including Ray on back-to-back days. There is no question Purdue is poised to make a run at some of the state's top talent in the Class of 2011.
And finally, as we head into the new year, what team has been the most impressive and deserving of the No. 1 ranking? While North Lawndale has certainly re-asserted itself, the nod goes to Thornton at this point, with North Lawndale right behind them.