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Joe Henricksen: March 2012 Archives

John Groce and a wild, crazy search for a coach

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By Joe Henricksen

The rumors over just who will be the next coach at Illinois are over. The debate where this program currently sits nationally doesn't really matter today. The fact Illinois was not able to convince a group of high-profile coaches (or at least two) to take its job needs to be forgotten.

John Groce may not be the hire the fans anticipated when the Illinois job opened, and he may not have the résumé of the three previous coaches Illinois hired at the time they were brought to Champaign -- Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber -- but Illinois appears to have its coach. And regardless of whether he fits the "profile" of a coach people expected to replace Weber, Groce is regarded as a quality coach with some very strong attributes.

Sure, there are concerns. Groce's 34-30 record in the Mid-American Conference in four years certainly isn't an eye-opener in what is a far inferior mid-major conference in comparison to the Missouri Valley and Horizon League. The fact Ohio, which is considered by many to be the best job in the conference, has never finished higher than third in its division of the MAC under Groce opens questions. What it does show is just how much athletic directors at high-major schools continue to look at NCAA Tournament success.

And it's not as if he rebuilt a struggling Ohio program or one that was even a middling MAC team. The Bobcats weren't too shabby prior to Groce's arrival, winning 20, 19, 19 and 21 games in the four years prior to his arrival in Athens, while actually winning 40 MAC games in those previous four years in comparison to Groce's 34 MAC victories in his four seasons on the job.

In addition, his name recognition in Chicago is, well, he will have to work on that. Putting the right coaching staff together will help, maybe even be crucial. But much like Bill Self had to do when he was hired from Tulsa, Groce will need to go out and quickly endear himself to the people that matter in Chicago, the suburbs and around the state. That is done with a work ethic, energy, a personality and a little time. Groce appears to have many of those qualities. If Groce is a dynamic figure, if he is a people person with a personality and comes across as genuine, he will be just fine. And by all indications, if you look at his track record as a recruiter, he must have some of "it" in him.

But by listening to those around the state and hearing what they have to say, simply getting to know these people -- and in a rapid-fire way -- could be Groce's biggest immediate challenge.

"I don't know him," says Mike Irvin, who runs the high-profile Mac Irvin Fire club program, which boasts the likes of Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Gavin Schilling and Sterling Brown among others. "Actually, I've never heard his name until the other day. So I guess I don't have much to say about someone who I don't have much information about. But I just don't understand how you don't bring in someone who at least people know. I just can't figure this one out."

Simeon coach Robert Smith, who could potentially be contacted regarding an assistant job at Illinois, says he doesn't know or have a relationship with Groce, either. Asked if this would likely end any last hope Illinois had with Parker, the top prospect in the country, Smith said, "that's a great possibility."

"They [the Parkers] just don't have any relationship at all with him," says Smith, who won his third straight state championship earlier this month. "And that's what is most important for Jabari and his family, the personal relationship he has with the coach."

"I just think they are putting this guy in a tough situation," Smith says about the hiring of Groce. "Maybe he will come in and overwhelm people, but I just don't know him. Building relationships is huge, and that has to start from day one. But that's going to be tough when you're starting from scratch."

Mike Mullins, who is head of the respected and talent-filled Illinois Wolves club program, is acquainted with Groce. Although Groce was not the lead recruiter of Wolves star Evan Turner when the St. Joseph star played with the Wolves, the two have crossed paths while Ohio State recruited Turner.

"He's proved he's an aggressive recruiter, is an astute evaluator of talent and has closed on that talent," Mullins says of Groce. "He's also proven he can coach. I hope people give him a fair shot. I know we will."

Whitney Young's Tyrone Slaughter is another prep coach of a loaded program in the Chicago Public League. And he's another coach who has zero ties to Groce and has not dealt with him on the recruiting front. Slaughter now recognizes Groce, he says, but only from this year's NCAA Tournament run.

"I didn't know who he was until this year's tournament," says Slaughter of the former Ohio coach. "Like it is with any other college coach, it's local. If a coach doesn't have strong ties to Chicago, or in this case, really, any tie to Chicago, it's a learning process for everyone. That takes time. Unfortunately, with where the program is right now, I don't know if there is that time. We first have to find out what his vision is as the coach at Illinois."

Slaughter, Smith and Irvin are all very interested to see just what Groce decides to do with his coaching staff. And, most importantly, if any of the staff will have some type of connection and established relationship with the prospects, families, coaches, movers and shakers in Chicago basketball?

"Optimally, a big part of this is going to be about what he plans to do with his staff," says Slaughter.

All three -- Smith, Slaughter and Irvin -- believe it would greatly help close the gap between an outsider like Groce and Chicago basketball if there is a staff made up of coaches who players, coaches and families are familiar with. That's especially true, and important, with the strong junior and sophomore classes in Illinois, who have established relationships with the programs and coaches that have recruited them, some since they were in junior high.

At this point, however, don't dismiss Groce as a quality candidate. If you listen to Illinois fans over the past 24-48 hours it appears there is a complete meltdown as a result of how this coaching search has ended. Was the hire a little underwhelming? Initially, maybe. But the calls, texts and emails I received regarding Groce from Illinois fans were entertaining, but they were also pretty blinded and over-the-top. I realize the hire wasn't the home run fans were seeking, maybe expecting, but I was like, "Yowza!!" when it came to the immediate reaction.

Then with the news of the on-again, off-again press conference, the back-and-forth innuendo regarding planes and scheduled flights between Athens and Champaign, along with rumors flying wildly that Groce-to-Illinois wasn't completely done and was being held up, there was a subtle shift. Fans were disgusted with the process and felt empathy for Groce, who now likely emerges out of all this as a sympathetic figure.

We saw absolute venom thrown towards Bruce Weber in his final weeks as coach at Illinois. Now it's already being directed at Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. Starting on Monday and throughout Tuesday I already felt bad for Groce -- and he hadn't even been officially named the head coach yet. Were there more sure-things out there than Groce? Yes, but ... THEY DID NOT WANT THE JOB! (Well, except for Kansas State's Frank Martin). Or, playing devil's advocate and listening to some people in the business, how hard did Illinois really go after candidates not named Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens?

But it's not about what Groce isn't. And don't be sad and gloomy over who the hire wasn't. Remember, it's not Groce's fault Illinois was in the position it came to be in during this hiring search. And it's not as if he hasn't won anything or hasn't been entrenched in high-level college basketball coaching. He has worked his way up the coaching ladder, including stops at North Carolina State (4 years), Butler (1 year), Xavier (3 years) and Ohio State (4 years) prior to his four years as head coach at Ohio. There are coaches in the MAC who are relieved Groce is getting out the league as he has the program on the upswing and poised to become better next season.

Was Groce the popular choice? No. While some fans gave Shaka Smart an 11 on a scale of 1-10 (Wait, who are we kidding? After being Shakatized for a week fans upped it to a 12 or 13 out of 10 despite the fact the wonderboy was NEVER coming to Illinois) and others gave Brad Stevens a 9 and threw solid 8's at Anthony Grant and Buzz Williams, isn't Groce at least a 6 or 6.5? Yes? No? Come on! And there have been plenty of other 6.5's who have been hired in the past who have surpassed the initial lack of enthusiasm. Heck, Phil Jackson was probably a 5 or a 6 when he was hired to replace Doug Collins.

No one knows what Groce can become. Now is the time to give the guy a chance to succeed. He's done nothing wrong. Maybe, just maybe, Groce can exceed the expectations that right now many fans have placed for him and the Illinois program. There are attributes Groce brings to the table that can be attractive if you can see through the shaka-stained-glass window. He wants to be at Illinois and he has strong midwest and Big Ten roots.

From the outside looking in, the biggest plus to Groce's résumé was his ability to get his teams to play its best in big games, when the season mattered the most. On two occasions, once in 2010 and again this past season, Groce's Bobcats won the MAC Tournament when they had to, when neither a bid to the NIT or NCAA Tournaments were realistic without winning the tournament.

In 2010 as a No. 14 seed, Ohio upset Georgetown in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, before falling to Tennessee 83-68 in the second round. This year the Bobcats were a No. 13 seed and stunned Michigan in the first round and beat No. 12 South Florida to reach the Sweet 16. Ohio then fell to North Carolina in overtime late last week.

He's known as a worker, a coach who will be out and be seen on the recruiting trail. And that should not be under-appreciated from a head coach, especially at the high-major level. As one coach who is familiar with Groce's work at Ohio said, "He will work his ass off recruiting."

While securing top talent in Illinois will be imperative but not easy, maybe Illinois can tap into a new but pretty fertile recruiting ground in Ohio with his ties to the Buckeye state -- and even in Indiana. In fact, when comparing Groce to one of the high-profile must-haves for Illinois fans, Brad Stevens, the Hoops Report actually thinks that, aside from name recognition, Groce is a better fit to recruit to Illinois than Stevens. He is a recruiter and considered to be an elite one when he was an assistant.

The first bit of recruiting Groce may need to do is to convince assistant coach Jerrance Howard to stay on board. There will be suitors for Howard. But Howard is just too good of a natural fit at Illinois and has too many ties to current players, committed players and prospects to let him get away.

Fans and naysayers can turn their noses up and complain about the "Chicago basketball people" throwing down an iron fist and demanding someone on staff be from Chicago or have some connection to the city and suburbs. But it just makes sense, especially if the head coach has so little name-recognition to begin with. After dealing with and talking to the major players in high school basketball in the city and suburbs for years, I truly believe every single one wants the local programs to do well, whether it's Illinois, DePaul or Northwestern at the high-major level.

Whether it's Jerrance Howard or a natural "Chicago guy" as an assistant -- or both -- it helps tremendously, especially to get on the fast-track with these Chicago basketball people. No, they shouldn't run the show, nor do they, when it comes to hiring an assistant. But why wouldn't they want someone they trust, respect and have a history with? It helps a new coach getting prospects on campus earlier and regularly. And it helps the Chicago basketball people to have one of "their guys" immediately vouch for the head coach, which again speeds up the relationship and recruiting progress.

After recruiting his staff, Groce can address keeping the personnel intact, which includes a roster loaded with young players in their first year at Illinois who are feeling a bit uneasy these days. Plus, Groce will have to do whatever he can to keep Class of 2013 commitments Malcolm Hill of Belleville East and Jalen James of LaLumiere Prep in Indiana in the fold. James has always seemed to be an "Illinois" recruit, while Hill is currently the Hoops Report's No. 2 ranked prospect in the junior class.

Other quality characteristics coaches noted to the Hoops Report when talking about Groce was the fact he's high-energy, ultra-intense and brings a whole lot of fire. Plus, he's a player's coach. He gives his team some freedom and allows for them to go and make plays. Expect to see plenty of drives and kicks and ball screens and isolations for the team's best players to go do what they do best. Groce's teams try to score off their defense and in transition.

He's not Shaka. He's not a minority hire. He's not from a high-major. He's not a Chicago guy or even an Illinois native. The hire isn't going to win the "press conference" and won't sell tickets immediately. And GroceBall isn't exactly a catchy slogan for Illini hoops. But he can still be a great coach. And it's a fresh start, a clean slate with an entirely new energy. Groce deserves backing from this point forward from everyone. Anything short of giving Groce a fair shot and allowing himself to showcase his abilities on the big stage, is being stubborn and shortsighted.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

By Joe Henricksen

At this point, the topic of conversation won't go away. Whether you check in with a high school coach in Illinois, an AAU coach or a player in this state, the first question asked is: Who is going to be the next coach at Illinois? So it's impossible not to keep tabs on it and keep writing about it, because it actually has been a pretty intriguing search.

Foolishly, too many people assumed that coach was going to be Shaka Smart, the wonderboy from VCU. The Shaka Stalking was downright crazy when the reality of it was so different from the public perception. It was just never going to happen if you were connected at all to anyone very close to the situation.

Really, the saddest part in this search is this repeated phrase from college coaches in the business: "No one wants the job."

Well, no one is a bit dramatic. But at this point it's true when you're talking about a coach who would clearly excite a frustrated fan base. And it's true when you're thinking of a coach who comes with assurances of being a no-doubt-about-it coaching superstar capable of giving Illinois an immediate presence and of putting the program at the level it desires for the foreseeable future.

Sure, there are coaches that want the job. It's apparent from everything I've gathered from sources that Ohio's John Groce, who led his Bobcats to the Sweet 16, wants the job. Who wouldn't want to make the jump from the MAC, a league dedicated to its football programs and pays basketball coaches poorly, to the Big Ten? It's the MAC! And now it appears Groce may have moved to the front of the line.

It's also clear former New Mexico State coach and long-ago Bulls star Reggie Theus would love the job.

But take a look at those two candidates in this surplus list of candidates that have either fallen by the wayside or never been given true consideration. These are the type of names that generate excitement for a fan base that believes it's arguably a top 15 or top 20 program in the country? And one that is actually willing to pay top dollar for the first time in any basketball coaching search?

Groce is a pedestrian 34-30 in the Mid-American Conference in four years, typically a NCAA one-bid league with finishes of sixth, fifth and two thirds in what has been a pretty poor league in comparison to other mid-major conferences like the Missouri Valley Conference and Horizon League. His overall record is 85-56. Yes, there are three NCAA Tournament wins under his belt, which is clearly the selling point on his resumé. But this was an Ohio team that probably wouldn't have even made the NIT this year if it didn't get hot and win the MAC Tournament.

But in the end, is Illinois really going to hire a mid-major coach with less credentials and a shorter resumé than the last mid-major coach it hired? Bruce Weber went 103-54 at Southern Illinois in a far superior league, won two Missouri Valley Conference titles, went to one NIT and two NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16.

Today I asked a high-profile player in Illinois and a couple of high-profile high school coaches in Chicago, "What about John Groce?"

The reaction from one of the coaches and the player, after a pause, was "Who's John Groce?" Who is John Groce?!?!?!

The other coach said, "He's the bald coach who played North Carolina the other day, right? No way they can hire him ... Can they? They needed to hit a home run with this hire. Sounds like an infield single."

Then I checked in with some of the current young Illinois players' "people" regarding Groce. Well, um ...

And you think Vinny Del Negro is having a rough time? Wait till this hire goes down.

I will admit Reggie Theus was my favorite Chicago Bulls player for many years as a kid. Loved his whole schtick, the cool persona and all. I will even admit I watched him as coach Bill Fuller in the sitcom "Hang Time" just because he WAS Reggie Theus, my boyhood Bull! But his coaching track record consists of a 42-23 record at New Mexico State with one NCAA Tournament appearance after assisting Rick Pitino for a short time. And he compiled a 44-62 record as coach of the Sacramento Kings, along with an assistant job with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But he hasn't been a head coach in over three years. Plus, at least up until the middle of this past week, he hadn't even received a sniff from athletic director Mike Thomas.

The Hoops Report believes it will be one heck of a sales pitch to Illinois fans in hiring any of the rumored candidates that remain after the last three Illinois hires consisted of: Lon Kruger (six prior NCAA Tournament berths and Final Four appearance at Florida), Bill Self (two NCAA Tournaments and an Elite Eight appearance in three years at Tulsa) and Bruce Weber (taking SIU to two NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 berth).

But these are the names. And unless there is a seismic shift in this search process and some high-profile candidate comes out of nowhere screaming and yelling for the job, Thomas is going to need quite a sales pitch to try and sell the Illinois fan base.

For all the disdain directed toward Bruce Weber at Illinois in the second half of the season, I do wonder what the reaction would have been if you told Illinois fans the following back in February: "OK, fans, we're going to fire Bruce Weber at the end of the season. And we're going to hire ... TA-DA! ... John Groce."

Groce may be just fine as a coach. Maybe he will surprise and impress if indeed he is hired. But from a P.R. standpoint and pure perception? Whoa. You almost feel for him with the firestorm he will likely inherit if hired.

Now, I'm going to write something I personally can't believe I am about to write: Chris Collins as the next head coach at the University of Illinois.

The majority of readers, particularly Illinois basketball fans, have now just quit reading this blog and have exited from this webpage. Those of you that remain, hear me out, even though this is another name that has received zero attention from Thomas. And really, could it be a moot point with all the John Groce talk running wild at the moment?

But it has been on my mind and I want to get it out.

When the idea of Collins was floated around by some media members and Dicky V went crazy in promoting him as the perfect choice for the Illinois job, I admit I scoffed at it. I even tweeted the following: "I personally would never hire any assistant coach for any quality high-major job." (There are rare circumstances, of course, when the assistant has been in the program forever, people have seen his work up close, the program is running soundly, etc. -- i.e. Tom Izzo at Michigan State).

But as this search process has played out, I for some reason -- and I still don't know how it exactly happened -- kept coming around a little more and more to the idea of Chris Collins. And now, with the top dogs all running away from the Illinois job, I keep thinking about Collins even more.

I know, I know, I know ... Collins has done less head coaching -- zero, in fact -- than the other candidates I just wrote about. So, yes, I admit it's a little hypocritical and a contradiction in selling Collins as the next coach. And, yes, I've heard all the other complaints as well, including ...

Collins was an Illinois kid who chose Duke over Illinois. Yes, but it's not like he chose Iowa State over Illinois. It was Duke. And at the time, it wasn't the best of times with Illinois basketball in the early 1990s.

Collins will just use Illinois as a stepping stone to take over for Coach K at Duke. Maybe. But so did Bill Self with Kansas. But if that's the case, and Collins moves on to Duke, it means Illinois basketball must be in great shape and a much easier sell than what it's presently experiencing. It's a silly argument anyway. Just cross that bridge when you come to it.

The other concern I've heard is he has only had to recruit to Duke, which really isn't too tough of a task as an assistant. But you know what? Even with all the negativity being thrown around regarding the recruitment of Chicago, Collins wants and will recruit Chicago. He would not have a problem diving in there. Despite the obvious advantages of recruiting to Duke, he has been engaged in some recruiting battles against the very best college programs.

Then there is the notion that Duke assistants have not exactly set the world on fire when they've taken control of their own programs. This is where you roll the dice and hope the odds are in your favor and he becomes a better version of Mike Brey as opposed to Quin Snyder.

Plus, of all the names I throw out there to people, particularly fans, it has become clear Collins is the least favorable choice among fans. There is just an absolute distaste for Duke and some of that Dukie smugness and arrogance. Yes, yes, I know all the negatives. I hear them. I get them.

Due to where this search has gone, however, I have delved into the Collins thing here over the last week. Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens have no interest. Neither do Anthony Grant or Buzz Williams. Those are the four guys who, rather confidently, could elevate the Illinois program. There were others, including Leonard Hamilton, who just weren't interested.

But again, it's about what is left out there on the coaching tree of candidates. Collins wants the Illinois job. Though it's almost been embarrassing to hear the begging that has gone on from the Collins camp to get him involved in the Illinois hiring process, he does clearly want to be the Illinois coach.

What intrigued me about Collins when talking to a few basketball people was the impressive experience he has had assisting Mike Krzyzewski and the USA Basketball team staff with on-court duties since 2006. According to sources who know players on the U.S. National Team and spent time at a practice or two, Collins would often run parts of those practices. And he had the respect of the world's greatest players.

I called around to a few prominent high school and AAU coaches in Illinois and posed this question to them: Knowing where the search is at right now, what would you say if I said Chris Collins is the new Illinois basketball coach?

"With where that search is at right now, I think I would welcome Chris Collins."

"Well, like the other candidates I'm hearing that might be in line for the job, he doesn't do much for me. But at least he has some true Illinois ties."

"Crazy. I don't know anything about him because he hasn't been in our gym."

"What would I say? I would say he knows winning, comes from a winning pedigree. He has name recognition and he's an Illinois kid."

"I know he would have a great support system in Coach K, his father and many great basketball people for him to rely on. And he's an Illinois kid who everyone in Illinois has familiarity with."

"Say what you want about Duke, the name goes a long way. And Chris Collins is the associate head coach there. It might not be popular among fans, but you could do worse."

"He would be the classic high risk, high reward hire."

Yes, exactly. It's certainly a high risk. But at this point isn't that exactly where this hiring process has gone? Chris Collins. ... At this point, Jerrance Howard?

Roy Williams' first head coaching job? Kansas. Hmmmm....

EDITORS NOTE: Forget about no high-profile head coach wanting the Illinois job. There is one out there. After writing this blog and posting it, the Hoops Report received word from a great source late Sunday night that if Illinois were to reach out to Frank Martin, the Kansas State coach would be very interested in the job.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Where does Illinois hoops program rank?

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By Joe Henricksen

I got to thinking and wanted to delve into this, so ...

There has been a whole lot of discussion about where the Illinois basketball program ranks among the 300-plus programs in the country. It's been in the conversation of late as a result of the coaching search to replace Bruce Weber. And for whatever reason, the number 15 has been singled out as this magical, powerful number as it relates to Illinois basketball and its validity, as in a "top 15 program nationally."

So where does it rank?

The factors are endless--and change over the years--when it comes to ranking the top college basketball programs. You have to balance history and current success. There is perception, which hinges so much on NCAA Tournament appearances, long tournament runs, Final Four trips, conference affiliation and championships, television coverage, coaching star power and player development--i.e. NBA draft picks. There are internal factors, including facilities, resources, recruiting base and fan interest.

The Illinois program can hold its own in many of these categories. That's what should make the program enticing to any prospective coach that athletic director Mike Thomas is trying to convince to take over the basketball program. But it should never be about trying to "convince" a coach to take a job when you're talking a program that is among the top 15 college programs.

While the Hoops Report hardly conducted a full, thorough survey on the matter, it has posed the question to many college coaches in recent weeks. In addition, a few high school basketball coaches in Illinois, just to get a perspective of what their perception is of the program, were polled. The question was simple: When you combine history and current success, along with potential, is Illinois one of the top 15 programs in the country? Yes or no. The results:

34 college coaches (28 assistants, 6 head coaches)
Yes: 2
No: 32

15 Illinois high school coaches
Yes: 4
No: 11

The next question was is it among the top 30 programs? And the results:
34 college coaches (28 assistants, 6 head coaches)
Yes: 34
No: 0

15 Illinois high school coaches
Yes: 12
No: 3

Illinois can boast about the history, tradition and throw around winning percentages and tournament appearances over the last 100 years, but the kids the coaches are recruiting don't care all that much about history. It's more about what have you done for me lately? Kids in Illinois today can still hang on to that tremendous 2005 Final Four team, but it's fading fast among teenagers as there have been just two NCAA Tournament wins since.

And when it comes to recruiting, an underrated aspect of recruiting success at the highest level and what prospects care about is how many pros the school churns out. Nearly every prospect believes they are NBA-bound in today's culture, even if 98 percent of them have zero shot of it happening.

"You often just have to play along with the kids and their people when they talk about the NBA as you recruit them," says one high-major assistant coach.

"It's amazing how big of a sell it is and advantage when you have pros playing every night in the NBA that came from your program," says another high-major coach.

Basically, it's free advertising for a college basketball program while showing potential recruits, "Yes, we pump out NBA players!" You better believe it's a huge deal for UConn to have Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay, Caron Butler, Kemba Walker, Charlie Villanueva, Rip Hamilton, Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien playing in the NBA.

"It's a huge plus to even have old greats who still resonate with kids and who they can still connect with today, even if they aren't in the NBA," says a high-major assistant. "You better believe we use that when recruiting against another program."

Adds another mid-major coach, "We're a mid-major program and even we have to convince kids they can make it to the league if they come to a mid-major program, even though the reality is the kid is going to be a nice, but not great mid-major player."

While the NBA isn't overflowing with Michigan State players, there are still a few, but a figure like Magic Johnson is still a phenomenal ambassador for Sparty to this day. And a Georgetown can throw out retired NBA legends like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson with its current collection of players in the league.

Which brings us back to Illinois. Currently, there are just two players from Illinois playing in the NBA--a superstar in Deron Williams and career role player, holding-on-as-long-as-he-can Brian Cook. The lack of NBA talent out of the Illinois program is startling in comparison to programs you would consider "top 15" in the country.

Consider this: since Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson went on to stellar NBA careers from the Flying Illini days in the late 1980s, the only Illinois players who have even stuck in the NBA are Williams, Cook and Luther Head. That's one legit, bonafide starting NBA player in more than 20 years.

While losing current sophomore Meyers Leonard would be a huge loss to next year's team, the program will at least get a charge from putting another player in the NBA.

A program like Indiana hasn't exactly pumped out NBA players, but it's still one that produced Isiah Thomas, featured a basketball icon in Bobby Knight, has five national championships and has that prestige.

Where does the Hoops Report rank the Illinois program? No, it's not a top 15 job, but it has always believed Illinois is clearly one of the top 10 percent of college coaching jobs and programs in the country, and it's easy to argue a top 25 program. And what is wrong with that? Nothing. Yet for some reason people have been getting a little bent out of shape about it all.

So what are the top college basketball programs? While it's true a list like this can be somewhat cyclical, this list broke down almost perfectly between the top 15 and the next 15.

This first list of college programs are the ones the Hoops Report clearly places in elite status, a group of 15 that you can't argue. This list is in alphabetical order. If you're going to argue any of these, don't come to my "Ranking College Programs Party" and just wait for the next list to unfold to debate. These are the iron-clad programs throughout the country, with national titles, strong conference affiliation, history, resources, current success, deep NCAA Tournament runs, players drafted by the NBA and All-Americans.

The Top 15
Arizona
Connecticut
Duke
Florida
Georgetown
Indiana
Louisville
Kansas
Kentucky
Michigan State
North Carolina
Ohio State
Syracuse
Texas
UCLA

OK, for argument sake, I tried to pick out the one or two programs people may possibly take issue with and disagree in that it is in the untouchable top 15: Texas and Indiana. Really, it's not even close.

The Longhorns have a monstrous athletic budget, along with a campus life in Austin that is pretty darn special and a very impressive recruiting base in talent-filled Texas. On the basketball side of things, Texas went to a Final Four and three Elite Eights in the last decade while going to 14 straight NCAA Tournaments and 18 trips in the last 19 years. Rick Barnes has averaged just under 25 wins a year in 14 seasons, while finishing the season ranked among the top 25 in 11 of 14 seasons. And how about pros? Kevin Durant is one of the greatest players on the planet. There is LaMarcus Aldridge, D.J. Augustin, T.J. Ford, Daniel Gibson, Royal Ivey, Tristan Thompson and Chris Mihm to name a few. The Longhorns belong in the untouchable 14. There is no debate.

And the only reason Indiana is even debatable is the struggles of the program just prior to this season. But we're talking five national titles, history, passion and a fan base that is tremendous. Plus, Tom Crean has the Hoosiers rolling again, in the Sweet 16 and with another loaded recruiting class coming in next fall.

Then you get into the second-tier progams at the high-major level. Here is where fans of respective schools can debate, start disagreeing and get the guns ready to fire off at those that doubt their program. But debate is healthy. And it would be difficult to get a consensus on the next 15 in the NCAA basketball pecking order.

While the Hoops Report can lock in the top 15 programs pretty easily, it can also clearly separate the next 15 programs from the remaining 300 in NCAA Division I. Here we can go on and on and debate all day long where each of these programs falls between No. 16 and No. 30. Where would the Hoops Report place the current Illinois program? Probably in that 20-25 range, right where the majority of the 34 college coaches polled placed the Illinois program.

The Next 15 (listed alphabetically)
Arkansas
Cincinnati
Illinois
Gonzaga
Marquette
Maryland
Missouri
Memphis
Michigan
Oklahoma State
Pitt
Purdue
Villanova
Wisconsin
Xavier

The omissions
There are a couple of programs where fan bases could get testy about not being among the top 30, such as those proud ACC fans supporting North Carolina State and Georgia Tech. But personally, the Hoops Report has always believed N.C. State was an overrated program. For starters, you never want to be stuck in the back yard of Duke and North Carolina. "Hey, kid. Don't look over there to the northeast. Those are our two conference rivals just miles away and two of the most storied programs in all of sports. If they don't want you, we'll take you." But more than that, this program has done little to nothing since coach Jim Valvano left in 1990. This year's Sweet 16 run is just the second time the program has advanced past the opening weekend of tournament since the late 1980s.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, has very little history. The program didn't do a thing until coach Bobby Cremins took over in the 1980s. And recently, the Yellowjackets have just five NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 16 years.

And the 10 All-Underrated Programs
Butler
Creighton
Dayton
Florida State
New Mexico
San Diego State
Texas A&M
UNLV
Virginia Commonwealth
Wichita State

Shaka! Shaka! Shaka! Please, Shaka!

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By Joe Henricksen

The Shaka Saga: Day 3

I take a scene out of the classic comedy "Dumb and Dumber" and insert the two focal points of the Illinois wooing of the VCU head coach ...

Mike Thomas: What do you think the chances are of a coach like you and program like ours ... ending up together?
Shaka Smart: Well, Mike, that's difficult to say. I mean, we don't really...
Mike: Hit me with it! Just give it to me straight! I came a long way just to see you, Shaka. The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?
Shaka: Not good.
Mike: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
Shaka: I'd say more like one out of a million.
(pause)
Mike: So you're telling me there's a chance ... YEAH!

Does the Shaka and Mike Thomas discussion this week resemble Lloyd Christmas courting Mary Swanson back in the 1990s? Is this how the Shaka and Illinois saga goes down? Come on, Shaka! Just give MT a chance! That's all he wants.

As serious as all this is for the Illini faithful -- and I do hope Shaka Smart changes his mind and fills the dream of Illini fans everywhere because he is the best man for the job -- can't we still have a little fun?

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Elite programs stand out in Peoria

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By Joe Henricksen

Earlier this season, the City/Suburban Hoops Report publication that goes out to subscribers did a massive research project and ranked the top 40 high school basketball programs in the state, using eight different categories for a final point total. Among the top five ranked programs in the state were Simeon, Proviso East and Peoria Central. All three showed why they are among the top five basketball programs in the state this season and added to their star-quality this weekend.

When it was all said and done on Saturday in Peoria, it was about a trio of elite high school basketball programs in Illinois adding hardware to an already impressive trophy case.

First, Simeon won its sixth state championship, which gives the Wolverines more basketball titles than any other program in state history. In addition, coach Robert Smith has now won a state coaching record five state championships, including three in a row. And go ahead and throw in a state runner-up finish in 2008 to the collection. This has been an unprecedented seven-year run in state basketball history, with Simeon averaging a remarkable 29 wins a season while winning five state championships and a state runner-up finish.

Then there is Class 3A champ Peoria Central. In a high school basketball hotbed like Peoria, it's a battle just to be the best in its own town. Since Peoria Central won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004 while still under the two-class system, both Peoria Manual and Peoria Richwoods have been the headliners. But the Lions took center stage in this 2011-2012 season, claiming the program's fifth state championship. That ties Central, which also has an impressive four state runner-up finishes, with Peoria Manual for the second most state titles in state history.

And although Proviso East lost to Simeon in the Class 4A championship game, this proud, tradition-rich program returned the basketball glory to Maywood with a tremendous run this season. The Pirates fell just short of winning their fifth state championship, settling for a second-place trophy for the second time in the program's history.

In all, when you combine Simeon, Peoria and Proviso East, there are a total of 15 state championships and seven second-place trophies between them. And don't be surprised if Simeon and Proviso East are back in Peoria next March adding to that number.

Simeon returns the top player in the country, superstar junior Jabari Parker, along with junior star Kendrick Nunn and key contributors in Jaylon Tate and Kendall Pollard. While Proviso East will lose an instrumental leader and all-stater in Keith Carter, coach Donnie Boyce will welcome back junior Sterling Brown, guard Paris Lee, 6-3 wing Brandon Jenkins and sophomore Javon Carter.

And speaking of Brown, was there a player in Peoria this past weekend who had a bigger individual moment than the 6-4 junior? Brown's championship game performance showed why he's among the top 10 prospects in the Class of 2013. He was assertive, confident and versatile offensively in putting together a killer performance in the biggest game of the year. He scored a game-high 25 points and in impressive fashion in the 50-48 defeat, knocking down threes, hitting pull-up jumpers and driving to the basket. And this was coming off a 13-point, 15-rebound performance in the state semifinal win over Rockford Auburn.

The Proviso East-Simeon championship game was desperately needed. It was the matchup everyone wanted and it lived up to the hype. Both Simeon and Proviso East bounced back from sub-par performances in the semifinals and showed why they were clearly the two best teams in the state. In what was a rather ho-hum basketball season in the state of Illinois, at least it concluded with a pair of heavyweights clashing in a great battle on the final night of the season.

The 2012 championship game won't quite rank up with the following in terms of drama or best games played:

• The 1976 championship where Morgan Park beat West Aurora at the buzzer.
• Mt. Carmel's 46-44 double overtime victory over Springfield Lanphier in 1985.
• Or arguably the best state championship game ever, the 59-57 triple overtime game in 1989 where East St. Louis Lincoln's Lawrence Bradford hit a buzzer-beater to knock off Peoria Central.

But when you include the talent that was on display, the records both teams boasted, the build-up of the game and combine it with the high-level basketball the two teams played over 32 minutes, it was in the collection of top title games played.

Hoops Report's final Peoria points ...
☛ As an Illinois high school basketball purist, really wish Simeon didn't play that Findlay Prep team back in January. That one loss sticks out but shouldn't, due to the fact it was an out-of-state prep school basketball factory. In the end, the experience was beneficial for Simeon and a win over Findlay would have put them in the mythical national title picture, but it sure would be nice to go down as an undefeated state champ.

☛ Without question, the unsung hero in Simeon's state championship is Jaleni Neely. The Big Three of Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn and Steve Taylor typically grab all the attention and headlines, but it was Neely who battled back from last summer's ACL injury and was a behind-the-scenes stalwart who helped keep the Simeon engine running. Neely hit a couple of huge three-pointers when his team needed them in the state title game victory. With all the great players that have come through Simeon over the past three decades, there haven't been any (until Parker graduates next year) who have been involved in more big games and championships than Neely. None. The 5-10 senior was the sixth man on the 2010 title team and was a spot-starter and key contributor on the 2011 title team. Now Neely will leave the program as a key member of three straight state championships.

☛ What an impressive first year turned in by Proviso East coach Donnie Boyce. The local boy came home and did good. No, did great. This team did three things all season that can be credited to a coach: played hard, inspired and unselfish all season. Has there ever been a coach in history who suffered his first loss of his coaching career in the state championship? The ride Boyce was on in his first year as coach was eerily similar to that of both Wayne McClain and Rocky Hill in 1995. McClain and Hill were both in their first year as head coach when they led their respective programs, Peoria Manual and Thornton, to the 1995 championship game. But the two were a combined 61-3 heading into the state final, while Boyce's Pirates were a perfect 32-0 before falling to Simeon.

☛ A coach who hasn't been mentioned enough for the job he's done this season is Hillcrest's Don Houston. He dealt with turmoil this past offseason with the tragic death of Ryan Royall and was there for a team who desperately needed a leader and someone to lean on. Houston took a group of good players and turned it into a great season with a third-place finish, just two years after winning the program's first state championship.

☛ Although Bloom had no intention of returning from Peoria with two losses, no one could have forecasted for this to be the best season this program has had since the mid-1970s. It's a credit to coach Jasper Williams, who does things the right way in the south suburbs.

☛ Simeon's Steve Taylor didn't wow people with his feathery touch from the three-point line or eye-opening athletic plays, but he showed a willingness to battle, grind and become the player the Wolverines needed him to be. The 6-7 senior was a warrior in Peoria, combining for 21 points and an eye-opening 28 rebounds in the two victories.

☛ After catching two Peoria Central games late in the season, I was impressed and sold. Yet I still didn't even pick the Lions to get out of their tough sectional. Silly me. You won't find many state championship teams as balanced as coach Dan Ruffin's club -- five players average between 7-13 points a game -- but unheralded senior Aldonis Foote elevated his play with a game-high 21 points in the semis and 17 in the state title win.

Aaron Simpson of North Chicago wrapped up a brilliant 2,000-plus point career and led the WarHawks to a fourth-place finish as a junior and a runner-up finish as a senior. Though it's clearly not Boatright-esque explosiveness and showmanship, the high-volume scorer certainly can put points on the board and entertain. With the return of a pair of talented sophomores in guard JaVairius Amos-Mays (12 ppg) and 6-4 Kurt Hall (10 ppg), North Chicago will remain a team to watch in 3A over the next two seasons.

☛ If Springfield Lanphier sophomore Larry Austin can do one of two things over the next two years -- become a very reliable point guard or add a jumper that must be respected -- he will develop into the player so many thought he could be coming out of 8th grade.

☛ When you look at the two champions in 4A and 3A, there isn't much debate over one common approach both Simeon and Peoria Central took in finishing where they did: rugged schedules. Of all the eight teams in Peoria this past weekend, no team played tougher schedules than Simeon and Peoria Central. Simeon played a testy schedule that included highly-regarded national foes, a trip to the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and the dogfights in the Chicago Public League. Peoria Central played the likes of Springfield Lanphier, Washington, Crane, St. Joseph in non-conference play, while meeting Peoria Manual twice in league play.

☛ He doesn't get the props he deserves because he plays outside the Chicago area, but what Rockford Auburn's Fred Van Vleet did in leading that team to a third-place finish in 4A is awfully impressive. While the late-season injury to Jaylin Marshall, a player who provided Auburn with the little amount of size and presence it had, definitely hurt, this was not an overly talented team that took home a trophy from Peoria. But Van Vleet's presence and ability to make those around him better is pretty noteworthy. There are many individual players who are vitally important to their team, but there wasn't a player in Illinois this winter who was more important to his team than Van Vleet.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Shaka Train derailed but still other Plan A's

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By Joe Henricksen

A week ago I was driving the Shaka Train. I was the railroad engineer, train operator, conductor -- whatever you want to call me -- in calling for VCU coach Shaka Smart to be the guy to lead Illinois basketball.

I also hinted it may be a longer shot to land Smart than many people expected. And with all that Smart had going at VCU -- a place he loved coaching, making $1.2 million a year, upgrades in the program, another NCAA Tournament team, seven of his top eight players returning next year with a couple of stud recruits coming in, off-the-charts perks for a mid-major program and, according to almost everyone, not being consumed by $$$$ -- he had the right to think he could be the Mark Few of the east or, at the very least, be extremely patient with his next coaching move.

The zealousness I had for the Smart Illinois hire was highlighted in this very blog. The Hoops Report said to make it impossible for Smart to turn down Illinois. But unless something dramatically changes, Illinois will be Shakaless, according to three sources close to the Illinois-Smart scenario -- two of which are very close. It's just not going to happen. And the reasons that were given all made sense.

There has been so much Shaka Fever in these parts it almost seemed like the guy was actually coaching Illinois in Thursday night's win over Wichita State. Might Shaka Smart even be included in next year's Illinois basketball media guide, listed right there with Harry Combes, Lou Henson, Bill Self and Bruce Weber with a 0-0 coaching record? (Shaka would only have eight fewer Fighting Illini wins than Gene Bartow, however.)

But one thing that hasn't changed is the fact Illinois needs to forget Plan C and Plan B and continue to do whatever it takes to get Plan A done. And that's to go hire a difference-maker, a coaching star. It's in athletic director Mike Thomas' hands, and hopefully the money is there and the program is committed to providing whatever resources a superstar coach requires. It's OK to have more than one Plan A.

If indeed these sources who said in the last 24-36 hours that Shaka to Illinois is not going to happen are correct, all it does is change who Plan A is at this time. There is a new Plan A out there. The problem is you just don't want to miss on this Plan A -- and we'll go maybe one more Plan A after that -- because then you really are back to the drawing board.

As many names are being floated around for the Illinois basketball coaching vacancy, they all aren't the guy who can truly elevate the Illinois basketball program to the level fans expect. They all aren't home run hires. It's not that easy. This isn't to say that many of the names being tossed around aren't very good coaches; many of the names are capable of doing a fine job at Illinois. But the list of candidates, we're talking legitimate candidates, who are potential coaching superstars is limited. There is a difference between being a really good basketball program and an elite basketball program. And it starts with the next coach Illinois hires.

Which brings me back to what was really the point of my Shaka column last week, which highlighted what Illinois needed to do -- at that time to lure Shaka Smart -- to land that superstar coach. In that "Next Illinois Basketball Coach" column, there was a point-by-point look at what Illinois basketball should look like in terms of money, resources and perks an elite coach receives at an elite program.

And Illinois needs that elite, superstar coach. It needs a face to the program in the worst way, a face and name that resonates past central Illinois, in the city of Chicago and beyond. With me now resigning my post as the railroad engineer of the Shaka Train, it's on to the next one.

The Johnny Dawkins rumors are swirling around me, including the fact the Stanford coach made the long trek to Peoria to watch Jabari Parker while his team is preparing for a NIT matchup with Illinois State on Monday. If Dawkins sticks around for today's games in Peoria as well? Hmmmm ... We'll see. His plane was expected to leave early this morning. But Dawkins is getting a strong push from two influential, heavy hitters.

Which brings me back to Plan A scenario. And remember, the amount of type Plan A's out there are limited. You don't want to go too far down the line before you're back to the "Yes, he's a quality coach and will do a nice job at Illinois" line of thinking when you should be thinking "GET ME A POTENTIAL STAR!"

One highly rumored name, Alabama's Anthony Grant, would work. He brings a "business approach that is respected," but "he may not bring the bubbly personality that reverberates immediately," according to someone very familiar with Grant. And maintaining current assistant coach Jerrance Howard and putting together the ideal staff would be imperative with a Grant hire. There is zero immediate connection to the Midwest or Chicago, but Grant would satisfy and probably excite the fan base, has showed he can coach and get teams to a NCAA Tournament, brings an exciting style of play that fans would enjoy watching and recruits have fun playing in, and ends the hiring a minority drought. Grant and Illinois would work.

And then there is the name that, for whatever reason, has been hardly discussed.

Marquette's Buzz Williams.

Originally, the thought was Buzz Williams was untouchable. He makes a huge chunk of change (between $2.5-$2.8 million last year), his program has one of the biggest basketball budgets in the country, he has the Golden Eagles rolling and his buyout is too big for suitors to take him seriously.

However, the buyout for Williams is apparently fiction, put out there by Marquette people as a protective shield. The dollar amount of the buyout, rumored to be in between $1-$1.5 million, is actually one of the smaller ones among high-major coaches -- $100,000, according to a close source.

In addition, there are rumblings that despite all the success up at the Big East school in Milwaukee, everything might not be as kosher as perceived between Williams and Marquette. But it's also believed that there has been zero contact or even feelers put out by Illinois to Williams.

That may not change, but it should. Williams is adored by coaches in the city. He has a wide-ranging recruiting base. His teams play extremely hard and with a high level of toughness. He's taken four straight teams to the NCAA Tournament, including a Sweet 16 berth last year. He's won 26 games and counting this year and a date with Murray State on Saturday in the Round of 32.

So there you go. Unfortunately, the conductor of the Shaka Train has stepped off, forced to more than wanting to, but has provided two more names that could get Illinois basketball rolling.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Peoria primer

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By Joe Henricksen

The NFL loves parity. Do you as high school basketball fans? Depends on the fan.

Fans seemed so intrigued in the past when there was a dominant prep basketball team in Illinois. People were excited to watch some of those outrageously talented King teams in the 1980s and 1990s, but there was also a disconnect in that many of those same fans were anxious to see Sonny Cox's boys fall.

Peoria Manual won with class -- and some loaded teams -- during its unprecedented run with four straight championships in the 1990s. There were fans, though, that wanted to see the state title streak end. And it sure was entertaining to watch to see if Thornton could ever get over Mt. Manual in those final three years.

Yes, it's entertaining when there are a handful of legit, contending teams who you can't wait to see, paired up against one another in March. But as Simeon embarks on its third consecutive state title run -- and fifth title in the last seven years -- we don't have that balance and parity in the state's largest class of basketball. We have a clear-cut favorite in Simeon, an unbeaten power in Proviso East that wants a crack at the mighty Wolverines, and two programs in Bloom and Rockford Auburn that are believing in themselves and feel as if they can play the role of spoiler.

(Want some parity? Keep an eye on those four Class 3A semifinal games.)

There is a lot to like in 4A this weekend. And at the top of the list is a potential Simeon-Proviso East title game matchup Saturday night, a game the Hoops Report has been clamoring for since February.

And what about those two other teams in 4A?

What's appealing as we head to the final weekend of the season is that both Bloom and Rockford Auburn have moved up from the "wannabe contender" group from earlier in the season. They are now two teams who are just one upset win away from playing for a state championship. And for these two programs, it's been awhile since either have been in this position.

Here's a look at the four Class 4A semifinalists.

Simeon
What's at stake? A third straight state championship and a state record sixth state title, which would give the Simeon program more than any other in state history. Lets see if coach Rob Smith's team defends its crown with vigor. Does this group appreciate the significance that is before them? Do these guys LOVE being champs? Not every group is wired that way. We'll see if the Wolverines are.
What's to like? Duh, the Wolverines are the best team in the state and boast the most eye-opening talent. If you're as good as your three best guys, then Simeon is awfully good with Jabari Parker, Steve Taylor and Kendrick Nunn. Plus, the deeper we get into Parker's career, the closer he gets to being one of those rare talents who fans look at as if he's a UFO landing at center court during warmups.
What's the fear? Will the expectations ever tug on Simeon's shoulders? If a game is tight, down to the wire, right down to the last possession -- the Wolverines won every postseason game by double digits with an average victory margin of 24 points -- how will Simeon respond? This team has faced little to no game-like adversity.

Bloom
What's at stake: Well, why not shoot for the stars and win a tradition-rich program's first-ever state championship? This will be Bloom's first state trophy of any kind in over 35 years. Can the Blazing Trojans get back to the title game for the first time since finishing second in the state in 1974 and 1975?
What's to like? Do people underestimate the Blazing Trojans? Or is it just me? You couldn't blame a few from jumping off the bandwagon in January when losses to Rich South, Bogan and Sandburg created some doubt. But what a terrific job coach Jasper Williams has done with this group that isn't overly talented but sits 28-3 on the year. Unheralded point guard Donald Moore has been an absolute rock. He may not garner the attention other guards in this state tournament have received, but he's been so instrumental in this team's success. Bloom isn't real big, but 6-4 junior Johnny Griffin has stepped up as the coaching staff hoped he would this season. However, what this team really hangs its hat on is the defense it plays. Bloom disrupts things, puts pressure on opposing teams with its ball pressure.
What's the fear? From a pure talent perspective, Bloom doesn't match up with either of the teams it will likely have to knock off in Peoria -- Simeon in the semifinals and Proviso East in the final. And Bloom didn't exactly knock off any juggernauts on its way to Peoria. While Bloom has won 13 straight games, it hasn't played a single ranked team in that span.

Rockford Auburn
What's at stake? Well, when you're Rockford Auburn, you simply cherish the fact you're playing on this final weekend of the season. It's a program that has slowly climbed the mountain, losing in the supersectional last year, and hasn't been to the state finals in over 35 years.
What's to like? Fred Van Vleet. He's a player that simply grows on you. Playing against the Wichita State point guard is a little like that whole numbing process at the dentist. You don't feel a thing while he's going to work on you, but you realize all the damage that was done when it's all over. Van Vleet averages 21.3 points, 6.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds and over 4 steals a game. But beyond the stats, Van Vleet makes those around him better than they really are and does a better job of doing it than anyone in Illinois right now. This is a veteran, senior group that has won a lot of games and gained a lot of confidence.
What's the fear? That what happened in the quarterfinals of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament happens again. That late December loss to Proviso East, a 75-56 whipping, was the last time this Auburn team lost. But it also hasn't played a team anywhere near as good as Proviso East since then. There is also a serious lack of height, which fortunately shouldn't come into play against a small Proviso East team.

Proviso East
What's at stake? Bringing the basketball glory back to Maywood has already happened with a 31-0 record and trip to Peoria. But this is a program that feels it took too long to get back to state after winning back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992. Regardless of the experts and their picks, coach Donnie Boyce's Pirates are here to win it and claim the program's fifth state championship. A title in Peoria this weekend would tie the Pirates with Peoria Manual and Simeon for the most state championships in IHSA history.
What's to like? Speed. Quickness. More speed. Proviso East's guard play, led by the trio of Keith Carter, Paris Lee and Paris Burns, wreaks havoc. In addition to combing for 42 points a game, they just hound you defensively. They're like a bunch of attacking terriers who keep coming and coming and coming. If you don't like playing fast, the Pirates make you play fast. If you do like to play fast, the Pirates play faster. But if Proviso East is to come away with the biggest trophy, junior Sterling Brown (12.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg) is going to have to be a difference-maker.
What's the fear? There are two concerns. First, the larger college floor will be a huge disadvantage to the suffocating, full-court, trapping, pressure defense the Pirates thrive on. There will be fewer transition points for Proviso East in Peoria. Thus can they maintain their poise at the most crucial times and in the halfcourt? When you're creating a chaotic pace and trying to speed the game up, you adopt a certain "I don't give a crap, we're going balls out from the tip" mind-set for the first 29 minutes of the game ... and then those last three minutes come around and you have to slow things down, get good shots and take care of the ball. But it's tough because you've been committed to that "I don't give a crap, we're going balls out from the tip" mind-set for 29 minutes. Luckily, Proviso East has a floor general in Keith Carter who gets it.

And our Class 3A reps ...
• Springfield Lanphier
Many Springfield Lanphier state tournament memories come rushing back as the Lions make their first trip to the state finals since 2002. Most fans will remember superstars Kevin Gamble and Ed Horton in the mid-1980s. Or maybe Andre Igoudala in 2002. Me? I remember the 1983 state championship team, led by Gamble and Horton, with the crowd whooping it up with chants of "Moooooooooose" for unheralded Moose Nika, a 6-3 forward and son of coach Bob Nika.

This Lanphier team is perimeter-dominated. There is Class 3A all-stater Everett Clemons (19 ppg), who is the son of former Springfield great and Fighting Illini star Rennie Clemons. And there is Larry Austin (12.5 ppg), the ballyhooed sophomore guard, who is among the top players in the state in the Class of 2014.

• North Chicago
When it comes to North Chicago basketball, the discussion always starts with senior guard Aaron Simpson. The 5-11 high-scoring guard has scored over 2,000 career points and is averaging 26.3 points a game this season. This North Chicago team is better than the one that finished fourth in the state last March. In addition to Simpson, North Chicago has a pair of up-and-coming talents in sophomores Kurt Hall (9.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and JaVairius Amos-Mays (11.6 ppg), who transferred in from Zion-Benton this year, and a not-talked-about-enough senior in Marzhon Bryant (11.5 ppg).

• Hillcrest
There isn't a team that has experienced a wider range of emotions since the end of last season than coach Don Houston's Hawks. Last June, Ryan Royall, who was a projected starter for this year's team, was tragically shot and killed by a stray bullet. Now, a little more than nine months later, with Royall's memory still fresh on their minds, Hillcrest is in Peoria shooting for its second state title in three years.

While many don't know much about him, junior Jovan Mooring will provide fans visions of Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson. The stocky, offensive-minded guard leads the Hawks with just over 15 points a game. Hillcrest is balanced, with a pair of hard-nosed seniors, 6-5 Jayon'e Troutman and 6-5 Jalen Loving, combining for 26 points and 14 rebounds a game.

• Peoria Central
In Peoria, the likes of Manual and Richwoods -- even Washington, just outside of Peoria -- have grabbed all the headlines since Peoria Central won back-to-back titles behind Shaun Livingston in 2003 and 2004. This Peoria team, however, might just be the favorite to bring home the program's fifth state title.

Coach Dan Ruffin's team, which owns impressive late-season wins over Washington (twice), Peoria Manual, St. Joseph and Springfield Lanphier, is big, strong and athletic. The Lions will throw 6-7 Trey Kellum (12.6 ppg), 6-4 Aldonis Foote (11.2 ppg), 6-10 Kevin Jordan (7.6 ppg) and 6-6 Shamar Hill (10.9 ppg) at you in a balanced attack. Jordan is one of the two or three most improved players in the senior class since the end of last season.

And the picks ...
Class 3A Semifinals
Springfield Lanphier over North Chicago
Peoria Central over Hillcrest

Class 3A State Final
Peoria Central over Springfield Lanphier

Class 4A Semifinals
Simeon over Bloom
Proviso East over Rockford Auburn

Class 4A State Final
Simeon over Proviso East

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

The best team that didn't win

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By Joe Henricksen

As Simeon gears up for yet another trip to Peoria, this time boasting the state's best player in Jabari Parker and a supporting cast featuring high-major college prospects in senior Steve Taylor and junior guard Kendrick Nunn, there is no debate that coach Rob Smith's Wolverines are the favorite.

While no one will dismiss the idea that unbeaten Proviso East, with its stellar guard play, could pull off a surprise Saturday night in Carver Arena, fans, coaches and media members fully expect Simeon to go about its business and claim a state record sixth state championship. And, yes, Bloom and Rockford Auburn hope to have something to say in the state semis.

However, there have been plenty of great, no-way-they-can-lose-type teams who were expected to bring home a title but came up short once reaching Champaign or Peoria over the past four decades. The 31-0 Quincy team, featuring Mr. Basketball Bruce Douglas, was stunned at the buzzer in the state semifinals by Mendel Catholic in 1982. Remember Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields teaming up together for Farragut in 1995 only to lose to Thornton in the state quarterfinals? And how about the Eddy Curry-led Thornwood team in 2001, which was upset by Schaumburg in the state championship?

Those are just three of several heavy hitters who were upset when so many penciled them in as state champs. Then there is the 1997 Thornton team. Yes, it fell short, too. And it will never be remembered as a state championship team. But when the loaded 1997 Thornton team's quest for a state title ended, it was a little different.

Coach Rocky Hill's team entered the season having lost in the state championship in each of the previous two seasons, falling to Peoria Manual both times, while finishing up the two years with a combined 61-3 record. The 1996-97 season was another shot at the title and, more importantly, one last shot at the Manual juggernaut.

"I remember being in survival mode, just not wanting to get upset before we got another shot at Manual," says Hill. "We wanted that opportunity to play them again, and I remember being so worried about not making it back to get that chance."

But making it back with the talent Hill had returning became a foregone conclusion once the season got rolling. The Wildcats, as expected, were just too good.

This was a team featuring a personnel that was both gifted and unique. There was size in 6-10 Melvin Ely, who went on to play eight seasons in the NBA. There was raw strength and athleticism in rugged 6-5, 210-pound Napoleon Harris, who went on to star in the NFL for the Raiders, Chiefs and Vikings. There was the sleek, athletic and versatile 6-5 Erik Herring, who put together a terrific college career at George Mason.

And then there was Antwaan Randle El, the speedy and tenacious point guard. He was a winner, defender and playmaker. He embarrassed opposing point guards with his suffocating ball pressure. Randle El in transition with those big, fluid athletes filling the lanes on the wings or trailing behind was a thing of beauty and intimidation.

Randle El was a draft pick of the Cubs in baseball. He enjoyed a record-breaking, All-Big Ten football career at Indiana, while also playing a little hoops for Bob Knight. And he went on to a terrific NFL career.

But this was a basketball team. Thornton was hungry, played every game like it truly mattered, competed and got after it for 32 minutes. The Wildcats crushed people. There were only two games throughout the entire regular season that were within 15 points. In 25 regular-season games, Thornton outscored its opponents by an average of 27 points a game.

"Our defense was incredible," says Hill, who went an amazing 93-4 in his first three years on the job. "You had Randle El with that great ball pressure. You had Ely, who was dominating defensively in the lane at 6-10. And then you had Napoleon Harris, who was just a grizzly bear. We had three guys who were absolute monsters defensively. We took every team out of what they wanted to do."

In addition to the unique talent, which included two future NFL stars and a NBA player, it was a team that lived up to the hype. This team actually did meet expectations, yet never could call themselves champions. This wasn't a special, gifted team that disappointed in the end. It's not a team that is remembered as a failure or one that was stunned in one of those memorable, still-talked-about-today upsets.

No, Thornton didn't get upset. Ever. Thornton did everything right, did everything a typical state championship team does. The Wildcats rolled into the Elite Eight that year with a perfect 30-0 record--and 91-3 in three years to that point. But there sat Peoria Manual, a team for the ages. It was a team that was blessed with chemistry, leadership and every other attribute imaginable that a legendary team possesses. Plus, it had dominant talent in four-year varsity performers Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin, along with budding superstar junior Frank Williams. In addition, this was a Peoria Manual team that also played the final three state tournament games on its home turf in Peoria's Carver Arena.

"I will go to my grave thinking that we were the better team that year," says Hill of his 1996-97 group. "The year before, I did think Manual was the better team. But that 1997 team ... Those were two great teams, two of the all-time best. They just had our number."

If there had been no Peoria Manual dynasty at that time, or if Thornton had found a way to get past its March nemesis and beat Manual in 1997, this Thornton team would be talked about as one of the all-time greats.

"Looking back, I just feel unbelievably blessed to have been in that position," says Hill, who reached Peoria in each of his first three seasons as head coach. "Our chemistry that year was off a bit. There was just so much hype surrounding our program around Chicago after reaching the title game the two previous years. I'm not sure we did the best job handling it all. We had to manage some issues and, at times, it divided us. I don't think Peoria Manual had those issues."

But that one state semifinal loss, which resulted in a third-place finish and 32-1 record, prevents that Thornton team from formally being invited into an exclusive club. The Hoops Report will always remember that team differently.

With two more victories, how will this Simeon team be remembered? Will it be the great team that fell just short or one that capped off a magical three-year ride with a record-breaking sixth state title?

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Final week storylines to watch

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By Joe Henricksen

• Arguably the biggest storyline this week surrounds the best team in the state and its continued success and domination. Simeon, the favorite in Class 4A, would claim a sixth state championship with three more wins. That would surpass Peoria Manual's five state titles for the most in state history. A title would also give Simeon three straight championships, which would put it in position to match Manual's four-peat in the 1990s. In addition, coach Rob Smith would become the first coach in state history with five titles. Coach Bennie Lewis of East St. Louis (Lincoln) won four state championships.

• Will the highly-anticipated state final showdown between Proviso East and Simeon materialize? It's the game so many want to see, but there is plenty of work to be done. A Proviso East-Warren rematch in the semifinals, a game that took place in late February that saw Proviso East prevail in a good one, is pretty tantalizing.

• Chuck Ramsey's Warren farewell tour is in its final week. Ramsey is one of the state's elite coaches. His team finished second in the state last year and is favored in Tuesday's supersectional against Rockford Auburn. What better way for one of the best--and often underrated--high school coaches in the state to finish off a highly-successful run at Warren then a trip to Peoria.

• After watching 16 sectional finals last Friday night in Class 4A and 3A with only two games decided by a single possession, the question is will fans be treated to better matchups on supersectional Tuesday? Hopefully. There wasn't a single Class 4A sectional final decided by less than 8 points. If you take out the two one-possession games in 3A, the average victory margin remaining in the other 14 sectional title games played Friday night was 18 points. Those are hardly the type of matchups you hope to see when the final 32 teams in the state are facing off.

• With DuSable playing in a 3A supersectional, there is a chance the state tournament could have its biggest out-of-nowhere team in Peoria since Johnsburg showed up in Carver Arena in 2003. But getting past Hillcrest Tuesday night will be a steeper test than beating Perspectives, Dunbar or even St. Ignatius.

• Even if there isn't an out-of-nowhere team like DuSable that reaches Peoria, what team is capable of pulling off a supersectional upset? There are several heavy favorites. West Aurora is playing better than it has at any point in the season, but the way Proviso East dismantled Schaumburg in a true road game last Friday night was eye-opening.

• The biggest underdog Tuesday night is clearly Evanston. The Wildkits play hard and Mike Ellis is one of the state's best coaches, but it's hard to imagine Evanston hanging with Simeon in this one.

• Although the DuPage Valley Conference doesn't get a whole lot of pub in basketball--it's one of the premier football leagues in the state--this is the second straight year a DVC team has moved on to a supersectional. Glenbard East finished third in the state last year, and West Aurora advanced with a sectional title win over Metea Valley this year.

• The south suburban representative has had problems in the supersectional the past two years, with Homewood-Flossmoor losing in the super in 2010 and Crete-Monee getting upset by Normal last year. Bloom hopes to end that trend. The Blazing Trojans, led by point guard Donald Moore, will head to the ISU Super favored in a matchup with Edwardsville.

• Has there ever been two south suburban teams downstate together in the big schools state tournament? That could very well happen if Bloom (Chicago Heights) and Hillcrest (Country Club Hills) both win their supersectional games Tuesday.

• Marshall and North Chicago, who square off in the Hoffman Estates supersectional, met in the supersectional just four years ago. That 2008 supersectional ended badly for North Chicago, which lost to the Commandos 84-54. The good news for North Chicago? This North Chicago team is better than that 2008 WarHawk team, while this year's Marshall team is not the powerhouse from 2008 that won a 3A state title behind Ryan Hare and Darius Smith.

• Probably the best team in Illinois no one is talking about--at least in the Chicago area--is Peoria Central. The Hoops Report caught Central twice in the second half of the season and was impressed, even if coach Dan Ruffin may not have one of the state's marquee players. Peoria is physically strong, big and athletic for a high school team. Central survived an overtime thriller over Washington in the sectional title game, while beating Springfield Lanphier, Washington, St. Joseph and Peoria Manual in the second half of the season. The Lions, who have not made much noise since the Shaun Livingston-led Lions won back-to-back state titles in 2003 and 2004, will be a big favorite over Rockford East in the supersectional.

• Rockford Auburn makes its second straight trip to a Class 4A supersectional . Auburn fell to Glenbard East in the super last March and will be an underdog Tuesday night against Warren. But there isn't a player in the state who makes those around him better and puts his teammates in a position to succeed more than Auburn's Fred Van Vleet. The Wichita State-bound point guard is a star, a catalyst. More importantly, however, Van Vleet makes Auburn a better team than it appears on paper and more dangerous than what you see at first glance.

• Rockford Boylan has made seven trips to state in the last 25 years. Rockford Lutheran was a factor in small school basketball with three trips in the 1990s and a third-place finish in Class 2A last week. Rockford Jefferson finished fourth in the state in 2005. Rockford Guilford was a state runner-up to King in 1993. But Rockford Auburn hasn't made a trip to state since a Class AA quarterfinal berth in 1975.

• The absolute worst part of the four-class system and the damage it has done to the final weekend of play in Peoria for fans, is the fact a quarter of the games played (2 of the 8) are meaningless and boring. It's bad enough to have one third-place game; now we have two to sit through in Peoria.

Hoops Report's Supersectional Picks
Class 4A
Proviso East over West Aurora
Warren over Rockford Auburn
Bloom over Edwardsville
Simeon over Evanston

Class 3A
Springfield Lanphier over East St. Louis
Marshall over North Chicago
Hillcrest over DuSable
Peoria Central over Rockford East

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

The next Illinois basketball coach

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By Joe Henricksen

A little less than a decade ago, the Hoops Report had its choice for the next Illinois head coach when Bill Self departed for Kansas. The belief here was Thad Matta, the successful coach at Xavier, was perfect. He was a local boy who, very likely, would have been more than content to stay put in Champaign, which was something athletic director Ron Guenther coveted after watching Lon Kruger and Self leave for bigger jobs and more pay.

Now, almost 10 years later, the Hoops Report's vision is very clear again. Forget plan B and plan C. Just do whatever it takes to get plan A done. But Illinois is going to have to be clear with its vision and be prepared to go big. The Illinois basketball program will need to go overboard in comparison to what it has done in the past, step up in terms of contract years, bonuses, perks and money. It's time.

First, I make getting access to a plane very easy for the next coach, assuring any new coach that this perk will be readily available. This is how an elite program operates. This sounds simple, but you wouldn't believe what an underrated perk this is for college coaches--and one more and more coaches call for in their negotiating. Every top-tier program has this available to them. Did Bruce Weber have access to a plane from time to time? Sure. But we're talking rock star-like, full access plane availability.

I also show what the plan is to renovate Assembly Hall, which has quickly evolved into one of the worst facilities in the entire Big Ten. Illinois is past due for a major upgrade, and that has to be laid out to the next coach, showing that it's feasible and doable--and sooner than later. Take a look at the facilities at Michigan State and Ohio State, currently the two premier programs in the Big Ten. There is no comparison.

I also give the head coach a minimum of $550,000 (preferably $575,000) to spend on his three assistant coaches. That's going to allow you to, yes, spend really big on one superstar assistant and still be able to pluck two more top assistants off most staffs around the country. It was absurd that Jerrance Howard needed to be coveted by other programs before being taken care of by Illinois.

I give this head coach the security with a minimum of six years, going to seven years if needed. Have you looked at the length of so many of these college coaches' contracts? And we're not just talking high-major coaches or coaches at the nation's most elite programs. Lorenzo Romar at Washington is signed through 2020 at $1.7 million a year. Anthony Grant at Alabama is signed through 2018, Ben Jacobson at Northern Iowa through 2020 and Brad Stevens at Butler through 2022.

And, most importantly, I open the checkbook and throw around all kinds of money. You can't afford to mess around and hide pennies. Not this time. Not in this climate, both in the college coaching world and where the state of the Illinois basketball program currently sits. It's just the nature of the beast in college coaching. Say what you want about coach Bruce Weber, but what Illinois brought him in at in terms of money ($450,000 per year) and years (5 years)--even at that time--was almost embarrassing. Elite programs, top 15 programs, do not work that way.

So that means paying a minimum of $2.2 million a year and willing to go to $2.5 million for six or seven years. The $15 million for six years is a nice round number -- and an astronomical one, especially when you consider it's a million more than the coach who took the program to a Final Four and won the only two outright Big Ten titles in over 50 years was making.

But I'm not done.

In addition to the high price tag that needs to be paid to the next coach, Illinois needs to get creative with its contract. And that means bonuses. There are many coaches around the country with attainable performance bonuses in their contracts. In addition to his annual $900,000 per year deal, Wichita State's Gregg Marshall gets $18,000 for a conference title, $18,000 for NCAA Tournament berth, $36,000 for a trip to the Sweet 16 and $54,000 to reach a Final Four. Among many bonuses he receives, Grant gets $25,000 for graduating 85 percent of his players and $100,000 for taking Alabama to an Elite Eight. VCU's Shaka Smart has 30 different bonuses in his contract to add to his $1.2 million per year deal.

So in addition to the $2.2-$2.5 million per year salary, Illinois can lump in a whole bunch of other incentives and bonuses to lure its next head coach.

There is no question the high dollar amount will put pressure on a coach who will be dealing with a fan base that is already a little misguided with expectations.

But you know what? Superstar coaches can handle it. They can handle it all and they aren't afraid of expectations. And true superstar coaches, who excel and thrive in various facets of the profession, are way more difficult to find than you think -- and actually attract. Illinois hired one when Bill Self was brought in from Tulsa. But even when Self was hired, no one could have guessed Bill Self would become the Bill Self superstar we now know he is.

Illinois is a really good basketball job. No, it's not a top 15 job as many Illinois fans believe it is. But when you consider there are just over 340 Division I schools, Illinois is clearly in the top 10 percent of all college basketball jobs in the country. That's still saying something.

If the salary is in the $2.2-$2.5 million range, along with additional bonuses and perks previously mentioned, the job climbs a little closer to that top 15 or top 20 job status.

Which brings me to the name the Hoops Report feels so confident in giving that type of coin to if Illinois is absolutely prepared to go the big boy route, which Illinois must do to secure the high-level coach fans expect. What's odd is the name fits with what the fans seem to want and the current athletic director has his eyes on.

Shaka Smart.

Many fans are clamoring for Smart and, according to one close source, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas is clearly targeting him. And, heavenly sent, they're both right and on the same page. He needs to be the No. 1 target. He needs to be 1A, 1B and 1C. Yes, he is the hot mid-major coaching name, but it's more than that. This isn't about winning the press conference, which this hire would do, or about the catchy name or hiring a minority. This is about hiring the best, most realistic candidate that has superstar potential.

Will people and "experts" have concerns or questions? Sure. Handing out that kind of dough and security to a coach at Smart's age with just four years of head coaching experience under his belt is, pretty much, unprecedented. And then there is the system. As fun and entertaining as it is to play in that style as a player and watch as a fan, it's rarely ever been done in the tough, rugged, grind-it-out Big Ten. There have been samplings. Illinois' famed Flying Illini did a whole lot of pressing and trapping with Kenny Battle at the top of that press. And Iowa, under Dr. Tom Davis, was another Big Ten program that had success with its fullcourt pressure throughout the 1980s. That was Iowa's calling card, their "system". But those styles, though similar to VCU's current identity, were never to the degree VCU plays or havoc it tries to create. The Rams are relentless in getting out and pressing and trapping fullcourt.

But the positives far outweigh the questions and concerns with Smart. Yes, the fact Smart guided VCU to a monumental Final Four berth last year put him in earlier-than-expected stardom. But the fact he lost what he did from that team and is right back in the NCAA Tournament this year is even more appealing. He's won 27, 28 and 28 games in three seasons.

When you watch Smart's VCU team play, YOU want to get in the game--or at least be in the darn arena watching them. But what has been more interesting is talking to various people over the past few weeks who are a whole lot more familiar with Smart. As many others have, I've been personally impressed with Smart, so I started researching this potential Illinois coaching candidate several weeks ago.

Personally, I like that Smart has worked under two coaches in Billy Donovan and Oliver Purnell with proven track records of recruiting, building a program and playing fun styles of basketball. But it's what so many people have to say about Smart, including many off-the-record conversations where there is no reason to praise the hotshot young coach. There are just too many people who have too many great things to say about him to ignore, including ...

Smart's system is "chaotic discipline."

His teams "are relentless and wreak havoc."

He brings "accountability throughout the program without the dictatorship attitude."

He is "wicked smart" and "organized."

He "relates to everyone" in basketball circles--from prospects to parents to prep coaches to coaching colleagues.

He will have "a Bill Self rise."

He brings "a passion and energy that is true in every sense."

He will "never have a problem recruiting, no matter where he goes because he's personable and gets after it."

In addition, a Smart hire will re-light a new fuse under current assistant coach Jerrance Howard, who is feeling such mixed emotions. While talking with Howard earlier on this hectic Friday, he was emotional and distraught over the fact the man he respects and cares so much about, Bruce Weber, was let go. But he also knows that he now has a job to do as interim coach of the program, no matter how long or short that might be.

More importantly, as it pertains to Smart, it's one head coach who Howard would be enamored working under. While it remains to be seen whether Smart will want to keep Howard on board, it seems silly to part ways with a coach who has true Illini blood running through him and has built a bond and earned respect from those around the city of Chicago and state of Illinois. But there will be plenty of heavy hitters pursuing Howard as an assistant in the coming month.

The question is whether Smart has interest in Illinois. He turned down N.C. State last year and could have had the Maryland job, according to many. From all accounts, he loves coaching at VCU and he and his wife love living in Richmond. He has a young, talented team in place that is going to its second straight NCAA Tournament. He makes great money ($1.2 million per year plus all those bonuses) with less overall pressure. His contract is lengthy and offers security. He has access to a plane. The facilities are good and in the process of being upgraded. He can be choosy. He has the right to think he could be the Mark Few of the east.

These are all the reasons why Illinois needs to do all it can to make it impossible for Smart to say no to being the next coach at Illinois. When you have a star--or the potential to hire one--you do what it takes. Illinois should have taken care of Bill Self well before Kansas even became a real possibility. Although it may have not changed things, at least it would have made Self even more hesitant than he already was of leaving Illinois. Maybe Smart says no. But make it a toss-and-turning, can't-sleep-at-night decision for him.

Shaka Smart is the biggest potential superstar coach-in-waiting. Will Illinois be able to convince him of that and land him?

Follow Joe Henricksen the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

A lot of sectional talk and picks

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By Joe Henricksen

A whole lot of sectional conversation in this one, with the Hoops Report looking back at sectional semifinal action and looking ahead to Friday night's sectional championship games.

• The Whitney Young-Simeon game played out much like the first matchup did back in January. The sectional semifinal wasn't exactly pretty, but like a true champ, the Simeon defense dictated the outcome throughout the second half. There was just so much talent, size, length and athleticism on the floor, particularly for a high school game, that it was difficult for either team to put points on the board consistently.

• Milton Doyle of Marshall is one example why the state's college basketball programs in Illinois are struggling so much. It's players like Doyle who have no business crossing the state border and signing with ... Florida International? The wiry, athletic 6-4 senior is a talent, and one that should have been coveted by several college programs in the state. And on the topic of underrated Marshall players, how about Corbin McClain. Rarely talked about this season, McClain has provided absolute consistency and productivity with little to no fanfare.

• The sectional semifinal round has been brutal for the top seed in the East Aurora Sectional recently. The trend continued this week as No. 1 seed Plainfield East fell to West Aurora in overtime. Last year, top-seeded Benet Academy lost in the sectional semis. And in 2010, top-seeded Glenbard East lost in the first game of the sectional.

• Go ahead and put St. Joseph's Reggie Johnson down as one big Hoops Report miss. After watching Johnson last summer, the Hoops Report didn't budge in its thinking he was a dynamite small college prospect. That's a joke. Johnson, a physical and rugged guard, capped off a difference-making senior year with a terrific performance in a loss to Marshall. He is just an absolute bull, who has really improved his outside jumper. Johnson is not only a legit Division I player, he's another steal for a Tennessee State program that continues to make a living stealing players out of Illinois.

• There is no question the biggest surprise score that came across this March was DuSable's 51-44 win over St. Ignatius. Although Ignatius battled injuries down the stretch, the Wolfpack were hosting their own sectional and one that was very winnable. But give credit to DuSable -- and Dunbar, for that matter -- for reaching the sectional title game.

• From an individual standpoint, it's tough to find a better feel-good story than Ryan Coyle of Wheaton St. Francis. The 6-5 senior has battled injuries, some very severe, over the past year and persevered. Now he's led the Spartans to memorable wins over Orr and Crane and a berth in a sectional championship game.

• There won't be a more heartbreaking loss this season than what Peoria Manual went through in Wednesday's four overtime loss to Washington. Manual thought it had the win with a buzzer-beating tip-in at the end of the third overtime. The officials, however, waived off the basket after conferring and the game went an extra four minutes, with Washington claiming a 65-63 win. After watching the replay of the tip-in -- and putting it in slow mo and stop/freeze mode over and mover -- it appears Manual's basket should have been good. But in defense of the officiating crew, it was so stinking close, even in slow motion on replay, that in real-live time it's a flip of the coin.

Looking ahead and some picks ...
Simeon (29-1) vs. Marist (26-5) @ Argo
What a ride Marist has given its fans over the last 10 days with wins over Brother Rice, Curie and Bogan. Marist is such a tricky team to defend, especially with very little time to prepare. Coach Gene Nolan's club can pick you apart with the Princeton offense if you go man, while a zone opens up the opportunity for Marist's three-point shooting to get them rolling. This could be closer than people expect. Do I dare? Do I? Marist over ... Despite the Hoops Report picking Marist over both Curie and Bogan this past week, it can't go with a three-game Public League sweep. Nope, not when Jabari Parker is on that floor. Simeon ends one heck of a memorable Marist run.
Hoops Report Pick: Simeon 59, Marist 49

Warren (25-3) vs. Mundelein (26-7) @ Barrington
A couple of North Suburban Lake teams go at it one more time. This Mundelein team seems to be playing with more confidence and conviction than the recent Mundelein teams that have exited March. But does it have the defensive fortitude to continue playing in March? The junior tandem of Robert Knar, who is among the top 30 players in the Hoops Report's Class of 2013 player rankings, and Sean O'Brien, who is among the top 40, is a good one. Nonetheless, Warren owns two wins over Mundelein this season (61-45 in December and 87-78 in late January) and has the size advantage with 6-9 Nathan Boothe and 6-8 Darius Paul.
Hoops Report Pick: Warren 72, Mundelein 66

Proviso East (29-0) vs. Schaumburg (24-5) @ Schaumburg
Schaumburg is hot, winning 15 of its last 16 games. And so is senior Christian Spandiary, who has put together a heck of a finishing touch on his career here in state tournament play. The Hoops Report anticipated a Schaumburg-Proviso East final. And it also anticipated this game being Proviso East's toughest matchup to reach Peoria. If -- and it's always a big if when playing Proviso East -- Schaumburg can handle Proviso East' fullcourt pressure, the Hoops Report likes what the Saxons will be able to do in the halfcourt. Schaumburg is experienced, well coached, has played in tight games (the Saxons have eight wins by five or fewer points) and are playing on its home floor. Scary, scary game for the unbeaten, No. 2 ranked Pirates. But guards win you big games like this and the Pirates have enough of them in Keith Carter and Paris Lee to survive.
Hoops Report Pick: Proviso East 59, Schaumburg 53

West Aurora (24-5) vs. Metea Valley (25-4) @ East Aurora
Talk about your difference in programs. West Aurora is shooting for its 19th sectional championship. Metea Valley won its first regional title in the school's short history last week. Legendary coach Gordie Kerkman goes up against up-and-coming and Hoops Report Coach of the Year candidate Bob Vozza. With Metea, it truly has been one of those balanced teams with various players stepping up in different moments. But seniors Kenny Obendorf and Ryan Solomon have been rock solid veterans. West Aurora's defense has picked up and the young guards have become more steady.
Hoops Report Pick: West Aurora 55, Metea Valley 51

Hillcrest (24-5) vs. Morgan Park (17-8) @ Rich East
Coach Don Houston's Hillcrest Hawks have done a nice job of playing themselves back into the conversation as a 3A title contender, even with the departure of go-to lead guard Julius Brown, who is a freshman at Toledo. Morgan Park, meanwhile, will have exceeded everyone's expectations with a win Friday night. Coach Nick Irvin's club is awfully young, but there is enough talent to upset Hillcrest. The Hoops Report just doesn't see it happening.
Hoops Report Pick: Hillcrest 52, Morgan Park 46

Evanston (20-10) vs. Niles North (21-8) @ Glenbrook South
There is a little drama in this one as Niles North's Lorenzo Dillard, who has played a pivotal role in his team's surge, goes up against the school he transferred from. On paper, Evanston certainly won't wow anyone. But Evanston coach Mike Ellis has pieced this team together nicely, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the Wildkits have postseason wins over two quality teams in Niles Notre Dame and top-seeded New Trier.
Hoops Report Pick: Evanston 45, Niles North 43

Elgin (26-3) vs. Rockford Auburn (29-2) at Dundee-Crown
As everyone expected, these two will collide in the final with impact players on both sides in Elgin's Kory Brown and Auburn's Fred Van Vleet. With Van Vleet, the state's purest and best point guard, Auburn will get it and go and put points on the board. Elgin has showcased a suffocating defense throughout the season. Brown, a versatile star, and Dennis Moore are lockdown defenders. But it's difficult to pick against Van Vleet in this one.
Hoops Report Pick: Auburn 60, Elgin 55

Bloom (26-3) vs. Homewood-Flossmoor (22-7) @ Lockport
The Hoops Report is itching to pick an upset in one of these sectional title games. Is this the one? Even after Bloom has taken care of H-F twice during the regular season? The first two matchups were fairly high scoring -- 70-65 and 63-56 Bloom victories. The Hoops Report believes this could be a low-scoring dogfight, with the "It's tough to beat a team three times" adage in play.
Hoops Report Pick: H-F 48, Bloom 47

Wheaton St. Francis (20-7) vs. Marshall (23-7) @ Glenbard South
Get ready for a whole lot more chatter about St. Francis if it can pull off a third straight upset over a Chicago Public League Red-West team. The Spartans are feeling good, but this is a lot to ask against the scrappy, Milton Doyle-led Commandos.
Hoops Report Pick: Marshall 62, St. Francis 54

Elite prep coaches and a Bruce Weber rant

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By Joe Henricksen

We talk about teams, we talk about players and we talk about matchups throughout March. We often forget about the men directing these teams. Coaches are so often praised in the college game by fans and the media and branded as superstars with their big reputations, million-dollar contracts, designer suits and national exposure. In the high school game here in Illinois, coaches are often forgotten.

As I look at what has transpired these last couple of weeks on the state tournament trail, I am quickly drawn to the job many of these coaches have turned in. Sure, there are the legendary coaches like West Aurora's Gordie Kerkman and veteran elite coaches like Warren's Chuck Ramsey still playing, but there is a solid, up-and-coming young group of coaches who have their teams turning heads, including Schaumburg's Matt Walsh, Metea Valley's Bob Vozza and Marist's Gene Nolan.

You can't--and shouldn't--always measure a coach by championships won and perennial success. Sure, it's easy to say a coach is great as they win regional and sectional titles. And, yes, quality coaching does often translate to big-time success. But often it does take some people with true basketball knowledge to appreciate the talents of a coach when watching their teams play as they go a modest 15-10 or even a gut-through-it eight or nine-win season.

There is a common trend when watching Schaumburg, Metea Valley and Marist in the discipline they play with, how prepared their teams are and the composure they have playing under their respective coaches. But what is really interesting to watch when taking in any of those three coaches as they run their team is just how each one gets it done with a different, unique style.

It's not easy for a high school coach to create an identity in their program. It's not like college where you can recruit players to your system and build around the next great crop of talent you bring in. Walsh, Vozza and Nolan, all in different situations, have been able to accomplish that.

Even Simeon's Rob Smith is highly overlooked. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the naysayers will comment Smith has been blessed with coaching Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker (Yes, that is like hitting the coach/player lottery--twice) and all that Division I talent. They will say, "I could coach that team and win."

No, you couldn't.

On the floor, against quality competition, year after year, Simeon goes about it in a way others don't. Smith schedules the right way. He disciplines. He instills toughness and patience. He preaches team first. And in a culture that praises individual success, it's a difficult task to get every player on the same page, especially when dealing with the high-level talent Smith is blessed and fortunate to coach. Smith does that about as well as any coach in state history. Plus, his teams know how to handle themselves and the situation at crunch time, and that's a reflection of the man in charge.

Then there are the two coaches who the Hoops Report believes are clearly among the top five prep bosses in the state--Washington's Kevin Brown and Evanston's Mike Ellis. Many times when watching their teams, talking basketball with them or even watching them match wits with a few opposing coaches, it's like chess vs. checkers.

Ellis and Brown will X and O with anyone. Their teams are always prepared. And in addition to their programs winning, their players always seem to get better. That's an underrated quality of a high school coach.

The reason we're talking about the likes of Ellis and Brown, along with Vozza, Nolan and Walsh, is that today each one of these coaches have their teams still alive, playing in a sectional championship Friday night. But this is a group of coaches that need to be recognized for what they've done presently, but also in the recent past and going forward.

And one more coach ...
Say what you want about Illinois coach Bruce Weber--as many people have over his tenure at Illinois and, more specifically, the last month--but there isn't a head coach who works and gets out more, especially at the high-major level. I took in the Simeon-Young game with Weber Tuesday night, talked throughout the game and he was his typical, classy self. Whether it's the low-point of his coaching career (the past month) or at his very peak (2005 Final Four season), he's the exact same, genuine, down-to-earth guy.

We've had a few conversations the last few weeks during this tumultuous time, and each time you just walk away or hang up the phone with coach Weber wishing things could be different for a guy who does it the right way and is a great man. The high-major coaching profession is absolutely cutthroat, a win-or-else mantra with big dollars invested. College programs and administration can talk all they want about graduating players and staying out of trouble with compliance offices, but at the end of the day that really doesn't matter. It's about wins, competing for championships. This became a sudden-death season for Weber and, well, we know what transpired.

There are just two problems I have had through this dreadful Illinois basketball stretch the past two months.

The first problem was the firestorm and distraction Weber's boss, athletic director Mike Thomas, created with his midseason brief rant on the state of Weber and the program. The story went national. And with a team and season that was so fragile at that particular point, the roof caved in. Who knows what Illinois would have done down the stretch, but the team's state of mind, concentration level and focus was lost. The roster, especially with so many newcomers in their first year on campus, was greatly impacted. There was just no need for an impromptu state-of-the-union address with any reporter at that time from the athletic director. Go ahead and lay out the expectations for the program and the non-support for the coach when/if the season becomes a complete loss. You don't do it in the middle of the Big Ten season.

The second problem I have had over the past two months is just the venom and nastiness being thrown around by fans--and some media members--towards Weber. Sadly, the Chicago media cares about Illinois basketball on two occasions: when the Illini are winning big or when a coach is clearly on the hot seat. But the fans? Wow.

I love passionate fans, and I wish the University of Illinois actually had more in this state--like we see throughout places like Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin. But this isn't ideal passion; it's craziness when it comes to some of the verbiage being thrown around. Regardless of what has transpired over the past two months, the past three or four years, the fact remains that Weber has done things with this program no other coach has done in half a century. The 37 victories in 2004-2005 are the most in college basketball history for a single season. He won back-to-back outright Big Ten championships, the only coach in Illinois to do so in the past 60 years. Plus, as mentioned, he's done so in a way that is respected by everyone he's come in contact with--from the media to fellow Big Ten coaching colleagues, U.S. Baskeball to the local basketball people throughout Illinois.

Any coaching fallout is likely to get ugly, I realize that. But it's still a coach that accomplished big things at one point and should be appreciated for that.

Despite all the distractions he is facing and heat he is taking, Weber made it to Argo to take in the biggest game the state had to offer on Tuesday night. And as I sat with Weber, he was asked to take at least 25-30 pictures with fans--and he obliged without a hint of annoyance, asking the fans questions and making them feel comfortable.

Said at least two kids as they finished up, "Thanks, coach! We tried to get a picture with coach K but he blew us off."

At this point, now that the inevitable is here, why not show some compassion and thank the coach?

Follow the Hoops Report and Joe Henricksen on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Super six pack of sectional semi action

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By Joe Henricksen

The City/Suburban Hoops Report takes a look at the six most tantalizing sectional semifinal games over the next two nights of Class 4A and 3A action around Illinois.

1. Whitney Young (16-9) vs. Simeon (28-1) • Tuesday at Argo
What more could you want in a sectional semifinal? These two programs have won the last three Class 4A state championships. Young won a state title in 2009 and finished second in 2010, while Simeon captured the past two state championships. Aside from a sectional title game berth on the line, fans also get a glimpse of the top two college prospects in the state of Illinois in Simeon's Jabari Parker and Young's Jahlil Okafor -- plus a boatload of other Division I prospects. The first matchup back in December at the UIC Pavilion, a 62-55 Simeon victory, was highly entertaining. But a whole lot more is on the line in this one.
Hoops Report Pick: Simeon 55, Whitney Young 49

2. Peoria Manual (22-6) vs. Washington (25-5) • Wednesday at Bradley
You won't find anything better in Class 3A as the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the state square off in a mammoth showdown. Manual's toughness and defensive pressure, led by senior guard Keke White, can be off the charts, but the Hoops Report respects the coaching of Kevin Brown too much. And when a coach like that has a tandem like 6-7 junior Alec Peters and underrated senior Ben Ryan, the pick becomes more clear.
Hoops Report Pick: Washington 55, Peoria Manual 53

3. Plainfield East (27-1) vs. West Aurora (23-5) • Tuesday at East Aurora
West Aurora coach Gordie Kerkman just won his 21st regional championship last Friday. Plainfield East, meanwhile, won its first regional championship in school history. In an intriguing matchup between a traditional power and a fresh face, it will be West Aurora's defense trying to hold down a Plainfield East offense that thrives when it gets out in transition. Led by three veteran guards, headed by Dee Brown, Plainfield East creates transition points off the defensive pressure it puts on foes. West Aurora's young guards, sophomore Jontrel Walker and junior Jayquan Lee, will need to continue their progression and minimize turnovers. Plainfield East has already beaten three DuPage Valley Conference foes in Wheaton South, Naperville Central and Naperville North. But the stakes have been raised for this DVC opponent. Hoops Report is going with the upset.
Hoops Report Pick: West Aurora 57, Plainfield East 53

4. St. Viator (25-3) vs. Mundelein (25-7) • Wednesday at Barrington
You want a Class 4A monkey wrench team, a team that can throw the brackets out of whack and leave people saying, "Who?" in a couple of weeks? Try St. Viator on for size. The Hoops Report loves the way St. Viator plays, loves the way it's coached and loves the chance the Lions have of pulling off an upset or two and reaching Peoria. Keep an eye on two difference-making underclassmen in Mundelein junior Robert Knar and St. Viator sophomore Ore Arogundade. This should be a fun one.
Hoops Report Pick: St. Viator 68, Mundelein 63

5. Marist (25-5) vs. Bogan (26-3) • Wednesday at Argo
If there was ever a way to prepare for a Bogan team that brings speed, quickness and relentless pressure at the highest level, well, it just might be to play Curie. Marist stunned the No. 2 seed, Curie, last Friday in the regional final and will play a Bogan team that will pressure the ball fullcourt and attack for 32 minutes. Fortunately, Marist coach Gene Nolan has the type of guards in senior Tyler Oden (9 ppg) and juniors Lexus Williams (13 ppg) and L.J. McIntosh (17 ppg) to navigate the type of harassing pressure Bogan throws at opponents. The Hoops Report went with Marist over Curie, so it will continue to ride the RedHawk train in another nail-biter.
Hoops Report Pick: Marist 64, Bogan 62

6. Marshall (22-7) vs. St. Joseph (20-8) • Wednesday at Glenbard South
A couple of programs with a whole lot of history and tradition collide in the western suburb of Glen Ellyn. St. Joe's might just be in the middle of a Red-West gauntlet. Coach Gene Pingatore's club took care of Farragut in the regional final, faces Marshall in the sectional semis and could very likely see Crane in the sectional championship. Pulling off this Red-West trifecta would be impressive. But it won't be easy as Marshall boasts Milton Doyle.
Hoops Report Pick: St. Joseph 52, Marshall 48

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

Regional rewind

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By Joe Henricksen

We are one week closer to Peoria for Class 4A and 3A teams, while Seton Academy and Providence St. Mel are set to tangle Tuesday night in a Class 2A supersectional at Joliet Central. The upsets were minimal in regional title matchups this past Friday, but the City/Suburban Hoops Reports provides some thoughts on all that went down.

Biggest Class 4A Upset
• Marist over Curie
While the Hoops Report's regional shocker prediction last week was Marist over Curie, this is still a Curie team that rolled through the regular season with 24 wins, reached the title game at both the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and the city playoffs while losing just two games all season -- to No. 1 ranked Simeon. There was a reason the Hoops Report had Marist ranked No. 14 in the preseason. Coach Gene Nolan's club showed why Friday night, beating Curie in a 63-62 thriller.

Biggest Class 3A Upset
• Wheaton St. Francis over Orr
This had danger written all over it for an Orr team that was the No. 1 seed in the state's deepest 3A sectional. The long trip to the western suburbs for Orr and a tough atmosphere with a St. Francis crowd played a part in St. Francis stunning Orr, 39-36. Give credit to a St. Francis team, led by 1,000-point scorer Ryan Coyle, for slowing the tempo and keeping a Chicago Public League Red-West team to just 36 points. Now coach Bob Ward's team will have to do it against another Red-West foe, Crane, in the sectional semis Tuesday night.

Cinderella
Has Thornton basketball ever played the role of Cinderella? After an uncharacteristic 10-15 regular season, coach Troy Jackson's Wildcats are the lowest seeded team remaining in the 4A field. Thornton knocked off Shepard, upset No. 4 seed Crete-Monee and No. 5 seed Joliet West to claim the program's 10th consecutive regional title. Now the Wildcats, the No. 13 seed, will take aim at top-seeded Bloom on Tuesday night.

Battle tested
St. Joseph survived a big scare from Glenbard South in the regional semis, winning 68-65, before battling Farragut in an overtime win to secure coach Gene Pingatore's 28th regional championship. The Chargers, however, were well prepared for these two tight regional games. In 12 of St. Joseph's final 14 regular-season games, the outcomes were decided by seven or fewer points.

Throw out the records
There are only two teams remaining in Class 3A with losing records -- Aurora Central Catholic and Johnsburg. And one is guaranteed to advance to the sectional final as the two will meet Wednesday night in one Sycamore Sectional semifinal. ACC battled injuries all season and played a competitive schedule, which led to a 9-17 regular-season record, but beat rival Marmion in the regional semis and then stunned Yorkville on a Joey McEachern buzzer-beater in the regional championship. Johnsburg entered regional play with just eight victories on the year, but knocked off Richmond-Burton 36-32 in the regional title game.

Other regional thoughts ...
■ The performance turned in by Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor in Friday's win over St. Rita was flat-out dominating and at another level. He demanded so much attention, yet the 6-10 manchild continued to produce over and over when the Dolphins needed it in a hard-fought 64-56 victory. You left the gym shaking your head and saying, "He's a sophomore?" With the 6-10 Okafor, 6-9 Paul White, 6-6 Nate Brooks and both 6-8 Jermaine Morgan and 6-9 Tommy Hamilton back playing, has there ever been a high school team with more size?

■ Wow, what a difference a couple of weeks can make at this time of the year. Crane was playing some uninspired basketball down the stretch. In the final month of the regular season, Crane lost to DuSable and was blown out by Curie (68-29), Young (45-29) and Orr (70-45). Now? This team is rejuvenated. Coach Chris Head took his Cougars into Riverside-Brookfield and beat the host school to claim a regional championship. With a blue-collar, veteran talent like Willie Conner, a super sophomore in Isaiah Hayes, along with some re-built confidence, Crane is now favored to beat upstart Wheaton St. Francis in the sectional semis.

■ While it's not the glory days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Providence Catholic's quiet 15-win season got a whole lot louder Friday night. Providence Catholic has had such a high level of success in baseball, football and wrestling, it's good to see the basketball program grab a little of the spotlight. The Celtics won just their sixth regional championship in the last three decades and have the most wins since 1998. Behind big man Mike Marietti and junior guard Kevin Kozan, Providence is 17-10 and will face top-seeded Hillcrest in the sectional semis.

■ When I spoke with De La Salle coach Tom White 24 hours prior to the regional championship game with Bogan, the veteran coach didn't think junior Alvin Ellis would even be able to play as a result of an ankle injury. Ellis persevered, played and poured in 42 points in a losing effort. Impressive.

■ This was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Park Ridge for a Maine South basketball program that has won 50 games the past two seasons. But coach Tony Lavorato's has built a mindset and a special style of play that translates to consistency. So here the Hawks are in early March with 19 wins and a regional championship after upsetting a red-hot St. Patrick team. Since the middle of January, a stretch where Maine South has gone 12-3, only three opponents have scored more than 50 points against the Hawks. And in the last three wins, Maine South is allowing a paltry 36 points a game.

■ You want a well coached team? Check out Schaumburg. Coach Matt Walsh is one of the better young coaches in the Chicago area. Since taking over for highly-successful Bob Williams, Walsh, whose teams play with poise, patience, discipline and in-your-face defensive pressure, has now guided the Saxons to three straight regional championships. Schaumburg has reached the sectional title game each of the past two seasons but are looking for its first sectional championship under Walsh.

■ Speaking of Schaumburg, how about the defensive effort turned in by the Saxons in the regional championship game victory over Conant. The Saxons led 17-0 after one quarter, limiting Conant to one field goal attempt while forcing eight turnovers.

■ The biggest surprise score in a regional final didn't come in an upset, but rather in Proviso East's 51-48 win over Glenbard North, which isn't a team blessed with the type of guards to handle the Pirates' constant pressure. But give Glenbard North (15-13) credit in hanging around with unbeaten Proviso East.

■ Although Plainfield East, Downers Grove South and Metea Valley all had close calls in regional play -- each of the top three seeds won games by either one or two points -- all top four seeds in the East Aurora Sectional advanced to this week's sectional semis. That's the only Class 4A sectional where each of the top four seeds made it through regional play.

■ Centralia 22, Mt. Vernon 15? Regional final score? Really?

■ Congratulations to Elmwood Park guard Julian Molina, who scored 28 points in a regional title game loss to North Chicago. Molina finished his career as Elmwood Park's all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

All the regional title game picks

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By Joe Henricksen

There were some scares and upsets in regional semifinal action this week, but the real fun begins Friday night with regional championships on the line in Class 4A and 3A around the state.

There will be a shocker or two. There always are, so the Hoops Report has tried to identify where that shocker will come Friday night, along with a look at the rest of regional title game matchups. The City/Suburban Hoops Report picks each Chicago area regional champion in Class 4A and 3A.

Class 4A
Stevenson Regional
Warren over Stevenson
Before we pencil Warren in as regional champs, Stevenson does have a little something going for it, including the home floor and knowing it beat Warren back in December. Plus, it has the best darn freshman in Illinois in Jalen Brunson. But ... Sorry, Patriots, it won't matter. Warren, led by the tandem of 6-9 Nathan Boothe and 6-8 Darius Paul, will prove to be too much as coach Chuck Ramsey's Blue Devil farewell tour moves on.

Palatine Regional
Lake Forest over Fremd
This Lake Forest team, led by 6-5 senior Thomas Durrett, is a real sleeper in the Barrington Sectional as a No. 5 seed. Since a 2-6 start to the season, the Scouts are a rock solid 14-4. Fremd did upset Waukegan, but Lake Forest ends any thoughts of Fremd moving on as a low seed.

Rolling Meadows Regional
St. Viator over Rolling Meadows
With super sophomore Ore Arongundade healthy after missing some time with an ankle injury, the Lions are roaring with a conference title and 24 wins on the season. But there is something about this Rolling Meadows team, which boasts a couple of tough, competitive seniors in Brian Nelms and Tyler Gaedele. This could be tougher than people think, but St. Viator prevails 56-48.

Zion-Benton Regional 

Mundelein over Lake Zurich
Although just a No. 11 seed, Lake Zurich's win over Barrington Tuesday night should not have been a surprise. No, not when you're coming out of the tough North Suburban Lake and have unheralded Mirko Grcic (18 ppg). But it's back to a North Suburban Lake opponent Friday night in Mundelein, which has beaten Lake Zurich twice already. The last matchup was a 68-65 barnburner. Hoops Report is taking high-scoring junior Robert Knar and Mundelein in a tight one.

Niles West Regional
New Trier over Foreman
Foreman is an 18-win team no one has talked much about. While it's true the Trevians have been awfully vulnerable and shaky the last three weeks, including a tight, low-scoring opening night regional win over Niles West, this team is solid. There is size in rugged Connor Boehm and guard play that will handle Foreman's pressure.

Niles Notre Dame Regional
Niles Notre Dame over Evanston
Although Evanston did beat Niles Notre Dame back in November and played pretty well down the stretch (a close 58-56 loss to a hot St. Pat's team and wins over St. Charles East and New Trier), Notre Dame is much better than it was the last time these two met. This will be Notre Dame's third regional title in four years.

St. Patrick Regional
St. Patrick over Maine South
Has anyone noticed St. Pat's has gone 13-2 since late December, losing only to Benet and Marist by a combined 8 points? While junior guard Royale Ewing is the recognizable name, fellow junior Parish McCullom has provided a huge lift in that 13-2 run. Coach Mike Bailey has his Shamrocks playing well and at home, so despite a difficult matchup due to the offensive patience and defense Maine South throws at you, St. Pat's moves on.

Joliet Central Regional
Bloom over Sandburg
What a season it's been for Bloom, a team that has already exceeded many people's expectations with a sparkling 25-3 record. But there are no plans for this postseason to end early for point guard Donald Moore and his Blazing Trojans. Sandburg, however, handed Bloom its last lost back in the middle of January. That may be just what top-seeded Bloom needed as there will be no looking past the Eagles in this one.

Thornton Regional
Joliet West over Thornton
Any other year and a Thornton appearance in a regional title game would be second nature, but the Wildcats are playing an unfamiliar role in this regional: underdog. The No. 13 seed Wildcats beat Shepard in the opening round, upset No. 4 seed Crete-Monee in the second round and now take on big Marlon Johnson and the fifth-seeded Tigers. Joliet West ends the Thornton run and moves on to a date with Bloom.

Andrew Regional
Andrew over Marian Catholic
There are certainly some Andrew doubters as a result of the suspect schedule the T-Bolts have played in running up a 23-2 record. But regardless, it's still a solid team with a terrific talent in junior Jubril Adekoya. They may not wow you, but the T-Bolts just beat you.

Homewood-Flossmoor Regional
Homewood-Flossmoor over Thornwood
The first matchup between these two teams was probably too long ago to put much stock into -- a 55-51 H-F win on the opening night of the season. Thornwood, led by the 1-2 punch of Darrell Combs and Khapri Alston, are sky high after stunning Andrew on the road to win a league title and riding an eight-game win streak. But the senior group of Vikings will get this one done at home and help H-F claim a ninth consecutive regional championship.

Proviso East Regional
Proviso East over Glenbard North
The Proviso East speed and quickness just wears on opponents and, ultimately, leads to 12-0, 14-2 or 15-3 type runs that generally puts teams away. This could potentially be a regional final that gets away from the underdog.

Lake Park Regional
York over Lake Park
Since late December, York has been on cruise control, winning 16 of 17 games behind star junior guard David Cohn and a group of players who have bought into their respective roles under first-year coach Tom Kleinschmidt. Although no one has talked about Lake Park, the Lancers are no slouch with 19 wins on the year and a player in Dominique Spencer who can impact games in a lot of ways.

Lyons Twp. Regional
Oak Park-River Forest over Morton
Morton is healthy and a dangerous (and a far too low) No. 10 seed that is capable of beating anyone in this sectional other than Proviso East. But Gabe Levin has been one of the best-kept secrets in prep hoops this season and will lead Oak Park into the sectional semis.

Glenbard West Regional
Schaumburg over Conant
A couple of coaches who are oh so familiar with one another square off, with Schaumburg having handled Conant twice already this season. Schaumburg's Christian Spandiary coming off a monster 40-point game.

Neuqua Valley Regional
Plainfield East over Neuqua Valley
This is a scary one for the top-seeded Bengals, a program with its first real taste of success going on the road to face a program that has enjoyed a whole lot of it over the years. Neuqua Valley has quietly won 18 games this season. But Dee Brown and big man Brian Bennett win a nail-biter for the Plainfield East's first regional championship.

Oswego Regional
West Aurora over Oswego
McDonald's All-American coach Gordie Kerkman looking for his 21st regional championship. The Blackhawks, led by senior Juwan Starks, will be favored on the road. Junior guard Miles Simelton has played some very good basketball for Oswego, the No. 12 seed, which took care of Naperville North.

Downers Grove South Regional
Downers Grove South over Hinsdale Central
Hinsdale Central has shown it can pull off an upset (wins over Oak Park and Metea Valley). After receiving a huge scare from Oswego East in the regional semis, Downers Grove South settles in and takes care of the Red Devils. These two met in the regular-season finale, with DGS claiming a 71-56 victory.

Metea Valley Regional
Benet Academy over Metea Valley
Metea, already with 23 wins on the year, looks to add to its breakout season by making a little history -- winning the program's first-ever basketball regional title. Benet, the No. 6 seed, will enjoy playing the underdog role after playing with a bulls-eye on its back last season. Benet's defense and sophomore big man Sean O'Mara pull off the upset.

Huntley Regional
Huntley over Larkin
This Huntley group of seniors, led by guard Troy Miller, have won a lot of games (49 games and counting over the past two seasons), while 6-6 sophomore Amanze Egekeze is a fast-rising sophomore. After a fast start to the season, Larkin struggled down the stretch but comes in with nothing to lose.

Cary-Grove Regional
McHenry over Crystal Lake South
A couple of sub-.500 teams play for a sectional semifinal berth. McHenry (11-15) and Crystal Lake South (9-18) split their two matchups this season. The winner will be a huge underdog against either Elgin or St. Charles East next Wednesday.

St. Charles North Regional
Elgin over St. Charles East
This one will be interesting and entertaining. These two Upstate Eight River foes split the two regular season matchups. Elgin's Kory Brown and St. Charles East junior Kendall Stephens, a Purdue commit, are two stars to watch. But if sophomore guard Dominic Adduci, who scored 25 in the win over St. Charles North in the regional semis and 29 against Glenbard West, continues his torrid play, St. Charles East could very well pull off the upset.

Oak Lawn Regional
Simeon over Vocational
Quietly, coach Chris Pickett has done a nice job with this 18-9 Vocational team, but it's Simeon they're up against. Chalk up a 10th straight regional title for the Wolverines.

Whitney Young Regional
Whitney Young over St. Rita
Should be a fun one. Catholic League vs. Public League. A ton of impressive young talent on display. And a showdown featuring two teams that have deceiving records as a result of an out-of-state schedule and an endless list of injuries and absences throughout the season. But Whitney Young has played the toughest schedule in the state and has 6-10 super sophomore Jahlil Okafor.

Marist Regional
Marist over Curie
I love what coach Mike Oliver and the Condors have done this season, but this is the most dangerous game for any heavyweight in the state this Friday. Curie will be up against a tricky style and system, on the road and against a team with good guards and that has won 13 of its last 14 games. It's not as if Curie isn't easy to believe in, but there is bound to be a shocker on Friday night somewhere and this has the makings of one.

Mt. Carmel Regional
Bogan over De La Salle
You have to feel for the Meteors. Jaylon Tate transfers in the offseason. Now the state tournament rolls around and 6-8 Gavin Schilling is out and 6-4 Alvin Ellis is in between doubtful and questionable for Friday night. Those type of injuries are tough to overcome, especially against a team like Bogan who will bring relentless pressure.


CLASS 3A
St. Ignatius Regional
St. Ignatius over South Shore
When South Shore has left the city, the fortunes haven't been too good with lopsided losses to H-F (71-21), Marian Catholic (54-33), Thornwood (62-31) and Rich Central (67-46). The joys of 3A. St. Ignatius rolls.

Harper Regional
Du Sable over Perspectives Charter/Leadership
Well, Du Sable was a power back in the day -- roughly 60 years ago when it finished second in the state in 1954. But we are far removed from those glory years. Du Sable finished in the middle of the pack in the Red-Central and beat Crane late in the year, which is enough for the Hoops Report to go with the Panthers on this one.

King Regional
Dunbar over King
As the third-place team in the Red-Central and the No. 2 seed in the sectional, Dunbar gets a shot at a regional title after beating St. Laurence 59-43. Dunbar has one of the top five nicknames in the state, so the Hoops Report is taking the Mightymen.

Robeson Regional
Jones over Robeson
Arguably the top team in the city's Blue Division, Jones is a 20-win team that should be able to advance to the sectional semis.

Evergreen Park Regional
Hillcrest over Brooks
Hillcrest, the top-seed in the sectional, can't get to anxious for another shot at Lemont in the sectional semis after last week's loss. There is business to take care of in the regional final. Junior William Gates and Erick Locke, a talented sophomore scorer, will do all it can to keep Brooks in this one after edging Rich East 60-58 in the regional semis. Hillcrest, however, has too much balance and depth.

Providence Catholic Regional
Lemont over Providence
These two met back in late January, with Lemont picking up a 70-65 win behind a huge performance from junior guard Juozas Balciunnas (23 points). While Lemont hasn't lost since December and has been one of the feel-good stories of the year, Providence is a serious threat at home with 6-8 Mike Marietti and talented junior guard Kevin Kozan. This will go down to the wire.

Thornridge Regional
Rich South over Thornridge
Already one of the quietest 20-win teams in the Chicago area, Rich South has a real opportunity for a March run. Speaking of quiet, 6-5 senior John Ruffin's play has been anything but quiet, yet the blue-collar workhorse is unheralded, nonetheless. Thornridge has been hammered by the likes of Plainfield East (62-34), Andrew (58-31) and Thornwood (69-43).

Rich Central Regional
Morgan Park over Harlan
Everything points to Morgan Park, with a star in Billy Garrett, Jr., young talent in the program that has gained experience and the fact coach Nick Irvin's club has already beaten Harlan twice -- 56-52 in early February and 62-47 in late January. But Harlan remains dangerous and it's never easy beating a team a third time.

Rochelle Regional
Rochelle over Kaneland
A couple of conference foes meet up. Rochelle (21-8) went 6-1 down the stretch and beat Kaneland 59-57 in the regular-season finale after leading by as much as 18 points. Kaneland (16-10), meanwhile, is the No. 1 seed but went 3-4 in its final seven games.

Sandwich Regional
Aurora Central over Yorkville
After an emotional win over rival Marmion in the regional semis, Aurora Central is feeling good, healthy and has some March experience having won a sectional a year ago.

Fenton Regional
North Chicago over Elmwood Park
Another Class 3A regional final that doesn't exactly get the juices flowing. This one has a chance of getting ugly.

Antioch Regional
Grayslake Central over Grayslake North
With a huge momentum-building win over Huntley late in the season, Grayslake Central is feeling good with 20 wins and a healthy Casey Boyle. The 6-9 center wasn't available when Grayslake Central fell to Grayslake North in late February. Grayslake Central won the Fox Division of the Fox Valley Conference and will add a second straight regional title Friday night.

Ridgewood Regional
Ridgewood over Vernon Hills
Playing at home and getting a taste of what it's like to play in big March games a year ago gives Ridgewood a big edge in this one. Ridgewood is poised to repeat as regional champs behind guard Andy Mazurczak.

Carmel Regional
Carmel over Lakes
These two tangled back in late January, with Lakes pulling out a 63-60 victory. Lakes (18-10) will have a tough time doing it again against a Carmel (11-15) team that is led by Brandon Motzel and has played a competitive East Suburban Catholic Conference schedule. Hoops Report taking Carmel in a

Wheaton Academy Regional
Orr over Wheaton St. Francis
Top-seeded Orr better not take this one lightly as it makes the trek out to the western suburbs. While Orr is a double-digit better team, St. Francis will have the crowd and will be playing the roll of spoiler with nothing to lose. In the end, too much speed, athleticism and talent as Orr advances to the sectional semifinals.

Riverside-Brookfield Regional
R-B over Crane
There is a whole lot of momentum for the host school, with 16 straight victories and the home floor. Led by senior Luke Nortier and the rising junior tandem of Damonta Henry and Miki Ljubuja, look for R-B to take care of a Crane team that struggled down the stretch. The Bulldogs win their third straight regional championship and square off with top-seeded Orr next week.

Marshall Regional
Marshall over Westinghouse
This isn't the Westinghouse of old. There's no Mark Aguirre, Hersey Hawkins or a even a Cedrick Banks. But it's still pretty cool typing Marshall vs. Westinghouse for nostalgia sake. The Commandos, however, are a big favorite.

Nazareth Academy Regional
St. Joseph over Farragut
Both are well prepared and tested having played tough regular-season schedules. St. Joe's, however, continues to get better and better by the week and senior Reggie Johnson has played this season on a mission. Farragut's Rashaun Stimage can be one of the ultimate difference-makers in Illinois when he wants to be. Legendary coach Gene Pingatore adds another plaque to his impressive career with a hard-fought win.

And your 4A regional champs will be ...

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By Joe Henricksen

There were some scares and upsets in regional semifinal action this week, but the real fun begins Friday night with regional championships on the line in Class 4A and 3A around the state.

There will be a shocker or two. There always are, so the Hoops Report has tried to identify where that shocker will come Friday night, along with a look at the rest of regional title game matchups. The City/Suburban Hoops Report picks each Chicago area regional champion in Class 4A. (The Class 3A picks will be up later today.)

Class 4A
Stevenson Regional
Warren over Stevenson
Before we pencil Warren in as regional champs, Stevenson does have a little something going for it, including the home floor and knowing it beat Warren back in December. Plus, it has the best darn freshman in Illinois in Jalen Brunson. But ... Sorry, Patriots, it won't matter. Warren, led by the tandem of 6-9 Nathan Boothe and 6-8 Darius Paul, will prove to be too much as coach Chuck Ramsey's Blue Devil farewell tour moves on.

Palatine Regional
Lake Forest over Fremd
This Lake Forest team, led by 6-5 senior Thomas Durrett, is a real sleeper in the Barrington Sectional as a No. 5 seed. Since a 2-6 start to the season, the Scouts are a rock solid 14-4. Fremd did upset Waukegan, but Lake Forest ends any thoughts of Fremd moving on as a low seed.

Rolling Meadows Regional
St. Viator over Rolling Meadows
With super sophomore Ore Arongundade healthy after missing some time with an ankle injury, the Lions are roaring with a conference title and 24 wins on the season. But there is something about this Rolling Meadows team, which boasts a couple of tough, competitive seniors in Brian Nelms and Tyler Gaedele. This could be tougher than people think, but St. Viator prevails 56-48.

Zion-Benton Regional 

Mundelein over Lake Zurich
Although just a No. 11 seed, Lake Zurich's win over Barrington Tuesday night should not have been a surprise. No, not when you're coming out of the tough North Suburban Lake and have unheralded Mirko Grcic (18 ppg). But it's back to a North Suburban Lake opponent Friday night in Mundelein, which has beaten Lake Zurich twice already. The last matchup was a 68-65 barnburner. Hoops Report is taking high-scoring junior Robert Knar and Mundelein in a tight one.

Niles West Regional
New Trier over Foreman
Foreman is an 18-win team no one has talked much about. While it's true the Trevians have been awfully vulnerable and shaky the last three weeks, including a tight, low-scoring opening night regional win over Niles West, this team is solid. There is size in rugged Connor Boehm and guard play that will handle Foreman's pressure.

Niles Notre Dame Regional
Niles Notre Dame over Evanston
Although Evanston did beat Niles Notre Dame back in November and played pretty well down the stretch (a close 58-56 loss to a hot St. Pat's team and wins over St. Charles East and New Trier), Notre Dame is much better than it was the last time these two met. This will be Notre Dame's third regional title in four years.

St. Patrick Regional
St. Patrick over Maine South
Has anyone noticed St. Pat's has gone 13-2 since late December, losing only to Benet and Marist by a combined 8 points? While junior guard Royale Ewing is the recognizable name, fellow junior Parish McCullom has provided a huge lift in that 13-2 run. Coach Mike Bailey has his Shamrocks playing well and at home, so despite a difficult matchup due to the offensive patience and defense Maine South throws at you, St. Pat's moves on.

Joliet Central Regional
Bloom over Sandburg
What a season it's been for Bloom, a team that has already exceeded many people's expectations with a sparkling 25-3 record. But there are no plans for this postseason to end early for point guard Donald Moore and his Blazing Trojans. Sandburg, however, handed Bloom its last lost back in the middle of January. That may be just what top-seeded Bloom needed as there will be no looking past the Eagles in this one.

Thornton Regional
Joliet West over Thornton
Any other year and a Thornton appearance in a regional title game would be second nature, but the Wildcats are playing an unfamiliar role in this regional: underdog. The No. 13 seed Wildcats beat Shepard in the opening round, upset No. 4 seed Crete-Monee in the second round and now take on big Marlon Johnson and the fifth-seeded Tigers. Joliet West ends the Thornton run and moves on to a date with Bloom.

Andrew Regional
Andrew over Marian Catholic
There are certainly some Andrew doubters as a result of the suspect schedule the T-Bolts have played in running up a 23-2 record. But regardless, it's still a solid team with a terrific talent in junior Jubril Adekoya. They may not wow you, but the T-Bolts just beat you.

Homewood-Flossmoor Regional
Homewood-Flossmoor over Thornwood
The first matchup between these two teams was probably too long ago to put much stock into -- a 55-51 H-F win on the opening night of the season. Thornwood, led by the 1-2 punch of Darrell Combs and Khapri Alston, are sky high after stunning Andrew on the road to win a league title and riding an eight-game win streak. But the senior group of Vikings will get this one done at home and help H-F claim a ninth consecutive regional championship.

Proviso East Regional
Proviso East over Glenbard North
The Proviso East speed and quickness just wears on opponents and, ultimately, leads to 12-0, 14-2 or 15-3 type runs that generally puts teams away. This could potentially be a regional final that gets away from the underdog.

Lake Park Regional
York over Lake Park
Since late December, York has been on cruise control, winning 16 of 17 games behind star junior guard David Cohn and a group of players who have bought into their respective roles under first-year coach Tom Kleinschmidt. Although no one has talked about Lake Park, the Lancers are no slouch with 19 wins on the year and a player in Dominique Spencer who can impact games in a lot of ways.

Lyons Twp. Regional
Oak Park-River Forest over Morton
Morton is healthy and a dangerous (and a far too low) No. 10 seed that is capable of beating anyone in this sectional other than Proviso East. But Gabe Levin has been one of the best-kept secrets in prep hoops this season and will lead Oak Park into the sectional semis.

Glenbard West Regional
Schaumburg over Conant
A couple of coaches who are oh so familiar with one another square off, with Schaumburg having handled Conant twice already this season. Schaumburg's Christian Spandiary coming off a monster 40-point game.

Neuqua Valley Regional
Plainfield East over Neuqua Valley
This is a scary one for the top-seeded Bengals, a program with its first real taste of success going on the road to face a program that has enjoyed a whole lot of it over the years. Neuqua Valley has quietly won 18 games this season. But Dee Brown and big man Brian Bennett win a nail-biter for the Plainfield East's first regional championship.

Oswego Regional
West Aurora over Oswego
McDonald's All-American coach Gordie Kerkman looking for his 21st regional championship. The Blackhawks, led by senior Juwan Starks, will be favored on the road. Junior guard Miles Simelton has played some very good basketball for Oswego, the No. 12 seed, which took care of Naperville North.

Downers Grove South Regional
Downers Grove South over Hinsdale Central
Hinsdale Central has shown it can pull off an upset (wins over Oak Park and Metea Valley). After receiving a huge scare from Oswego East in the regional semis, Downers Grove South settles in and takes care of the Red Devils. These two met in the regular-season finale, with DGS claiming a 71-56 victory.

Metea Valley Regional
Benet Academy over Metea Valley
Metea, already with 23 wins on the year, looks to add to its breakout season by making a little history -- winning the program's first-ever basketball regional title. Benet, the No. 6 seed, will enjoy playing the underdog role after playing with a bulls-eye on its back last season. Benet's defense and sophomore big man Sean O'Mara pull off the upset.

Huntley Regional
Huntley over Larkin
This Huntley group of seniors, led by guard Troy Miller, have won a lot of games (49 games and counting over the past two seasons), while 6-6 sophomore Amanze Egekeze is a fast-rising sophomore. After a fast start to the season, Larkin struggled down the stretch but comes in with nothing to lose.

Cary-Grove Regional
McHenry over Crystal Lake South
A couple of sub-.500 teams play for a sectional semifinal berth. McHenry (11-15) and Crystal Lake South (9-18) split their two matchups this season. The winner will be a huge underdog against either Elgin or St. Charles East next Wednesday.

St. Charles North Regional
Elgin over St. Charles East
This one will be interesting and entertaining. These two Upstate Eight River foes split the two regular season matchups. Elgin's Kory Brown and St. Charles East junior Kendall Stephens, a Purdue commit, are two stars to watch. But if sophomore guard Dominic Adduci, who scored 25 in the win over St. Charles North in the regional semis and 29 against Glenbard West, continues his torrid play, St. Charles East could very well pull off the upset.

Oak Lawn Regional
Simeon over Vocational
Quietly, coach Chris Pickett has done a nice job with this 18-9 Vocational team, but it's Simeon they're up against. Chalk up a 10th straight regional title for the Wolverines.

Whitney Young Regional
Whitney Young over St. Rita
Should be a fun one. Catholic League vs. Public League. A ton of impressive young talent on display. And a showdown featuring two teams that have deceiving records as a result of an out-of-state schedule and an endless list of injuries and absences throughout the season. But Whitney Young has played the toughest schedule in the state and has 6-10 super sophomore Jahlil Okafor.

Marist Regional
Marist over Curie
I love what coach Mike Oliver and the Condors have done this season, but this is the most dangerous game for any heavyweight in the state this Friday. Curie will be up against a tricky style and system, on the road and against a team with good guards and that has won 13 of its last 14 games. It's not as if Curie isn't easy to believe in, but there is bound to be a shocker on Friday night somewhere and this has the makings of one.

Mt. Carmel Regional
Bogan over De La Salle
You have to feel for the Meteors. Jaylon Tate transfers in the offseason. Now the state tournament rolls around and 6-8 Gavin Schilling is out and 6-4 Alvin Ellis is in between doubtful and questionable for Friday night. Those type of injuries are tough to overcome, especially against a team like Bogan who will bring relentless pressure.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Joe Henricksen in March 2012.

Joe Henricksen: February 2012 is the previous archive.

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