By Roy & Harv Schmidt
One thing that has been clearly established upon the conclusion of holiday basketball tournaments in Illinois is who the leading candidates are for player of the year in the Chicago area. As of now, we think that it is a two horse race between Homewood-Flossmoor point guard Kevin Dillard and Farragut big man Michael Dunigan. If we were voting today, we would have to give the slight edge to Dillard for a number of reasons.
Before we go any further, we believe that it is important to point out that the player of the year does not automatically go to the best college prospect. There is no doubt in our mind that Dunigan is not only the best college prospect in the state, but also the player with the most NBA potential. He has proven that he is the most dominating post player in Illinois at both ends of the floor and when he plays with intensity is virtually unstoppable. However, there are a number of other factors that go into selecting a player of the year. With that being said, we are enamored with all of the things that Dillard brings to the table.
First and foremost, there is no player in the state who means more to his team's success than Dillard. The rest of the H-F team is dependent upon him and looks to him to provide leadership, which he has done in every game this season. The ultimate testament of a leader is someone who is capable of making all of his teammates better. Not only has Dillard done that, but he also has earned the respect of every opponent who has faced him.
Despite being only 6'0, Dillard has shown that he is a player who can put a team on his back and carry a team to the Promised Land. He did it earlier in the year at the Chicago Heights Thanksgiving Tournament, hitting a running floater at the buzzer to propel H-F to the championship over Bloom. He also did it in H-F's first matchup versus Whitney Young at Chicago State in early December. And even though H-F didn't win the championship, he did it again at this year's Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
In H-F's 63-61 overtime victory over Marshall in the tournament semifinals, Dillard did not have one of his better shooting performances, going 4-16 from the field. However, he went to the free throw line 24 times, which was more than the entire Marshall team and clearly controlled the game from start to finish, winding up with 27 points to go along with 6 steals and 5 assists. H-F's game-winning basket came about because the Marshall defense put all of its effort into making sure that Dillard wouldn't be the one who would beat them. As a result, it enabled 6'4 senior Dominique Harvey to go the length of the court and score an uncontested layup for the win. That is the impact that players of the year have. Dillard simply refuses to let his team lose, and with the lone exception of the championship at Proviso West, he has accomplished just that.
Dillard signed a letter of intent during the Fall signing period with Southern Illinois, and there is no question that he is a steal for the Salukis. In fact, he may be one of the biggest recruiting steals in recent memory. A huge amount of credit for that has to go to Saluki head coach Chris Lowery, who is an outstanding evaluator of talent, especially when it comes to identifying prospects at an early age. Long before any other college coach, Lowery saw what a special type of point guard Dillard is and realized that he would be a perfect fit for his system at Southern Illinois.
The final mark of a worthy player of the year candidate is someone who has the ability to lead his team to the state finals in Peoria. Not only is Dillard more than capable of doing that, but he makes H-F a serious contender for the class 4A state championship. With that being said, the final chapter could be written in March.
At the same time, Dunigan is also a player who can lead his team to Peoria and whose mere presense makes Farragut a state championship contender. Dunigan could go a long way towards changing the landscape before the end of this next weekend should he turn in dominating performances or if Farragut wins the Chicago Public League Holiday Tournament, which opens on Wednesday at Loyola's Gentile Center. Once again, time will tell.