By Roy & Harv Schmidt
After watching most all of the top travel teams in Illinois in both the 17 and 16-under divisions this past weekend at the King James Shooting Stars Classic in Akron, OH, we are convinced that all of them can hold their own with any of the top programs in the nation. As a result, AAU ball in the state of Illinois is as strong as ever. However, the reasons for us saying that go far beyond just the talent level.
First of all, let's take a look at how some of the teams that competed in Akron fared. In the 17-under division, the Rising Stars Gold advanced to the championship game of the diamond bracket, which was the elite bracket featuring the premier teams in the tournament. Despite falling to BABC in the title game, there is no question that the Rising Stars Gold team enjoyed a most successful weekend.
Meanwhile, Mean Streets reached the quarterfinals in the 17-under diamond bracket, defeating the loaded Mac Irvin Fire squad in the process, and the Chicago Express reached the semifinals of the ruby bracket. The Illinois Warriors, Mac Irvin Fire and Team NLP also achieved impressive victories. In the 16-under division, the Illinois Warriors reached the semifinals of the gold bracket while the Rising Stars won the championship in the silver bracket. All in all, most all of the Illinois-based teams that were in Akron can hold their heads high.
There is no question that all of the top travel teams from Illinois that played at King James, including Rising Stars Gold, the Mac Irvin Fire, the Illinois Warriors, the Illinois Wolves, Team NLP, Mean Streets, Full Package, the Chicago Express, Illinois Elite and the Illinois Stars are stacked with talented players at the top. Obviously that is a huge factor when it comes to explaining why these programs have been so successful, but there is much more to it than that.
In addition, all of these programs have quality roll players, hidden gems if you will who have either fallen under the radar or have gone unnoticed by many others. On the Warriors, we knew virtually nothing about 6'6 Kyle Cain from Thornton Fractional North High School prior to the King James event. However, after watching him we agree completely with Warriors coach Larry Butler when he says that Cain will end up being better than former T.F. North product Demond Watt. The Fire, meanwhile, has a pair of unheralded guards in 6'5 Tony Nixon and 6'5 Zeke Upshaw, who can both shoot the ball with accuracy from deep range.
On Team NLP Lake Zurich's Connor Mooney immediately comes to mind. While Lake Forest Academy's Kyle Rowley grabs most of the headlines with Full Package, 6'4 shooting guard Matt Vogrich from Lake Forest and 6'4 swing man Matt Sullivan are just as valuable. On Mean Streets the athleticism and energy that 6'5 Jordan Walker from Hales Franciscan brings to the table goes underappreciated. While virtually every member of the starting five for Rising Stars Gold is a high major D1 prospect, Marcus Jordan from Whitney Young continues to get a bum wrap on the national level, despite the fact that at one time he was regarded by many locals (including us) as the #1 player in Illinois from the class of 2009. We could go on and on, but we think everyone gets our point.
Above everything else, every aforementioned program is also filled with quality kids. Not only are the majority of them talented basketball players, they are also good students and conduct themselves with the utmost class off the court. We can't stress enough how important that is to any travel team's success. The bottom line is that most travel team coaches do not want the headaches that accompany putting up with kids who have bad attitudes, lousy work ethics and simply prove to be uncoachable.
Which leads us to the coaches themselves. You name em--Larry Butler, Mac Irvin, Mike Weinstein, Mike Mullins, Dickey Simpkins, Tai Streets, Steve Pratt and Nate Pomeday. What do they all have in common besides coaching extremely talented teams? They all care just as much about their players' development away from the court as they do on it. That is why they have come to be coaches that parents have come to trust and are comfortable with having their kids play for. There really is something to be said for that.
With all of this having been said, not only is traveling team basketball in Illinois here to stay, but at the present time we firmly believe that it is headed in the right direction and has come a long way with respect to erasing the negative impressions that many had when it first began. In fact, if it continues to follow the paths that we have outlined in this blog, we see it only getting better and better in the future.