It is too early to make a final selection, of course, but voters already are lining up to nominate the leading contenders for the Sun-Times Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball in Illinois.
In the Chicago area, the ballot is headed by Waukegan's Jereme Richmond, last year's Sun-Times Player of the Year, Foreman's Mike McCall and Deerfield's Duje Dukan. Morgan Park's Wayne Blackshear, who recently returned after recovering from an injury, also can't be overlooked.
But Downstaters insist the leading candidate to succeed Warren's Brandon Paul as Mr. Basketball, the Player of the Year in Illinois, is 6-3 senior Rayvonte Rice of defending Class 3A champion Champaign Centennial.
"If you're talking about a game tomorrow, Rice is likely to be more productive than Richmond," said longtime Champaign News-Gazette sports columnist Loren Tate. "If you're talking about the long term, Richmond should be better.
"Rice outplayed Richmond by a clear margin when they met (in December in Assembly Hall in Champaign). Rice simply overpowers high school defenders. The next level is another question that I can't answer. But Rice is way better than Paul and D.J. Richardson as far as I'm concerned."
In fact, Tate recently wrote that he believes Rice "has undersold himself" in signing with Drake rather than consider a Big 10 school like Illinois. Rice averages 25 points per game with a season high of 45 against Champaign Central. Against Waukegan, Rice scored 20 of his game high 32 points in the second half, as Champaign Centennial won 71-55. Richmond had 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Lee Cabutti, retired Champaign Central coach and a longtime observer of high school basketball in Illinois, can't understand why Illinois coach Bruce Weber didn't recruit Rice, who also scored 34 points against state-rated Hillcrest.
"Rice can do it all," Cabutti said. "He is good when the chips are down. He can handle the ball. He jumps well and he is strong at 220 pounds. When he gets the ball, you will foul him or he will score. And he is better against the best competition. High school kids aren't physically able to compete with him.
"A year ago, some people said he couldn't play in the Big 10. Some said he should stick to football. He is a great athlete. He's going to Drake but I feel he is much better than that. He can play in the Big 10. I don't understand why Illinois didn't recruit him after seeing him for two years. Of course, I don't understand why Illinois didn't recruit Verdell Jones (another Champaign product), who is starring at Indiana."
Joe Henricksen, editor of City/Suburban Hoops Report, admits the issue is "a really tough call. I'm glad I don't have to make it official until March." He concedes Richmond and Rice are the frontrunners with Dukan and McCall in the conversation.
"Rayvonte has had a terrific season with big numbers," Henricksen said. "He will be a very good mid-major player in the Missouri Valley. He is a perfect example of a kid who picked the right level. He didn't try to go too high where he can be overrecruited and have to sit for a year or two.
"But I still give the edge to Richmond at this point for what he brings in all areas, including rebounding, blocking shots, defensive presence. But Rayvonte is right there."
Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye said Rice "would be a more than deserving Player of the Year in Illinois at this point. He is a perfect example of how the Player of the Year award should embody the play who has had the most productive high school season and means the most to his team."
The Schmidt brothers said a valid argument can be made for Rice in those areas. While they point out that Rice isn't a better college prospect than either Richmond or Blackshear, that isn't what the award is all about. We're not projecting for the future. Rice plays hard from start to finish, the Schmidts add, and he is the main reason why Centennial is in position to win back-to-back state titles.
Meanwhile, the Schmidts contend that McCall is the darkhorse in the Player of the Year voting. "He has come up huge in all of Foreman's biggest games so far this sason and is a bonafide leader who knows how to win," they said.
"Should Foreman capture the Chicago Public League championship and make a deep run in the Class 4A state tournament, he would be a tough candidate to argue against."