These were some of my thoughts while watching the Class 3A and 4A finals and wondering why I picked Georgetown to win the NCAA championship:
Old-timers like me might argue that the most exciting and dramatic game in the history of the boys state basketball tournament was Centralia/Carver in 1963 (Anthony Smedley's steal and shot) or West Aurora/Morgan Park in 1976 (Laird Smith's shot) or the Peoria Central/East St. Louis Lincoln triple overtime thriller in 1989 (Vincent Jackson's shot).
But last Friday's Waukegan/Whitney Young semifinal (Ahmad Starks' shot) belongs in that conversation. It lived up to the hype, which such ballyhooed games rarely do. It was the stuff of legends, pitting a host of talented and athletic Division I players in a rematch of last year's state finalists.
It would be easy, therefore, to argue that Whitney Young left its game on the floor on Friday, that the Dolphins were physically and emotionally drained. But that would diminish the extraordinary effort that Simeon made in overwhelming Whitney Young 51-36 on Saturday to win its third state title in five years.
Bob Hambric built the program. And Robert Smith, Hambric's handpicked successor, has taken it to another level.
For 30 years, ever sine I began covering Simeon basketball in Hambric's first season, the Wolverines have demonstrated an ability to carry themselves differently than other teams. It isn't a swagger or cockiness--Hambric wouldn't permit that behavior--rather it is a self-assurance that they are better prepared and better conditioned to meet any challenge. They check their egos at the gym door. Simeon basketball is all about pride, tradition, defense, relentless pressure, hustle, unselfishness and teamwork.
Smith doesn't play favorites, only kids who want to play. He cited 5-9 junior point guard Tywon Pickney as as unsung hero. Pickney was suspended for one game early in the year for disciplinary reasons, then was slowed by a sprained ankle. "But he stepped up to be our vocal leader on and off the court. Previously, leadership had been a problem on our team," Smith said.
Waukegan's Jereme Richmond bowed out as one of the top 50 players in state history. He will be a difference-maker at Illinois--not as a freshman--but more importantly he will be a pied piper who will attract other great players to boost the talent level of a program that desperately needs leadership and toughness.
In looking for heroes, perhaps the media and fans are too quick to anoint young players. Simeon freshman Jabari Parker demonstrated he is everything we have projected. But Whitney Young freshman Tommy Hamilton lacks his father's offensive skills while showing he isn't ready for prime time because he isn't equipped to compete in a fast-paced game.
With Chicago schools dominating 3A and 4A, and seats going begging in Peoria, perhaps it is time for the Illinois High School Association to seriously consider moving the state finals for the two largest classes to the United Center in Chicago.
It isn't noted in the IHSA record book and it wasn't mentioned in the media coverage but when Champaign Centennial's Rayvonte Rice missed a free throw in the consolation game, he missed an opportunity to register a national record. It was only the fourth free throw he missed this season. He is the most accurate free throw shooter in state history.
Rice converted 163 of 167 free throws this season, a .976 percentage. Can you recall anyone better with a minimum of 100 attempts? The national record is .977 (167 of 171) set by Seth Colclasure of Decatur, Ind., in 2000-01. Brad Niemann of Glenbrook South ranks eighth on the all-time list with a .946 (123 of 130) percentage in 1986-87. Niemann's feat included a state-record 76 in a row. Hoffman Estates' Kevin Tiongson made 68 of his first 70 attempts and 93 of 100 earlier this season.
O'Fallon's Roosevelt Jones was one of the most impressive players in Peoria. He ranks among the top players in the class of 2011 with Morgan Park's Wayne Blackshear, Whitney Young's Sam Thompson and Mount Carmel's Tracy Abrams.
Who will be ranked as the preseason No. 1 team in the Chicago area for 2010-11? Simeon, Morgan Park, Whitney Young, De La Salle or Orr? Downstate, O'Fallon could return to the Final Four.
Hillcrest coach Don Houston inherited a program from his mentor, Tom Cappel, who won 259 games in his last 10 seasons, and took it to another level in only his third campaign. Houston retained Cappel's defensive philosophy and re-tooled the offense. His Hawks were too quick, too disruptive and too athletic for Champaign Centennial and Peoria Richwoods, the state's two top-rated teams in 3A.