This Friday’s Class 4A state semifinals in Peoria are pretty enticing. You couldn’t ask for much more.
Here is a scouting report and rundown on each of the four Class 4A finalists this weekend.
■ Whitney Young
Tourney tidbit: The Dolphins have won three state titles in the program’s history, with each one featuring high-profile players. The 1998 state championship team had future NBA player Quentin Richardson, the 2009 team was led by Michael Jordan’s son, Marcus Jordan, and the 2014 state title team had current NBA player Jahlil Okafor.
How they beat you: The Dolphins play downhill and can put points on the board. They want to get it and go and they flourish when juniors Xavier Castaneda and Javon Freeman play in space, while Lucas Williamson –– a bonafide dual threat –– has been a steady, consistent force doing anything that’s asked of him.
While there is a ton of talk about how offensively talented the Dolphins are, the defense has been under-appreciated all year. It will be interesting to see the type of pressure Young applies to Fremd and if it can make the Vikings more uncomfortable than they’ve been.
Best player: This is tough. Williamson, an uncommitted 6-4 senior, is the leading scorer (17.6) and a rock for this team. He remains one of the top uncommitted players in the senior class and the lifeblood of this team.
But you could argue Javon Freeman is this team’s best player right now. The 6-4 wing is one of the top five prospects in the junior class and has been playing at another level over the past two months. Freeman is the kind of athlete and slasher who coach Tyrone Slaughter has the flexibility to utilize all over the floor.
X-Factor: Every year Young plays arguably the toughest schedule in the state. The 2009 state championship team lost nine games. The 2010 state runner-up team lost seven, while the Jahlil Okafor-led team that won it all in 2014 lost five games. Those are 21 losses for teams with two state championships and a second-place finish. The reason why is because Slaughter schedules anyone, anywhere and plays a national schedule.
This year is no exception. Young has played 11 teams in Illinois that were ranked at one point and faced six high-level out-of-state teams during the regular season. Yes, scheduling matters and prepares a team for March.
Key against Fremd: Young cannot let Fremd run off chunks of time and control the tempo from the start. It will be imperative for the Dolphins to utilize its athleticism and quickness to try and speed Fremd up. Maybe most importantly, Young needs to try and play with the lead early and see how Fremd responds.
Tourney tidbit: This is Fremd’s first trip to the state finals since the 1993 team finished fourth in the state. With two wins Fremd becomes the first big school state champ to finish unbeaten since King in 1993.
How they beat you: The Vikings dictate everything. Their defensive and offensive efficiency is pretty remarkable.
On defense they defend the perimeter while cutting off lanes to the basket. Dribble penetration is so difficult for opponents. This team can survive a so-so offense and withstand an off-night on the offensive end because their defense is so efficient.
Nonetheless, Fremd knows exactly who they are offensively. Fremd is patient. We’re talking really patient and tempo-controlled.
Best player: He’s not a big name prospect and he’s not the flashiest player but Kyle Sliwa It’s been proven time and time again, few players in the state this season are as clutch as Kyle Sliwa. The senior guard’s heroics have been well documented, including the game-winning three-point heave at the buzzer to beat Conant in the sectional final.
X-Factor: Undeniable mojo. Would you expect anything less from a team that’s won all 31 games its played this season? There is immeasurable leadership, chemistry and togetherness with this team. Everyone knows their role and they play it perfectly.
All of that is why Fremd wins every close game it plays. Every. Single. One.
The Vikings beat Jacobs 36-35 in overtime to win the super-sectional. Sliwa hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to stun Conant 43-42 in the sectional final. In the MSL championship game, Fremd beat Prospect 57-55. And there was the 54-53 win over Notre Dame to win a holiday tournament. In the four biggest wins of the year Fremd has won by a total of five points.
Key against Young: Fremd must do their thing and control what they can control and not allow Young to speed this game up. The Dolphins are the quickest, most athletic and talented team the Vikings have faced all season.
Tourney tidbit: It was just two years ago when Bolingbrook made its first trip to state in 30 years and finished third.
How they beat you: This is the fastest, most athletic team playing in Peoria. The Raiders constantly put pressure on opponents. Senior Nana Akenten is an athletic marvel while Joseph Yesufu and Kaleb Thornton are a pair of turbo-jet guards.
With their devastating transition game, Bolingbrook puts together runs –– 10-0, 14-2, 20-4 type runs –– that decimate opponents. The best way to slow down Bolingbrook and disrupt their rhythm is to keep them in the half court and on the perimeter. Easier said than done.
Best player: Nana Akenten is a super athlete with range out to the three-point line (64 three-pointers). The Nebraska-bound senior is a game-changer in that he can turn the tide of a game and energize the Raiders with athletic plays and with his three-point shooting range.
X-Factor: Balance. Bolingbrook has repeatedly had all five starters step up and fuel the Raiders to wins this season. Check out all their big wins this season and you’ll find a different player stepping up and being the difference. When someone has an off night, it’s OK, others pick up the slack. It’s difficult to devise a defensive plan against a spread-the-wealth Bolingbrook.
Key against Simeon: Bolingbrook will not be getting anywhere near the amount of transition points its relied on all season. Thus, the Raiders are going to have to function in the half court against Simeon’s stingy defense.
Tourney tidbit: Coach Robert Smith’s program is making its 10th appearance in Peoria in 14 years. As a program, Simeon has won seven state championships. These are groundbreaking accomplishments.
How they beat you: The word all year is this Simeon team might not have as much high-level talent as past Simeon teams. But don’t tell that to the young talent in place that seems to be getting better and better. This is a really talented basketball team.
What has stood out is that this team has a way of outworking you. They mix it up defensively and have the ability to take you out of what you like to do (ask Thornton and Edwardsville about that), while having the speed and athleticism to beat you in transition but also the right temperament and enough guards to flourish in the halfcourt.
What team has the physical and mental stamina to go head-to-head with Simeon for 32 minutes?
Best player: While you can certainly argue the best prospects at Simeon are juniors Talen Horton-Tucker and Kezo Brown, senior point guard Evan Gilyard makes this team go. If you needed any proof look no further than Simeon’s last win. The UTEP-bound Gilyard pumped in 32 points in leading Simeon past Edwardsville in the super-sectional.
What’s appreciated even more by those familiar with the veteran guard is the toughness, competitiveness and non-stop energy Gilyard brings to the table.
X-Factor: Robert Smith. The veteran coach has all of this Peoria stuff down like the back of his hand. That’s what happens when you’ve made this many trips to state, and you better believe it matters.
Key against Bolingbrook: Transition defense will be crucial. While Simeon likes to push the ball, it can also play in the halfcourt effectively. But the key is can Simeon shut down Bolingbrook’s vaunted fast break off turnovers and off the defensive glass.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport