What a weekend in Peoria.
The two biggest games of the year –– state championships in Class 3A and 4A –– both going to overtime? All the best teams with the best players converging together on the final weekend of the season?
Here are some questions and answers from a weekend of basketball in Peoria.
Who’s the best high school basketball team in Illinois?
We all know with the four-class system nothing is clearly decided when it comes to determining the best high school basketball team in the state.
We have had four state champions since class expansion in 2008. During that time we’ve never wondered or needed to debate if the Class 1A or 2A state champ was clearly better than both the Class 3A and 4A champ.
When it comes to Class 3A and 4A there have been some serious discussions, particularly last year when Belleville Althoff and Curie won 3A and 4A titles, respectively. Everyone would have loved an Althoff-Curie game.
This year there were two state champions from the Public League who actually did meet in the regular season. Young beat Morgan Park in the championship game of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament 80-71 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
The expectations were high for Young coming into the season. The City/Suburban Hoops Report and Chicago-Tribune both had Young as the preseason No. 5 team and were ranked No. 11 in the Sun-Times preseason Super 25 back in November, so the expectations were really high. But the Dolphins lost to Kenwood in the season opener and just got by Orr, 49-48, in the second game of the season.
Of all the really good teams in the Chicago area, the ones who began the season as legit state title contenders, there wasn’t one who improved more from its first game of the season to its last than coach Tyrone Slaughter’s Young team.
While Lucas Williamson was the cornerstone for this team all season, the younger players continued to mature and get better by the week.
The championship game, though, was really a culmination of what Slaughter built during the regular season and what he needed from his players when it mattered most –– even with budding star Javon Freeman not at his productive best.
Williamson, the uncommitted senior leader, played at an extremely high-level in the title game win over Simeon. He scored 19 points, pulled down nine rebounds and did the little things. Junior point guard Xavier Castaneda was overlooked in the win with nine assists and only two turnovers. And Justin Boyd was truly the difference as he poured in 17 points on five huge three-pointers.
What also goes unrecognized when it comes to Young is that Slaughter’s teams are never going to build up the glitzy records throughout the regular season. The veteran coach puts together a daunting schedule every single season as he prepares his team for the rigors of March.
In the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Class 4A preview last week, the X-Factor listed for Young was the schedule it played for three months. No team played a tougher one. There were 11 teams the Dolphins faced from Illinois that were ranked at one point this season while facing six high-level out-of-state teams, including the trio of Chaminade (St. Louis), Muskegon (Michigan) and Dillard (Ft. Lauderdale) that went a combined 75-10 and ranked in their respective states.
The best storyline from Peoria?
Morgan Park was the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s pick to win a state championship in Class 3A since the season started. There was no reason to change that pick in January, February or when state tournament play began in March.
But when the team’s top player, Ayo Dosunmu, was lost midway through the first quarter of Morgan Park’s semifinal matchup with Springfield Lanphier, doubt crept in. This is the top junior prospect in the state we’re talking about, a dynamic player and point guard who handles the ball 90 percent of the time for coach Nick Irvin.
The fact Morgan Park went on to beat Lanphier and then come from behind to beat Fenwick in the state championship says a lot about the resolve and toughness of the Mustangs.
What’s the biggest individual player storyline from Peoria?
With so many expected teams reaching Peoria and state super powers winning state titles, the top storylines turned to individual players in Peoria. And there was no bigger player storyline than the impact of two freshmen: Fenwick’s D.J. Steward and Morgan Park’s Nimari Burnett.
When the season began the City/Suburban Hoops Report had singled out three freshmen as the best in the Class of 2020. All three were in Peoria this weekend, though Peoria Manual’s fabulous freshman, Adam Miller, wasn’t playing as a result of the Rams losing in the regional semifinals.
But Steward and Burnett sure were playing and showed again why they are so highly thought of so early in their high school career.
Burnett has been a valuable role player for Morgan Park all season. The x-x shooter had moments this season where he led the Mustangs to wins, big wins, including a big-time performance in a city playoff semifinal win over Curie.
However, there was no bigger stage and no bigger performance than the Class 3A state championship game. With star Ayo Dosunmu out with an injury, Burnett dropped in six three-pointers, including a pair of back-breaking threes in overtime, en route to a game-high 24 points to lead the Mustangs to a come-from-behind win over Fenwick.
Steward, meanwhile, was a highly-regarded freshman the moment he walked into Fenwick last fall and blossomed as the season went on, averaging a team-high 14.8 points a game. But what the 6-3 Steward did in Peoria was special.
Steward scored 23 points and pulled down 8 rebounds in the semifinal win over Bloomington and followed it up with an eye-opening title game performance. Playing with poise and confidence he went 10 for 10 from the field with a pair of three-pointers, finishing with 26 points and adding 7 rebounds and 4 steals.
The Class of 2020 has stars set at the table at this early juncture.
Previously unbeaten Fremd lost its only two games of the season in Peoria. Were the Vikings overrated?
Before answering that question, let’s digress just a little first.
The interest and believability in Fremd was gradual. The Vikings rolled to a 6-0 start to the season with an average victory margin of 26 points in those six games. Still, no one noticed because of who Fremd had beaten on its schedule and the fact the Vikings weren’t ranked when the season began.
Then coach Bob Widlowski’s team beat a ranked Conant team and highly-regarded Niles Notre Dame –– both by double figures –– just prior to holiday tournament play and followed it up with a Wheeling Hardwood Classic championship. Fremd was now 13-0 heading into January and was a legitimate Top 25 team.
The crawl up the rankings continued in the second half of the season and the unblemished record continued. When a team gets to 18-0, 21-0, 25-0 people start taking notice. Even with the two wins over Conant in the regular season, beating Prospect in MSL championship game and running through the postseason, there were still doubters as the miraculous Kyle Sliwa and the Vikings headed to Peoria.
So back to our original question.
Fremd finished fourth in the state for the second time in school history after losing to both Young and Bolingbrook. But the Vikings, who definitely lacked curb appeal, belonged in Peoria. Are the Vikings truly the fourth best team in Class 4A? No, probably not. But that doesn’t mean they were overrated or didn’t belong in Peoria.
Their style, system and all the parts that went into getting to 31-0 before finally losing was unique. The intestinal fortitude it showed, with the little bit of luck most teams need, was special –– from the buzzer-beating wins, to the super-sectional overtime victory, to not folding when it fell behind by double digits to Young in the state semifinals.
Fremd showed the very smallest things still matter in basketball and that you can win and compete at the highest level in different ways.
Which third-place team was better: Bolingbrook’s 2015 team or Bolingbrook’s 2017 team?
Prior to two years ago the Bolingbrook basketball program had one sectional championship (1985) and had never appeared in the State Finals in Champaign or Peoria since the school opened in 1974. Now the Raiders, under coach Rob Brost, have two third-place trophies after reaching the Class 4A state semifinals in 2015 and again this year.
The answer to the question is quite easy. This year’s Bolingbrook team, which finished 30-2, is without question the best team in school history. The speed, athleticism, talent and balance was special.
Who were the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top five prospects that played in Peoria this weekend?
Remember, we’re talking prospects here and not the most established, productive high school players. Here’s the list:
▪ Ayo Dosunmu, Morgan Park
The junior point guard was injured in the state semifinal and, sadly, played a total 4 minutes in Peoria. But the 6-4 junior is and has been the Hoops Report’s top-ranked prospect in the Class of 2018.
▪ Talen Horton-Tucker, Simeon
That rare breed of beast on the court and pure basketball player. The 6-4 junior wing just gets better and better and continues to push towards being the No. 2 ranked player in the Class of 2018.
▪ Javon Freeman, Young
The sky is the limit for the player who bloomed during his junior season at Young. He didn’t play in Peoria at the level he had been playing at, but the 6-3 junior has clearly established himself as a top five prospect in the class.
▪ D.J. Steward, Fenwick
The City/Suburban Hoops Report can make an argument that this freshman is the best pure prospect in the state, regardless of class, right now.
▪ Nimari Burnett, Morgan Park
This will be the most controversial pick in my top five right now, because Bolingbrook’s Nana Akenten and Joseph Yesufu, Simeon’s Evan Gilyard and Kezo Brown, Bloomington’s Chris Payton, Lanphier’s Cardell McGee and Young’s Xavier Castaneda, Myles Baker and Tyler Beard are all really, really good prospects.
Yes, there were clearly better players in Peoria this weekend in the junior and senior classes but when Burnett is a senior he will be a better college prospect than all of the other contenders.
Who makes up the All-Unheralded Team from Peoria?
▪ Jamal Nixon and Jacob Keller, Fenwick
What an understated career the 6-5 forward has had over his four years at Fenwick. Nixon, who is headed to Minnesota State, leaves as the player who won more games than any player in Fenwick history, surpassing the great Corey Maggette. More importantly he led a team to a second-place finish in Class 3A while doing all the things that mean the most to a team’s success.
As far as Keller is concerned, it’s a shame this kid’s basketball career is over. The Northern Iowa football recruit is a bonafide Division I basketball talent. Rugged, strong and athletic, Keller checked his ego at the door this season and helped make coach Rick Malnati’s team hum.
▪ Craig Beaudion, Young
From a statistic standpoint the 6-3 senior isn’t going to impress, though he did score 12 points in the semifinal win over Fremd. But Beaudion’s intangibles and defense often go unnoticed. Plus, he played and battled through the championship game with a hand injury and helped keep Simeon star Evan Gilyard in check in the second half.
▪ Messiah Jones, Simeon
Senior Evan Gilyard was the catalyst and juniors Kezo Brown and Talen Horton-Tucker are the highest-regarded prospects, but the job the athletic and long 6-5 Jones has done for this Simeon team is unquestioned by anyone who has watched the Wolverines. Jones was at it again in the semifinal win over Bolingbrook, recording a double-double with 10 points (on five shot attempts) and 12 rebounds to go with 2 blocks and 2 steals.
▪ Kyle Sliwa, Fremd
The savvy senior guard didn’t have his best game against Young in the state semifinal loss (8 points, 4 turnovers, fouled out), but this is more of a season-long achievement award right here. Sliwa’s heroics all season, including the buzzer-beating win over Conant in the sectional final, is legendary stuff in Palatine. But it was good to see Sliwa bounce back in the third-place game with seven three-pointers and 25 points against Bolingbrook.
Is it good or bad for high school basketball to have so much Public League representation in Peoria with three city champions (Young in 4A, Morgan Park in 3A and Orr in 2A) and one state runner-up (Simeon in 4A)?
What’s good for the city of Chicago isn’t always what’s best for the rest of the state? Where have we heard this before? Now it extends to high school basketball.
But there are multiple answers to this question –– and probably not a single one that will please everyone.
This is an argument and debate between wanting to watch the best teams and players play for state championships or wanting true state geographical representation at the IHSA State Finals in Peoria.
Everyone has to play someone at some point in the postseason road. There are only eight teams playing in Peoria in Class 3A and 4A, so good teams have to be knocked out at some point. But now that it’s been firmly established that the best assembled teams and players are in the Chicago Public League –– of the past 22 big school state champions since 2006, 14 have been city teams –– what are your supposed to do about it?
To all you four-class lovers, you realize you have to take a little responsibility for this, right? What did you think would happen when you watered down state high school basketball for the little guys to compete and allowed city powers to more easily devour the state in the larger classes?
What does need to happen, however, is a either a new state tournament format and overhaul (for many reasons) or distinct bracketing changes going forward following sectional basketball.
As an example, there is no reason the same sectional winners in Class 4A have to meet every single year in the Normal Super. Yes, the best Class 4A southern Illinois team is going to have to make the trip to Illinois State, but there should be a rotation of what sectional winner from the Chicago area is sent there.
The trip’s distance is roughly the same for everyone in the southern and western suburbs, somewhere in that two hours to two and a half hours. Why couldn’t the Lincoln-Way East winner (Bolingbrook) or the Hinsdale Central winner (Naperville North) be sent to the ISU super-sectional?
Why do we continue to have the north suburban sectional winner (this year Evanston) always matched up with the Chicago/near western suburbs winner (this year Young). We couldn’t send that north suburban team (this year Evanston) to DeKalb or Hoffman Estates for a year instead of all the way down to Chicago State for the super-sectional?
Figure out a rotation of some kind or simply draw out of a hat in February during seeding time of where sectional winners will be sent to play their super-sectional.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport