I’ve written my Three-Pointer column for the week, which included St. Rita’s revival, Conant’s Ryan Davis climbing into the Player of the Year conversation and the potential of Orr’s dominance in Class 2A.
I put my holiday tournament rewind story to bed a couple of days ago, which highlighted Simeon and Talen Horton-Tucker, the breakout teams, players and the Hoops Report’s All-Tournament Team from the holidays.
Now I’m unloading a whole bunch of other thoughts, notes and nuggets –– 40 in all –– left in the notebook from a busy week of basketball.
➤ Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! This from Eric Bossi of rivals.com on E.J. Liddell of Belleville West … “Why he’s trending up: Liddell may not possess truly ideal height for a power forward, but he’s so skilled and tough that it doesn’t matter. When the rankings update he’ll make one of the biggest jumps in the Class of 2019 and we think he’s good enough to play anywhere in the country.”
Yes! There we go. It took some time, sure, but it was inevitable the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top-ranked prospect in the Class of 2019 would grab some national attention at some point. Liddell is just too good. This is saying a lot, but there isn’t a player in Illinois that I can throw more superlatives around when it comes to talking about his game, impact and what he is as a player than the 6-7 forward.
The only thing I never could understand was the lack of early appreciation for Liddell from the masses, which obviously is about to change.
➤ Oak Park’s Isaiah Fuller should be receiving more attention than he has from college coaches, particularly those at the Division II level. Fuller’s game has evolved, from being rough around the edges to becoming more of a true point guard, and he’s consistently producing. There’s no denying his impressive end-to-end speed with the basketball in his hands.
➤ There are two players already locked up and committed in the Class of 2019 in Illinois. Bloomington’s Chris Payton is one of them. What a tremendous recruiting gem Illinois State coach Dan Muller has already landed in the athletic junior forward. The potential for the highly-athletic Payton, a City/Suburban Hoops Report top five prospect in the junior class, is enormous. Payton was the second best player and prospect at Pontiac, behind only Simeon’s Talen Horton-Tucker.
➤ While we’re on the topic of Pontiac, it’s time once again to state where this holiday tournament ranks among the dozens that are played throughout Illinois: At the very top. When i say at the very top, I’m talking everything –– from the teams, to the hospitality to the feel of the place. The Pontiac Holiday Tournament sets the bar high and the distance between Pontiac and the next (name your tournament) is growing.
➤ Don’t discount Danville just because it was blown out by Simeon. This team is without question one of the top 10 or so teams in the state regardless of class. I really believe that. Though teams like Bloomington, Normal, Normal West and Alton could alter this plan, right now I expect a Danville-Belleville West sectional title game in Pekin this March. Drake recruit Kendle Moore, a dynamic perimeter scorer, is the type of game-changing guard you thrive with in March.
➤ The biggest eye-opening, back-to-back scores over the course of the holidays involving one team came during Uplift’s quarterfinal and semifinal games at Proviso West. Uplift pounded ranked Larkin 75-43 in the quarterfinal matchup and then fell 24 hours later to Orr by 54 points, losing 92-38. That’s bizarre and difficult to figure out.
➤ Although Curie fell by 18 points to Simeon in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament final, I feel better about Curie going forward than I did before the holidays. Curie showed glimpses of the team it can be in its win over West Aurora in the Pontiac quarterfinals. That was arguably Curie’s best game of the season.
➤ I hate seeing Peoria Manual go two-and-out at Pontiac. The state needs Peoria basketball. And this is Manual we’re talking.
➤ Benet has had a pretty remarkable run over the past eight seasons, winning 20-plus games each season and finishing second in Class 4A in both 2014 and 2016. This will be as challenging of a second half of a season as the highly-successful Gene Heidkamp will have had as coach at Benet, particularly if the turnover bug doesn’t calm itself down. Benet turned the ball over 14-plus times in all three games at Pontiac.
➤ Curie junior guard Marquise Walker may be a lot of things, including a ball-dominating guard who is difficult to keep out of the lane, but he also has some intestinal fortitude you like.
➤ Why aren’t more lower-level Division I programs trying to lock up Curie big man Treavon Martin? He rebounds, defends, plays hard and is 6-8.
➤ How impressive was Orr in winning the Proviso West Holiday Tournament? The Spartans were the highest scoring team at Proviso West (72 points a game) but also the toughest to score on. Coach Lou Adams’ team allowed a tournament-best 47.5 points a game at the other end and opponents shot just 37 percent from the field.
➤ The Hoops Report keeps preaching it but Orr’s Dannie Smith remains the most overlooked, under-recruited player in the Class of 2018 in Illinois. It’s silly, really. The 6-5 forward does so many things to help his team win.
➤ Yes, everyone is bigger, stronger and better than a year ago at Orr. But a big reason the Spartans are clearly better as a team than last year’s Class 2A state championship team is Chase Adams. The diminutive point guard is making plays, running the show and is exactly what this Orr team needed –– a stabilizing force at the point guard position. Despite his size, Adams has shown he can be a force. He was recently rewarded for his play with a scholarship offer from UIC.
➤ Hillcrest’s Bobby Harvey continues to put together quite a senior year. The 6-3 guard was the tournament’s second leading scorer (19 ppg) at Proviso West.
➤ Young is without question one of the top five teams in the Chicago area. But Javon Freeman needs some help. Right now the talented Valpo recruit is carrying too big of a load on the offensive end when matched up with elite teams.
➤ Normal West’s Francis Okoro is a consensus top 50 prospect nationally in the Class of 2019. But the big 6-9 post is showing he’s becoming more and more of a high school player and not just a promising college prospect.
Okoro was MVP of the Pekin Holiday Tournament while leading the Wildcats to a tournament title. He had 22 points and 12 rebounds in a quarterfinal win and 19 points and 14 rebounds in the title game.
➤ Bloomington, led by the aforementioned junior, Chris Payton, is the first thought when talking high school basketball in Bloomington-Normal. The Purple Raiders have won the past two Bloomington-Normal Inter-City Tournament. But it was Normal and Normal West winning holiday tournament titles last week, with Normal capturing the State Farm Classic and Normal West winning at Pekin.
Keep an eye on Normal West. While the Wildcats boast a major presence and mismatch in Okoro, coach Brian Cupples will return six of his top seven players next season. That’s a recipe for improvement this year and an opportunity for the best team in school history next year.
➤ The three-point shot has been and will continue to be a big-time equalizer, both in helping an overmatched team hang in there when it can shoot the three effectively well and when trying to overcome a deficit. But through the first half of this season, I can’t remember when I’ve seen the three-point shot impact fewer games.
➤ The upside and potential for DePaul Prep remains. But coach Tom Kleinschmidt’s team is simply having trouble scoring right now. The Rams averaged 55 points a game in their first nine games but just 44 in their last five.
➤ St. Charles East’s Justin Hardy continues to produce. The 6-5 senior led the Hinsdale Central Holiday Tournament in scoring with 23.3 points a game and added 8.5 rebounds game.
➤ I highlighted St. Rita’s pretty remarkable turnaround in my Three-Pointer column this week. But the bottom line is this team does have the type of size and length to really make it difficult for opposing teams to function on the offensive end of the floor.
➤ St. Rita beat DePaul Prep in the semifinals at Hinsdale Central. How amped up do you think DePaul Prep will be this Friday when it travels to St. Rita for an immediate rematch in Catholic League play?
➤ Maine South has won a ton of games over the past eight seasons. What the Hawks typically don’t do in those wins is score a lot of points.
How about this? In seven-plus seasons, spanning a whopping 231 games, coach Tony Lavorato’s team has scored 80 or more points just one time, beating Maine East 81-37 during the 2015-2016 season. Now the Hawks have another 80-plus point explosion after knocking off St. Charles East, 80-67, at the Hinsdale Central Holiday Tournament last week.
➤ While no one was paying attention to Loyola Academy –– the Ramblers were playing out of state, after all –– coach Tom Livatino’s team won four games and a tournament title in Florida for the second straight year. A year ago the Ramblers rattled off six straight wins upon their return home from Florida. Livatino can only hope this year’s team can once again bottle up the momentum gained in Florida and ride it out for a little while in the month of January.
➤ Keep an eye on the continued development of Stevenson sophomore Matt Ambrose. The son of coach Pat Ambrose can really shoot the basketball. The 6-3 perimeter threat averaged 12.5 points a game at Hinsdale Central and shot 10 of 17 (59 percent) from beyond the arc.
➤ Homewood-Flossmoor coach Marc Condotti will do everything he can to maximize all he can this season, but the potential of the Vikings going forward is very promising with juniors Isaac Stanback and Maurion Scott, sophomores Kyndall Davis and R.J. Ogom and freshman Chad Readey. Also, 6-2 senior guard Sean Jones should be looked at by some small college programs.
➤ I’m sorry but pool play in any Christmas tournament just doesn’t work for me. Talk about a buzzkill during one of the most exciting times of the year in the sport. Thanksgiving pool play –– quasi-preseason basketball –– is fine. Give me a bracket in December.
➤ If there is a coach out there who is absolutely maximizing the pieces he has in his program, it’s Andrew’s Dave Wilson. The Thunderbolts are 8-6 on the season and lost a tough one to Brother Rice at York in the second round.
➤ I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: Keep an eye on Batavia in the second half of the season. There are some underrated seniors (Eric Peterson, Kyle LeFevre and Riley Cooper) on this underrated team.
➤ How about Fred Cleveland? The junior mighty mite from Leo has been wreaking havoc on teams and did so again at the Big Dipper. Even at his diminutive size, Cleveland is a disruptor and impact player. Leo will certainly be a factor in Class 2A this March, but keep in mind Cleveland and key players Dechaun Anderson, Jadon WIlliams and Kendale Anderson return.
➤ For whatever reason, I’ve taken in more Brother Rice games in the first half of the season than I would have expected. And for those who follow @joehoopsreport on Twitter, you’re aware of my fancy for Brother Rice’s Josh Boulanger. I’ve joked on Twitter that I think I just like saying the name –– Boulanger –– which is pronounced with a French flare (boo-lawn-szai) and is a French word for baker.
But this is such an intriguing basketball player with a different style and game than most players you watch. He’s an exciting player with his high-level of activity, great bounce off the floor and above-the-rim ability. In helping Brother Rice to a second-place finish at York, Boulanger averaged 15.8 points and 9 rebounds a game. At 6-3 and very slender, he’s on pace to become the all-time leader in blocked shots at Brother Rice.
Best of all, he’s improved so much from a year ago and become a more complete player. Just take a look at his shooting numbers at York, where he connected on a pretty ridiculous 13 of 19 from the three-point line (68 percent) in five games.
➤ There aren’t many players who mean more to their team than what senior guard David Swedura means to Prospect. This was an inexperienced varsity team when this season began, yet the Knights are 10-4 on the year. How about that third-place game effort from Swedura, who poured in 41 points in a loss to Waukegan.
➤ The job Phil Ralston has done in his first year as coach at Glenbrook South shouldn’t go unnoticed, even if the results right now are just a 6-8 overall record. Ralston left Geneva, where his teams established an identity and he won big –– the Vikings averaged 25 wins a year in his final five seasons and reached Peoria in 2015. Who knows for sure what the immediate impact is from the coaching change, but Glenbrook South is certainly competing at a higher level than expected. Sure, the Titans played Waukegan (lost 78-76) and New Trier (lost 43-42) tough and have beaten St. Viator, Warren, Fremd and Ralston’s former school, Geneva.
➤ Like Ralston, another coach who had a chance to face the school where he formerly coached at was Vince Doran. The York coach met up with Hinsdale South, where Doran coached for five seasons from 2002 to 2008, last week and Doran knocked off the Hornets and star Zion Griffin 46-35.
➤ That’s back-to-back titles for Conant at the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament with two different coaches and really two different teams after Tom McCormack stepped down as coach and three starters graduated. Impressive. That was also a really nice hire by Conant in nabbing Jim Maley, who had done a nice job in helping build both Kenwood and St. Laurence into what they are today.
➤ Niles North was unbeaten heading into the Wheeling Hardwood Classic. And that was without Jamal Stephenson playing. The senior wing, who averaged 13 points a game last season, made an immediate impact upon his return over the holidays, scoring a game-high 21 points in a semifinal win over Prospect. Just one more weapon, one with versatility, length and athleticism at 6-4, to add to the likes of Damaria Franklin, Dravon Clayborn, Damarrion Bariffe-Smith and Aquan Smart.
➤ And then there were two. Niles North and Aurora Christian beat the odds the City/Suburban Hoops Report laid out for all the 10 unbeaten teams heading into holiday tournament play. It was a fun, different writing piece for me to drum up some conversation and realize how difficult it is to remain unbeaten by this time of the season.
While Niles North’s odds were low at just 3 to 1 to remain unbeaten, Aurora Christian was a decent value at 10 to 1. Aurora Christian senior Jake Wolfe, who has signed with Lipscomb and put together an outstanding tournament at the small school State Farm Classic in Bloomington-Normal, sent a tweet to me following the title win: “Beat the odds,” the tweet read. A fun, straight-to-the-point and respectful tweet, something I wish many others could figure out how to do.
➤I tried to pay special attention to the players in the Class of 2019 this holiday season. And, boy, that didn’t go too well. We’re talking another pretty depleted class of talent in this state when it comes to the number of high-level talent and Division I prospects.
➤ There is no question having three big, high-profile tournaments so close to one another in the western suburbs at York, Proviso West and Hinsdale Central takes away the overall potential and strength of each one. But it sure is handy to zip back and forth along 294 and 290 to see 64 different teams and a ton of players.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport