There is a lot of basketball to get to in this column following a busy Martin Luther King holiday weekend.
However, before we do, here is a really interesting Time magazine piece just written regarding Dr. Martin Luther King, a hero of the civil rights movement. There is a specific connection as the story centers around Chicago. The story, more of an untold story, details Dr. King’s move into an apartment in the Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side during a moment in time that became known as the Chicago Freedom Movement.
What can I say? I’m a big fan of history. And on a weekend like this, where so much basketball is played while attaching the name “Martin Luther King” to tournament as a moniker, it’s important to remember why.
➤ This is a high school basketball season that up to this point hasn’t had an identity, beyond the rise of a perennial power, Simeon, being even better than we all anticipated. Maybe this Simeon team is one of our real superpowers. We have another two months to figure that out.
But I think we do have one now –– an identity. It may be a bit boring, but it’s an identity, nonetheless. And that’s extreme parity (outside of Simeon).
Good, bad, mediocre, whatever you want to call the type of parity we have in high school basketball, it’s there. No matter what team you call “good” in any particular week, you’re just not that surprised if that “good” team loses.
Was I stunned Niles North lost twice last week? Not really. Was I surprised Oak Park was upset by Niles Notre Dame in the second round of the MLK Tournament at Wheaton South? No. Lincoln Park over Young? At the time, yes. After watching Lincoln Park actually play? No. Was it surprising unranked Loyola knocked off ranked DePaul Prep? No. I picked them. Or surprised that DePaul came right back and beat Loyola days later? No.
As the season has progressed, you begin to realize there really aren’t any eye-openers.
This has been going on from week to week throughout this season. Good, ranked teams losing. Bolingbrook falling to St. Rita, Conant knocking off Evanston and Romeoville losing to Leo. Larkin with four losses and Waukegan with five.
From conference to conference all across the Chicago area there are favorites, but there aren’t any great, elite teams.
There were 77 losses among the teams in Michael O’Brien’s Super 25 this week –– and that includes an unbeaten Aurora Christian checking in at No. 25 and contributing zero to the loss column.
I had to go and look in the old vault to find a season that at least resembled this one. It wasn’t easy. There were a few here and there over the past 15 or so years.
For comparison’s sake, the only seasons in the window from 2008 through 2017 with more losses in the top 25 at this exact point in the season:
• 2007-2008 season with 78 losses
• 2008-2009 season with 80 losses
• 2015-2016 season with 78 losses
Last year at this time? There were eight teams –– Simeon, Bolingbrook, Fremd, Orr, Joliet West, Marist, Geneva and Wheaton South –– unbeaten or with one loss and had 60 total losses in the Super 25.
I ruled out the 2008-2009 season because there were some really talented teams at the top, starting with the 4A state champ, Young, featuring Chris Colvin and Marcus Jordan, and the Jereme Richmond-led Waukegan team.
So that left me with the 2007-2008 and 2015-2016 seasons as comps. Pretty similar type of teams and seasons overall between those two and this current season. But we easily remember two seasons ago when Curie broke through and won a 4A title, Morgan Park was upset by Lincoln-Way West in a Class 3A super-sectional and Benet’s magical season ended in a 4A title game loss.
It’s more fun to dig into the history book. How about a quick flashback to that midseason top 25 in 2008 (Well how about that!?!? Simeon was No. 1! Five of the top six were Chicago Public League schools! And Lincoln Park was ranked! So much has changed in 10 years):
1. Simeon (16-2) … Life after Derrick Rose began.
2. Homewood-Flossmoor (14-1) … Kevin Dillard!
3. Marshall (16-3) … Ryan Hare and Darius Smith won a 3A title.
4. Farragut (11-2) … Big man Michael Dunnigan was dominant.
5. North Lawndale (17-2) … Won Class 2A title.
6. Young (15-3) … A.J. Rompza, Marcus Jordan, Chris Colvin, Ahmad Starks all underclassmen.
7. Batavia (15-3) … High-scoring Nick Fruendt’s time.
8. Evanston (17-2) … Made it to Peoria in March.
9. De La Salle (15-3) … Mike Shaw’s freshman debut.
10. Hales (14-6) … Josh Crittle and Josh Crittle were seniors.
11. Zion-Benton (17-2) … Reached the 4A state title game.
12. Bloom (15-5) … Big man Jawan Nelson was the headliner.
13. Von Steuben (13-4) … Remember the transfer days and Mike DiNunno?
14. New Trier (12-5) … Sophomore Alex Rossi was getting rave reviews.
15. Fenwick (12-5) … The Xavier Humphrey, Derek Tartt and John Comfort days.
16. St. Ignatius (15-2) … Who didn’t respect a Rich Kehoe-coached team?
17. Englewood (14-2) … Lost 70-68 heartbreaker in 2A sectional semis.
18. Highland Park (15-2) … Chris Wroblewski was one of state’s most underrated.
19. Richards (15-3) .. Eventually became first Class 4A state champ.
20. Morton (14-3) … Junior big man Luke Scarlata’s arrival!
21. Lincoln Park (13-5) … Coach Tom Livatino with a top 25 team.
22. Curie (13-6) … Wayne Blackshear was a freshman star.
23. West Aurora (14-2) …. Came into the year as a sleeper.
24. North Chicago (15-2) … Lost in 3A super to Marshall by 30.
25. Waubonsie Valley (16-3) … Surprise start to the season from Warriors.
The one big difference between that 2007-2008 season, which happened to be the first of the four-class system, was there wasn’t a true heavyweight monster at the top like there is with this year’s Simeon team. But parity? A whole lot of it.
Would anyone in January of that year have forecasted a Class 4A final between Richards and Zion-Benton, including a 4A final four that included Evanston and Lockport?
The point in all of this is that the second half of this season will continue to be a constant shuffle of Top 25 teams, in and out of the rankings, and we can expect a wide open three weeks of state tournament play outside of any sectional Simeon is playing in.
➤ There isn’t a team in the state whose losses have meant more to a team than Simeon’s losses have.
Due to its talent level and national reputation, Simeon has the luxury of being a wanted team. Thus, coach Robert Smith’s Wolverines have an underrated advantage, a wildcard if you will, most other teams do not have in preparing for a state tournament run. Simeon can put together the most daunting schedule around.
Simeon’s three losses: Memphis East (TN); McEachern (GA) and Montverde Academy (FL).
Memphis East was No. 1 in the country when Simeon fell 70-60 in a December matchup, only to regroup and beat Memphis East in a January rematch.
McEachern, the No. 11 team in the country, beat Simeon 56-54, while Montverde Academy, with Duke-bound R.J. Barrett, is the top-ranked team in the country. The Wolverines fell to Montverde 62-60 this past weekend.
Throw in four other wins against out-of-state opponents and all those games, those experiences and major tests have significantly meant something. It’s made Simeon a better team. Smith has watched his Wolverines come back to Illinois and take care of the in-state schedule as if it’s child’s play.
You think back to Young’s team in 2013-2014. By early February the Jahlil Okafor-led Dolphins had five losses, but they all came to out-of-state powerhouses in high-profile national events. The end result was a Young team that didn’t lose to a single in-state opponent and won a state championship.
Sure, both of the aforementioned teams were talented enough to win a state championship regardless of the schedule it played. But these programs take advantage of the opportunities to make terrific teams better.
➤ Right now no matter how much you hype up a Simeon game, it’s difficult to sustain the buzz once the ball is tipped. The Wolverines are playing at such a different level than everyone else in the state that you never get the feeling they will be truly pushed for four quarters.
➤ Speaking of scheduling, when you know you have a team that’s going to be worthy of being ranked and with a chance to make a real push in March, get out of your comfort zone when it comes to scheduling. It never hurts you.
➤ Maybe the team I like the most that I’ve talked the least about is Maine South. The Hawks still do their thing with a specific style and system where execution is key. But I really like the particular pieces coach Tony Lavorato has this season with the size, length and versatility he can play with.
Lavorato’s senior bigs, 6-7 Grant Miller (12.9 ppg) and 6-7 Tommy Gardiner (10 ppg), are skilled and very effective inside. The Hawks possess four double-figure scorers, including Fillip Bulatovic (12.9 ppg) and Essam Hamwi (16.5 ppg). Plus, point guard Michael George has a 3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio.
Aside from still trying to figure out how they lost a game I watched over the holidays, where Maine South fell to St. Rita at the Hinsdale Central Holiday Tournament, this team is getting better and better.
Yes, I was surprised it lost to Galesburg over the weekend. However, I could easily chalk that up to playing Niles North in an emotional Friday night win and then playing three games in 24 hours during the MLK weekend grind. That type of loss, for a team lacking depth and any kind of production off its bench, can be expected.
The Hawks, who will host a regional in March and are in position to be a
top four seed with a little more work completion in the next couple of weeks, are 14-4 with a big one against New Trier this weekend.
➤ The defensive output from Loyola this season has been pretty eye-opening. I pointed it out in my Weekend Forecast when previewing the Loyola-DePaul Prep game last week, but it’s worth repeating.
Defensive metrics are used ad nauseam at levels of basketball higher than high school. And we know the importance of defense. The “defense wins championships” mantra is embedded in our brains. Defense isn’t glamorous and it’s not always pretty. But what Loyola is doing en route to its 16-3 start can’t be ignored.
Sure, Loyola’s offensive patience can be helpful, but there hasn’t been a single team to score more than 50 points on the Ramblers all season, and they’ve held 14 opponents to 42 or fewer points. That’s some ridiculous defensive efficiency.
Lincoln Park scored 97 points on Young, 87 on Uplift, 76 on St. Charles East and has 59 or more points in 14 games this season. The Lions scored just 37 against Loyola in an early-season loss.
➤ I hope you had the under in the Loyola-DePaul Prep rematch on Monday. Lock of the year. That’s a big bounce-back for coach Tom Kleinschmidt’s team in beating Loyola 36-31.
➤ Maybe the road win Saturday night at Lincoln is what will get Waukegan going. Lincoln, a strong basketball program and a community that loves its hoops, is a difficult place to go in and get a win. That’s three straight wins for the Bulldogs, who received 31 points from junior Bryant Brown at Lincoln, after starting the season with a modest 7-5 mark.
➤ This has nothing to do with the weekend in review, but it’s the day of the annual Brother Rice-Marist showdown. And that’s exciting. This is a top five rivalry game and regularly one of the fun dates on the basketball calendar with the atmosphere these two programs, schools and student sections bring to the table.
➤ You have to love the overshadowed role player who steps up, does his job and helps fuel the success of highly-ranked teams. The junior tandem of Tyler Cochran and Joseph Yesufu make Bolingbrook go. But 6-7 Joey Saracco has been huge for the Raiders and will be a pivotal piece if the Raiders hope to return to Peoria. The big man played a key role in the ’Brook’s December romp over Romeoville with 10 points and six rebounds. He scored 17 Monday in the win over Morgan Park, including a run in the second quarter that spearheaded a pivotal Raider run.
➤ Plain and simple, Morgan Park needs to get healthy. The Mustangs have survived and have learned to play without Tamell Pearson, the 6-9 big man headed to UAB, over the past two months. Pearson is expected to return sometime in February. But star Ayo Dosunmu playing at about 50 percent –– or not playing at all –– over the past three weeks due to an ankle injury is just too much to overcome against top competition.
➤ I was able to get another look at Dusan Muharcic, the rapidly rising big man at Niles Notre Dame, at the Wheaton-Warrenville South Martin Luther King Tournament. He didn’t disappoint. He plays hard and with emotion. There are times when the emotions get the best of him, but I’ll take it in comparison to seeing a player with zero zip in him. At 6-9, an ability to run the floor, play with a motor and enough skill at his size to impress, Muharcic is a Division I prospect. He’s the most improved player in the senior class.
➤ Benet’s David Buh is a really nice small college prospect. The senior has quietly had a rock solid season, both defending and as a scoring option for coach Gene Heidkamp. Behind the play of Buh, an all-tournament selection this past weekend, Benet won the Wheaton South Martin Luther King Tournament. A big test for Benet this week as it travels to ESCC frontrunner Marist.