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Henricksen: Why big, bad Jalen Brunson and Stevenson is better than them all

Sure, Simeon still has time to strut its stuff in the coming days down in Pontiac.

But from what we’ve witnessed in the first six weeks of the season, do we anticipate the ultra-talented Wolverines to resemble what Stevenson looked like over the past week?

Stevenson went and made a statement at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. The Patriots rattled off four impressive wins, including three against ranked opponents.

Even more impressive is coach Pat Ambrose’s team did so against different types of teams and styles (the fast pace of Kenwood and the slowdown of Maine South), as well as various types of players and personnel in talented St. Joseph, which had a Big Ten backcourt in Glynn Watson (Nebraska recruit) and Jordan Ash (Northwestern recruit) and a player with size and skill inside in 6-10 Nick Rakocevic, the top ranked junior prospect in the state.

Stevenson as the best team in the state isn’t some earth-shattering news. It’s not like it snuck up on people. This is a program that fell just short of winning back-to-back state championships the past two years, finishing second in 2013 and third in 2014. The nucleus of those teams remained intact. But Stevenson dismantled Kenwood and beat the Class 3A favorite, St. Joseph.

When the season started, all the talk –– or even if it was just yours truly –– centered on it being Simeon, Stevenson and everyone else this winter in high school basketball. But right now, as we turn the final calendar days of 2014, it’s really just Stevenson and everyone else.

This is an experienced, talented, well coached nucleus with the state’s best player, a team that has turned the corner in its pursuit of a state championship.

Stevenson knew they were really good when the season began, but it’s taken a little bit of time for even this group to be clicking on all cylinders. Defensively, Stevenson might not quite be there yet in terms of the physicality it played with last year at that end of the floor, but it’s getting closer.

And when this team clicks, you’re talking about a seasoned, well-oiled machine with parts that just fit and a coach who’s capable of keeping everyone on the same page –– no small task when expectations and hype are sky high and the distractions that come with it. Plus, no top team has as much chemistry and continuity as Stevenson.

There are a multitude of reasons why this Stevenson team is better than the last two years, even without an inside presence (Stevenson never had one anyway) and maybe lacking that tough, defensive, physical presence (Yes, Matt Morrissey from last year is missed and the injury to Cameron Green this year hurts). But this Patriots team clearly has a higher ceiling.

First, there is that motivation and timing factor. Every talented team is motivated by the thought of winning a state title. But Stevenson has a pair of disheartening thoughts of being so close, losing in Peoria, so fresh in their head.

This group is going to be able to tap into a level of passion and competitiveness others don’t know exists. This is “Great-Team-on-Paper” vs. “Great-Team-on-Paper-with-Confidence” when comparing all three great Stevenson teams. That’s a real difference between the past two years and this senior-dominated Stevenson team.

Second, Connor Cashaw is better. The Rice-bound senior had a rough night last March when Stevenson fell to Whitney Young in the pivotal state semifinals matchup, shooting 2 of 11 from the field and finishing with just 4 points and 1 assist. A Division I player like Cashaw makes a significant difference at the high school level, so taking that next step as a player simply makes Stevenson that much better. And Cashaw has done that.

Third, Justin Smith, the burgeoning 6-5 sophomore, is blossoming into the player you expect a top five player in a class to be. However, top five prospect doesn’t always mean top five player in a class. But Smith is coming –– and fast.

If Cashaw is Robin to Brunson’s Batman, then what is Smith? That’s a scary thought when you think about all the potential and all Smith can bring to the table between now and March with his size, length, athleticism and versatility. There will still be some growing pains along the way as there is with any sophomore, but Smith’s emergence this season was/is critical for this Stevenson team to be better than the last two.

But at the end of the day, the single biggest reason Stevenson is what it is? Jalen Brunson.

Well, duh!

But the fact Brunson is bigger, stronger, more experienced and is a senior is significant, even after all the numbers and accolades he’s put up and registered over the past couple of years. He’s been through everything a high school player could go through and gets it, thus he has a natural moxie and air about him that resonates through a team and into the psyche of the opponent.

And when it comes to basketball, there isn’t anything more important than having the highest level of play at the guard position. You don’t think a coach has a little more comfort level knowing he can put the ball in Brunson’s hands down the stretch of a tight game? That’s what Brunson provides.

Then there is this: In basketball, if two quality opponents play one another, the team with the dominant player typically prevails as long as the talent level on both sides is relatively equal.

Although not full-proof, we’ve had plenty of evidence to back this up in recent years among big school state champions: Jahlil Okafor in 2014; Jabari Parker in 2011, 2012 and 2013; Derrick Rose in 2006 and 2007, Jon Scheyer in 2005, Shaun Livingston in 2003 and 2004.

The exceptions to the rule: Simeon’s state title team in 2010, with Parker as just a freshman, had no real star on that team; the Eddy Curry-led Thornwood team in 2001 that was upset by Schaumburg in the state championship; the Whitney Young 2010 state champions that beat Waukegan and Player of the Year Jereme Richmond in the final; and Richards’ state championship team in 2009.

Stevenson has a coach who has taken three different teams to Peoria. And experienced veterans. And improved stars. And chemistry. And Jalen Brunson.

Now, I don’t know how Stevenson will fare in upcoming “national” games.

The Patriots face Jayson Tatum and Chaminade of St. Louis on Jan. 3 in West Virginia. Tatum, who some consider to be the nation’s No. 1 player in the junior class, has led Chaminade to a 5-2 record and is averaging 25.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game.

Stevenson also travels to Springfield, Mass., Jan. 17 for the HoopHall Classic, where it will play Findlay Prep, USA Today’s No. 4 ranked team in the country. MaxPreps has Findlay ranked No. 3 and Stevenson No. 6 in its national rankings.

The traveling and the distractions that comes with playing those type of games is out of Stevenson’s comfort zone. But I do know it will only make them better. Bad news for the rest of this state.

There is plenty of basketball to be played over the next two months –– it really is still early –– including a circle-the date matchup with Simeon in the City-Suburban Showdown Feb. 21. But as we head into January, it’s a little different than the last two years. This year it’s Stevenson’s state championship to lose.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport