What I learned this basketball season: No. 5

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The City/Suburban Hoops Report continues its list of 10 things it learned this high school basketball season.

#5: Illinois high school basketball is becoming a two-class society

We’ve heard how the middle class has been lost in America, how the rich get richer. We might be on the verge of that happening in Illinois prep basketball. Some will say it’s already happened.

There is the Chicago Public League, most notably Simeon, Whitney Young and Morgan Park, and then everyone else.

With Simeon leading the way, these three city powers have stockpiled championships in recent years and long-lasting talent.

Prep hoops in Illinois is starting to resemble women’s college basketball, where the same teams dominate year after year. When the women’s Final Four takes place, you come to just expect at least two or three of the same teams among Connecticut, Tennessee, Notre Dame and Stanford to be playing in it.

Over the past eight seasons in the state’s largest class of basketball, Simeon and Whitney Young have won seven of the eight championships. (Richards won the 4A title in 2008–but Simeon dipped down to 3A that season and played Marshall in the 3A state title game.) In addition, Simeon and Whitney Young both have a state runner-up trophy in the last six years.

This year Simeon won its fourth straight title and sixth championship in the past eight years. If Simeon had lost, odds are Whitney Young would have been your Class 4A champion. Simeon knocked off Whitney Young in the sectional championship.

In Class 3A, Morgan Park simply wasn’t going to lose to anyone. The Mustangs proved that by the mockery they made of the other 3A teams throughout March.

The jump Morgan Park has made from respectable program to power since coach Nick Irvin took over has ramped up the city’s stranglehold on prep hoops in this state. Since Irvin took over in 2008, Morgan Park has averaged 26 wins a season and now has a state championship.

And next year? Each one of these three powers will be back with more firepower. Whitney Young, with the return of the nation’s top-ranked player, Jahlil Okafor, will be favored to win 4A. Simeon boasts a bundle of young talent and will remain a major threat over the next three seasons. And Morgan Park, even with heavy graduation losses, will likely be one of the favorites to repeat in Class 3A when the season begins.

#6: Jalen Brunson is who I thought he was

A year ago in this very space, in this exact blog idea–10 things I learned this season (the 2011-2012 season version)–Jalen Brunson was declared the best freshman in the state.

There were some critics, many who questioned that assertion, scoffed at the idea a kid from the suburbs, in Lincolnshire, of all places, could be the best player in the freshman class in Illinois. Understandable. Hoop fanatics just want players to go out and earn their respect.

There is sometimes personal second-guessing when you develop the type of basketball crush the Hoops Report had on Brunson, as described in this blog from December.

That hoops crush happened quickly, as in the first time it took in the young star the summer before his freshman year of high school at the UIC Team Camp. That’s when you know. As there is with all special talents, there was something different about this player at that young of an age — and the very first time you watched him play.

Now, nearly two years later, no surprise with this: Brunson is still the best player in his class, the best sophomore in the state.

Both St. Rita’s Charles Matthews and Simeon’s D.J. Williams are ranked higher nationally and are terrific prospects at the same stage of their young careers. Matthews has made quite an impression as a freshman and sophomore, while Williams is just beginning to blossom into the player he can be. In fact, when projecting down the road with that magical word “upside,” some would argue that Matthews and Williams may get an edge over Brunson.

But Brunson, the 6-2 Stevenson point guard, is just so complete at this age. It’s remarkable, really, when you look at the production and impact he made over the course of the entire season. There is no denying that right now he’s the most complete, consistent and productive sophomore in the class who impacts games in different ways every trip down the floor.

Then he went and dazzled national scouts and those who haven’t had much of a chance to see him this past weekend at the Swish ‘N Dish in Wisconsin. While playing with the Mac Irvin Fire, he played up an age group and still did his thing in impressive fashion.

There are many factors that went into Stevenson finishing second in the state, but the biggest reason is pretty clear–Brunson. And when it comes to the pleasure of watching someone play basketball the way it’s supposed to be played, with an understanding, discipline and the talent he possesses, it’s easy to appreciate the brand of basketball this kid brings to the floor.

#7: The Class of 2014 is worth the hype.

With massive attention thrown Jahlil Okafor’s way as early as 8th grader–and the Whitney Young big fella living up to the expectations through his high school career–the Class of 2014 has received a heavy dose of hype and college interest from the get-go.

Soon, Curie’s Cliff Alexander joined Okafor among the top 10 national talents in the Class of 2014, while Normal U-High’s Keita Bates-Diop became a consensus top 25 prospect in the country. The class had its star power at the top, so the hype ensued.

But what materialized over the course of this past season is a group of juniors that solidified themselves as legitimate prospects. Yes, the eye-catching, high-level talent at the top is impressive, but the class also has tremendous Division I depth. Right now the Hoops Report envisions not just 30-plus Division I prospects, but 30-plus mid-major Division I prospects.

The most recent Rivals.com player rankings has 10 players from Illinois ranked among its top 100 players in the Class of 2014 and 14 among the top 150.

While the Hoops Report doesn’t always agree with the national rankings when it comes to players it watches the most here in Illinois, the fact 10 percent of the top 100 players in the country are from Illinois is an eye-opener.

And although the Hoops Report may not truly believe there are more than two dozen legit high-major players in the junior class, as is being projected, it won’t be a surprise if that number ends up signing with programs in high-major conferences next November.

The Class of 2011 in Illinois was loaded, the best this state has produced since 1998. The Class of 2014 is on track to be better and deeper than 2011.

#8: Malachi Nix was the most underappreciated senior

While it’s true you could replace Malachi Nix’s name here with a number of different “underappreciated” players from this 2012-2013 season–New Trier’s Steven Cook, Oswego’s Elliot McGaughey, Benet’s Pat McInerney and Lemont’s Juozas Balciunas to name a few–and I wouldn’t argue with you, the 5-6 point guard gets the nod. He’s just done so much as a player for a once-downtrodden Niles North basketball program.

In fact, he’s been so influential that Niles North basketball may have to count years by using the abbreviation BN–“before Nix.”

Prior to Nix entering the halls of Niles North, the basketball program won 34 games the previous eight seasons. This past year alone Nix and the Vikings won 27.

Before Nix, the Niles North basketball program had won one regional title and produced two 20-win seasons–in the previous 50 years. During Nix’s sophomore, junior and senior years, Niles North averaged 24 wins a year, won three straight regional championships and won the school’s first-ever sectional title. Yes, “BN” works for Niles North basketball.

“First and foremost, he is a competitor and a winner,” says Niles North coach Glenn Olson of his star point guard. “People question his size, but I have watched him every day and realize how little of a factor his size is.”

Even with all the team success (84 career wins, 3 straight regional titles, 1 sectional championship and two CSL North titles) and despite significant numbers Nix put up (Nix scored 44 in a win over Morton), he’s been underappreciated, somewhat overlooked.

Nix didn’t receive the headlines or attention other top guards in the senior class have received. He didn’t land on the Chicago Sun-Times all-area team. The recruiting interest has been tepid.

Nix graduates with 1,532 career points after averaging 18 points a game as a senior. He’s also the career leader in steals with 215.

Loyola Academy coach Tom Livatino watched Nix beat his Ramblers team twice during their 22-6 season, including a regional final loss to end the season as Nix poured in a whopping 39 points.

“He’s a warrior with a toughness and a will to win,” says Livatino, who says Nix reminds him of a former player he coached at Lincoln Park, Northwestern standout point guard Michael Thompson. “I would not be concerned about his size. You can’t stay in front of him and has a knack for scoring. He’s relentless on defense.”

#9: Simeon’s place nationally is solidified

Rob Smith really doesn’t need any further validation that his goal of becoming a national program has been accomplished, but here is some anyway.

You know the notion of Simeon being recognized nationally is valid when you’re at a swim up bar in a resort pool in Mexico and, without any provoking, Simeon basketball pops up in the conversation. When a man sipping a Bahama Mama finds out you’re from Chicago, he brings up — of all things — Simeon.

The conversation with this Boston sports fan — who I can’t even put in the avid sports fan category since he forgot his very own Celtic Rajon Rondo was out with an injury (Although he was a wee bit inebriated) — began casually. But within minutes of Boston/Chicago conversation, he brings up Jabari Parker, how he was aware of Parker and Simeon with all the media attention thrown their way, and “Isn’t that where Derrick Rose went to high school as well?”

Simeon is arguably — no, not arguably anymore – Simeon basketball IS, nationally, this state’s most recognizable high school athletic program in history. Prior to Simeon basketball, that distinction probably went to Frank Lenti and Mt. Carmel football when the Caravan played in 10 state championships from 1989-2003, winning nine, and were prominently mentioned nationally.

Now it’s Simeon, thanks to Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, mass media exposure, national TV appearances and championships. The Wolverines reached the national level prior to this season, but the program reached new, greater heights during this 2012-2013 campaign.

#10: The IHSA needs set rules for state tournament dates and cancellations

Now that we have been reminded that snowstorms can occur in March, can the IHSA — no, the IHSA must — put something in place to properly handle the cancellation of regional and sectional games?

The fact teams had to play sectional semifinal games Thursday night, while the other sectional winner had the night off while waiting for its sectional final opponent, is ludicrous.

Every step of the way along the state tournament trail becomes more taxing and emotionally draining. There is no question there was a distinct disadvantage for any team that played and won the Thursday night sectional game this year.

While one sectional semifinal winner had the luxury of “coming back down” emotionally from its win, having a night off and preparing for the sectional final with an actual practice, the other winner had to come back and play less than 24 hours later the following night for a sectional championship.

You can say teams play back-to-back nights all season or they do it for the State Finals in Peoria the very next weekend. But EVERYONE is doing it then, not just one of the two teams, so it remains competitively fair.

These high school teams–the players and the coaches–put in so much time and energy, both out of season and during the season to prepare for this moment. The least we can do is when games mean the most and they are playing for what they’ve worked so hard for is give them all a balanced playing field and an equal, fair shot.

The IHSA can claim this was the only way due to scheduling conflicts and availability with sectional sites, facilities and workers. Maybe scheduling snafus were an issue at a sectional site or two–I know the Class 3A sectional at Nazareth was one (the sectional was moved to Riverside-Brookfield as a result).

I also know I called three sectional hosts and asked if moving the championship game to Saturday night would have been a problem. Each one said there would be no problem in moving the title game one day back.

But the bigger question is why isn’t there something more concrete already in place for situations like this?

I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise since the IHSA leaves regional scheduling to the discretion of the host school. Huh? This is a whole other story, but look at the various regional scheduling around the state. They’re all different from regional to regional with the opportunity (power) to add competitive advantages when they see fit. Why wouldn’t they all be uniform across the state?

When it comes to hosting a sectional, would it be that difficult to put in writing that sectional hosts must, in the rare event there is a cancellation, have their gym available all week, including Saturday night?

What took place this past year can’t happen again. And I would think every high school coach would agree.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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