When the 32nd annual Morris Shootout tipped off with its slate of 92 games over two days, it didn’t take long to figure out both Bolingbrook and Belleville West were a cut above the rest of the 32-team field.
By the time Bolingbrook and Belleville West had played their first pool play game, it was evident these two would go 6-0 and play for the championship Thursday night. That’s exactly what happened.
Both Bolingbrook and Belleville West impressed and met in the final, where Bolingbrook came from 10 points down at the half to win 72-66.
After an early December game last year, I wrote a lengthy piece apologizing to the likes of Evanston and Joliet West –– the early-season favorites –– and stating how Bolingbrook was the best team in the suburbs. When I ran into Bolingbrook coach Rob Brost a few days later he was oh-so-happy with the bulls-eye on placed on his team’s back and asked, “Did you have to go and make us sound like Laker teams of the 1980s?”
No worries. Bolingbrook promptly went out and won its first 23 games of the season before losing (while playing shorthanded) and won regional and sectional titles. After dismantling Naperville North in the super-sectional, the Raiders headed to Peoria with a 29-1 record before settling for a third-place finish after falling to Simeon in the Class 4A semifinals for a school record 31-2 record.
Despite losing all-stater and Big Ten bound Nana Akenten, who is off to Nebraska, along with the physical presence and production of 6-5 Malik Binns from last year’s team, there isn’t going to be much of a drop for the Raiders.
This team could play at an even faster pace than a year ago with the electric trio of Division I guards it boasts in senior Kaleb Thornton and juniors Joseph Yesufu and Tyler Cochran. Those three combined to score 57 of Bolingbrook’s 72 points in the final. Throw in emerging junior guard Demari Grant and Bolingbrook will be creating havoc with four true guards on the floor for a lot of those 32 minutes of action.
This is going to be one three-headed monster to deal with this winter. Thornton is a blur with the basketball, completely disruptive in everything he does. Yesufu is the most ballyhooed and highest ranked, a point guard who is now a three-year varsity performer as a junior with power and athleticism. Cochran is polished and understated, capable of filling a stat sheet and beating you in multiple ways.
While Bolingbrook didn’t lose any speed, it did lose size and athleticism from last year’s team. Even if it was June, beating Belleville West showed something. It showed Bolingbrook can beat a team with the state’s most dominating high school big man.
➤ Is E.J. Liddell state’s best high school player?
First it was Jordan Goodwin of Belleville Althoff. Then it was Mark Smith of Edwardsville. Now it’s E.J. Liddell of Belleville West. The talent in the southern part of the state continues to steal the headlines and thunder from the Chicago area.
While Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu will have something to say about this over the next nine months, it can be argued Liddell is the most dominating high school basketball player in the state. He gave a hint of what was to come last year in the postseason when he went for 43 points in a win over Javon Pickett and Belleville East in the regional semifinals and followed it up with 34 points in a regional final win over Jeremiah Tilmon and East St. Louis.
As I sat and watched with a couple of small college basketball coaches who were getting their first look at Liddell, they said “This kid is my favorite high school basketball player to watch in the state.” The City/Suburban Hoops Report concurs.
The 6-7 Liddell is a man among boys at the high school level with his size, strength and growing versatility. He will be the biggest mismatch in high school basketball this winter in Illinois. He dominates the glass, can step out and hit a three-pointer, and absolutely obliterates high school defenders on the block.
But when it comes to his man vs. boy basketball attributes, it’s not just from a size and talent standpoint; it’s how he plays. Liddell has such a workmanlike approach and has fun playing. When you add a relentless motor with a punishing physicality to his basketball gifts, you have something special. Throw in some unselfishness for a star and a face-up jumper that’s only going to get better and better and it’s easy to start questioning the national rankings.
Yes, Liddell has moved into a couple of top 100 national rankings in the Class of 2019. He’s ranked No. 90 by Rivals and No. 98 by Scout. But it’s hard to imagine there being 90 better high school basketball prospects in the junior class.
Liddell has offers from DePaul, Illinois, Iowa, Iowa State, Missouri, Kansas State and others, but that’s a list that will only expand and include more college basketball thoroughbreds the longer it plays out.
➤ Move over Althoff, Edwardsville and O’Fallon
Over the years the southern part of the state has produced some high-level basketball teams, highlighted by O’Fallon, Belleville Althoff and Edwardsville.
O’Fallon finished second in the state in 2007 and fourth in the state in 2010. Althoff was a state runner-up in 2015 and won a state title in 2016. Edwardsville has reached Peoria multiple times over the years, finishing third in 2013 and fourth in 2014 while averaging well over 20 wins a season for the past three decades.
Now it’s Belleville West’s turn.
With the return of Liddell and the addition of Belleville East transfer Malachi Smith, coach Joe Muniz will have the top team in the southern part of the state and one of the state’s best teams.
Smith is a 6-3 guard who has been highly undervalued by college programs. The versatile guard should have way more interest and offers at this point than just Montana State and Division II Lindenwood in Missouri.
In addition to Liddell and Smith, Belleville West will also have 6-5 Keith Randolph, a bruising and physical force around the basket.
➤ Coach Billy Pitcher’s best at Lake Zurich?
Coach Billy Pitcher has had some quality teams at Lake Zurich over the past four seasons, including a 24-win regional championship team in 2015-2016.
While Pitcher’s program has averaged 21 wins a season over the past four years, the 2017-2018 edition will likely be his best. Lake Zurich impressed at the Morris Shootout, playing Belleville West tougher than anyone before falling in the quarterfinals.
Ryan Kutsor is the headliner after averaging 15.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game last season. The 6-4 senior shoots it with range and efficiency –– Kutsor was a 40 percent three-point shooter as a junior –– and continues to add to his game.
Versatile 6-3 senior Peter DiCerbo is back while 6-0 sophomore Will Tucker stepped up at Morris, including five three-pointers in the loss to Belleville West. But the addition of junior J.R. Cison, who transferred in from St. Viator, is a huge addition. Cison solidifies the point guard position and adds another weapon offensively as a caretaker, distributor and scorer.
➤ Other thoughts, tidbits and news from Morris and beyond
■ Bolingbrook was just the third Chicago area team to win the Morris Shootout in the past 10 years. North Chicago won in 2011 and Loyola Academy won last year.
Good things have happened to the Morris Shootout champions. That North Chicago team went on to finish second in the state in Class 3A. After winning at Morris last season, Loyola won 22 games and a regional title. Numerous Morris Shootout champs –– O’Fallon in 2009, Edwardsville in 2012 and 2013, and Normal in 2014 –– all reached Peoria and finished among the top four teams in their class.
■ O’Fallon’s Jalen Hodge is another overlooked prospect in Illinois. The lefty point guard is among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 40 players in the Class of 2018 but remains undervalued on the recruiting scene. Hodge, who is a terrific Division II prospect, had moments where he shined at the Morris Shootout.
■ Every time you watch C.J. Wilbourn of Normal you see an improved player. The 6-6 junior has terrific length and is blessed with a natural basketball frame. Wilbourn can face up and knock a shot down while he continues to develop his back-to-the-basket game. Look for this emerging 4-man to continue to rise in the Class of 2019 as he plays out the month of July with the Quad City Elite club program.
■ Although defending champ Joliet West and improved Romeoville will be the Southwest Prairie Conference headliners going into the season, keep an eye on Minooka. The Indians, led by the trio of point guard Brandon Hill and twins Keegan and Kyle Graebner,
■ Senior Kevin Cunningham will be the catalyst for Loyola Academy this winter after averaging 14 points a game game and knocking down 75 three-pointers as a junior last season. And sophomores Jordan and Bennett Kwiecinski are prospects with potential. But senior Pete Mangan is a player who is so easy to like with his do-whatever-it-takes mentality. The 6-2 senior is tough, gritty, versatile and brings so much value to a team.
■ Although he’s coming off a season in which he averaged 16 points a game, Deerfield’s Alex Casieri doesn’t receive a whole lot of attention. But the 5-11 senior will be a handful again in the north suburbs as a combo guard who can shoot and score.
■ Glenbard West’s Evan Taylor, a 6-5 junior who has been a fixture in the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 20 prospects in the Class of 2019 for the past year, received an offer from Illinois State while on campus this week.
■ While it’s not official just yet, it’s expected that East Aurora’s top player over the past three years, senior guard Treavon Brown, will attend West Aurora this year. Brown is a double-figure scorer who would join a West Aurora team returning a ton of personnel and will likely be a top 25 team at some point.
■ The state’s talent took yet another hit recently when it was confirmed Donavan Moore of Hillsboro would be leaving Illinois and moving to Michigan. Moore was an unknown in the Chicago area but had established himself as a bonafide Division I talent in the junior class. In the most recent City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Class of 2019 player rankings, the 6-3 guard was the No. 5 ranked prospect in the class.
■ While the Class of 2019 is better overall than the Class of 2018, the junior group does have just two players –– Normal West’s Francis Okoro and Belleville West’s E.J. Liddell –– ranked nationally among the top 100.
And how about this: There isn’t a single player in the Chicago area ranked among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top five prospects in the class. That will change, however, with the departure of the aforementioned Donavan Moore.
■ A new name on the radar in the Class of 2019? Lamarius Lillard. The junior 4-man from Momence is 6-7, long, agile, an up-and-coming prospect in the class and right now a complete unknown Division I prospect.
■ Look for the recruitment of point guard Maurice Commander, who transferred from Marist to Curie after being named the East Suburban Catholic Conference’s Player of the Year this past season, to pick up between now and this fall.
■ Brother Rice and coach Bobby Frasor welcomed a huge addition this month with the arrival of Marquis Kennedy. The talented junior guard transferred in from Crete-Monee and will help offset the heavy loss of Josh Niego and Mike Shepski, who have graduated and are headed to Lewis University and Bemidji State, respectively. Kennedy is a smooth scorer on the perimeter who is poised to take a big jump this season.
■ After taking in action at the DePaul Team Camp last weekend, it’s quite apparent Orr will be on the short list of teams vying for preseason No. 1 when the rankings come out in November. The Spartans are loaded. Raekwon Drake, Dannie Smith and Ty Mosley are returning starters. Chase Adams transferring in from Marian Catholic adds a much-needed point guard. And Emanuel O’Neal, an active wing, and Brian Hernandez, who can knock down shots and adds toughness, are seasoned seniors. With coach Lou Adams’ team being a Class 2A power, you better believe the city playoffs will take on an even bigger importance for this team than normal.
What’s interesting is that while Drake, Mosley and Adams receive the majority of the attention, scholarship offers and rankings, Dannie Smith is the best high school player on that team. The versatile 6-5 Smith is a handful, vastly underrated and should be recruited at a higher clip than he has up to this point.
■ Also at the DePaul Team Camp, coach Matt Maloney’s Oak Park team showed it has a chance to be better than last year’s team that won 24 games and a regional championship. There is work to do and, yes, the loss of workhorses Jared Scott and Cameron Gross will be felt, but the guard play of Dashon Enoch and Isaiah Fuller, along with the emergence of Charlie Hoehne, will keep this team very dangerous.
➤ Final thought on Morris Shootout
The hundreds of players from the 32 teams that competed in this week’s Morris Shootout likely have no idea this was once one of the elite prep basketball events in the country from 1986 through the 1990s.
Each year I attend the Morris Shootout it makes me feel older, whether it was thinking back to when I actually played in the event in the late 1980s or realizing how long ago it was when those great teams from Simeon, King, Thornton, Peoria Manual and so many others would bring in the biggest names in college coaching.
No, the Morris Shootout isn’t what it once was due to the changes in the recruiting and evaluation calendar, along with the infiltration of AAU basketball. But it’s still a unique high school basketball shootout in Illinois with a different feel and experience than others. It’s as well run as any and offers the best hospitality of any event you will find, thanks to the Morris community, Morris High School and coach Joe Blumberg and his staff. After 32 years strong, it’s become a bit of a basketball institution in this state.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport