Prep hoops semester exam (and answer key)

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Evanston’s Lance Jones goes up for a dunk in the first half against Zion-Benton. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

We are past the midseason point and heading down the stretch run of the 2017-2018 high school basketball season. The semester exam has been taken and now returned. Here are the answers.

MULTIPLE CHOICE

1. What player means the most to their ranked team?

✘ Lance Jones, Evanston

☐ Morgan Taylor, Marist

☐ Perry Cowan, DePaul Prep

☐ Fred Cleveland, Leo

ANSWER: LANCE JONES. This could be construed as a trick question as all four of these players are vitally important to the fortunes of their respective teams –– as are many others not on the list.

Many of the heavyweights are so loaded they likely could survive and have success if their star went down. But for these ranked particular ranked teams? No way.

And if the question posed was simply, “What player means the most to his team?” –– and omitted the word “ranked” –– it would likely be Hinsdale South’s Zion Griffin.

But Jones has been so instrumental in a number of ways. He may not put up staggering numbers ––or even as big of numbers as some of the others on this list –– but he’s a vital presence for this team. The junior guard has not only evolved into a productive difference-maker, he’s also become more of a leader for a team that returned so little experience and has freshmen in the rotation of a state-ranked team.

“He’s emerged as our leader, a rock and foundation for our team when we are playing our best,” says Evanston coach Mike Ellis. “His growth and maturity have grown and been so important for us.”

You take Jones, who averages 16 points a game, off this team and it’s nowhere near 19-4 with the schedule the Wildkits play.

2. Of all the surprise teams this season, which one has the best chance to enjoy a long ride in March?

☐ Marist

☐ Leo

✘ Benet

☐ Loyola

ANSWER: BENET.

Marist will run into Simeon at some point. The Maine East Sectional is going to brutally tough to get through for Loyola. Orr stands in the way of Leo in a Class 2A super-sectional. So Benet will take the uncharacteristic title of “surprise team” and roll with it.

Benet has the most realistic chance of the listed “surprise teams” to reach Peoria with the path it has in March. The Redwings have haven’t lost since the Pontiac Holiday Tournament in December, and there is only one ranked team –– Naperville North –– that Benet could possibly even face on its tournament trail to Peoria.

3. What unranked team could enjoy their time the most in March?

☐ Jacobs

☐ North Chicago

☐ Carmel

✘ Larkin

ANSWER: LARKIN. The Royals came into the season with a lot of fanfare but have struggled to beat the top teams and have fallen out of the rankings. Larkin lost to Uplift and Fenwick at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament by a combined 57 points. New Trier beat Larkin by 19 in January, and the Royals fell to Willowbrook two weeks ago.

However, the teams Larkin has beaten are those in its sectional, including knocking off St. Charles East twice already and beating St. Charles North. And no one would have expected the Royals to have an unblemished record in what is a very deep Upstate Eight River.

On paper, Larkin is the most talented team in the Jacobs Sectional, does boast a not-too-shabby 18-6 record and has the experience of making a postseason run a year ago.

4. What has been the biggest negative surprise of the season?

☐ Waukegan’s 10 losses in early February

✘ The lack of juniors solidifying themselves

☐ No Upstate Eight teams ranked

☐ Romeoville not being a Top 25 team

ANSWER: THE LACK OF JUNIORS SOLIDIFYING THEMSELVES. But first a quick look at the other options …

Waukegan began the season ranked in everyone’s preseason top 10. But a lack of depth and the fact this team was rarely fully assembled took its toll. Then when the arrow was beginning to point up, the Bulldogs lost Ja’Dyn Brown for the rest of the season. That was a crusher.

The Upstate Eight River was hyped at the start of the season. And it’s been very good. But it’s surprising there isn’t a team from the Upstate Eight Riverranked at this point in the season and that the top five teams –– Larkin, Geneva, St. Charles North, St. Charles East and Batavia –– have combined to lose 39 games (24 in non-conference) between them.

At first glance Romeoville’s 17-6 record isn’t too shabby. And there is still hope for postseason success and a 20-plus win season, something that’s rare at Romeoville. But dig deep and the Spartans are lacking the type of wins to consider them as a Top 25 team and are two games out of first place in the Southwest Prairie.

But these juniors? Junior year –– that’s the year. It’s the year you expect to see so many individual players make significant jumps, take the next step and evolve from being prospect we’ve talked about to becoming a major player on the high school basketball scene.

Sure, it’s happened in some cases. But overall the buzz has been seriously lacking when it comes to breakout stars in the Class of 2019. The majority of the top players in the class haven’t blossomed the way you hoped they would, and there have been very few juniors who have come out of nowhere and emerged as one of the better players in the class. And that’s alarming when forecasting the 2018-2019 season.

You want to rely, depend and lean on seniors. That, coupled with an influx of young, up-and-coming talent, is what makes a high school basketball season great. When looking ahead to next season, the lack of star power in the Chicago area in the Class of 2019, particularly the Chicago Public League, is borderline scary.

5. What team has had the most success with the least amount of fanfare and recognition?

✘ Jacobs

☐ Wheaton South

☐ Barrington

☐ Corliss

ANSWER: JACOBS. Again, an argument could be made for any of these four and several others.

Barrington has a surprisingly gaudy record at 19-4 and leads the Mid-Suburban League West. Even with that record, no one has breathed a word about the Broncos outside of the northwest suburbs. However, one of those losses came to Jacobs –– by 26 points.

Wheaton South, the overachievers of the year a season ago behind Hoops Report Coach of the Year Mike Healy, is doing it again this season –– overachieving. But this isn’t last year’s team, which didn’t lose to unranked team as this year’s team has (falling to York and Naperville Central). The biggest wins of this season? A 51-49 win over a Batavia team that was missing half its players due to the football team’s playoff run, a 39-36 win over Naperville North, who was missing their leading scorer, and Oak Park.

Corliss won the Teutopolis Holiday Tournament, beating Lincoln-Way East in the title game, and made some noise with a Public League playoff win over North Lawndale. That thud you heard was a 30-point loss to Simeon this week.

But Jacobs has received little to no love while putting together one heck of a season and the potential to some damage once again in March.

The Golden Eagles are on the verge of winning yet another conference championship and 20-plus games for the fourth straight season. Jacobs also won its own holiday tournament in December. And you better believe Jacobs loves the idea of hosting its own sectional in March after winning its first sectional in the program’s history last year.

6. Of the current ranked teams, which one is the most overrated?

☐ Leo

☐ Prospect

✘ Aurora Christian

✘ Lincoln Park

ANSWER: AURORA CHRISTIAN and LINCOLN PARK. So you had a 50/50 chance to get this one correct.

First, Aurora Christian. Lets get this straight: Aurora Christian is deserving of its No. 1 ranking in Class 1A.The Eagles are likely the favorite to win it all in Class 1A. Led by senior Jake Wolfe and sophomores Will Wolfe and Taaj Davis, this is a terrific Class 1A basketball team, arguably the best in the state and deserves all the small school basketball accolades it receives going forward.

But just getting by Oswego East, the third-place team in the Southwest Prairie Conference that’s 15-7 on the year, is really the win that proves Aurora Christian is a Top 25 team in the Chicago area? The Eagles trailed Oswego East in the fourth quarter before pulling it out in the final minutes.

Early this season Aurora Christian beat Harvest Christian (14-7) by two points. Last month Aurora Christian led Immaculate Conception, the fifth-place team in the Metro Suburban Blue, by three points in the final minute before winning 65-58. This is an IC team that has lost to Manteno, Aurora Central, Wheaton Academy, St. Patrick, Glenbard South, Timothy Christian and others.

In comparison to every team in the rankings –– and several others outside of the top 25 –– Aurora Christian hasn’t played anyone of note in the Chicago area. It’s no fault of its own as it’s not typical for Class 1A schools to even have the opportunity to play Class 3A and Class 4A schools. But this is big picture stuff, including Chicago area rankings and where they stack up against the very best the Chicago area has to offer.

Lincoln Park was a bonafide top 25 team at one point this season. But the Lions checked in at No. 14 this week despite a 13-point loss to St. Ignatius, a 21-point loss to Loyola, a 20-point loss to Orr and riding a three-game losing streak, including a pair of losses to unranked teams.

Now there is Thursday’s 15-point loss to Kenwood in the Public League playoffs.

There is a win over Marian Catholic and Young back in December, which vaulted them into the rankings, along with a third-place game victory over DePaul Prep. But while coach Pat Gordon’s Lincoln Park team has been a terrific story this season and has deserved the attention it has received, it’s simply not the No. 14 ranked team based on its résumé.

More importantly, however, is the fact Gordon has helped make the program relevant and a dangerous team with the emergence of senior Terrence Shannon and junior guard Chris Roberts.

7. What team outside the Chicago area is the best?

☐ Danville

☐ Springfield Southeast

☐ Springfield Lanphier

✘ Belleville West

ANSWER: BELLEVILLE WEST. Of all the evaluations done through the travels of summer basketball, this one was the most obvious. Belleville West, led by star E.J. Liddell, was a bonafide state championship contender. The Maroons are still one of the top teams in the state and arguably the best team in Illinois not named Simeon.

This is a program that hasn’t won a sectional title in 15 years. But coach Joe Muniz’s team won a regional last year and will be a sectional favorite this year. Liddell has been the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s No. 1 ranked player in the Class of 2019 since last summer. With his size, physical presence, talent and motor, Liddell is an absolute force, averaging 21.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and six blocks a game.

But there is experience and Division I talent, including way-overlooked Malachi Smith (16 ppg), who has signed with Wright State, and bruising 6-5 junior big man Keith Randolph (10.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

8. Who is this season’s most unheralded senior?

✘ George Conditt, Corliss

☐ Bobby Harvey, Hillcrest

☐ David Swedura, Prospect

☐ Jake Wolfe, Aurora Christian

ANSWER: GEORGE CONDITT. It’s crazy and really wild to think a player who signed with a high-major program and is among the top four prospects in the senior class could be tagged with the label “unheralded.”

But until Corliss beat North Lawndale in the opening round of the Chicago Public League playoffs with Conditt going for 19 points, 19 rebounds and seven blocks, the 6-10 senior has been an afterthought, rarely talked about –– if talked about at all –– through the first two-plus months of the season.

Part of the problem has been playing at Corliss, where the schedule and opportunities do not lend itself to being in the spotlight. The Trojans play in the Public League White and played in Teutopolis during holiday tournament action. He simply hasn’t had eyes on him or played in the type of games or events to generate a whole lot of buzz.

9. Who plays the role of Robin (Scottie Pippen) to his teammate Batman (Michael Jordan) the best?

☐ Adam Miller, Morgan Park

☐ Dannie Smith, Orr

☐ Messiah Jones, Simeon

✘ All of the above

ANSWER: ALL OF THE ABOVE. You simply cant exclude any of these three, so we’re going with the obvious choice on this multiple-choice question.

How supportive of a Robin has Adam Miller been during his sophomore season? He stepped up and carried Morgan Park while star Ayo Dosunmu was on the shelf. He literally morphed into his own version of Batman when needed.

While Raekwon Drake has received the notoriety during his four years at Orr, Dannie Smith of Orr has been the quintessential Robin over the past two years. The 6-5 hybrid forward has done everything asked of him without any of the accolades, despite the pleas from the City/Suburban Hoops Report.

And then there is Simeon’s Messiah Jones, who is like that steady, consistent, run-producing big bat in the middle of a baseball lineup. While Talen Horton-Tucker has set the world on fire with his play this season, Jones has been doing his thing: scoring around the basket, a menace on the glass and providing a presence defensively while producing at a high rate.

TRUE/FALSE

10. There is a sub-500 team with a chance of putting together a long tournament run next month.

ANSWER: TRUE. There’s Class 3A, so of course this is true. There always seems to be a Class 3A school that is below the .500 mark who makes a March run. And the recipient this year of another weak Class 3A field is …

De La Salle.

Although just 7-11 on the season, the Meteors play in a sectional where coach Tom White will undoubtedly have one of the top three teams. When looking at it even closer, would a De La Salle sectional win over Farragut or North Lawndale, the other top two teams, be that shocking? Not at all.

Despite the sub-500 record, the Meteors, who have played a solid schedule in preparation for Class 3A basketball, have enough size and talent to win this March.

11. When the dust settles in March, there will be four state champions from the Chicago area.

ANSWER: TRUE. Right now, as it stands in early February, it’s really difficult to see anyone in Class 4A beating Simeon or anyone in Class 2A beating Orr.

In Class 1A, Aurora Christian is a sparkling 21-1, ranked No. 1 and has already beaten the No. 2 team, Annawan, by 11 points back in December. The one loss came to Winnebago, the No. 2 ranked team in Class 2A.

In Class 3A, you get the feeling Morgan Park is primed to go to another level with the healthy return of Ayo Dosunmu.

There is still plenty of basketball to be played, and we are dealing with high school kids in a lose-and-your-done scenario in March. So, yes, anything is possible. But if the City/Suburban Hoops Report is picking its four state champions right now, it’s Simeon, Morgan Park, Orr and Aurora Christian.

12. Simeon star Talen Horton-Tucker is a lock to be this year’s Player of the Year.

ANSWER: FALSE.

The number of legit candidates has dwindled by the week while Simeon star Talen Horton-Tucker has kept on cooking. If Player of the Year was voted on right now, yes, it’s Horton-Tucker. And he’s the heavy favorite going forward. It’s a little like trying to catch Secretariat down the stretch of the 1973 Belmont Stakes en route to winning horse racing’s Triple Crown.

However, with an absolute romp through the Chicago Public League playoffs by Ayo Dosunmu and Morgan Park, you would have to put the 6-4 senior back into the conversation. Dosunmu & Company could potentially get Young, Simeon and either Orr or Curie in the next 10 days to help build the case.

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

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