Driving down memory lane: A look back at the decade in high school basketball

Recalling favorite teams, players and stories from the last decade.

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Tyler Ulis of Marian Catholic dribbles around Benet’s Colin Pellettieri.

Tyler Ulis of Marian Catholic dribbles around Benet’s Colin Pellettieri.

Sun-Times file photo

Any time you delve into the history of something that you love you can’t help but reminisce a little and dig deeper.

Whether big or small, newsworthy or irrelevant, here are a boatload of high school basketball teams, players, stories and figures I have fond memories of over the past 10 years.

➤ Maybe it’s because the latter half of the decade was missing high-level talent in comparison to what we are accustomed to in this state, but a small group of individual players made the biggest impression on me –– and so many others –– in the first half of the decade.

We had a run in Illinois with Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander, Tyler Ulis, Jalen Brunson and a few others that spoiled us for about a five-year stretch.

That’s honestly the first thing I think back on with fond memories when I look back at the decade. I will be talking a little more about these individual players. Keep reading.

➤ After fawning over that star-studded individual talent in the first half of the decade, the second thing I immediately think back on was Simeon’s dominant run.

I don’t care who you are, what sport or what league or what loaded talent coach Robert Smith was blessed with during the run, winning four straight championships is a remarkable accomplishment.

There have been plenty of ridiculously loaded teams in state history who couldn’t finish the job. Simeon did. Every year from 2010-2013.

There is a lot to take into account when thinking about four consecutive state championships, including motivation, the pressure of playing in that type of spotlight all season, managing personalities, keeping everyone on the same page while still trying to maximize the talent to its fullest.

➤ The Class of 2011 was special. No, it didn’t match the best class in state history in 1998, but it’s definitely the best class since then.

Remember, one of the greatest players on the planet right now, Anthony Davis, headed up that class as the No. 1 ranked player in the country. That’s quite a start for any class.

But there were 18 players in the class –– 18!!!!! –– that signed with high-major programs out of high school. The individual accomplishments at the college level of so many players in that class is impressive. Plus, five of those players have spent time in the NBA –– Davis, Chasson Randle, Frank Kaminsky, Myke Henry and Abdel Nader.

But from a high school perspective, do you know how enjoyable it is to head out all winter knowing there are 18 high-majors and over 50-plus Division I players in one senior class?

➤ Marcus LoVett’s one season sure was fun. The arrival of LoVett at Morgan Park was met with skepticism by some. Overrated? Overhyped? Nope. One look at LoVett before the season started at a Fall League game at Whitney Young was all I needed to see from the flashy 6-1 guard.

LoVett’s college career didn’t pan out. But that takes nothing away from one dynamic, eye-opening season in 2014-15 season where he put up 25 points a game. In a state semifinal loss to Belleville Althoff, LoVett was 20 of 27 from the field en route to an electrifying 45-point game.

Morgan Park’s Marcus Lovett (1) tries to find an open player.

Morgan Park’s Marcus Lovett (1) tries to find an open player.

Sun-Times file photo

➤ The bravado from Morgan Park and Nick Irvin rubbed some the wrong way throughout the decade. The program became a lightning rod in the basketball world. But there is no question the combination of Morgan Park and Irvin brought out more excitement to the sport and higher-level competition from others.

➤ Who remembers the Simeon-Benet showdown at a sold out UIC Pavilion in February of 2011? It’s a game you were glad you were at with the energy in there that night. In fact, it may be the regular-season Game of the Decade as far as hype, atmosphere and high-level play.

No. 2 Benet improved to 26-0 with a 58-54 win over Simeon in front of 8,000-plus, made up mostly of Benet fans.

➤ While it’s misery for Benet fans to think back on even years later, I was lucky to be in the East Aurora gym in 2011 when the host Tomcats and the vivacious Ryan Boatright took out unbeaten and nationally-ranked Benet in the sectional. That big, old, venerable gym was wild that night as host East Aurora shocked the No. 1 ranked team in the state.

➤ Speaking of Ryan Boatright …

He was underrated nationally. But he was also never, ever appreciated enough across the state or even in the Chicago area. And while he did fill local gyms with fans, he certainly wasn’t seen enough by the masses.

East Aurora wasn’t a fixture in high-profile events or deep tournament runs during Boatright’s career. But Boatright was the most exciting high school basketball player I watched over the past 10 years. The crossovers, the stop-on-a-dime pull-ups, the top-end speed he played at with the basketball in his hands left you gasping. The “Boat Show” was special and unique.

➤ From a decade personal standpoint, I forget that it’s already been eight years since I published my final City/Suburban Hoops Report hard copy edition in 2012. I’m glad and fortunate to say most of the content from those nearly 20 years of publishing the old-school Hoops Report has continued with my work with the Chicago Sun-Times.

➤ Just two years after the final issue of the City/Suburban Hoops Report was mailed out to subscribers, the decade also brought the No Shot Clock podcast for high school basketball fans in the Chicago area and beyond. It’s already been six years of the podcast. When yours truly and my podcast partner Michael O’Brien put up our next podcast? Fingers crossed that it’s sooner than later.

➤ A real downer from the decade was the continued demise of the Big Dipper Holiday Tournament at Rich South and the ongoing slow death of the once great Proviso West Holiday Tournament. You talk about years and years of fantastic memories that all went south this past decade? Yeesh.

➤ Thinking of truly great matchups from the decade leads me to these great memories: Big Cliff vs Jahlil in the city championship and Brunson vs. Ulis in the When Sides Collide Shootout. From an individual standpoint, it doesn’t get any better.

➤ The decade provided an opportunity to witness the best high school passing big man I’ve ever watched.

Thanks, Cameron Krutwig.

While always a terrific player, I marveled at his feel for passing early in his career at Jacobs. There are so few big men with the imagination and instincts that Krutwig played with as he envisions passes others simply don’t see. He continues to star for Loyola and coach Porter Moser.

➤ When it comes to the most exciting players for me to watch over the decade –– and we are talking that true excitement you get from a young player who could absolutely dazzle on any given night –– that short list consists of the aforementioned Ryan Boatright of East Aurora and includes Marian Catholic’s Tyler Ulis, Stevenson’s Jalen Brunson, Willowbrook/Thornton’s Alonzo Verge and Morgan Park’s Marcus LoVett.

➤ My own favorites among the many stars with how they played, approached the game, carried themselves and the respect they showed throughout their high school careers: Mt. Carmel’s Tracy Abrams, Young’s DJ Steward, Simeon’s Zach Norvell, Belleville West’s EJ Liddell, Zion-Benton’s Admiral Schofield, Rock Island’s Chasson Randle and Stevenson’s Jalen Brunson.

➤ So many great players have that distinct DNA, the much-needed and distinguished personality traits to go along with the basketball talent that make them high-performing stars. But in my mind no one from the decade had more than Jalen Brunson.

Again, many had it –– the inner-desire to succeed, leadership, focus, perfectionism and that killer instinct with an unmatched will to win –– but no one had more than the 6-2 Stevenson guard.

➤ DJ Steward’s personality. The current Duke freshman was as engaging of a player as I’ve covered during his years at Fenwick and Young. Steward had fun playing, had stylishly chic game and dominated as a player while still showing a great deal of respect.

➤ It was refreshing to see the development of Max Christie at Rolling Meadows. The way he and his family handled his recruitment as a top 15 prospect in the country was something you wish was emulated a little more by hotshot prospects. Christie also stayed true to both his high school and club basketball programs.

➤ Ditto for EJ Liddell. The Belleville West star did everything a high school player could possibly do in winning back-to-back state titles, piling up impressive numbers and winning every individual award out there. Liddell, who is now starring at Ohio State, did it all with as much class and professionalism as a teenager can show.

➤ During the two years of Belleville West’s dominance to close out the decade, I was able to get to know Belleville West coach Joe Muniz pretty well. I felt fortunate for some great basketball conversations with Muniz before this class act stepped down from coaching in 2019.

➤ Another coach who stepped down during the decade who was all class and I’ve enjoyed talking with for 20-plus years was Gordie Kerkman at West Aurora. What a phenomenal career Kerkman put together.

➤ And a few underrated coaches who stepped down during the decade who I really enjoyed talking with over the years and always respected how their teams played: Warren’s Chuck Ramsey, Glenbard East’s Scott Miller and Conant’s Tom McCormack.

➤ One riveting individual performance from the decade that still hasn’t been forgotten –– and I’m so glad I was able to see live –– was Cliff Alexander’s Pontiac Tournament explosion in a 2013 semifinal win over West Aurora.

Alexander’s thunderous slam off a missed shot at the buzzer for a 74-73 win was the exclamation point on what was a sensationally dominant performance. Alexander finished with 37 points, 26 rebounds and five blocks while lighting up the Pontiac crowd with 10 rim-rattling dunks. Yes, all those numbers are correct. Wow.

➤ Speaking of jaw-dropping performances, I was also so fortunate to be in Peoria for Jalen Brunson’s state tournament record 56 points he put on Young and Jahlil Okafor in a state semifinal loss in 2014.

➤ The decade produced the best pure point guard I’ve ever watched in Illinois: Tyler Ulis.

The strong-willed 5-9 Ulis constantly overcame the lack of size and would leave you wondering, “What if Tyler Ulis was 6-2 or 6-3?” That’s because Ulis had all the essentials of a sensational point guard, including poise, instincts, IQ, creativity, leadership and the understanding of situations.

I so wish he would have gotten Marian Catholic through one of those two super-sectional games so the state could have watched Ulis in Peoria.

➤ Thank you, Luwane PipkinsI Loved watching the diminutive guard compete in those Red-South battles Pipkins and Bogan had with Morgan Park and Simeon. I just loved watching Pipkins battle.

Bogan’s Luwane Pipkins (2) and Tom Johnson (4) celebrates.

Bogan’s Luwane Pipkins (2) and Tom Johnson (4) celebrates.

Sun-Times file photo

➤ But you want to know a player from the decade who might be in the Hoops Report’s all-toughness-top-five? Jamal McDowell. Few probably remember the tough-as-nails Orr point guard, but he was as good of a leader as you will find and the ultimate competitor.

➤ An underrated, overlooked player but a Hoops Report favorite from the decade: St. Charles East’s Cole Gentry. The 5-9 point guard has been rock steady at Wright State for the one Division I college coaching staff that believed in him.

➤ Nnanna Egwu’s improvement as a player was startling to see. If anyone watched Egwu play as a freshman, then didn’t pay attention for three years and watched him again as a senior at St. Ignatius, you wouldn’t believe the strides he made. If you would have said when he was a freshman that Egwu would be a Big Ten player? Come on.

➤ I am really into streaks and unbeaten records. Whether it’s a baseball hitting streak that rolls into the 20s in the summer or a basketball team with an unblemished record late in the winter, I’ll take notice and keep track.

When Proviso East entered the state championship game in 2012 with a perfect 32-0 record, it set up what was arguably the highest profile title game of the decade against Simeon.

Proviso East, attempting to be the first unbeaten big school state champ since King in 1993, lost 50-48. But think about how talented that team was in 2011-12: Sterling Brown (NBA), Javon Carter (NBA), Paris Lee (Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year), Paris Burns (UIC) and Keith Carter (Saint Louis and Valpo). That’s the best team of the decade to not win a state championship.

And that’s why the rare appearance of an unbeaten team playing in Peoria was so intriguing a few years later in 2016-17. Fremd edged Jacobs 36-35 to win the super-sectional and improve to 30-0 on the year. Even as a massive underdog to Young in the state semifinals, Fremd battled to the end before falling 53-47.

➤ What was most memorable about the 2017 State Finals in Peoria was the fact both the Class 4A (Young over Simeon) and Class 3A (Morgan Park over Fenwick) state championship games went to overtime, which followed the Class 1A overtime (Effingham St. Anthony over Okawville) the week before.

➤ If you’ve followed my basketball coverage closely this past decade you may know my favorite team to watch. Two words: Lone Peak.

The highly-regarded team from Utah came to the Chicago Elite Classic in December of 2012 and put on a show with its three-point shooting, passing, precise offense and spacing, chemistry and, yes, some great talent. I continued to give the out-of-staters props throughout the year, so much so that Lone Peak fans and coaches reached out to me on social media and my own brother-in-law’s Christmas gift to me was a Lone Peak basketball t-shirt.

➤ Favorite Illinois team from the decade: Stevenson’s 2015 state championship team.

It’s not very often the lone public school from one individual community wins a big school state championship. That storyline was significant, but this team had a little of everything, including an undeniable chemistry and underrated defensive toughness.

There was the superstar in Jalen Brunson. There was the veteran Division I running mate needed to win big school tournament titles in Connor Cashaw. There was the young, budding star in Justin Smith. And there were a host of role players who just got it.

➤ A couple of other favorites of mine from the decade include that Proviso East team from 2011-12, the 2010-11 Glenbard East team and Loyola Academy’s 2013-14 team.

That Proviso East team that lost to Simeon in the title game was uber-talented. But it also played so hard, competed, was a menace defensively and was blessed with such great speed and quickness. It was an exciting brand of basketball.

Glenbard East was a well-oiled machine that went 28-4 behind the 1-2 punch of Johnny Hill and Zach Miller. The Rams were an exciting group that played up-tempo and coasted in a loaded sectional that included unbeaten Benet, Ryan Boatright and East Aurora and a talented Downers Grove South team. Then beat Fred Van Vleet and Rockford Auburn in the super-sectional.

People also forget that Glenbard East team made a valiant effort against dominant Simeon in the state semifinals, losing 56-53 to Jabari Parker and Company.

That Loyola team was fun to watch with its passing, movement, cutting and cohesiveness. The Ramblers, led by the trio of Jack Morrissey, Kevin Kucera and James Clarke, thrived with the three-point shot, played with so much poise and togetherness at both ends of the floor and reached a super-sectional while winning 25 games.

➤ It wouldn’t be a decade reflection piece without me picking on the Class of 2012 one more time. Fred Van Vleet, the Rockford Auburn star, is excused. He proved everyone wrong time and time again all the way to earning a long-term NBA contract this past year.

There were a few more surprise stories out of the class for sure, but overall the class was limited at the high school level and beyond.

➤ Hey, Class of 2016, you’re not too far behind the Class of 2012 in the being picked-on department.

➤ Another note on the crazy Anthony Davis story is the amazing fact that so few people actually saw him play. Here is this phenom, a kid in the Chicago Public League who rose to the No. 1 ranked player in the country who was never really watched or even heard from over the course of his senior season.

But as a late bloomer who no one was aware of until the spring of his junior year, following his junior season, and playing for an irrelevant high school basketball program with so few big games led to this anomaly.

➤ I’m going to give the biggest upset of the decade to Lincoln-Way West, which stunned Morgan Park in a super-sectional showdown in 2016.

Remember that? No bigger upset, especially with all that was at stake.

Little-known and under-appreciated Lincoln-Way West beat the No. 2 team in the state 68-60 to reach Peoria.

➤ The player outside of Chicago who never received enough respect –– in particular from those in the Chicago area –– was Rock Island’s Chasson Randle. He won a state title as a senior but was still never given his due. He just went on to a stellar college career in the Pac-12 where he left as Stanford’s all-time leading scorer with 2,375 career points. Randle has played bits and pieces of three different NBA seasons.

➤ I would say the one big-named player who went on to become a college star who I absolutely missed the worst on from the decade was Benet’s Frank Kaminsky.

➤ The best shooter the Hoops Report has seen in its 25 years of evaluating high school players in Illinois was churned out this decade. Yorkville Christian’s Jaden Schutt still has two years to open the new decade, but there hasn’t been a better shooter in Illinois over the past quarter century.

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