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Chipotle Clash of Champions rewind

Joe Henricksen takes a look back at the season-ending basketball tournament

Evanston’s Isaiah Holden (3) celebrates during the game against Notre Dame.
Evanston’s Isaiah Holden (3) celebrates during the game against Notre Dame.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

There is so much to unpack from this past weekend’s Chipotle Clash of Champions, the win-or-go-home tournament that grabbed headlines and filled two action-packed days of basketball.

It sure would have been nice for more teams across the Chicago area to be able to play in games that really mattered, but the Chipotle Clash of Champions at least brought some normalcy back to high school basketball this past weekend.

Yes, the crowds were missing and masks were still worn. But the energy, competitiveness and emotions were back to being raw, unfiltered and noticeable throughout the weekend’s games. There was some finality to these games and, most importantly, a true sense that there was something to play for.

Unlike any games I’ve been to or watched during this odd and unforgettable season, there was an intensity in these games that stood out. And there was some real pain that was palpable, almost tangible, when these teams lost. Seeing the emotions of the players –– the ones who won and those who lost –– seemed very March-ish.

All of this is a credit to Rick Malnati. He knew it wasn’t going to perfect, but he so wanted to give kids, especially seniors, an opportunity to end their season and careers with something memorable.

When Malnati, the former highly-successful coach at New Trier and Fenwick, called me to discuss his grand plan six or seven weeks ago, I was skeptical –– at least at first. We actually joked about that this past weekend after enjoying all that went down in the seven games that were played.

There was just so much to pull together in a short time. There were going to be teams hurt by not playing or frustrated because they were unable to play because of school district or conference rules and protocols. Plus, the instant start to the season simply made it feel rushed, forced and without any real identity. But he was persistent, had a master plan, and I was on board.

He was right. I was wrong. Though I did warm up quickly.

Malnati was going to get at it immediately and I would do all I could to help in trying to pull it off.

That included getting as many of the teams that would be playing in the event seen. That meant creating No Fans In The Stands TV, a live stream of games each week of the season that would conclude with the four quarterfinals of the Chipotle Clash of Champions. (Kudos to Tommy Molitor and Dot Productions for handling all the technology).

The goal was to have all the teams be seen on No Fans In The Stands TV before tournament play began. The majority of the teams were. We tried to get Simeon and Young games, but the powers that be in the city and Chicago Public League said it just couldn’t be done.

Nonetheless, Malnati brought on Nick Magas, an aspiring young broadcaster who attends Northwestern, as a quasi play-by-play man. And by “quasi” I only mean because Rick and myself would take over “the young Bob Costas” with our constant basketball banter of present and historical basketball.

In addition, Malnati went out and amped up the final day by bringing ESPN3 into the mix. ESPN3, with David Kaplan and Jonathan Hood on the call, televised the semifinals and championship game. Just another plus for the teams and players who made it that far.

There also had to be pre-determined teams. And that’s tough. The scheduling nightmare made that so as teams had to clear the final weekend of the season. The end result was that all eight teams were ranked in last week’s Sun-Times Super 25, including the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams.

Along the way Evanston, a team that was initially invited, stepped up with an altruistic idea. Evanston offered up the Central Suburban League South champ as the team that would go play in the Chipotle Clash of Champions.

That decision led to added intensity in that conference race and some real drama in the final week of the season. And lo and behold, it was Evanston rival New Trier that helped the Wildkits back into the tournament with a win over Glenbrook South in the final week. Evanston made the most of that opportunity with a trip to the championship game (more on that later).

Overall, it was a great opportunity for some of the elite teams of the season to play in a tournament with something at stake, something that felt real. What a swan song it was for these teams.

Here is a rundown with some thoughts on teams, players and storylines.

DePaul and the Catholic League get their moment

In a season without many opportunities for signature moments, coach Tom Kleinschmidt’s DePaul Prep team took full advantage of the one it had.

They went out and did something they weren’t supposed to do. No, not after a Covid pause early in the season, a disruptive restart, dealing with nagging injuries and an uninspired effort in a loss to Fenwick just last week.

But win the Chipotle Clash of Champions they did.

And along the way, the Chicago Catholic League made a statement.

First, seventh-seeded DePaul beat No. 2 seed and unbeaten Young in the quarterfinals. That alone is a significant win in many aspects as TY Johnson stole the show with 32 points.

Then it beat Catholic League foe Fenwick and star Bryce Hopkins, which knocked off No. 3 seed Mundelein in the quarterfinals.

DePaul Prep coach Tom Kleinschmidt encourages his players during the championship game of the Chipotle Classic, Niles, Illinois, March 13, 2021.
DePaul Prep coach Tom Kleinschmidt encourages his players during the championship game of the Chipotle Classic, Niles, Illinois, March 13, 2021.
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

That set the stage for a title game showdown with Evanston, a group of players and powerful program that has done so much and won so many games and titles over the past four years.

But DePaul’s stingy defense, which has been the foundation of Kleinschmidt’s teams and widely undervalued by too many people, along with a patient but opportunistic offensive approach, was impressive in slowing down and controlling the Wildkits.

TY Johnson is a bonafide star

While DePaul’s defense is the anchor –– it held Evanston to 36 points, made Fenwick’s Bryce Hopkins work extremely hard for each of his 21 points and didn’t allow a single Young player to reach double figures –– TJ Johnson was the catalyst.

He’s a special scoring guard who poured in 32 points in the win over Young and led the way with 17 in the win over Fenwick. While he was held to just nine points in the title game win, Johnson, a recruiting steal for Loyola and coach Porter Moser, constantly made winning plays and was efficient with his scoring.

Appreciation for Evanston’s Blake Peters

Has there been a player over the past four years who has provided more signature moments in big games?

And what a moment it was for Peters on Friday night. In a highly-intense game with some real fervor felt in the gym, the Princeton-bound senior guard buried a step-back three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Notre Dame.

For Peters, who is recognized for his shooting but is embraced by those who have watched him closely by his toughness and winning mentality, it’s the intangibles that have been glossed over a bit. The intangibles he brings to a team as a leader and competitor are off the charts. It’s not easy to measure the contributions he brings that go beyond his three-point shooting and scoring.

Peters is a flat-out winner who has made winning plays over and over again during his four-year varsity career.

It’s a shame these past two seasons have been cut short by the world pandemic. Because the three-point numbers and, more importantly, the wins and championships won would be even more impressive during the Peters era at Evanston.

All Evanston did with Peters in the lineup for four years was go a combined 88-18, win four Central Suburban League titles, two sectional championships, finish third in the state in 2018 and a state runner-up finish in 2019.

What might have been if two IHSA postseasons were played out during Peters’ junior and seniors seasons?

Louis the Legend

Following the live stream of the Notre Dame-Fenwick game several weeks ago, where Louis Lesmond lifted Notre Dame to a thrilling win with a miraculous 60-plus foot shot at the buzzer, Rick Malnait referred to the 6-5 Don as “Louis the Legend” during all of our No Fans In The Stands TV broadcasts.

The name fit since the shot went viral and landed on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays that night.

But over the course of the past two years, Lesmond went from a really good player with terrific upside to a great player and undeniable high-major prospect. Harvard is getting the biggest recruiting steal out of Illinois in the Class of 2021.

Lesmond had his critics last year, some even questioning why he was ranked so highly. I remember early on there were those who questioned why I thought he was immediately and unequivocally a top five prospect in the class.

I get why some people wanted more from his junior season. But those people ignored the efficiency he played with –– he shot 42 percent from three and averaged 16.4 points a game on just 12 shots a game as a junior –– and, most importantly, all that he was just starting to tap into as a player.

Sometimes you can just see it in a player and it’s going to take some time. He was too advanced in areas of the game, skilled and physically impressive not to be on board early on.

Lesmond has been a star this season. That included his performance in a season-ending loss to Evanston in the quarterfinals of the Chipotle Clash of Champions. He was especially eye-opening on the defensive end, where he always guards the opposing team’s best player.

Lesmond harassed Evanston’s Blake Peters all game long, using his size, length and mobility to make things as difficult as you could on a player who is so smart and moves so well without the ball.

Bryce Hopkins and his massively productive career

Fenwick star Bryce Hopkins waited his turn.

When then Fenwick coach Rick Malnati sparingly played him at the varsity level as a freshman, he didn’t pout and the family didn’t threaten to run away from Fenwick while other freshmen in his class were doing damage across the Chicago area.

In fact, even when the high school basketball season in Illinois was in doubt, Hopkins stayed put at Fenwick when he could have bolted for a prep school that would have welcomed him with open arms.

Hopkins broke through in a big way as a sophomore when he averaged 23 points a game. Those numbers became commonplace over his career. He was a dominating force who maybe more than any other individual player carried his team on his shoulders.

As a junior he put up 24 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game while shooting 60 percent from the field.

This season he went for 24 points, 13 rebounds and three assists a game while again shooting at 60 percent a clip from the field.

Those are some resounding, consistent and ultra-productive numbers he put up while being gang-defended all season long.

Now Hopkins is headed to Kentucky as a prospect ranked among the top 30 in the country.

Other thoughts and observations

➤ I’m not sure anyone would have predicted both Chicago Public League giants out of the Chipotle Clash of Champions before the championship game. One? Maybe. But both?

➤ For all the disruptions, postponements and uncertainty in this thrown-together season, I really appreciated the Evanston-Simeon battle in the semifinals on Saturday. I felt that game was played at an extremely high level and at a fun pace.

➤ Fenwick (13-3) played a pretty rugged schedule and lost three games all season — by a grand total of eight points with two buzzer-beating defeats. That included the 45-42 season-ending loss to DePaul Prep in the semifinals.

➤ While Simeon fell to Evanston in the semifinals, Isaiah Barnes continued to show the significant steps he has taken as a player over the past year. It’s never been about the tools or the physical attributes with Barnes. Those have always been easy to see.

But the consistent and improved production and perimeter jumper, along with the engagement he played with as a senior, even in this shortened season, bodes well for his future at Michigan.

➤ Simeon junior guard Jaylen Drane has made some serious strides as a player. He opened eyes as a freshman, stagnated a bit as a sophomore and really showcased his potential and impact as a junior. The floor is of a mid-major prospect right now. We’ll watch and see if that continues to elevate this spring and summer.

➤ I’ll take 5-9 mighty mite Avyion Morris on my team any day. The Simeon guard opened eyes last year as a sophomore with his impact on both ends. And this year as a junior he continues to be a menace defensively and an improving offensive threat with his floater and attacking style.

➤ Evanston coach Mike Ellis picked up his 400th career win last week. Quite simply, he’s in the upper echelon of coaches in this state. The success he’s had, both at Peoria Richwoods and over the past decade at Evanston –– that includes three state runner-up finishes and one third-place state finish –– is as good as it gets among high school basketball coaches in Illinois.

➤ Here’s an underrated high school player: Evanston’s Elyjah Bull. He does a whole lot of things to help a team win.

➤ Keep an eye on and the growth of Evanston’s Prince Adams. The 6-5 sophomore continues to show flashes of an emerging player in that class.

➤ The DePaul defense and play of star guard TY Johnson headlined the championship run. However, the effort and work put in by 6-9 Brian Mathews was telling. The big man played some of his beset, most productive basketball of the season in the three-game tournament. He finished consistently around the basket and provided a presence defensively with his size.

➤ If there is an All-Glue Team, DePaul’s Rasheed Bello has to be on it. He’s not just tough, he’s remarkably versatile for a 5-10 guard –– and that’s without even being a real good shooter. Impressive.

Glue Guys don’t usually get a ton of recognition, but he was instrumental in playing with TY Johnson in that DePaul backcourt. That’s been a familiar narrative for the DePaul coaching staff and those who follow the team closely. But Bello is under-appreciated outside of those walls.

Tom Kleinschmidt can put him on the ball with his explosiveness, slide him off the ball, utilize his defense in a way that is game-changing and ask the guard to go get a rebound. What a versatile weapon the Wisconsin-Parkside recruit has been for DePaul.

➤ If you look at the teams that advanced in the Chipotle Clash of Champions, all four first-round winners were led by seniors and fueled by their leadership and production.

While Young will be the first to admit it laid an egg in the opening round after such an impressive 11-0 start to the season, it’s difficult to think that any team other than the Dolphins will be preseason No. 1 next year. There is just too much young talent in place, starting with 6-8 junior AJ Casey, 6-7 junior Xavier Amos and sophomore point guard Dalen Davis.

➤ Although Simeon handled St. Patrick easily in the quarterfinals, junior Timaris Brown continues to be a junior to keep an eye on going forward. And 6-7 Michael Hamilton, who had nine points and 10 rebounds in the loss, is a nice little recruiting get for Division III Augustana. It’s difficult to find bigs with upside for Division III programs. Augie found one in Hamilton.