Illinois club basketball teams sparkled in July

Despite an abbreviated high school season, Illinois players achieved a high level of success on the shoe circuits.

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Glenbrook South’s Cooper Noard (11) drives the ball past DePaul Prep’s Alex Gutierrez (21) during the Riverside Brookfield Summer Shootout.

Glenbrook South’s Cooper Noard (11) drives the ball past DePaul Prep’s Alex Gutierrez (21) during the Riverside Brookfield Summer Shootout.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Meanstreets vs. Illinois Wolves.

Let’s play it out.

After a full July of grassroots basketball, where dozens and dozens of club basketball programs from Illinois traveled across the country, two teams stood out from the rest. Both the Meanstreets and Illinois Wolves club basketball programs shined this past month.

Unfortunately, the two elite 17U teams never faced one another on the court. Not in April, not in May and certainly not in July when the two teams played exclusively on their shoe-sponsored circuits.

The Illinois Wolves played in the Under Armour Association with three “live” evaluation weekends in Atlanta, Dallas and Indianapolis. Meanstreets played on Nike’s EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League) circuit which culminated with an appearance in the prestigious Peach Jam Tournament this past weekend.

With college coaches at all levels watching and national evaluators eyeballing their players, these two teams were pretty spectacular throughout the month. They should be celebrated, competing, producing and winning at the highest levels of grassroots basketball.

The Illinois Wolves do have talent. There are high-major prospects leading the way and Division I prospects coming off the bench. But this year’s Wolves team was also kind of the antithesis of AAU basketball –– or at least the perception of what AAU basketball is and what it’s often criticized for being.

Illinois Wolves coach and founder Mike Mullins has been at this since starting the program with his then grade school son, Bryan Mullins, now the head coach at Southern Illinois, just over two decades ago. Mike Mullins has had talented groups of teams over the years, but this one was special in that it was a group of unselfish players –– from the stars right on down to the last man on the bench.

Together this Illinois Wolves team bought into roles and a winning mentality in a short period of time. They played a disciplined, fun, altruistic brand of basketball at both ends of the floor.

Yes, Yorkville Christian’s Jaden Schutt and Glenbard West’s Braden Huff are high-major players and can play just about anywhere they want at the next level. That’s a great start. But in club basketball the very best teams all have stars destined to play high-major basketball.

But it was also Tuscola’s Jalen Quinn steady play at point guard. It was Glenbard West’s Cade Pierce providing versatility and toughness. It was Glenbrook South’s Cooper Noard fighting for everything and hitting clutch threes. It was out-of-state import Alonas Peciulis from Tennessee adding size, athleticism and some dirty work. It was DePaul Prep’s Dylan Arnett and Hillcrest’s AaReyon Munir-Jones providing valuable depth in the frontcourt and backcourt, respectively.

They all fueled a sensational run through the month of July, which included a 16-1 record and an Under Armour Association title this past Sunday. The Illinois Wolves beat the Riverside Hawks from the East Coast in the championship of the UA Finals 32-team tournament.

Meanwhile, Meanstreets has been a club basketballs staple for 20 years under founder Tai Streets, who is also the head coach at Thornton. Meanstreets won AAU championships in the early days and captured a Peach Jam title in 2006 with Derrick Rose in the backcourt. So many greats have come through the program, including current NBA star Anthony Davis.

This year’s team was among the best in Nike’s EYBL play, reaching the semifinals of the Peach Jam Tournament, which is considered the best, highest level grassroots event in the country. Like almost all Tai Streets-coached teams, this one played extremely hard and with that attacking style Streets preaches and demands.

Plus, like the Illinois Wolves, the biggest names on the team were pretty selfless in their approach to being stars on the summer circuit.

Meanstreets featured big out-of-state prospects to be sure, but there were in-state players who more than made a name for themselves, including Buffalo Grove’s Kam Craft and Glenbrook South’s Nick Martinelli. Both Craft and Martinelli are rising seniors who have made their college choices, committing to Xavier and Elon, respectively.

Young’s AJ Casey is a high-major recruit who came into the summer as the No. 1 prospect in the state. He battled through a broken finger to help Meanstreets these past two weeks, while Oak Forest’s Robbie Avila came off the bench to provide minutes.

The average basketball fan probably doesn’t understand or even care to know the politics of shoe-sponsored club basketball in the off season.

Those diehards in the Pontiac bleachers in December and so many other passionate high school basketball fans throughout the state could give two hoots about a Peach Jam, a Meanstreet, the circuit or how Under Armour, Nike, Adidas or anyone else conducts their summer business or who wins what in July. Right now that large group of fans are just aching for an actual State Finals in Champaign and an IHSA championship to be played.

Ask the majority of high school basketball coaches in the state and most are oblivious to the inner-workings of grassroots basketball. They pay little attention to it aside from following and pulling for their own players within their program who are playing on the circuit.

But there are a small number of fans who do follow summer basketball, live and breathe it just as they do in the winter months of the high school basketball season. And those who do follow the grassroots basketball scene would love to see it: Meanstreets vs. Illinois Wolves.

Better yet would be an eight-team All-Illinois Club Basketball Tournament, highlighted of course by Meanstreets and the Illinois Wolves. Those two would be your top two seeds and a debate would rage among their ardent supporters as to who should be awarded the top seed.

The Illinois Wolves have the best record and actually won the Under Armour Association title. And unlike Meanstreets, the Illinois Wolves only have one major contributor from out of state. That scores points for me but doesn’t matter a whole lot when it comes to club basketball.

But Meanstreets, which had three starters and five of its top nine from either Indiana or Michigan, played in Nike’s EYBL. And that matters.

There has been and continues to be a different look to those EYBL teams and players when it comes to size, athleticism and pure talent. I did a recent informal poll among 22 college coaches asking them to name the best grassroots basketball circuit and the best place to evaluate. It was unanimous as all 22 said Nike’s EYBL and, specifically, the Peach Jam.

Our hypothetical tournament, however, would be featuring two of the premier teams in the country, regardless of shoe affiliation, right at the top. And it would provide a chance for so many others to get their shot at the best.

This hypothetical tournament would include these seven teams: Meanstreets, Illinois Wolves, Mac Irvin Fire, Illinois Hoopstars, Fundamental U, Team Rose and Young & Reckless. Then we would have the Southwest Illinois Jet and NJ Benson facing off against Breakaway and Ben VanderWal in a play-in game for the eighth spot.

If we go the extra mile and put together a 16U All-Illinois Tournament of eight teams, I’m going to swap in Midwest Pro Academy somewhere. That team is a must for any Illinois 16U tournament.

(All those teams that weren’t included? Sorry. But don’t worry. There is another tournament for you somewhere with some title awarded or championship given; that’s the nature and beauty of AAU basketball.)

Other Illinois programs fare well

There was a lot of talk coming out of the spring that Illinois players would be so far behind many other states due to how the state chose to handle the pandemic and high school sports, particularly basketball.

But in many cases the results from this summer would prove otherwise.

As noted, Meanstreets and the Illinois Wolves 17U teams thrived. Plus, a few other 17U teams fared very well this past month against quality competition, including the Illinois Hoopstars and Fundamental U.

Underneath the Under Armour umbrella there is the Under Armour Association –– the top 26 Under Armour teams in the country that are officially sponsored by the shoe company –– and also what is called Under Armour Rise. Those are 48 teams that are provided a platform to play through Under Armour events.

The Illinois Wolves are the only Illinois-based Under Armour program. But there are several that play in what is the Under Armour Rise division, including the Illinois Hoopstars and Fundamental U.

Fundamental U had arguably the best non-shoe sponsored 17U team in Illinois. Mike Weinstein’s program featured a 17U team that was led by New Trier’s Jackson Munro, Carmel’s Bryce Moore and Niles North’s Yogi Oliff.

As a result of Fundamental U going an impressive 9-1 in Under Armour Rise play, it was rewarded with a berth in the Under Armour Association Tournament as one of six UA Rise at-large teams.

The balanced Illinois Hoopstars played in the Under Armour Rise Championship Bracket after going 8-4 in regular-season play. The Hoopstars rolled to five victories, including a 66-65 win over Dallas Showtyme in the championship, to claim its own title.

The biggest name for the Hoopstars is Normal’s Zach Cleveland, a top 15 prospect in the state who has committed to Liberty. Cleveland and recently graduated big man KJ Debrick of Springfield Lanphier were the go-to players.

But several local players made an impact, including the St. Ignatius tandem of Kolby Gilles and AJ Redd, Solorio’s Donovan Jones, Marian Catholic’s Jeremiah Jones and Class of 2021 graduate Freddie Cooper of Corliss.

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