By Joe Henricksen
The four Chicago Public League quarterfinal games at the UIC Pavilion on Sunday showed, once again, what this season is all about. There is no dominant team in Illinois — or at least not in the Chicago area. The jury is still out as to how good or dominant unbeaten Edwardsville and Decatur Eisenhower are. What we have seen all year is the capability of one talented team able to knock off another. And we can expect much more of the same over the next four weeks as we roll into March Madness.
In the end, there were two good games and two duds in the Chicago Public League playoffs on Sunday. Here is the Hoops Report’s take on the action.
Time to take Englewood seriously
The reality is that despite building a 20-2 record heading into the quarterfinal round of the city playoffs, Englewood has been an afterthought when discussing top Public League teams. Simeon, Marshall, Farragut, Whitney Young and even North Lawndale were always mentioned first. And then, “Oh, yeah, that Englewood team is pretty good, too.”
Now the Eagles have won 14 straight after knocking off Von Steuben and will face Marshall in the semifinals. They haven’t lost since being blown out by Farragut in early January. They are an athletic group that plays well together, plays hard and is an easy team to like. Demarkus Isom-Jones is an underrated talent. And if the schedule doesn’t wreck havoc next week, Englewood is a threat not only in the Public League playoffs, but the Class 2A state tournament as well. The problem is they will be forced to play in both — the IHSA state tournament and the Public League playoffs — next week. The task of playing two intense, high-profile games — against Marshall in the playoffs and likely Hales Franciscan in a regional game — could end up hindering their chances in both.
Dunigan, Simpson matchup a draw
The highly anticipated matchup between Farragut’s Mike Dunigan and Simeon’s Stan Simpson, the top two big men in the senior class, was a draw. If there was a slight edge, it would probably go to Simpson. Simpson, who continues to show impressive strides on both ends of the floor, played well in spurts. There is no question he has closed the gap between himself and the more highly-regarded Dunigan. Dunigan was basically a non-factor until the final few minutes of the game. In fact, Dunigan was frustrated all night and, when it’s all said and done, needs to play bigger and use the great body he has more. With Illinois coach Bruce Weber in attendance, Simpson showed once again an improved aggressiveness and the vast upside he has.
The other Simeon guard continues to impress
The Hoops Report has been a huge fan of Simeon guard Kenyon Smith. The Illinois State recruit is still a key component for coach Robert Smith’s team. But Smith has struggled at times in the past few weeks. Meanwhile, senior Lazeric Jones has been awfully impressive. He’s a jet with the ball, breaking just about anyone down off the dribble in penetrating and getting to the basket with his herky-jerky change-of-pace dribble. His role has increased, it seems, every time you see Simeon play. He’s without question a Division I talent and arguably the most underrated player in the Chicago Public League.
Questions surround Whitney Young
There are people out there that believe Whitney Young has been a disappointment this year and has failed to live up to expectations. When you look at the big picture, it’s just not true — at least not yet. The Dolphins have played as tough of a schedule as any team in the state and are 22-5. They won the state’s toughest conference and the strongest holiday tournament at Proviso West. But if an early exit from the state tournament follows what was a somewhat early exit in the Chicago Public League playoffs, the naysayers may be telling everyone “we told you so.”
This is still a team that is tough to figure out. There is a ton of talent on the floor at all times and up and down the bench. The player rotation is constantly in flux. Who plays in what spots changes from game to game, who starts and sits changes, who finishes games, who takes the big shots down the stretch. As I said, it’s tough to figure out. And I’m not sure that is the way you want to be going into March.
Little guy coming into his own
Throughout the summer and early this season the talk was all about the arrival of 6-3 Whitney Young guard Anthony Johnson. He’s still the No. 3 prospect in the sophomore class, but he seems to often be the forgotten man on a talented Dolphin team. Johnson’s sophomore classmate, 5-7 Ahmad Starks, has seen his role expand. Starks has played more minutes and the best basketball of his varsity career. He scored 21 points in a loss to national power Helen Cox (La.) and then dropped in 15 in a loss to Chicago Curie on Sunday.
This and that…
A couple of true warriors that simply go hard and compete at a high level every time out are Whitney Young’s A.J. Rompza and North Lawndale junior Jonathan Mills…. North Lawndale big man Paul Bunch has a long way to go…. As long as Curie’s Wayne Blackshear stays focused and establishes a solid work ethic, this is no question he is going to be special. He once again showed flashes of brilliance for being just a freshman in Curie’s big win over Whitney Young. He’s still young, which we all need to remember…. Kudos to Chicago Public League basketball coordinator Cyrus McGinnis. While the tradition of the Chicago Public League playoffs has been established for decades, McGinnis continues to enhance the reputation of city basketball, marketing it and putting together events that are at a higher level than the Public League has seen in the past.