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What we learned from 'Showdown' event

By Joe Henricksen

What a night of basketball at UIC’s Pavilion. Rarely are high school basketball fans treated to such a tremendous level of basketball with the stakes as high in the regular season.

When the dust settled Saturday night in the 16th annual City-Suburban Showdown tripleheader, six talented basketball programs were better off than they were before the event. Yes, three ranked teams were dealt close losses, but the crowd of 8,000-plus, the jacked-up atmosphere and competition were at a state tournament level — and beyond, really — as all six prepare for what is to come this March.

Here is what the Hoops Report learned from the best basketball night of the year.

Is it too early to start talking about the rematch? A lot of basketball is still left to be played and big games will need to be won, but a SimeonBenet rematch in Peoria could generate the type of excitement you crave for in the state tournament. Over three months of prep basketball in Illinois, Benet and Simeon are the two best teams in the state. So mark down Friday, March 18 at 6:30 p.m. in Peoria.

Unfortunately, if the two Class 4A state powers do meet again it will be one day too early. Once again, the random IHSA drawing of state tournament brackets have failed us. The 4A bracket pairs up what will likely be the two best teams in Peoria in a state semifinal game instead of a championship tilt.

The Hoops Report has stated this before but will continue to highlight the immeasurable advantage it is to have a 6-11 player at the high school level. Benet Academy’s Frank Kaminsky is such a presence on both ends of the floor at the high school level, which was again evident in Saturday’s win over Simeon. He has to be accounted for on the offensive end and, defensively, is an absolute disruption around the basket. Simeon didn’t face any 6-11 players in the Chicago Public League, nor will any team in the state until it faces Benet’s Kaminsky (or Nnanna Egwu of St. Ignatius). The Benet big man constantly takes opposing teams and players out of their comfort zone when attacking the basket, blocking shots, altering shots and just making players have to adjust when getting inside the lane.

You can point here and there as to why Simeon lost two games in four days after playing nearly three months of unbeaten basketball. But it’s pretty simple: Simeon struggled putting the ball in the hole, whether it be from the free-throw line (in the loss to Whitney Young) or finishing around the basket (in the loss to Benet).

Simeon’s Jabari Parker played his best game in his young Simeon career. He was absolutely sensational. The 6-7 super sophomore is obviously a special and unique talent and the next “great one” out of Illinois. He already sports offers from the biggest programs around the country and is among the top five players nationally in his class. It’s laughable when hearing some people question how athletic or explosive he is as a player. There are few players, regardless of age or what part of the country they are from, who can do what Parker can do at his size. Parker has been invited to participate in the NBA Player’s Association Top 100 Camp to be held at the University of Virginia this June.

What more can be said about the impact Benet point guard David Sobolewski has on each game? He was instrumental in getting Benet out of the blocks with a quick start Saturday night against Simeon, which helped allow his teammates to settle in and get comfortable in a rock-roaring atmosphere.

While he was named the City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year last season, Benet’s Gene Heidkamp may be doing an even better job this season. A year ago the Redwings were a cute story. Benet’s basketball revival was felt in the East Suburban Catholic Conference and around the western suburbs, but the Redwings — even with the success — still found a way to not be taken seriously and were able to sneak up on people. This year they’ve had a target on their back since the day the season started.

With Heidkamp at the guide, Benet has replaced key role players from a year ago, overcome a lack of depth and rolled up a 26-0 regular season record against a beefed up schedule. With a Proviso West Holiday Tournament title and a win over Simeon before 8,000-plus fans in the City-Suburban Showdown, there aren’t many teams better prepared for March than Benet.

There is a great deal of respect between Simeon, Benet and their coaches. Yes, this has become somewhat of a rapidly made-up rivalry between two programs that have virtually nothing in common except for winning over the past two years. But when talking with these two coaches — as the Hoops Report did in the days leading up to the matchup — you immediately sensed a true respect and sincere appreciation each coach had for the other team and coach.

The second game of the City-Suburban Showdown featured two teams that are legitimate Class 3A state title contenders. The Morgan ParkRock Island barnburner, like Simeon-Benet, could be a rematch played out in Peoria next month. And just like Simeon-Benet, the Morgan Park-Rock Island rematch would be in a state semifinal game. But both have major roadblocks in front of them in their respective sectionals. Rock Island must get by the No. 1 ranked team in Class 3A and a team it lost to in December, Peoria Notre Dame, and Morgan Park will have to take care of a red-hot Brooks team and the defending 3A champs, Hillcrest, in the Rich South Sectional.

Rock Island’s Chasson Randle became just the third player in Western Big Six Conference history to surpass 2,000 career points Friday night. Unfortunately, fans in Chicago didn’t see his best work Saturday night. While one game certainly doesn’t make a season, a win over Morgan Park and a prime time performance on a big stage would have catapulted his Mr. Basketball candidacy.

Yes, Wayne Blackshear is the star, the McDonald’s All-American and arguably the best player in the state of Illinois. In the eyes of the Hoops Report, however, the key and unsung player for Morgan Park remains sophomore point guard Markee Williams, who just goes out and makes plays. For such a young player, Williams is so tough, fearless and, for the most part, consistent.

A really rough weekend for Proviso East has left people wondering if maybe the Pirates are still a year away from being a serious threat in March. Proviso East’s nucleus is made up of juniors and sophomores, but being dominated by Downers Grove South on Friday and then falling to Lyons on Saturday certainly raises doubts heading into March as to whether the Pirates can make a run to Peoria this year. The sectional is stacked, with De La Salle, Farragut and Whitney Young among the top four seeds.

Lyons Township may have one more regular season loss than a year ago, but coach Tom Sloan’s Lions are more dangerous this season. Last year was more about ultimate chemistry, leadership and toughness; this year’s team simply is more talented. There was a reason the Hoops Report ranked LT 16th in the preseason rankings, even after graduating several key and valuable seniors from last year’s 26-2 team. This current senior class, led by Illinois State recruit Nick Zeisloft, has experienced a lot of wins in their careers at various levels and offers more versatility than last year’s team.

Proviso East’s Sterling Brown continues his progression as a top prospect in the Class of 2013. Already among the top 10 sophomore prospects in the state, Brown led the Pirates with 14 points in the loss to Lyons and showed his growing versatility as a player.

Finally, when the City-Suburban Showdown name is attached to an event, fans in attendance — and teams that are playing in it — are almost guaranteed of seeing and playing great prep basketball at the highest level. There is no other event over the years that has consistently delivered better team and individual matchups in the regular season than the event put on by Bob Rylko and David Kaplan.