Whitney Young flexed its muscles on the national stage, Simeon's Jabari Parker appears to be rounding into shape and Morgan Park's 6-foot-7 junior Josh Cunningham commanded everyone's attention by dominating the state's premier holiday tournament as few players ever have.
It was a good Christmas party for the Chicago Public League and bodes well for the New Year.
How good is Morgan Park? Is coach Nick Irvin's team as good or better than Whitney Young and Simeon? Are DePaul-bound Billy Garrett Jr. and Dayton-bound Kyle Davis the best pair of guards in the state? Is Cunningham destined to rank with Whitney Young's 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor among the best players in the class of 2014?
"This may be the best Morgan Park team of all time, every bit as talented as the 1976 state championship team, better than the recent Wayne Blackshear teams. They have to be the favorite to win the Class 3A championship," said veteran recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.
"They are capable of competing with Whitney Young and Simeon. They have just as much depth. More than anything, we have been impressed with the job that Nick Irvin has done as coach. He has done a tremendous job of making sure there are no egos. Lack of chemistry isn't an issue with this team right now. And this team plays defense, too."
The Schmidt brothers claim Irvin has done as good a job at managing egos as Simeon coach Robert Smith. They agree that Davis and Garrett form the best backcourt in the state. And they believe Cunningham, who has offers from DePaul, Nebraska and Oklahoma, is emerging as one of the nation's top 100 prospects in his class.
"Davis and Garrett are extremely unselfish and each one has sacrificed a part of their individual game for the betterment of the team," Roy Schmidt said. "Garrett could be scoring more now but he has become much more of a team oriented player."
Meanwhile, top-ranked Whitney Young (10-1) impressed at the City of Palms tournament in Fort Myers, Florida, losing in overtime to Montverde (Florida) Academy, the nation's No. 1 team, and won the Beach Ball Classic last weekend in Myrtle Beach, Virginia. Coach Tyrone Slaughter got solid performances from Okafor, L.J. Peak, Miles Reynolds and 6-foot-9 junior Paul White, the tournament MVP.
At Pontiac, Parker was singled out as the tournament MVP for the third year in a row as Simeon defeated Curie and West Aurora on the final day before sellout crowds of over 3,500. The Duke-bound, 6-foot-8 senior demonstrated that he has recovered from the broken foot that sidelined him for five months.
Based on their holiday travels, here are other observations and evaluations by the Schmidt brothers:
Best team: Morgan Park. When did you ever hear of Proviso East losing by 25 points to anyone, even the Bulls or Celtics? The Mustangs overwhelmed five opponents at Proviso West by an average of 26 points per game. They won every game in convincing fashion and never let up.
Holiday MVP: Cliff Alexander, Curie's 6-foot-19, 240-pound junior. His team finished third at Pontiac but, from start to finish, he was a model of consistency and intensity. Michigan State and Kentucky are the front-runners but don't discount Illinois. Alexander is a top priority for Illini coach John Groce.
"There is no question in my mind that Alexander still ranks as the No. 2 prospect in Illinois in the class of 2014, one of the top 10 nationally," Roy Schmidt said. "The only downside is he continues to be overshadowed by Okafor, who is more advanced in terms of offense. But Alexander has added more things to his offensive arsenal, which were very noticeable at Pontiac. As long as he keeps getting the ball, he will be effective."
All-Tournament Team: Alexander, Okafor, Cunningham, Parker, Oswego's Miles Simelton, Benet's Sean O'Mara, Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, West Aurora's Josh McAuley, Brother Rice's Alex Majewski and York's David Cohn.
Best shooters: Aarias Austin, Warren's 6-foot-3 senior, and DeJahown Freeman, Bloom's 6-foot-3 senior. Both are outstanding three-point marksmen. Neither is being highly recruited but both are starting to generate interest.
Best scorer: Simelton. At Proviso West, the 6-foot senior guard was a model of consistency. He put up big numbers against top-notch competition. He can score in a variety of ways. He has the ability to shoot from three-point range but also can drive and attack the basket.
Best rebounder: Alexander. He is a brute force around the basket. He alters the course of a game defensively with his shot-blocking skills and his ability to control the interior.
Best defender: Royale Ewing, St. Patrick's 6-foot-3 senior. At Hinsdale South, he did a superb job of shutting down Providence's leading scorer Kevin Kozan, who was averaging over 20 points per game but was limited to only eight by Ewing's constant harassment. Very quick and very active in playing the passing lanes, Ewing doesn't allow opponents to penetrate or beat him to the basket.
Best passer: "No guard stood out as a passer or playmaker. Instead, what we saw was a lot of shoot-first guards who were looking to score first and foremost," Roy Schmidt said. Give a nod to 6-foot-5 senior Pat McInerney of Benet, who sees the floor well and plays smart. He does a great job of getting the ball to O'Mara, Benet's 6-foot-9 junior, in the post.
Best coach: Ryan Webber, Warren's first-year coach. Webber, who had a successful career at Moline, was hired to replace the retiring Chuck Ramsey, who won 403 games in 37 years. Webber has implemented Ramsey's philosophy and his players have bought into his program. They play hard.
Player whose stock rose the most: Cunningham. "His stock has risen as much as any player in the class of 2014. Above all else, he has shed the soft label that some people had pinned on him coming into the Proviso West tournament. He has diversified his game. He can play inside and outside. Before Proviso West, he was regarded mostly as a perimeter player but he showed he is just as good in the post," Roy Schmidt said.
Disappointing team: St. Joseph. The Chargers are 7-5, too erratic, too inconsistent, perhaps too young. They don't always see to be on the same page. Highly rated sophomore guard Jordan Ash got off to a slow start but has been playing better lately.
Disappointing players: Alex Foster, Seton's 6-foot-6 senior who transferred from De La Salle, and Illinois-bound guard Kendrick Nunn of Simeon, who played at Pontiac with a hip pointer and wasn't able to perform up to expectations.
Team to watch: West Aurora. "They are my pick for a team that could be a lock to get to Peoria in Class 4A. It won't be an easy road but I'm confident in making that pick. They are balanced, unselfish and well-coached. And they have two difference-makers in McAuley and Jontrell Walker, two of the most improved players in the state.
Players to watch: A pair of sophomores, 6-foot-4 Connor Cashew of Stevenson and 6-foot-5 Miles Boykin of Providence. Cashew is very effective around the basket and has good scoring instincts. Boykin is an outstanding three-sport athlete. Football might be his future. But he could play basketball at the Division I level.
If you missed this, you'll wish you hadn't: It was the actual defining moment of the Pontiac tournament. Morris Dunnigan, Joliet West's 6-foot-3 senior, went coast-to-coast and threw down a one-handed dunk over Alexander in a quarterfinal game. Dunnigan has clearly emerged as a Division I player.
Proviso West success story: There were a lot of doubters when Proviso West tournament director Joe Spagnolo announced an expansion to 32 teams for the 2012 event. But early returns indicate it was an overwhelming success. On Monday's final day, there were quality teams and players and a big-time atmosphere. In general, attendance was good, better than any venue this side of Pontiac. From a scouting standpoint, it was an opportunity to see a wider range of talent.
News flash: York, which was reduced from 16 to 12 teams this year, plans to expand to 32 teams for 2013. Coach Vince Doran, in his first year at York after coaching at Hinsdale South for 10 years, said he has 24 commitments, a few verbal confirmations and hopes to announce a 32-team field by the end of January.
"We feel we can do what Proviso West did. If done the right way, we can do it here. We feel have better facilities, two main gyms," Doran said. "We have a lot of community support and feel we can put on a great show. We have a lot of tradition and we want to continue. We have some great programs coming in."