It is easy to pick the winners in the state basketball tournament, the teams that figure to go deep into the playoff, the teams that have been rated in the top 20 for most of the season.
Sure, one or two might be upset in the regional. There is always a case of a highly seeded team that is caught napping by a team that is underrated and playing its best at the end of the season, when it matters most of all.
But what about some sleepers? Teams that have lost seven or eight or nine games and are seeded near the bottom of their sectional pairing? Teams that are spoiling for an upset? Teams that boast at least one outstanding player who could emerge as a difference-maker in a big game?
Let's talk Waukegan, St. Patrick, Homewood-Flossmoor, Morgan Park and Glenbrook North.
Waukegan coach Ron Ashlaw, who guided Jereme Richmond-led teams to second and third-place finishes in the Class 4A tournament in 2009 and 2010, feels his current squad is peaking at the right time behind the stellar play of 6-foot-4 senior Akeem Springs.
Springs, a sure-fire Division I prospect, is averaging 17.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for a team that had its eight-game winning streak snapped by Morton of Cicero last week. Seeded No. 4 in the Barrington sectional, the Bulldogs have lost only three times since December and have beaten New Trier, which is the No. 1 seed in the Glenbrook South sectional.
"We have played a very tough schedule. We couldn't get over the hump early but now I feel we can be competitive with anyone," Ashlaw said. "Our kids are more cohesive. Early on, some kids thought they had to be the one rather than doing it as a team. If we continue to rebound wll and share the ball and get high-percentage shots, we can surprise some people."
Springs, a four-year varsity player who never played with his class until this season, meshes with 6-foot-5 junior DeVonte Taylor (12 ppg) and 6-foot junior point guard Jordan Johnson (10 ppg, 6 assists).
St. Patrick (15-8), which is seeded No. 3 in the Glenbrook South sectional behind New Trier and Glenbrook North, has won 10 of its last 12 games. With only one senior in the starting rotation, 18-year coach Mike Bailey believes his team is playing its best basketball of the season.
"Since Christmas, we have been very competitive. It took time to grow up and mature," Bailey said. "We got beat up at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. We were 1-2, the poorest showing we've ever had there. But we matured a bit. I could see a difference in our kids. We began to jell.
"Now we have to find out if they can deal with playoff pressure. I think they can. It's a different animal when it is a one-and-done situation. We haven't been to the Sweet Sixteen since 2002 and we haven't won a regional in three years, the longest drought of my career. That has been a point of emphasis since last summer, to re-establish ourselves in the state tournament series."
Bailey counts on 6-foot-3 junior Royale Ewing (14 ppg), 6-foot-8 senior Ismar Seferagic (12 ppg, 6 rpg) and 6-foot junior point guard Elijah Watson (9 ppg, 4 assists). Watson has emerged as a leader. Seferagic is a transfer from Canada by way of Croatia.
Homewood-Flossmoor, which hasn't won a sectional since 2006, is seeded No. 3 behind Bloom and Andrew in the Lockport sectional. Coach Jim McLaughlin's team was 23-6 last year and lost to Crete-Monee in the sectional semifinal. This year's 19-7 squad has lost to some highly rated teams, including Bloom twice, New Trier and Hillcrest.
"We're not as good as Bloom and Andrew," McLaughlin said. "But it comes down to the players. We have some seniors and some talent. Size and experience are our strengths. We hope to make a run at it. You have to have good guards to win in high school and Tyrone Sherman is having a great season. He is our leader. He runs our offense. He gets us going."
Sherman, a 5-foot-10 senior point guard, is averaging 10 points and 4.5 assists. Tim Williams and Delvon Rencher, a pair of 6-foot-6 seniors, both are averaging 10 points and six rebounds. And 6-foot-7 senior Antonio Bishop is averaging seven points and five rebounds. McLaughlin also is looking for 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior Maurius Hill (6 ppg, 5 rpg) to step up.
"We have to play harder," McLaughlin said. "We were outplayed by Bloom twice and lost in double overtime and by six points. We aren't far away."
Morgan Park, which lost to third-ranked Curie in the quarterfinals of the Public League playoff, hopes to ride 6-foot-5 junior point guard Billy Garrett Jr. as far as it can. Garrett, who is committed to DePaul, is averaging 26.5 points and 6.3 assists per game.
A year ago, coach Nick Irvin's team was 25-6 and lost to Public League champion Brooks in the sectional final. That team was led by Wayne Blackshear, who went to Louisville. "He was our go-to guy. Now Billy Garrett has taken over that role," Irvin said.
"But we aren't a one-man wrecking crew like we were with Wayne. This is more of a team effort. On any given day, someone can get 15-20 points. Garrett is our main man. We have been grooming him for times like this, when Wayne was gone. He has taken on that challenge. He is our leader. When all is said and done, he will be a NBA point guard for 15 years."
Irvin compares Garrett to former King star Imari Sawyer as an athletic, flashy point guard who can pass and score. But he also thinks Garrett is in a class with the best point guards ever produced in the Chicago area...Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway, Ronnie Lester, Maurice Cheeks.
Garrett is supported by 6-foot-9 junior Xzavier Taylor (9 ppg, 14 rpg), 6-foot-7 sophomore Josh Cunningham (13 ppg, 10 rpg) and 6-foot-4 senior Dominique Lee (8 ppg, 7 rpg, 4 assists, 4 steals).
Ironically, despite Garrett's imposing presence, Irvin describes Lee as "the glue to our team, our most valuable player, the one who guards all the tough players and gets the big rebounds and takes charges and does everything on the floor. Colleges don't know about him but winning is important so people will see him."
"One player can't win a championship. It will take five to win it," Irvin said. "We feel we can beat any team on any given day. We must play together and use everyone's talents to go deep into the tournament."
Can anybody beat Simeon? Irvin thinks so.
"Simeon is beatable," he said. "Sometimes schools play the name. We don't. Simeon's strength is offensive rebounding. You must keep them off the glass. Jabari Parker is the best player in the world. You have to know where he is at all times. But they are beatable."
Another team to watch is Glenbrook North, which crushed Waukegan in the Central Suburban championship last Wednesday.
Coach Dave Weber's team was rated among the top 20 in the Chicago area early in the season, then lost its best player, 6-foot-8 junior Andrew McAuliffe, for several weeks with a knee injury.
Now McAuliffe is back and Glenbrook North can't be taken lightly. The Spartans also feature 6-foot-4 Mark Johnson, who emerged as a big-timer scorer in McAuliffe's absence, and junior point guard Kurt Karis.