Early observations from the holiday tournament season

Early observations from the holiday tournament season
December 30, 2013, 5:00 pm
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Holiday tournament action is finally slowing down as we get closer to 2014. Over the weekend, the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, Hinkle Holiday Classic at Jacobs and the Wheeling Hardwood Classic all came to a close and each tournament taught us some new things about top-25 teams.

So what did we learn? Here are a few observations from those events. As more events end during the early part of the week — including the McDipper, Proviso West and York — we'll have thoughts on those events as well, and we'll unveil the new edition of the CSN Chicago Prep Basketball Power Rankings later in the week after tournament action dies down.

Curie finally makes it over the hump

The No. 1 Condors are usually the favorite in the Public League Red-Central, but they've never won a city title or sectional title, and they had never won the Pontiac Holiday Tournament in 16 tries until Saturday's 63-59 win over Simeon in the title game.

The win — especially coming against the state's premier program — is an important step for Curie as they hope to lead head coach Mike Oliver to new heights behind Player of the Year favorite Cliff Alexander and his talented supporting cast.

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Although Alexander had more dominating performances at Pontiac — including an astounding 37-point, 26-rebound performance over No. 18 West Aurora in the semifinals that included a buzzer-beating tip-slam — Simeon slowed him down to half of his usual production at 16 points and 12 rebounds, but the Condors won thanks to their supporting cast.

If the Stamps brothers, senior Joseph and junior Josh, continue to play well, Curie is going to be tough to stop because Alexander is playing with a giant chip on his shoulder and appears to be virtually unstoppable at the high school level during the early part of this season.

Zion-Benton, Fremd make statements with tournament wins

The No. 15 Zee-Bees of Zion-Benton and No. 21 Vikings of Fremd were both among the favorites heading into the Hinkle Holiday Classic and Wheeling Hardwood Classic, respectively, but neither top-25 program was the clear-cut favorite entering the events. Larkin was the consensus favorite heading into Jacobs while St. Viator was the favorite heading into Wheeling, but neither Zion-Benton or Fremd seemed to care what people thought.

Not only did the Zee-Bees and Vikings win the championship at these events, but they beat the "favorites" on the way to doing it. Zion-Benton took down Larkin in the semifinals before knocking off Carmel in the finals and senior Milik Yarbrough is off to a great start on the year.

Fremd, meanwhile, blew past a talented Niles North team, and bested St. Viator by 10 thanks to 28 points from Cornell commit and senior Riley Glassman.

Zion-Benton was a preseason CSN top-25 team, but Fremd is unbeaten at 13-0. With every other team in the Mid-Suburban League already suffering at least four losses, the Vikings are the class of the league, but the Zee-Bees have to contend with unbeaten No. 2 Stevenson and No. 24 Lake Forest.

Should we worry about Simeon?

Although No. 7 Simeon made it to the finals of the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, it certainly didn't come easily for the Wolverines. Robert Smith's ballclub needed three overtimes to best St. Charles North in the quarterfinals, and Simeon also trailed for much of its semifinal win over Oak Park-River Forest.

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While it's certainly concerning that Smith needed to bench multiple starters for those wins — including Illinois commit D.J. Williams, and sophomores Ben Coupet and Zach Norvell — it's very encouraging for the Wolverines that their young and deep bench stepped up in both of those wins. Freshman guard Evan Gilyard provided solid minutes and junior Ed Morrow is one of the hard-working forwards in the area and unsung senior forward Jaycee Hillsman continues to be productive.

This isn't going to be an easy season for Simeon. They've shown in the early part of the year that they're lacking a true leader, and they're replacing five starters from last year's team with a very young team. As the Wolverines adjust to the pressure and gain more experience on varsity, and playing together as a team, they should be fine by the time the city playoffs arrive in February.

While the early-season performance might concern some people, Robert Smith is the best coach in the state at preparing his team for the state tournament, and he has six championship rings to prove it.