High School Lites Preview: Examining those under the radar

High School Lites Preview: Examining those under the radar
January 3, 2014, 2:00 pm
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Scott Phillips

Much of the last week has been spent going over the winners of the various holiday events from throughout the state and although we've spent a great deal of time focusing on the champions, there are plenty of other noteworthy things going on around the area as well. Here are a couple of interesting holiday hoops tidbits to chew on as the season nears the midway point and we move the focus towards conference play.

Comcast SportsNet will also have cameras across Chicagoland on Friday for "High School Lites," which starts at 11 p.m. and is streamed live at CSNChicago.com.

Benet looms outside the power rankings

Although Benet dropped out of the most recent CSN Chicago Preps Power Rankings, it should be noted that the Redwings have played arguably the toughest schedule of anyone in the state of Illinois thus far. Benet hasn't necessarily played the most Top 25 teams, but it seems as though every single game they play is against a sound opponent.

At 8-4, Benet has taken some bumps in the early season, but with every team qualifying for the state playoffs already, it's not as if the Redwings are in danger of missing anything. In fact, they're testing themselves against every possible type of opponent so they'll be prepared come March.

Besides playing the Proviso West Holiday Tournament and facing Foreman, Providence-St. Mel, Hillcrest and Rockford Auburn, Benet has traveled to No. 3 Marian Catholic, played on a neutral site against No. 23 Fenwick, hosted Plainfield North and played in the Chicago Elite Classic against Redondo Union (Ca.). And that doesn't even include their 4-0 start at the Hoops for Healing event over Thanksgiving.

[MORE: Stevenson, Lake Forest make holiday tournament statements]

Benet has dropped four of its last six games, but the schedule doesn't get any easier before senior center Sean O'Mara and company play in the loaded East Suburban Catholic Conference. The Redwings will host No. 16 Larkin next Tuesday before traveling to No. 18 York next Friday and they'll have two more great opportunities against quality opponents before the midway point of the season with those games.

O'Mara is still one of the most dynamic interior players in the area and the Xavier commit is a double-double waiting to happen each time out and the Redwings will have plenty of time to gel around him playing so many tough games.

Morgan Park's Walker leads a group of the state's best defenders

In basketball, we tend to talk a lot about statistics such as points, rebounds and assists, but let's turn the focus to defense for a minute. Morgan Park's Lamont Walker is the state's most important on-the-ball defender based on what I've seen so far this season. No disrespect to Springfield Lanphier's Larry Austin and Bogan's Luwane Pipkins -- terrific defensive stoppers in their own right -- but while those two guards can slow down any guard in the state, the 6-foot-5 Walker can guard just about any player on the floor at the high school level. Plus, while Austin and Pipkins are relied on to score points and be an offensive force for their respective teams, Walker has to only worry about knocking in open looks and not trying to do too much on the offensive side of things.

[RELATED: Holiday tournament thoughts from McDipper]

With long arms and a demeanor made for a shutdown defender, Walker is an ideal glue guy for a No. 4 Morgan Park team that already has primary scorers in senior Josh Cunningham and junior Kain Harris. Case in point: After guarding the 5-foot-10 Pipkins and holding him to only nine points at Proviso West, Walker didn't appear too impressed with the accomplishment and said after the game to reporters: “Last year I held him to zero points.”

THAT is the kind of mentality you want out of a defensive stopper.

Austin and Allen -- legitimate Mr. Basketball candidates

While the CSN Chicago Player of the Year race is currently looking like a four-man race between (alphabetically) Cliff Alexander, Jalen Brunson, Jahlil Okafor and Tyler Ulis (we'll handicap that race and have more on it next week), the award for Mr. Basketball of Illinois is certainly up for grabs as well and will feature the entire state of players and not just the Chicagoland area.

The two players from outside of Chicago that fans need to get acquainted with right now for Mr. Basketball candidates are Springfield Lanphier's Larry Austin and Chatham Glenwood's Peyton Allen.

We mentioned Austin's defensive prowess above, but the Tennessee commit also averaged 29.5 points per game in four games at Pekin to lead the undefeated Lions to the title there. The 6-foot-1 Austin is one of the best floor leaders in the state and Springfield Lanphier is a serious state title contender.

[RELATED: CSN preps basketball power rankings]

As for the 6-foot-5 Allen, he's an interesting candidate for a number of reasons. After a so-so summer on the grassroots circuit when Allen was recovering from a bout with mono, he's come out and scored like crazy for Chatham Glenwood at the start of this season. Because of his sluggish summer, Allen opted to wait on his recruitment and remains one of the best unsigned players in the state of Illinois' loaded senior class. Allen averaged 28 points a game at the State Farm Holiday Classic, including 33 in a loss to North Chicago in the championship game. Forming a solid 1-2 punch with junior Cole Harper, Chatham Glenwood will also be a team to watch in March.

While a pair of Big Ten commits in Normal U-High's Keita Bates-Diop (Ohio State) and Champaign Centennial's Michael Finke (Illinois) also deserve recognition outside of the area, their team success hasn't matched the likes of Austin and Allen with their respective teams at this point in the season.