The 2013-14 high school boys basketball season came to a close over the weekend in Peoria, but what a tremendous year it was for the state of Illinois and its star players. Throughout the next few weeks, CSNChicago.com will have recaps on the season's finest performances from players and teams from around the area, but first let's take a moment to reflect on the wild weekend in Peoria.
When you look at all of the storylines involved in Saturday's games alone, it might have been one of the most intriguing four-game features the state tournament has ever seen.
The two championship games obviously headlined the proceedings — and they were rife with storylines in their own regard with Jahlil Okafor facing Sean O'Mara, Whitney Young trying to win a title for its seniors and Morgan Park attempting to repeat in Class 3A — but the third-place games carried some drama as well, as Orr was looking to improve upon last year's fourth-place finish while the Stevenson/Jalen Brunson drama overshadowed a lot of the actual basketball being played on Saturday.
But let's start with the title games. Many probably didn't expect Saturday night's Class 4A thriller between Whitney Young and Benet to be so close, but it was a great game even though star senior big men Okafor and O'Mara were each limited to single-digit scoring. That's because the Dolphins and Redwings both had tremendous performances from its role players that stepped up.
Whitney Young has been the favorite in Class 4A for the entire last month of the season because of the play of its role players, and senior guard Miles Reynolds stepped up in a big way on Saturday with his 19-point effort. Senior forward Paul White continued to play a solid overall floor game for Whitney Young and senior guard Erwin Henry was perhaps the most unsung area senior this season as he did a little bit of everything for the Dolphins.
The play of the Benet reserves, however, was a revelation. We knew that senior sharpshooter Collin Pelletieri could really play after the way he shot the ball in the playoffs, but the aggressiveness of junior forward Colin Bonnett was a big reason the Redwings were able to hang tough. Bonnett and Liam Nelligan both played good games on both ends of the floor and the balance of the Redwings once again shined as Gene Heidkamp's tough schedule during the season really paid off. It's a shame to see a team playing as well as Benet to fall by two points, but they earned the state's respect and were a deserving opponent for heavily-favored Whitney Young.
O'Mara also deserves credit for a tremendous season. We often spoke about Cliff Alexander and Okafor being the type of big men that we don't often see in Illinois, but O'Mara isn't very far behind them. The 6-foot-9 Xavier commit doesn't have the athleticism of the other two elite senior big men, but his basketball IQ is fantastic and he's a selfless teammate that plays both ends of the floor. O'Mara will be missed as he moves onto college basketball as well.
Morgan Park, meanwhile, overcame a nine-point halftime deficit to Lincoln to win its second consecutive Class 3A title. This one is special for Nick Irvin and company because they lost three really good senior guards in Billy Garrett Jr., Kyle Davis and Markee Williams from last season's title winner. Williams and Garrett started as freshman on varsity for Irvin and had worlds of experience, while Davis is a reserve getting minutes for NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 darling Dayton. Those three guards could all really play.
But the questions surrounding Morgan Park's young guards Charlie Moore, Kain Harris, Jamal Burton and Jarrin Randall all season long were warranted until the playoffs. Harris, a junior, and the trio of sophomores in starting point guard Moore and key reserves Burton and Randall were all inconsistent at times this season and the Mustangs finished 16-6 to end the regular season.
Moore stepped up in a big way in the playoffs, though, and Harris, Burton and Randall gave key bench minutes as well at times. Seniors Josh Cunningham, Lamont Walker and Torry Johnson also deserve credit for leading this group of Mustangs back to Peoria. The unsigned Cunningham has put up some monster games this season and is one of the most sought-after forwards in the country at the moment while Walker is one of the city's best on-the-ball defenders in years. Johnson was able to play a bit at both guard spots and do some handling and shooting and was a key in helping offset the inexperience of Morgan Park's other guards.
Not many expected Morgan Park to have a chance to repeat, but Irvin has a way of proving his critics wrong. The energetic head coach surprisingly won a city championship at Morgan Park during Wayne Blackshear's junior season in 2010 and now he's a back-to-back winner of the Class 3A state championship. Irvin doesn't have anything else to prove.
Brunson gets a chance to play
I won't spend too long going over Saturday's controversial IHSA decision to suspend — and then the reversal of the suspension — of Stevenson junior guard Jalen Brunson other than to take a moment to talk about the IHSA's process.
Many people, myself included, have been critical of the IHSA this season for reversing decisions and not upholding rules that they held in the past. While Phillips was suspended for the IHSA boys basketball state playoffs for playing in too many games last season, this year, Bogan, Hyde Park, South Elgin and Uplift all had scheduling issues of their own and they were all allowed to play as their head coaches received suspensions instead.
We also saw the IHSA change course on the Brunson suspension on Saturday, which was the talk of Carver Arena for much of the afternoon.
I'm not going to begin guessing on the IHSA's methodology behind these decisions — or to say its fair or unfair based on past precedents — but you have to give the IHSA some credit for letting the student-athletes play in the postseason given all of the options that were available. In the cases of Bogan, Hyde Park, South Elgin and Uplift, the student-athletes for each team had no say in the scheduling conflicts and shouldn't have been personally penalized for what happened. The Brunson case was an incredibly unique example of how a picture can paint its own story, even if that story seemed to be blown out of context and proportion.
The IHSA simply needs to do a better job of relaying information regarding its decisions and keeping in touch with what is going on during situations like this. Many fans and media members were very upset by the lack of information that was being presented in cases like this and a little media relations help could have gone a long way in making some of these matters more of a non-story.
Stevenson shouldn't have to allegedly threaten to boycott a game during state championship weekend and the IHSA could have done a better job of communicating what was going on and why it was happening. In this era of social media, when something as simple as a rumor emerges — as we saw Saturday — it can really take on a life of its own and as the governing body in charge of the entire the situation, the IHSA could have done a better job of controlling that information and squashing some of the rumors.
Ultimately, the IHSA let the kids play — and that was the right call — but a little bit of information about what is actually going on never hurt anybody. Hopefully everyone can learn from this situation and we focus strictly on basketball during next year's postseason.