Ask any coach and he'll tell you that the key to winning a state basketball championship is to play suffocating defense and have a pair of guards who can score, pass, defend, make good decisions, handle pressure and exhibit great leadership qualities.
Can you think of a state champion that didn't have either?
In my view, having observed high school basketball in Illinois since the 1950s, the best pair of guards were Quinn Buckner and Mike Bonczyk, who led Thornridge to back-to-back state championships in 1971 and 1972. And those who saw it will never forget the Thornridge devastating 1-2-1-1 zone press.
It makes sense, doesn't it? The best backcourt and the most intimidating defensive strategy associated with the best team ever produced in Illinois. Buckner, the consummate leader and all-around athlete, and Bonczyk, the unselfish ball-handler and distributor. And the defense that undressed every opponent. No egos, just winners. One loss in two years.
"Buckner wasn't all that tall. He couldn't run the fastest, jump the highest or shoot the straightest. All he could do was beat you. And beat you. And beat you," said Mike Downey, who grew up in Chicago Heights and later was sports columnist at the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.
"Bonczyk was kind of the John Paxson or John Stockton of that team. He was that unselfish kid who knew how to get the ball to the guys who could score."
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Buckner averaged 22.7 points, nine rebounds and five assists per game while Bonczyk averaged six points and eight assists per game for the 33-0 Falcons in 1971-72. Three other starters averaged in double figures--Boyd Batts (19.1), Greg Rose (18.1) and Ernie Dunn (10.4). It was, by most accounts, the best team in state history.
"I don't know of any team better," said 35-year St. Patrick coach Max Kurland, whose team came closest (74-60) to Thornridge in that memorable season. "What impressed me most was Buckner, his competitive spirit, the way he hustled up and down the court no matter what the score was. That attitude spread to other members of the team. I've never seen a better leader in high school basketball than Buckner."
What criteria do you use to select the best pair of guards of all time? Personal statistics and accomplishments? Did they take their high school team to the state finals? Did they win a state championship? Did they have success after high school? Did they excel in college? Did they play in the NBA? Some or all of the above?
While covering high school basketball in Illinois for 50 years, I can't recall a better backcourt than Buckner/Bonczyk. The next duo that comes to mind is Isiah Thomas and Ray Clark of St. Joseph's 1978 state runner-up.
Others of note were Eddie Jakes/Charlie Jones of Marshall in 1960, Ron Meadows/Bob Simpson of Collinsville in 1961, Jerry Hill/Jim Hallihan of Decatur in 1962, Dave Golden/Ron Rhoades of Pekin in 1964, LaMarr Thomas/Rich Rateree of Thornton in 1966 and Marcus Washington/Scott Shaw of La Grange in 19
Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye don't go back as far as I do. Their expertise dates to the 1990s, to the likes of Sergio McClain/Frank Williams of Peoria Manual and Quentin Richardson/Cordell Henry of Whitney Young.
We agree that Morgan Park's Billy Garrett Jr. and Kyle Davis deserve to be included in the conversation. They are the best pair of guards this season, better than Simeon's Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate. But how good are they?
"Right now, Davis/Garrett would rank at the bottom of the list. You could possibly insert them in the No. 10 spot," said Roy Schmidt. "Obviously, they have the potential to climb higher depending on how they close out this season and what they do after high school."
But the Schmidts rate Davis/Garrett over Simeon's Illinois-bound pair of Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate because "they better complement one another. They feed off of each other perfectly. Each one is capable of playing either guard spot given the situation. And both Garrett and Davis have sacrificed parts of their game for the betterment of the team," Roy Schmidt said.
"Until recently, this was not so much the case with Nunn and Tate. Earlier in the year, they were actually playing largely for themselves and it hurt Simeon in games against nationally ranked opponents. As good as Nunn is, he still needs to convince us that he has the ball-handling skills to play the point in addition to 2-guard. And tate doesn't shoot well enough to be a 2-guard.
"In their defense, we will say that Nunn and Tate have played much better of late. They are better understanding their roles and it looks like they have figured it out. As a result, we can say that the gap between them and Davis/Garrett is an extremely narrow one and we may be re-evaluating where both rank in comparison to won another after the state tournament."
Meanwhile, Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin doesn't hesitate to anoint Davis/Garrett as the "best backcourt in the state." He compares the DePaul-bound Garrett to Quinn Buckner and Sergio McClain as a floor leader.
"And they are defense-minded, too. They can take on any backcourt back in the day," Irvin said.
Here is a look at the best all-time backcourts:
1. Quinn Buckner/Mike Bonzcyk, Thornridge, 1970-71, 1971-72: They were the key players on a team that won two state titles and 54 games in a row. The 1971-72 squad, which went 33-0 and didn't allow an opponent to come within 14 points, was the gold standard of all state champions in Illinois.
2. Sergio McClain/Frank Williams, Peoria Manual, 1997: Next to Buckner, there never was a better leader than McClain. They led the Rams to an unprecedented fourth state title in a row in 1997. McClain, a jack-of-all-trades, played on all four championship teams.
3. Quentin Richardson/Cordell Henry, Whitney Young, 1998: They were the leaders on one of the best teams in state history. Henry was a terrific floor general and Richardson was Mr. Versatility. Don't forget Dennis Gates, an outstanding perimeter shooter and defensive stopper.
4. Marcus Washington/Scott Shaw, La Grange, 1970: Shaw was the point guard and floor leader while Washington was the defensive presence on the baseline in coach Ron Nikcevich's 1-3-1 match-up zone defense. Along with Owen Brown, they led the Lions to a 31-0 record.
5. LaMarr Thomas/Rich Rateree, Thornton, 1966: Thomas, an All-Stater in football and basketball, was one of the state's best all-around athletes, a consummate leader. Rateree scored a game-high 24 points in the Wildcats' 74-60 victory over Galesburg and Dale Kelley in the state final.
6. Cedrick Banks/Martell Bailey, Westinghouse, 2000: Banks was Player of the Year in the Chicago area. He had tremendous all-around scoring ability while Bailey was the quintessential point guard. Both also were outstanding defenders and went on to have successful careers at Illinois-Chicago.
7. Eddie Jakes/Charlie Jones, Marshall, 1960: George Wilson, a three-time All-Stater, received most of the accolades but Jakes and Jones were the floor leaders. In the 1960 state final, Jakes, a junior, was all-tournament and led the team in scoring with 85 points in four games.
8. Shaun Livingston/Dan Ruffin, Peoria Central, 2003: Two-time All-Stater and NBA lottery pick Shaun Livingston was the headliner but Ruffin was just as valuable for the 2003 Class AA champion. Livingston, a junior, went on to lead Peoria Central to another state title in 2004.
9. Jerel McNeal/Maurice Acker, Hillcrest, 2005: "Without question, they are the best backcourt combination to never reach the state finals in Peoria," Roy Schmidt said. But they couldn't get past Homewood-Flossmoor in the 2004 and 2005 sectionals. They had good careers at Marquette.
10. Jamie Brandon/Fred Sculfield, King, 1990: It is easy to overlook Sculfield because of Brandon, one of only five players in state history to score more than 3,000 points in his career. Along with Johnny Selvie, they led King to a 32-0 record and a mythical national championship in 1990.
Others: Dave Golden/Ron Rhoades, Pekin, 1964; Ron Meadows/Bob Simpson, Collinsville, 1961; Emmett Lynch/Reggie King, King, 1986; Patrick Beverly/Darius Smith, Marshall, 2006; Jerome Randle/Mike Robinson, Hales Franciscan, 2005; Shannon Brown/Dee Brown, Proviso East, 2001; Antwaan Randle El/Erik Herring, Thornton, 1997; George Marshall/Michael Powell, Brooks, 2011; Chasson Randle/Royce Muskeyvalley, Rock Island, 2011; Billy Garrett Jr./Kyle Davis, Morgan Park, 2013; Kendrick Nunn/Jaylon Tate, Simeon, 2013.