By Aggrey Sam
Last weekend, I was in Chicago for a SLAM assignment and to check out the Chicago Public Schools Boys Post Holiday Invitational aka the Board of Education Tournament. Several college coaches (Memphis, Kansas, Notre Dame, DePaul and numerous Big 10 schools, among others, were represented) were in attendance to see some of Chicago’s and Illinois’ best players and teams. The last Chicago public school team I’d seen play was Marshall (alma mater of Arthur Agee, of “Hoop Dreams” fame) two summers ago, in a national high school team tourney when they featured a little-known, skinny guard named Patrick Beverley. While the young squad was overmatched against the much bigger opposition, Beverley cooked the competition at the event and after leading the state in the scoring his senior year, went from a mid-major recruit to currently the leading scorer for Arkansas as a freshman. His teammates, mostly freshmen and sophomores, showed a lot of potential and played with that trademark Chi-Town heart and toughness. With that style of play and the talent the city produces on a yearly basis, I knew I was gonna see some good ball.
I arrived at the tourney, held at Chicago State University, in time for Friday’s quarterfinals. Unfortunately, my flight got delayed and I missed the first game of the day. It was considered a semi-upset, as Von Steuben (much more on them later) beat Washington, which featured 6-6 swingman DeAndre Liggins, one of the top juniors in the city, and 6-7 soph Mike Haynes, also considered one of the best players in his class locally.
I walked in during Crane’s (alma mater of Kansas frosh Sherron Collins, the 5-9 kid who threw an oop off the glass to himself at the end of last year’s McDonald’s All-American game) methodical win over an overmatched Englewood team.
Englewood, which shocked many city basketball observers by beating Whitney Young (Quentin Richardson’s high school) in Thursday’s first-round action, featured lightning-quick 5-9 senior point guard Jamel Johnson and 6-5 widebody junior Nicholas Waddell (18 points, seven boards), but not much else. Meanwhile, Crane, perennially one of the top programs in the city, was headlined by junior Dion Dixon and future Indiana Hoosier Brandon McGee. McGee (13 points, 12 boards) had his way around the basket, Dixon got buckets (13 points) in a variety of fashions and point guard Nakeem Floyd set the table for them and the rest of his Cougar teammates, like Lavonta Douglas (12 points).
Beverley’s alma mater, Marshall, was next. The Commandos (great nickname) started sluggish against Hyde Park, with Coach Lamont Bryant benching star senior Mike Stovall at the beginning of the game. Stovall eventually entered, and while he certainly contributed with the occasional smooth take to the bucket, deep trey or sky-scraping bang, Marshall’s guards stole the show. Junior Ardarius Simmons (18 points) and sophomore Darius Smith (15 points, nine steals) were all over the place in the second half of Marshall’s eventual blowout. Simmons hit J’s, rained in floaters and set the table for his teammates, while the always-poised Smith, one of the top defenders I’ve seen in high school ball recently (Beverley said the then-freshman had the best D of anyone he faced last season), played the passing lanes, blocked shots and created havoc on the ball with his length, quickness and excellent hands in the Commandos’ press, as well as getting to the rack, hitting mid-range shots and crashing the boards extremely well for a guard. Due to foul trouble, physical junior Ryan Hare never quite found his rhythm offensively, but showed a nice repertoire of post moves, lefty drives and jumpers, in addition to hitting the glass hard and being an enforcer down low.
The Chicago State gym was packed for the final game of the evening, a much-anticipated matchup between Farragut (KG’s alma mater) and Simeon, who came into the game as the top-ranked team in the city and state, as well as the fifth-ranked team nationally, according to USA Today. Anybody who even casually follows high school hoops knows Simeon is home to Rose, the Memphis-bound point guard and a consensus top-five player in the nation. This was my first opportunity to see “Pooh” live, but from the highlights I’d seen of his sick handle and jaw-dropping athleticism, I was prepared to see a show.
His all-senior supporting cast isn’t bad either, with a pair of Wisconsin-Milwaukee bound forwards in Kevin Johnson and Tim Flowers (who was also recruited by several high-major programs), a more ground-bound Barkley type. Chiseled swingman Bryant Orange and combo guard Brandon Hall get less publicity, but they are also considered potential D1 recruits. Farragut has their own stud in prime Big 10 target Mike Dunigan, a junior big man whose stock is only going up, as well as fellow junior Isiah Williams, a sharpshooting guard who is highly regarded in the Chi.
The atmosphere and hype surrounding the game was crazy and from the jump, the game lived up to it. While Rose’s reputation may have intimidated foes in AAU competition, Farragut’s players have seen him for years now and if anything, that made them hungrier to beat him and Simeon. Junior Darius Stowers was assigned to Rose and besides a few spectacular moves, he did a good job (with teammates doubling and tripling Rose and Dunigan helping in the middle) limiting Rose to outside shots, most of which didn’t fall. In fairness, Rose probably wasn’t playing at 100%, due to the aftereffects of an ankle injury suffered before the new year. He did show a lot of composure in a very physical game, hit a couple tough shots that displayed his amazing body control and hit off Hall (13 points) for jumpers and Flowers (18 points, 14 boards) and Johnson (14) for inside buckets with several nice dimes (he finished with seven assists, to go with his seven points and five boards). Johnson showed off his impressive athleticism on a few occasions and his present and future teammate Flowers was a man on the inside for Simeon, scoring in the post, swallowing up rebounds and doing a good job against Dunigan, who had about a five-inch height advantage.
While Dunigan didn’t do a lot of scoring, he passed out of the post well against double teams, was also a monster on the boards and a defensive presence with multiple blocks (eight points, 12 boards, six blocks) and countless shot changes. The guard trio of Stowers (14 and nine boards) Williams (14) and senior Sean Scott took care of the scoring load for Farragut. The diminutive Scott (20 points, 16 in the second half) in particular was simply unconcious for the Admirals (whose mascot was in full effect at all their games), hitting deep threes and teardrop after teardrop in the lane over Simeon’s taller players. The game was back and forth throughout, but with under two minutes left, Farragut took command and salted the game away for the big upset, Simeon’s first loss of the season.
Following the game, I went to see Michael Jordan’s sons play at Loyola University. The Jordans’ school, Loyola Academy, was playing St. Ignatius in a Catholic league rivalry game. Maybe Loyola was just that good or maybe St. Ignatius is having a down year, but the score was 30-7 when I arrived at halftime (thanks to some bad traffic).
Jeffrey, Mike’s oldest, is a 6-2 senior, while Marcus is a 6-3 sophomore. Jeffrey is regarded as one of the better seniors in the city, but not an elite prospect, although he has a variety of mid-major looks and Miami is supposedly on his trail. He’s a strong, heady player, definitely a good athlete (but not his pop) and a player who looked to make his teammates better. He showed he could make open jumpers, pass the ball well, get to the rack and play defense, but if anyone is expecting him to come into college and be a human highlight reel, that probably isn’t happening.
Marcus is a nationally-ranked sophomore and ranked anywhere from No. 1 to No. 3 in the state in the class of 2009, depending on who you ask. He hasn’t filled out as much as his brother yet, but you can see his potential already. He’s very explosive, sees the floor well, finishes at the rim and if he improves his jumper, he could develop into a very good player. His teammates already seem look to him to make things happen and even though he’s young, he usually does. Anyway, the game was a blowout (a 53-28 Loyola win; the little Mikes combined for 23 points, mostly in the first half) and since St. Ignatius didn’t offer much of a challenge, I left after the Jordan brothers went to the bench in garbage time.
Back at Chicago State on Saturday, it was time for the first semifinal between Von Steuben and Marshall. It could have been the early start, but there were less people than expected at the venue, probably because Derrick Rose and Simeon were out of the tourney. Those people who stayed home missed a good one. Von Steuben, who I hadn’t seen and the lone semifinalist not in the CPL’s vaunted Red-West division, was led by a trio of small point guards: senior Michael Horton and juniors Mike Dinunno (committed to Northern Illinois) and Deonte Lundeen.
Marshall started off quick, racing to a double-figure lead in the second quarter. By late in the half, though, Von fought back behind its guard play and took a one-point lead into the break. Long and athletic inside players Michael Fakuade, Cordarrel Eldridge (19 points) and Darius Fields played a big part, as well, using their size advantage against Marshall’s five perimeter players. Horton’s penetration and defense on Ryan Hare was key, as was Dinunno’s shooting and tough drives and Lundeen’s passing and timely buckets.
Top scorers, Hare, Stovall and Simmons were out of sync for the Commandos, but sophomores Smith and Dion Stamps (game-high 29 points in only his second varsity game after being moved up from the sophomore team) kept Marshall in it in the third quarter with their toughness, hustle, defense and transition play, but mostly thanks to Dinunno’s shooting (19 points), Von was up 10 at the end of the period. The fourth quarter was a game of strategy, as Marshall would use its pressure to make a run, countered by Von Steuben trying to run clock and both teams being affected by too many whistles from the refs. Marshall kept battling back and cut the lead to three with 4.3 seconds left, when Stamps created pandemonium in the building by hitting a buzzer-beater from just inside halfcourt to tie the game for the Commandos and send it into OT.
In overtime, Marshall’s Simmons found his scoring touch (he finished with 18), but Von Steuben’s Horton countered every bucket with one of his own. A frenetic flurry of back-and-forth play led to another overtime. The teams matched each other play for play in the second OT, too, but Von eventually took a three-point lead with under two minutes to play. Marshall roared back thanks to clutch free-throw shooting by Stovall and a put-back by Smith to put them up one with 21 seconds left. With 3.4 seconds to go, the refs made a controversial call on a three-point attempt by little-used Von Steuben sub Carl Bowen. Bowen missed the first, but collected himself to make the second two to put the Panthers up one and give them an 80-79 win.
The second semifinal between Crane and Farragut was another back-and-forth affair. When Crane’s star, Brandon McGee, hurt his ankle early and was carried off and taken to a local hospital (he would return to the bench in the second half), it might have been expected that Farragut would coast, especially coming off their big win the previous night. Dunigan was his powerful self on the inside, Scott and Williams were scoring at will and the Admiral was dancing (so were other people; they’re really into stepping in the Chi) at halftime, at which Farragut was up by six.
All of a sudden, Crane’s Floyd decided to take over. The hard-nosed point guard knocked down treys, found teammates like the aforementioned Dixon, Dashaun Thomas and Billy Hayes (12 points) on the wing for jumpers and Douglas and Archie Boyd for layups. Floyd’s defense was also key, as his ball pressure on Farragut’s Scott prevented him from getting loose, allowing the shot-blocking Boyd to play big man Dunigan honestly and leading Crane to storm back to take a 45-40 lead at the end of three. Floyd (game-high 22 points) seemingly made every big play down the stretch for the Cougars, from jumpers and assists to free throws and taking a charge to give Scott his fifth foul when he actually missed a freebie. Crane ended up coasting to a 12-point win to advance to the chip.
Von Steuben, a well-regarded team in the city, but certainly not a favorite, had advanced to the tournament’s finale to face Crane, a team expected to make a run, but not with their best player on the sidelines. Both team’s were missing key players on the inside, as McGee and Von Steuben big man Fakuade (he got hurt in the semis) were sitting this one out. While McGee was the better player, Fakuade may have been more important in the game, as Crane had other bigs to counter the loss of their star. Crane’s coach, the dapper Anthony Longstreet (he of the many suits), slowed the game’s tempo, preferring to let defense and execution determine the Cougars’ outcome rather than getting into a track meet with Von.
It worked early on, as Dixon and Hayes used their size against the smaller Von Steuben guards on the perimeter, Douglas was a beast on the boards (he finished with 10 points and eight boards) and Boyd was a presence in the middle (four blocks). And as he did in the semifinals, Crane point guard Floyd took a leadership role, playing outstanding individual defense on another jet-quick point guard, Von Steuben’s Horton, running the show to perfection on offense and scoring (game-high 12 points) when necessary. His trey right before halftime put the Cougars up 22-11 at the break.
Von cut into that deficit in the third quarter behind their steady guard play, as well as Fields, Eldridge and junior sub Eddie Dykes stepping up inside. Crane’s advantage was 28-23 going into the fourth, but the efforts of Horton (nine points), Dinunno (also nine) and Lundeen tied the game at 34 all with about two minutes to play. Von Steuben held the ball and Crane, ever confident in its D, let Cordarrel Eldridge do that until the final seconds. When Von’s guards tried to break to the ball, their Crane counterparts played great denial and Eldridge (seven points, eight boards) was forced into a bad shot with a second left. Crane took a timeout, then opted to not attempt a shot and we had another OT finish. Scoring was scarce in overtime, too, and even though Crane only scored five points in the extra session, that was enough, as Von Steuben could only muster two, leading to a 39-36 Crane win in the title game.
Mike Dinunno-Von Steuben
Nakeem Floyd-Crane (MVP)
Mike Horton-Von Steuben
Here are some scouting reports on players from the four semifinal teams, as well as nationally-ranked Simeon:
Archie Boyd, 6-9 senior post: Long and athletic player is a diamond in the rough. Runs the floor well, active on the boards and a defensive presence with his shot blocking. He should make some college coach very happy down the line.
Dion Dixon, 6-4 junior guard: Still adjusting to the structure of the organized game, Dixon’s better days are ahead of him. He’s not too shabby right now, as he can play any position from the 1-3, knock down jumpers and slash against anyone.
Lavonta Douglas, 6-7 senior post: Good ball skills and ability to do the little things make him valuable for Crane. Solid finisher and rebounder on the inside who runs the floor well and can hit the mid-range J.
Nakeem Floyd, 5-10 senior point guard: Crane’s unsung hero saved his best for last, picking up the slack for Crane’s injured star McGee. He ran the offense to perfection, distributed the rock and his ball pressure was the key to Crane’s suffocating D.
Brandon McGee, 6-7 senior combo forward: A high-level athlete who can rebound the ball, score in the post, run the floor and make open shots, McGee should be a big part of any future Indiana success in the Big 10. If he hadn’t got hurt early in the semis, Crane might have waltzed through the competition instead of grinding out those close wins.
Michael Dunigan, 6-10 junior post: Many in attendance called him the top junior in Illinois, and it’s not hard to see why. A skilled big man with a solid frame, nimble post moves and good passing ability, Dunigan has the finesse side down. A rebounding machine, intimidating shot blocker and powerful finisher, he’s got the beast side of things, too.
Sean Scott, 5-10 senior point guard: Unstoppable against Simeon, Scott brought out his entire arsenal throughout the tournament. A relentless penetrator, he also knocked down triples and created for teammates with ease. His clutch free throws and floaters in the lane were indicative of the heart he played with.
Isiah Williams, 6-1 junior combo guard: A sniper with good point guard skills, Williams has the look of a player who will continue to improve. His court savvy, combined with his skill, makes him a very nice college point-guard prospect.
Ryan Hare, 6-4 junior wing: Underrated lefty is rugged on the inside with ability to post up smaller (and bigger) players and rebound on both ends, skilled on the outside with ability to make jumpers and take it to the bucket. Not as athletic, but he has some Alando tucker to his game.
Ardarius Simmons, 5-11 junior point guard: More of a “lead guard” than a traditional point, the jet-quick Simmons got in the lane at will to make layups and floaters; also knocked down several deep treys.
Darius Smith 6-3 sophomore combo guard: Always in control, Smith isn’t a big-time scorer, but fills up the stat sheet with rebounds, steals, assists and blocks. A top-notch defender, he can do damage on offense by getting to the hole.
Dion Stamps, 6-0 sophomore wing: As noted, he made his varsity appearance in this tourney, but you couldn’t tell by watching him. He always hustled, hit big shots and just made the right plays at the right time.
Mike Stovall, 6-5 senior wing: Never really broke out in the tournament, but his skills were evident. Smooth player can shoot from range, take it to the rack and get up with the best of them. Receiving major interest from several Big 10 schools.
Tim Flowers, 6-5 senior post: Undersized power player just gets it done. A steal for Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he gobbles up rebounds and finishes like he’s 6-10.
Kevin Johnson, 6-7 senior combo forward: Johnson’s a superb athlete, especially in transition. While he possesses some wing skills, he makes his presence felt more on the boards and on D.
Derrick Rose, 6-3 senior point guard: Even though he was clearly not at his best, Rose was easily the most talented player at the event. The game is almost too easy for him at the high school level and while his points didn’t show it, he made a major impact with his defense, unselfishness, ability to penetrate and rebounding.
Mike Dinunno, 6-0 junior combo guard: A lights-out shooter who recently committed to Northern Illinois, Dinunno’s moxie, driving ability and tough D ensures he’s not a one-dimensional player. For Von Steuben, he’s usually on the wing, but he might be even better with the ball in his hands.
Darius Fields, 6-5 senior combo forward: A versatile player, Fields doesn’t shy away from mixing it up inside, although he has the skills to take his man off the dribble. A real glue player, he blended hustle plays with athletic plays to help Von advance to the chip.
Michael Fakuade, 6-6 senior post: Fakuade’s injury really hurt Von in the chip against Crane, as his athleticism and toughness around the basket were missed. When he was healthy, he showed he could finish around the basket, post up and run the floor.
Michael Horton, 5-10 senior point guard: Horton’s handle allowed him to drive by just about every player he faced in the tourney, he finished or passed creatively and effectively and his J was good enough to keep defenders honest. An excellent defender himself, he showed he could get up in the shirt of bigger players with his strength.
Deonte Lundeen, 5-9 junior point guard: The best passer of Von’s trio of small guards, Lundeen consistently set up his teammates for open looks or easy buckets inside. He also showed he could pressure the ball on D and make open shots.
I also had the pleasure of speaking to Sonny Parker, a key figure in Chicago hoops. Parker, who was a high school star at Farragut, a college star at Texas A&M after a stint in junior college and a double-figure scorer for Golden State Warriors during his six-year (1976-82) NBA career, runs the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation. Parker has had a hand in the development in a lot of Chicago’s top talents—such as former Georgia Tech star Will Bynum, top juco big man DeAndre Thomas (headed to Indiana) and current Farragut star Dunigan—through his workouts, summer programs and more.
“We just try to work with a lot of the kids and make sure they end up going to college and get scholarships,” says Parker. “I try to see a lot of their games, kids from all over the city.”
“Basically, I’ve been doing this my whole life. When I’d come back from college, I’d work with kids on the West Side, where I’m from. When I was with the Warriors, I’d work with kids in Oakland,” he continues. “I just have a passion for giving back because there were other guys who helped me out when I was coming up. The most important thing to me is the relationships. We talk about basketball, but I always ask them about how they’re doing in school, things like that.”
Regarding the current top talent in the city, Parker is with the consensus choice: Derrick Rose.
“He’s a player that comes around every 10 or 15 years. He could get 30 or 40 a game if he wanted to, but he plays within the system,” he gushes. “Then there’s Evan Turner (smooth 6-7 swingman, headed to Ohio State) and Demetri McCamey (6-3 Illinois-bound power point guard) from St. Joseph’s (alma mater of William Gates, the other “Hoop Dreams” kid) and ‘Juice,’ Michael Thompson (quick, 5-11 Northwestern-bound point guard) from Lincoln Park (probably the best public school team not in the tourney; they reached the state limit of two in-season tournaments by playing in both Thanksgiving and Christmas tourneys). There’s so many good players that we have that’s underrated, but people who know basketball can see how good they are.
“This tournament, it’s about bragging rights,” says Parker of the Chicago State event. “’I’m from the West Side, we can beat y’all from the South Side.’ All of them know each other, some play on the same AAU team and they’re personal friends.”
“It’s culture, it’s a way of life. Basketball is our No. 1 sport in Chicago. With so many pros from here and how everyone’s connected to the top players through a cousin or their neighborhood, you get a lot of the history,” he continues. “It’s real good because this gives us the chance to see a lot of our kids play in one building. This is just a prelude to what happens during the season.”
If that’s true, then the Windy City has another memorable year of high school basketball in store.