Stevenson, Benet help provide the perfect predictive challenge
Perfection often leads to unrealistic expectations.
No one understood it better than legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, as he built the ultimate beast which won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years from 1964-75. That was perfectly evident just a few moments after he retired on top in a scene recounted in Seth Davis' fascinating biography, "Wooden: A Coach's Life."
Wooden was in a hallway outside his team's locker room when a UCLA alum came up and said: "Congratulations, Coach. You let us down last year, but this made up for it."
Yes, it made up for the letdown of only finishing third in the country after winning seven straight national championships.
So, after somehow stumbling into picking all eight games in last year's Class 3A and 4A boys state tournaments correctly, the pressure is on to do it again with this weekend's games in the Peoria Civic Center's Carver Arena.
Will people also expect the exact final scores this time?
Of course, there is some making up to do for the November letdown of a disappointing 2-6 with the football state championship picks. Otherwise, the influential readers and boosters could start calling for my ouster.
Stevenson (31-1) vs. Whitney Young (26-5), 6:30 p.m. Friday
Returning to the title game and exceeding last year's second-place finish will literally be a big challenge for Stevenson.
Waiting for the Patriots are 6-foot-11, 275-pound Duke commit Jahlil Okafor (24.3 ppg, 11 rpg), one of the country's premier big men, and 6-9 Georgetown recruit Paul White (14.3 ppg, 9 rpg). Miles Reynolds (14.2 ppg) is a 6-3 guard headed for St. Louis.
While the Chicago Public League was filled with all kinds of crazy stories this year, Young was actually a bit under the radar in an 8-4 start. All five of its losses were to out-of-state teams and a dramatic four-overtime defeat in the CPL title game was wiped off the books because Curie used ineligible players.
Stevenson may not have great size as 6-5 Parker Nichols and 6-5 freshman Justin Smith are its tallest regulars. Six-3 Michigan State football recruit Matt Morrissey is the only senior who gets extensive playing time.
But the hardly-green junior backcourt of 6-2 Jalen Brunson (25.4 ppg, 5 assists per game, 81 3s), 6-4 Connor Cashaw (17.8 ppg, 7 rpg) and Matt Johnson (10.5 ppg, 58 3s) is arguably the best in the state. Brunson has the eyes of some of the country's top college coaches and Cashaw and Johnson are getting Division I interest.
Stevenson's only blemish was an overtime loss at Zion-Benton in January. It has played a challenging schedule with the Proviso West tournament, a variety of shootouts, the rugged North Suburban Lake and then in the difficult Lake Zurich sectional.
• The pick: Pat Ambrose, who recently won his 300th game in 15 years at Stevenson, has proved to be one of the best coaches in the state. His teams are prepared for anything and know how to handle the state's biggest stage. Okafor will get his points, but Brunson and crew will advance with a 73-70 victory.
Benet (24-7) vs. Edwardsville (30-2), 8:15 p.m. Friday
There had been plenty of heart-wrenching close calls in the last few years for Benet before it finally broke through to make its first state appearance since 1983. Don't be fooled by the record -- it has also played a brutal schedule that included the East Suburban Catholic Conference -- and has won 10 straight since a 77-64 loss to Stevenson.
The Redwings feature one of the state's best big men in 6-9 Xavier-bound Sean O'Mara. They also showed they have a nice outside complement when senior guard Collin Pellettieri hit eight 3-pointers as they rallied to beat Glenbard North in Tuesday night's supersectional.
Edwardsville doesn't get a lot of attention in the Chicago area but is certainly familiar with Peoria after taking third last year. Armon Fletcher, a 6-5 senior headed to Southern Illinois, is a double-double machine at 17.5 points and 13.7 rebounds a game.
Shawn Roundtree (17.4 ppg, 8 assists per game) is a 6-foot guard in his fourth varsity season who has been getting mid-major D-I interest. Trevor Clay is a solid third option at 10.5 points a game.
• The pick: Edwardsville has been here before, but Benet's schedule has been an excellent primer for what's ahead this weekend. O'Mara gets the job done inside and the Redwings advance 55-48.
Third-place game, 6:30 p.m. Saturday
• The pick: Okafor makes his final case for Mr. Basketball as Young takes care of Edwardsville 72-60.
Championship game, 8:15 p.m. Saturday
Two excellent programs and two excellent coaches in Stevenson's Ambrose and Benet's Gene Heidkamp. Can the Patriots handle O'Mara and can the Redwings limit Brunson, Cashaw and Johnson?
But the future is now for Stevenson's underclass-dominated crew. After close calls in the last 15 years by Warren, Zion-Benton, North Chicago, Waukegan and the Patriots, they become the first to bring a boys basketball title trophy back to Lake County with a 66-59 victory.
Rockford Lutheran (30-3) vs. Lincoln (33-2), 12:15 p.m. Friday
Rockford Lutheran is up a class after finishing third in 2A in 2012. But it has proved it can play with the bigger boys with losses by 2 points to Maine South and 1 point to New Trier.
Thomas Kopelman (22.9 ppg, 8 rpg, 122 3s), who is headed to Division II power Minnesota State, leads the way. Six-2 junior Joseph Kellen (12.8 ppg, 83 3s) is also a big threat and scored 31 in the supersectional win over Peoria Notre Dame.
But how will the Crusaders handle the famed Lincoln 1-2-2 ball press, which it has run for more than four decades and has used to stifle opponents to just 37.6 points a game this year? Neil Alexander has been in charge the last 24 years and has 718 wins in his 37-year career.
The Railsplitters rebounded from a lost weekend in mid-January to powerhouse Springfield Lanphier and Champaign Central, which was in its first year under former Peoria Manual and Illinois assistant coach Wayne McClain. Six-6 junior Gavin Block (15.8 ppg) and Edward Bowlby (11.2 ppg) are dangerous 3-point threats and Max Cook runs an offense that averages only 7 turnovers a game.
• The pick: Both teams are just a few points shy of unbeaten seasons. But this is the time perennial downstate power Lincoln breaks through to its first title game, 54-40.
Morgan Park (22-6) vs. Orr (24-4), 2 p.m. today
Both Public League teams had their share of obstacles to make it back to Peoria for a second straight year. Morgan Park lost to Simeon, Stevenson and Young but avenged a pair of regular-season losses to Bogan in a 1-point supersectional victory.
The defending 3A champion Mustangs have five players averaging in double figures and are led by 6-8 senior Josh Cunningham (22.1 ppg, 15 rpg), who was watched by Indiana coach Tom Crean on Tuesday. Senior Lamont Walker (17.8 ppg, 10 rpg) is also uncommitted.
Orr suffered a much different setback nearly two weeks ago when uncommitted 6-7 senior standout Tyquone Greer (17.5 ppg, 9 rpg) was shot in the leg at a party. Greer has made it back on the court for limited minutes and in pure Hollywood fashion, he hit the game-winning 3 in the final seconds of a 71-68 supersectional win over North Chicago.
Six-8 Marlon Jones (15.9 ppg, 11 rpg) and 6-3 guard Louis Adams Jr. (13.6 ppg, 7 rpg) are also back from last year's fourth-place finisher.
• The pick: There are some who will view this semifinal battle between two of Chicago's top teams as the unofficial 3A title game. Cunningham will be on a mission to complete the repeat and Morgan Park will pull out a 77-67 victory.
Third-place game, 12:15 p.m. Saturday
It won't be easy for Orr to play a third-place game for the second straight year. It will be motivated to make sure it doesn't leave Peoria again at 0-2 and will pull out a 65-49 victory.
Championship game, 2 p.m. Saturday
This should be a wonderful contrast in styles. Lincoln looking to use its ball press and ball control to contend with the size and up-tempo game of Morgan Park.
But the Mustangs will find Cunningham and Walker enough and continue their reign as 3A champs with a 59-54 victory.
• Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org