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Joliet West's Morris Dunnigan (23) drives to the basket in front of Bolingbrook's C.J. Redmond (23) at the Tiger Thanksgiving Classis title game and West won 63-56 held at Joliet West Joliet, Illinois on Saturday November 24, 2012. | Larry Kane~For Sun-Ti

When Morris Dunnigan began playing basketball with the Joliet Township varsity as a freshman, he was ranked as one of the best freshmen in the state, if not the best.

His sophomore year, Joliet West and Joliet Central returned to separate sports programs, and Dunnigan suffered a devastating ACL injury that noticeably set him back.

We were left to wonder whether this promising talent ever would be able to live up to the hype he received when he was younger.

Friday, I stopped at Joliet West to see Plainfield North face Bolingbrook and Plainfield South take on Joliet West in the Joliet West Thanksgiving Tournament. I would be at the University of Illinois in Champaign on Saturday to cover Morris and Lincoln-Way East in the state football finals, and I didn’t want to miss the West tournament entirely.

From what I witnessed Friday, the West-Bolingbrook championship game the next day had to be a good one. Even though Bolingbrook received more lofty preseason raves, largely thanks to the presence of 6-foot-8 senior Ben Moore, it smacked of a great matchup.

It did not disappoint. West outscored SouthWest Suburban Blue rival Bolingbrook 22-16 in the fourth quarter, when Dunnigan scored 13 of his 31 points, en route to a 63-56 victory.

The 6-2 Dunnigan, who is joined by seniors Carl Terrell and Ryan Modiest in a three-guard set, is so much stronger after all the hard work he put in during his rehab and beyond. He is explosive on his way to and at the basket. He may not shoot from outside as often or even as well as he once did, but he has become an excellent passer and a more effective all-around player.

He’s fun to watch and the type of player the Tigers (4-0) will need as they battle the top teams on their schedule. Speaking of which, Homewood-Flossmoor (4-0) visits Friday night in the Blue opener.

As West coach Luke Yaklich said after the win over Bolingbrook, “When he (Dunnigan) plays well, we’re going to always play well. That’s the bottom line. That’s the pressure of being the best player.”

What else does West have to offer? Plenty. The Tigers this week are ranked No. 1 in the area for good reasons.

For one, defensive pressure. The Tigers get after it. Deflections may not be an official statistic, but they disrupt the opponent’s offensive flow, and West will get more than its share.

“Every time we line up defensively, we feel we have the opportunity to make deflections,” Yaklich said. “The defensive rotation and effort are always there.”

For another, 6-7 senior Andre Hardy, he of the long wingspan, patrols the basket area while the Tigers apply pressure out on the floor.

Brandon McCullum, a 6-2 senior forward Yaklich calls the toughest kid he has ever coached, has added to his game. He seems more confident now with his shooting.

“Our seniors are a great group,” Yaklich said. “They have a great relationship and chemistry among themselves and with the coaches.

“We’re not the biggest team, and sometimes we don’t have as much quickness on the floor as some teams. But this is the kind of team I would like to coach every year. It’s a fun group.”

Bolingbrook (3-1), which will get two more shots at West in the Blue, not only has the SMU-bound Moore in its arsenal, but also sophomore guard Prentiss Nixon, senior guard/forward Kendall Guyton and 6-6 junior center Kenny Williams.

Moore, who handles the ball well for a 6-8 kid, “can get whatever he wants off the dribble,” Raiders coach Rob Brost said. “(SMU coach) Larry Brown told him that if he were at Kentucky, he still would be recruiting him. I think that says a lot.”

Nixon showed he can shoot the jumper on the move. Guyton can be a force around the basket and Williams is a wide body with inside skills.

“Guyton is a really solid player who plays to his strengths,” Brost said. “All our players can learn from that.”

The Raiders are good, with the potential to be even better.

“We can be really, really good at times, but when we get sloppy, we can be average,” Brost said. “We know one thing for sure, we will get every team’s best shot because we will be one of the best teams they have played.”

Based on first impressions, West and Bolingbrook both will be major factors in the Blue and perhaps become players on the state level.

In addition to Plainfield North and Plainfield South, I also had an early opportunity to see other Southwest Prairie Conference teams as they toiled in the WJOL Tournament at University of St. Francis. We will look at them and more from the local basketball scene Friday.

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