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Curie's Cliff Alexander blocks a shot attempt by Hyde Park's Kendall Ivy. | Worsom Robinson/For Sun-Times Media.
Before we get to our regularly scheduled “Weekend Forecast,” previewing the top games of the weekend around the Chicago area, take a moment to appreciate what we have before us. Lets put this in context ...
Remember Lew Alcindor vs. Elvin Hayes in 1968? A pair of basketball giants and megastars clashing, each leading their unbeaten UCLA and Houston teams before 50,000 fans in the Houston Astrodome in what is, still today, one of the biggest sports spectacles in history?
Now we have our very own version of that here in Chicago prep hoops, a basketball bonanza everyone has anxiously waited for since the season tipped off in November.
No. 1 Curie vs. No. 2 Whitney Young is big. But Cliff Alexander vs. Jahlil Okafor is bigger. It’s epic.
Everyone will preach this matchup is about the teams, one (Whitney Young) that’s defending its city championship it won a year ago, and the other (Curie) trying to secure its first-ever. But lets focus on the “teams” when/if they should meet again in the Marist Sectional in a few weeks. Agreed?
This Friday night, anyone who can get into Chicago State University’s 7,000-seat Jones Convocation Center will witness a game, specifically a jaw-dropping matchup between two players, that has never materialized before and may never again.
We’ve been blessed this season as high school basketball fans. A much-hyped and desired matchup between the two best guards in the state, Marian Catholic’s Tyler Ulis and Stevenson’s Jalen Brunson, played out late last month.
Now it’s Jahlil and Big Cliff, a unique one-on-one confrontation of individual stars we’ve never seen in Illinois before.
The last time two players of this magnitude squared off with this much fanfare and with this much on the line was in 1998. Whitney Young’s Quentin Richardson and Fenwick’s Corey Maggette, two McDonald’s All-Americans, top 15 players in the country and future NBA veterans, led the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in a late February game at a sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena at Northwestern.
But this battle of basketball behemoths dwarfs even that game, which the City/Suburban Hoops Report dubbed as the “Game of the Decade” at the time.
This is Duke-bound Okafor, the 6-11, 260-pound gifted coverboy who’s currently the consensus No. 1 player in the country, and Kansas signee Alexander, an athletic and physical freak at 6-9, 235 pounds who’s ranked by some as the nation’s No. 2 player.
That bears repeating: The No. 1 and No. 2 players in the country. Right here! In Chicago! Friday night!
All season long these two have lived up to the hype and even exceeded the enormous expectations. Sure, they’re still prospects. But they’re both so darn good, advanced and ultra-productive right now that we’re able to enjoy their talents more than past great “prospects” out of Illinois, especially when it comes to big men.
These two put up monster, impressive numbers with steadfast consistency. They don’t pretend to be the new wave of finesse, face-up big men; they’re dominant on-the-block and unstoppable around the basket –– and in overpowering and spectacular fashion. You just keep searching for more adjectives to throw their way.
How good? It would be easy to argue that both Okafor and Alexander are two of the five greatest big men this state has ever produced. It’s not far-fetched for any well-informed basketball observer in this state to one day be saying one of these players was “the best big man prospect I’ve ever seen in Illinois.”
They’re climbing the list of all-time greats regardless of position in Illinois prep basketball history, with some similarities (both have great hands while both are missing the don’t-leave-me-alone 17-foot jumper) and distinct differences when looking at their respective scouting reports on paper.
Alexander is freakishly gifted athletically –– running and jumping with explosive power that’s so rare to find in any prep player anywhere. He blocks shots and has a rebounding gene that translates to every level going forward. And, oh, does he finish around the basket. It’s not outlandish to say Alexander finishes around the rim like no one we’ve ever seen play in this state before.
Okafor has that true, immovable size with polish, touch around the basket and a basketball I.Q. What catches basketball purist’s eyes is the great, advanced footwork on the block, the super soft hands and the fact he’s a back-to-the-basket 5-man in the truest sense.
Now, for a quick word of caution after I’ve aroused your basketball senses.
These two, who paired up this past summer as teammates playing with the Mac Irvin Fire on the AAU circuit, squared off last March in a Class 4A sectional semifinal. Young beat Curie as both Okafor and Alexander put up modest numbers –– Okafor with 13 points and Alexander with 14 –– and hardly any show-stopping moments.
But when we talk about last season, we’re talking about two juniors. For one, Alexander is playing in a completely different stratosphere than he was 12 months ago. They’re a year older, a year better. But it’s true, and possible again, that big men can and will neutralize one another, especially in high school basketball.
Regardless, let the 48-hour hype begin. This one deserves it. And don’t fail to appreciate what we have in these two rare and prized players.
Add everything up and here are our odds that we’ll see another matchup like Okafor vs. Alexander again: kajilliongazillionincapabillion to one.
Hoops Report pick: Whitney Young 58, Curie 57
There are some other intriguing matchups this weekend around the Chicago area. Here is a look at those top games with some picks.
▪ Stevenson (23-1) at Lake Forest (20-4) • Friday
Ho-hum, just another dandy of a game in the North Suburban Lake, which is a common occurrence in this rugged league. This one features a pair of red-hot teams as Stevenson has won 11 straight games and Lake Forest hasn’t tasted a defeat since falling to Stevenson in their first matchup in mid-January.
Keep an eye on this: How does highly-ranked and favored Stevenson handle a true big man in Lake Forest’s 6-7 Evan Boudreaux? Benet’s Sean O’Mara scored 27 against Stevenson, and if the Patriots plan on winning it all, some prep work won’t hurt in getting ready for a potential matchup with Cliff Alexander or Jahlil Okafor a month from now.
Hoops Report pick: Stevenson 66, Lake Forest 55
▪ Marian Catholic (21-2) at Carmel (22-6) • Friday
No, Carmel doesn’t have any hope of grabbing a piece of the East Suburban Catholic Conference title. But this 22-win team does have a chance to play the role of spoiler and, while they’re at it, the Corsairs can see just where they stand and how far they’ve come in this head-to-head clash with one of the state’s best teams. Tyler Ulis & Company come to town unbeaten in ESCC play and will stay that way.
Hoops Report pick: Marian Catholic 63, Carmel 49
▪ Naperville Central (18-5) at Glenbard North (17-5) • Friday
The last time these two met it may have been the most dramatic win of the year for any team. Trailing by two, Glenbard North’s under-appreciated star Chip Flanigan grabbed a pass just past halfcourt, took one dribble and buried a 30-footer for a stunning 62-61 win.
Now there’s even more on the line as both have upset West Aurora in back-to-back weeks and are tied for the DuPage Valley Conference lead. The winner will likely at least share a piece of the conference championship. The combination of Ryan Antony at point guard and the inside tandem of 6-7 Nick Czarnowski and 6-6 Pat Maloney find a way to get it done for a Naperville Central team that has won nine straight.
Hoops Report pick: Naperville Central 55, Glenbard North 53
▪ Thornwood (19-4) at Bradley-Bourbonnais (18-3) • Friday
The Southwest Suburban Red is much better and more competitive than people give it credit for, thanks to these two teams. Here’s a salute to the coaches of these two programs. What a job coach Paul Slavich has done in keeping this Thornwood team together –– and unbeaten –– after losing star Donte Thomas for the season as the calendar turned to January. This will be a difficult test for the Thunderbirds, who rely so heavily on their guard play and three-point shooting. Bradley has had a heck of a season itself as coach Alex Renchen has helped revitalize this once downtrodden program. I like Bradley grabbing a memory here with an upset win at home.
Hoops Report pick: Bradley-Bourbonnais 52, Thornwood 48
Catholic League Championship • Saturday
▪ Mount Carmel (20-6) vs. De La Salle (12-10) @ Chicago State
The run put together by De La Salle in the Catholic League Tournament is eerily similar to a college team that struggled during the year but is taking advantage of the last chance a conference tournament provides for a NCAA Tournament bid. The Meteors stunned favorites in Loyola Academy and Fenwick to reach the title game. They are playing with energy and aggressiveness, while using their length and quickness to create problems defensively.
Mt. Carmel hit a rough patch midseason, but since the return of senior guard Christian Searles in January, the Carvavan have taken off. Searles allowed teammate and Catholic League North Player of the Year David Nichols to move off the ball, where he averages 20 points a game as one of the real unsung players in the Chicago area. It was Nichols’ three-pointer on Wednesday that shot down St. Joseph in the semis.
Hoops Report pick: Mt. Carmel 48, De La Salle 43
City-Suburban Showdown • Saturday @ Niles West
Always one of the premier events on the basketball calendar, the City-Suburban Showdown once again offers up an appetizing doubleheader with four ranked teams.
▪ Marian Catholic (21-2) vs. Lake Forest (20-4) @ 6:30 p.m.
A terrific March tune-up for Marian Catholic and Tyler Ulis in this non-conference showdown. The only in-state team the Spartans have lost to, Stevenson, hails from the tough North Suburban Lake. Now Marian Catholic gets another test from a North Suburban Lake team, one that is well coached, red-hot and features a dominating presence inside in 6-7 Evan Boudreaux.
Hoops Report pick: Marian Catholic 60, Lake Forest 52
▪ Simeon (18-5) vs. Stevenson (23-1) @ 8:30 p.m.
A terrific late-season battle and a rematch of last year’s state championship, with the difference being Stevenson is the favorite this time around and has the best player on the floor.
Jalen Brunson, a 6-1 junior and one of the elite players in the state, is a catalyst and difference-maker. Simeon’s length and zone will cut down on Brunson’s dribble-penetration and ability to get to the rim, but he’s an outstanding perimeter shooter with an ability to make those around him better. Meanwhile, Stevenson must find a way to keep Simeon’s 6-6 Edward Morrow from dominating inside, particularly on the offensive glass and second-chance scoring opportunities.
Hoops Report pick: Stevenson 63, Simeon 58
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport.
Tulane offers Simeon's 6-7 Ed Morrow, one of the top half dozen prospects in the senior class in Illinois
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