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Henricksen: Is Class of 2014 vs. Class of 1998 a great debate?

05/15/2014, 7:00pm CDT
By Joe Henricksen | @joehoopsreport

With the nation's No. 1 ranked player, three McDonald's All-Americans and 40-plus Division I prospects, the Class of 2014 in Illinois prep hoops is special. But is it talented enough to be in the same discussion as the great Class of 1998?

(This is the second in a series of stories taking a final look at the Class of 2014 in Illinois.)

Comparing and breaking down the best classes of talent in high school basketball is really no different than analyzing, debating and enjoying the best television series ever shown on the small screen. 

After “The Sopranos” ran its course, the show went down as one of the greatest television series ever. No one expected another TV series to match it any time soon. You realized while watching the Jersey-based Italian-American mobster Tony Soprano that the show would go down as one of the all-time greats. And you just accepted, albeit sadly, it would be a long time before we would enjoy anything like it again. 

But we were wrong. 

“Breaking Bad” came along in 2008 and we had the “next great one,” with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman leading the charge. But last fall it, too, was gone after five seasons.

We now wait for that next extraordinary, iconic television series that is addictive, impactful and one that can stake its claim and be added to the “Best TV Show Ever” list. 

Although it’s often a purely subjective opinion, we do the same with the best, most talent-filled classes in high school basketball. When they rarely do come and shine in front of us, we appreciate their talents, soak it up as basketball fans and envision what they will become three, five or eight years down the road. And we anxiously await the next one to come along.

Nationally, people still talk about what many consider to be an unrivaled Class of 1979 (Ralph Sampson, Sam Bowie, Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy, Steve Stipanovich, Clark Kellogg, Rod Foster, Byron Scott, John Paxson, Antoine Carr), which also included local schoolboy star Isiah Thomas of St. Joseph right near the top.

The Class of 1979 is still regarded by many as the best prep class ever on the national level. Longtime observers will say they’re still waiting for a better high school crop of talent to come along.

Locally, the Illinois prep basketball stars in that 1979 class (Thomas, King’s Teddy Grubbs, Carver’s Terry Cummings and Bloom’s Raymond McCoy), along with the heralded Class of 1998, have become the benchmark when comparing each senior group that’s come after them in this state. There was no need for Twitter, websites or Internet highlight packages to pump and hype those stars of ’79 and ’98; it was all word of mouth and seeing is believing. 

Class of 1998 had it all

With three McDonald’s All-Americans and lengthy Division I depth, the Class of 1998 was a revelation. The class was highlighted by the trio of Whitney Young’s Quentin Richardson, Fenwick’s Corey Maggette and Peoria Manual’s Frank Williams. In addition, there were just over 60 players that went on to play Division I basketball. That’s “The Sopranos” version of high school talent right there. 

And just like we waited patiently for “Breaking Bad,” we’ve waited 16 years for a special class like this current 2014 group to come along. We just watched 2014 play out their four years of high school basketball, and it's a group we can finally talk about with the vaunted Class of 1998.

After holding that Illinois prep basketball class of 1998 in such high regard, putting it on a pedestal and comparing all others to it since, the time has come to finally –– and realistically –- debate a class vs. that great group from 1998.

If the Class of 1998 was “The Sopranos,” then the Class of 2014 is our “Breaking Bad.” Thank you, Jahlil, Big Cliff, Lil’ Tyler, Keita and the rest of the Class of 2014. This Class of 2014, just like “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” and the Class of 1998, has earned a place in history.

Class of 1998 history lesson

The Class of 1998 featured the “Big Three” of Whitney Young’s Quentin Richardson (DePaul), Fenwick’s Corey Maggette (Duke) and Peoria Manual’s Frank Williams (Illinois), all of which were McDonald’s All-Americans. All three finished ranked among the elite players in the country, checking in at No. 9, No. 16 and No. 21, respectively, in the final national rankings. All three were NBA first-round picks.

There was another highly-regarded trio of Simeon’s Bobby Simmons (DePaul), Farragut’s Michael Wright (Arizona) and Julian’s Lance Williams (DePaul). All three finished ranked among the top 30 players in the country. 

Then there was Galesburg’s Joey Range (Iowa). Though his career soon fizzled out of high school, people forget the reputation and talent the 45th ranked player in the country had as a prep star. That’s seven players from Illinois alone among the top 45 in the country.

With three players among the top 25, an unprecedented six among the top 30 and seven among the top 50, this group in 1998 has been impossible to match when it comes to national rankings, high-level recruitments, high school productivity and overall talent at the top of any class. Add Whitney Young’s Dennis Gates (California) and Moline’s Traves Wilson (Arizona), who were also ranked nationally in the top 100, and the Class of 1998 boasted nine players ranked among the top 100 in the country.

Whole lot more than just top 100 in Class of 1998

The underrated aspect of the Class of 1998, though, was its depth. The top 100 didn’t even include the likes of the Maine West duo of Lucas Johnson (Illinois) and Kevin Frey (Xavier), Rockford Boylan’s Damir Krupalija (Illinois) or Whitney Young’s Cordell Henry (Marquette). 

Then there was an endless list of, at the time, little-known players who ended up making it big, including: 

▪ Madison’s Maurice Baker, who after two years of junior college went on to be a two-year star at Oklahoma State and had a brief cup of coffee in the NBA.

▪ Providence St. Mel’s Linton Johnson, who ultimately played 151 games in the NBA after a four-year career at Tulane.

▪ Wheaton South’s Eric Channing, who became the all-time leading scorer at New Mexico State and a two-time Academic All-American. 

▪ Naperville North’s Henry Domercant, who became the all-time leading scorer in Eastern Illinois history with 2,602 points and was the nation’s second leading scorer in Division I during his junior and senior seasons. 

▪ Robeson’s Jannero Pargo, who had two terrific seasons at Arkansas after junior college and just finished up his 10th season playing in the NBA. 

▪ And 1,000-point career college scorers in Julian’s Waitari Marsh (Tulane), Spring Valley Hall’s Shawn Jeppson (Illinois State), King’s Anthony Johnson (Louisiana-Lafayette), Fenwick’s Chris Williams (Loyola/Ball State), Moline’s Ian Hanavan (UIC/Evansville),  Providence’s Tavaras Hardy (Northwestern) and Brother Rice’s Pat Harvey (Havard).

We’ve tried to stack a class here and there up against the Class of 1998, most notably the Class of 2011 with Chicago Perspectives star Anthony Davis (Kentucky) at the top of the class. There was a surplus of high-majors in the Class of 2011 and top 100 recruits in Morgan Park’s Wayne Blackshear (Louisville), Rock Island’s Chasson Randle (Stanford), East Aurora’s Ryan Boatright (UConn) and Mt. Carmel’s Tracy Abrams (Illinois). 

But that’s like comparing a “Homeland” or “24,” two fantastic shows, to “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad.”

Which brings us back to the current Class of 2014, featuring three McDonald’s All-Americans in Young’s Jahlil Okafor, Curie’s Cliff Alexander and Marian Catholic’s Tyler Ulis. In addition to those three, the Class of 2014 has multiple players ranked in the top 100 nationally and already boasts 40-plus players headed to Division I programs, with another dozen or so likely headed there after a year of prep school or two years of junior college. 

What the Class of 1998 didn’t have was the nation’s No. 1 ranked player and another consensus top five prospect, which the Class of 2014 does have in Okafor and Alexander. Since the advent of national rankings, the state of Illinois has never had two players so highly ranked in one class. 

What the Class of 2014 doesn’t have that the Class of 1998 had are, incredibly, six players ranked among the top 30 in the country. Time will tell how strong of a class the Class of 2014 turns out to be nationally in comparison to the Class of 1998 nationally, which had just an “ok” top five of Al Harrington, Rashard Lewis, Korleone Young, Dan Gadzuric and Stromile Swift.

And while the Illinois Class of 1998 was extremely strong at the time, it became even better and a little more special as we watched the end result develop –– post-high school –– with so many standout college careers. 

Regardless of what class was/is better, the real downer is knowing this Class of 2014 is moving on to the college ranks, leaving us wonder when another class its equal will come around again.

1998 vs. 2014: By the numbers

McDonald’s All-Americans
1998: 3
2014: 3

Consensus Top 10 prospects
1998: 1
2014: 2

Consensus Top 30 prospects
1998: 6
2014: 4

Consensus Top 50 prospects
1998: 7
2014: 4

Consensus Top 100 prospects
1998: 9
2014: TBD (final RSCI rankings still to be determined officially, though the Class of 2014 will have at least five, with the possibility of six or seven.) 

* Division I players 
1998: 60-plus
2014: 40-plus (The class will undoubtedly have 50-plus in two years)

NBA players
1998: 7
2014: ?

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