Smile Politely

Stuck Inside the Assembly Hall with the Snowed-In Blues Again

Here’s something I don’t typically hear at 10:32 on a Saturday morning: “We say number, you say ONE. Number…ONE! Number…ONE! Number, number, number ONE! URBANA!”

I was one of few present last Saturday for the tip-off of the second annual Shootout at the Hall. The culprit: a snowstorm and an early start for a day-long affair featuring seven boys’ high school basketball games. The crowd thickened somewhat as the snow continued to accumulate outside, but even for the afternoon’s marquee match ups Section A of the Hall was hardly full.

The winless Tigers of Urbana High were up first, and they took a thumping at the hands of Mount Zion and 6-foot-5 senior Mark Yelovich, who tried to raise expectations for the day with the Shootout’s first dunk. The highlight for Urbana came in the form of the shortest player on the court, 5-foot-3 coach’s son Darren Gray, a freshman. Gray checked in during the first half and was promptly guarded by the shortest Mt. Zion player on the floor, who still had at least nine inches and 25 pounds on Gray (pictured below, center). Shorty wasn’t in there to look cute: Shortly after checking in, he buried his defender in quicksand and drove to the hoop for a floater in the lane that rattled out. Urbana grabbed the rebound and dished back out to Gray, who didn’t hesitate launching a three. He missed that too, but at least his aggression belied his small stature (and his teammates’ tentative play).

The Tigers cheerleaders took the court again late in the second half, demanding a victory for Urbana: “We want a win!” they chanted. Wasn’t gonna happen: Urbana was well on its way to a 79–42 loss, despite the efforts of Gray and senior teammate Rakeem Sallee, who led the Tigers with eight points each.

Game 2 kicked off the parade of recruits for Bruce Weber’s Illini program. Rich South’s Crandall Head, former Illini standout Luther Head’s little brother, was the jewel of this match up between the Stars and feisty Champaign Centennial. The Chargers first possession resulted in a steal for Rich South and a spectacular alley-oop dunk by Head. The lanky guard — listed as 6-foot-3 in the program but looking closer to 6-foot-5 — gave the fans a show with 20 first-half points on a variety of drives and three-point shots, but Centennial remained in the lead for most of the game thanks to the play of guard James Kinney. The 6-foot-1 junior scored 19 points and was nearly impossible to contain off the dribble, despite the fact that Head was guarding him for much of the game. Head netted a Shootout best 34 points (3 of 6 threes) and led the Stars back to a 60–60 tie with a little over a minute left. But Rich South neglected its go-to-guy over the final minute, and Centennial pulled out a 62–60 win.

Head seems all but certain to verbal to Illinois in January, giving Weber a second impressive recruit in the high school class of 2010. Those who would know claim Head is more impressive as a high school sophomore than Luther was as a high school senior. I’d go so far as to say he was better in this particular game than Luther was as a freshman — in college.

Peoria Central faced Sterling in the third game as a pair of Illini commitments battled head to head: 6-foot-2 guard D.J. Richardson (Central) and 6-foot-5 guard Joseph Bertrand (Sterling). The juniors guarded each other on only a few possessions, with Bertrand getting the best of each challenge — including a fast break one-on-one drive to the hoop by the Sterling star featuring a sweet hesitation move that left Richardson helpless. Of Illinois’ four verbal commitments at the Shootout, Bertrand most exceeded my expectations. His ability to break down an opponent off the dribble and create his own shot is a talent that this year’s Illini squad could put to good use. Sterling finished with a 58–51 win on the back of Bertrand’s 28 points.

New Trier, a North Shore school and one of three Shootout teams with 4,000-plus enrollment, battled another Northside mega-school, Warren High, in Game 4. New Trier petitioned to be renamed Floorburn U before the game even began. Instead of huddling together and locking arms as most teams do prior to the whistle, the Trevians of New Trier formed a circle then dove to the floor, belly down and arms reaching inward for a rather unique pre-game ritual. I spent a good part of the game wondering what in the hell a Trevian is, which I surmised was some sort of Roman Empire-era soldier judging by the school’s Spartan-esque mascot (picture at start of article). Sure enough, a Trevian is, apparently, just that.

Warren was no match for New Trier, which seemed to own a cloning patent on slender 6-foot-5 white kids. The well-coached Trevians were anchored by senior twins Jack and Peter Boehm, both of whom have a knack for basketball. Future Illini guard Brandon Paul was Warren’s lone offensive weapon, a point not lost on New Trier. The Trevians’ effective zone collapsed on Paul anytime he touched the ball. New Trier cruised to a 61–50 win, but Paul did nab the Shootout’s ultimate highlight when he banked in a half-court shot at the halftime buzzer.

Sadly, a Christmas party was in the works for early evening, so I could only watch the first half of Peoria Manual’s game against Waukegan, featuring elite sophomore prospect and Illini verbal commitment Jereme Richmond. The 6-foot-6 wing spent considerable time in the post area on offense, much to the surprise of Manual coach Derrick Booth. Richmond displayed flashes of the natural ability that has recruiting analysts calling him the state’s top talent in the class of 2010. I counted four unofficial blocks in the first half, one wrongly whistled a foul, and one that should’ve been whistled for goaltending. He finished the game, a 47–44 loss for Waukegan, with 19 points (on 70 percent shooting), 13 rebounds and five official blocks. (For video footage from the Shoutout of Richmond and the other Illini recruits, go here and scroll down a bit.)

The Shootout wrapped up with Whitney Young’s 50–42 defeat of Champaign Central, and Unity’s 46–35 win against CPCI. Central’s Verdell Jones, who is reportedly still being recruited by Minnesota’s Tubby Smith, struggled from the floor but scored a team-high 12 points.

I learned two important things from watching more than seven hours of high school hoops. First, the Hall’s food is just terrible, but I already knew that. When the roasted almonds stand isn’t open for business, there’s no reason to open my wallet. And second, this group of Illini recruits will shore up one of Illinois’ glaring deficiencies. The four recruits shot a combined 12 of 17 (70.1 percent) from the charity stripe. The future is bright indeed.

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