Illinois State Tournament Heating Up

The Illinois state high school 3A and 4A basketball championships take place in Peoria this weekend. If the top four ranked teams win their Supersectional games Tuesday, the 4A championship games could be outstanding. But they probably can't top the Sectional championship game between Waukegan and Warren.

Illinois basketball fans got an eyeful of two outstanding future Illini players when Waukegan and Warren butted heads last Friday evening. Broadcast on television for those unable to attend, the game was a barnburner in which Warren's Brandon Paul and Waukegan's Jereme Richmond both played exceptionally well. Paul ended with 27 points and 7 rebounds, while Richmond totaled 31 points and 10 rebounds.

Waukegan won the game, 71-69, on a half court jump shot by Richmond as time expired. Playing on his birthday despite a 103 degree fever, Richmond proved he was the top player in Illinois. And Paul, who made three clutch free throws to give Warren the lead just prior to Richmond's heroics, deserved praise as well.

Joe Hendricksen, author of a Chicago Sun-Times column called City/Suburban Hoops Report, spoke Saturday on WDWS radio about the special nature of the game and its top players.

"It was one of the best high school games I think I've watched in a long, long time. With the stakes so high, the energy in the gym, the venue they were playing in, and obviously two high-profile guys in Brandon Paul and Jereme Richmond.

"I've had Brandon Paul the number one player in the senior class the last two years, and Jereme Richmond is the best player in Illinois regardless of any class. Both of them put on an unbelieveable show. Illinois fans have just been delerious watching it. Those are two special talents."

Hendricksen gushed over the play of both stars.

"Jereme Richmond first of all showed it all last night. He showed why he's a special player, and I don't care what anyone else says, he's one of the 10 best players in the country. He shows a superior skill level, he's able to post up, he shows toughness around the basket as a rebounder and with blocked shots.

"He can knock down shots from the three point line, knock down midrange jumpers. He absolutely created and made the people around him better while also taking the game into his own hands. And of course he threw in the halfcourt shot to win at the buzzer.

"But that takes nothing away from Brandon Paul because he's a special player. His shot looked really good. He knocked down several threes. Warren jumped out to a 17-2 lead to start the game. Brandon had probably 10-12 of the first 17 with several threes.

"It was just a special, special night of high school basketball with two players that left it all out there. They showed why they are so highly regarded and why Illinois fans have so much to be excited about the next three years."

Hendricksen provided a summary of the game.

"It was 17-2, then 19-5, and then Waukegan went on a 21 point run to make it a 26-19 lead. It was a game of runs the first half, and the whole second half kind of played back and forth.

"Waukegan and Jereme Richmond have more overall talent, no question. Jereme had more to play with. Brandon Paul's supporting cast isn't nearly as strong as Waukegan's, but Paul really put them on his shoulders.

"Brandon hit three big-time free throws with about 5 seconds left. He got his guy up in the air, leaned into him and picked up the foul and got three free throws down two points. They try to freeze him with two timeouts, and he just sat there and calmly made all three. I don't think any of the three hit the rim. He just showed some big-time guts.

"It was a little bit of luck on Jereme's part, but he looked pretty good throwing in that last halfcourt shot. It was just a great high school game, reminiscent of when Quentin Richardson and Corey Maggette went back and forth in a soldout Welsh Ryan arena in 1998. Both of them scored over 30 points that night.

"Obviously, this game had a lot more at stake. They're just special players, and they'll be special college players. Jereme for sure is gonna be an NBA player. And Brandon, if he continues to work particularly on some of his skill, tighten up his shot a little bit, he's a little bit loose with his handle. Those are things to learn and get better at, and he'll have a super four year career at Illinois.

"The only bad part about Jereme Richmond is I don't expect him to be around long. I can't imagine him being there more than one year. He's just a special, special player, probably the best recruit they've gotten since the 1980's."

Richmond almost didn't get to play in the game. A reversal of his controversial suspension from his last game gave him and his teammates new life according to Hendricksen.

"I think there was definitely some carryover from the suspension of Jereme Richmond. I talked to coach Ron Ashlaw late Wednesday night. With their state championship hopes, they were just devastated by the news.

"Then all of a sudden, they've been rejuvenated. It was almost like the trade deadline in major league baseball. You get a player that adds life to your lineup. They found out word about it in practice that he was going to be eligible. I think it was a big boost for them."

The Class 4A matchups for the Supersectional Tuesday are as follows: Waukegan vs. Glenbrook North, Thornton vs. Belleville East, Whitney Young vs. Hyde Park, and Carpentersville vs. Neuqua Valley. Hendricksen is excited to see the highest ranked teams make the Final Four.

"This is a chance to get four great 4A teams in. If you can get Thornton, which would be about 30-1, Neuqua Valley would be 30-1, Whitney Young with about 6-7 Division I players including Marcus Jordan, and then Jereme Richmond and Waukegan. If you get those four teams in Peoria playing for a state championship, it would be a pretty special Final Four."

Hendricksen favors Waukegan over Glenbrook North and their coach Dave Weber, Bruce Weber's brother. But it might have been a different story if Brandon Paul had carried out his plans to transfer last summer.

"Brandon Paul almost ended up at Glenbrook North this year. It was almost a done deal last spring that Brandon Paul was gonna move and play for Glenbrook North. He wanted to get a feel for some of the things Illinois runs.

"That didn't pan out in the very end. Warren coach Chuck Ramsey, who is one of the best coaches in Illinois, pretty much told me Paul was not coming back and was going to Glenbrook North, and in a week that story completely shifted."

As it is, Glenbrook North could still cause Waukegan problems.

"Glenbrook North has a terrific junior in 6'-6" Alex Dragicevich. He's one of the top juniors in the class. He's got some midmajor offers. Colorado has offered, Utah has offered, Michigan is very much involved, Iowa's involved, Pac-10 schools Washington, Stanford and Cal are involved.

"This kid has really played well. He scored 33 in the sectional semis. This is a team that could cause Waukegan some problems. They have some issues with their athleticm and quickness, especially out in the perimeter. But they run such good sets and are so disciplined, I think Waukegan may get a little bit of a scare.

"I don't think they'll lose, but that's a scary game. A well-coached team that could pull off an upset. I think Waukegan will win an Illinois state championship."

Hendricksen believes Rock Island and Illini target Chasson Randle will handle Oswego and appear in Peoria for the Class 3A Final Four. He also likes the Champaign Centennial team for that weekend. But he says North Lawndale is far better than anyone else in a weak 3A and should win if everything holds true to form.

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