Welcome to another edition of “Tate’s Take,” my third installment as a guest columnist. While it’s tempting to write about our dysfunctional local NBA franchise, the Chicago Bulls, high school boys basketball takes priority with the playoffs kicking off this week.
Here’s my analysis of first Oak Park and River Forest, and then Fenwick, as we enter “March Madness.”
OPRF has another good group of players who have meshed well under veteran coach Matt Maloney. The frontcourt is led by Wyoming football recruit Jared Scott. The 6-foot-6 Scott has a complete game, featuring a nice jumper with range and good passing ability. Scott’s frontcourt partner is 6-5 senior forward Cameron Gross. Despite battling some injuries during the regular season, Gross is a multi-dimensional threat like Scott who appears primed for the playoffs.
The key for the Huskies in the playoffs will likely be guard play. When guards Isaiah Fuller, Dashon Enoch and Kelton Pickett are playing well, OPRF reaches another level. If the guards struggle, the team tends to follow suit. Consistency from the perimeter players is essential.
Another intriguing dynamic for the Huskies during the postseason will be Maloney’s coaching along the sidelines. While he’s a good coach who typically guides the Huskies to 20-plus wins a season, he needs to win a few more big games in my opinion (similar to my take on OPRF football coach John Hoerster). I feel Maloney tends to over coach against marquee opponents instead of just letting his guys play. This season, the Huskies have lost to high quality teams like Fenwick, Simeon, Joliet West and Benet.
Despite a ridiculously lopsided schedule which gave the Huskies only one home the first two months of the season, Maloney’s group certainly took care of business in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division. OPRF finished 11-1 to claim the conference championship. The Huskies’ lone loss, 67-60 against runner-up Hinsdale Central, occurred without Scott who missed the game due to a recruiting visit.
From a historical perspective, OPRF (21-6) is pursuing its first sectional title since the 1975-76 season. Coached by Tom Meyer (the son of Legendary DePaul coach Ray Meyer), that team won a supersectional and finished third in the Class AA state playoffs. OPRF went 28-5 that season, setting the single-season record for victories. The only other year the Huskies won a sectional (en route to a fourth-place showing at state) was 1956.
Situated in the toughest sectional in the state playoffs won’t make matters easy for OPRF this year. On the flipside, this is a talented and battle-tested squad with high aspirations. The Huskies (21-6) won eight in a row to close out the regular season.
As for the Friars (24-4), the team enters the postseason on an 11-game winning streak with a Chicago Catholic League championship in tow. The Friars are the top seed in their own sectional and a legitimate contender to win the Class 3A state championship.
Under coach Rick Malnati, Fenwick hopes to go Peoria for the first time since the Corey Maggette-led Friars in 1998.
Fenwick is led by senior point guard Jacob Keller, who has carried over his stellar play as quarterback on the Friars’ state semifinalist squad to the hardwood. Although he’s been battling a foot injury the second half of the season, Keller makes the right decisions with the basketball and gets his teammates involved. He’s also a capable scorer, prolific dunker and solid defender. Jamal Nixon, a 6-5 senior who has signed with Minnesota State, is the Friars’ other top star and leader. He’s a load in the paint that can score in a variety of ways. Junior forward Mike O’Laughlin, another football standout, has helped Nixon in the paint at both ends of the floor.
I’ve been impressed with freshman DJ Steward. He’s poised and has star potential as long as he keeps working to improve his game. AJ Nixon, Billy Bruce and Sam Daniels have made steady contributions as well. Like OPRF, Fenwick has had a rugged schedule with close losses to Benet, Uplift, Whitney Young and Simeon.
While hosting a sectional doesn’t mean automatic advancement deep into the state tournament, I like the Friars’ chances.
Hopefully, OPRF and Fenwick will produce deep runs in Class 4A and 3A, respectively.