Bulls

Breese Central's Brandon Book is a big-timer

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Breese Central's Brandon Book is a big-timer

Every once in a while, while observing the small-school basketball tournaments, you see a player who has what it takes to compete at the mid-major or even the major Division I level in college.

Breese Central's Brandon Book is one of those players.

Whether he is as good or better than some of the small-school standouts of the past -- Lawrenceville's Jay Shidler and Marty Simmons, Normal University's Jim Crews, Eldorado's Mike Duff, Cairo's Tyrone Nesby, McLeansboro's Brian Sloan, Providence-St. Mel's Lowell Hamilton, St. Anne's Jack Sikma, Leo's Andre Brown, St. Martin de Porres' Jerry Gee, Providence's Walter Downing, Springfield Calvary's Rennie Clemons -- remains to be seen.

But Book, a 6-foot-6 senior, clearly was the best player on the court last weekend in Peoria. If there was an MVP in the Class 2A tournament, it was Book.

Breese Central coach Stan Eagleson knew it, too.

"We always feel we have the best player on the floor," Eagleson said before the tournament began. "When he is on his game, he is as good as anyone the other team can put on the floor. He can post up but he also is a leading perimeter shooter."

The leading scorer in school history, Book (21 ppg, 9 rpg) is being recruited by Southern Indiana, Arkansas State, Millikin and Southwest Illinois College. The list of suitors should increase significantly in the wake of his sensational performance in the state finals.

Book had 24 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks as top-ranked Breese Central dispatched second-rated Seton Academy 57-47 in the semifinals.

He scored 19 of his 28 points in the second half and grabbed 11 rebounds as Breese Central won its 18th game in a row and completed a 34-1 season by edging Normal University High 53-47 for the Class 2A championship.

"I knew I had to come here and play as hard as I can," Book said. "Winning the state championship sends chills down my spine."

Playing against a Normal U-High team led by highly touted sophomore Keita Bates-Diop, Book converted two successive three-point shots and two free throws to give Breese Central a 34-28 lead after three quarters.

Normal U-High, which annually plays one of the toughest schedules of any small school in the state, fell behind by 10 but closed within two on two occasions in the last minute. But Book made a basket and Nick Grapperhaus made four free throws in the last eight seconds to seal the victory.

"He struggled early," Eagleson said about Book, who shot 3-of-12 in the first half. "Then he put us on his back."

Class 1A basketball to a large degree and Class 2A basketball to a lesser extent are acquired tastes, like girls basketball. The viewer must understand it is a different game, athletically and fundamentally. Limited athleticism, no slam dunks, no crossover dribbles, everyone playing below the rim, few if any major college recruits.

But once you accept the fact that this isn't Kentucky vs. Kansas or Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson or Simeon vs. Proviso East, you can be entertained by watching a game straight out of a coach's playbook, filled with X's and O's rather than dribble penetration and blocked shots and tomahawk dunks and up-tempo, up-and-down action that more resembles a Stanley Cup hockey game.

Book provided that type of entertainment and excitement last weekend. So did his team, which played in-your-face man-to-man defense against Seton and Normal U-High. Against a quicker Seton team, the Cougars disrupted Seton's offense and didn't allow a single fast-break basket. Against taller Normal U-High, they prevented the Pioneers and Bates-Diop from dominating on the boards.

Eagleson is one of the winningest coaches in state history. He has won 586 games in 30 years, including 30-3, 30-5, 30-3 and 34-1 in the last seasons. His team was fourth in 2010. Last year's team lost in the supersectional. The only blemish on this year's record was a loss to Kirkwood Vianney, a St. Louis suburban power.

"Since 1996, we have had a nice run of good basketball players and good basketball players with good size, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 kids who can play," Eagleson said. "Going into this season, I felt this team was potentially the best I have had. It has a lot of kids with good basketball sense."

The Class 1A final was entertaining, too. Woodlawn, which had eliminated top-ranked Mounds Meridian for the second year in a row in the supersectional, trounced North Shore Country Day 62-44 in the semifinals, then rallied to edge Carrollton 48-45 for the title.

No, it wasn't like watching someone cut grass. A.J. Webb made a three-pointer with 16 seconds left to overcome a one-point deficit and Christian Hollenkamp made two free throws with two seconds left to clinch the victory as Woodlawn closed out with a 5-0 run.

Gabe Owens was an effective three-point shooting threat and Webb was a lockdown defender and clutch performer for Woodlawn. Carrollton's Joey Coonrod, a three-sport star who pitched his school to a state championship last year, also stood out. Coonrad had 16 points and 17 rebounds in the final.

Only one complaint: While television announcers Lee Hall and Dave Bernhard and color commentators Greg Starrick, Camron Smith and Matt Rodewald were informed and informative, Starrick closed with a tiresome comment stolen from Dick Vitale that always sends chills down my spine.

"Both teams were well-coached," said Starrick, a former Marion star who was one of the most prolific scorers in state history.

Have you ever heard a radio or TV analyst refer to a team -- high school, college or professional -- as poorly coached?

Re-focused Zach LaVine primed to bounce back: ‘I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for’

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USA TODAY

Re-focused Zach LaVine primed to bounce back: ‘I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for’

Healthy in October for the first time in three seasons, Zach LaVine entered training camp as the $78 million man looking to justify one of the summer’s largest deals that many criticized.

And just a few days into camp, the spotlight homed in on him further when the Bulls lost Lauri Markkanen to an elbow injury.

LaVine responded to both challenges, putting together a preseason performance that not even the most optimistic expectations could have included.

In just 22.3 minutes he averaged 17.8 points on 52 percent shooting, made 44 percent of his triples and got to the free throw line a team best 4.8 times per game. In short, he looked much more like the potential franchise-building piece the Bulls believed they were acquiring 19 months ago.

“I’m my hardest critic, so there’s nothing on the outside that I haven’t told myself of where I want to be at. You want to tell the doubters on the outside I told you so, but it’s mostly coming from a place where I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for.’’

The fifth-year shooting guard was fluid, attacked in a variety of ways and looked like part of the offense, something that at times was non-existent during last year’s injury-riddled comeback season. Taking shots in rhythm, attacking the rim instead of settling for contested jumpers, running the floor. LaVine looked a lot like the player who shot 46 percent from the field and 39 percent from deep before the ACL injury in 2017.

“I think I found a good rhythm and then just keep that going into the regular season. I think last year still, I was trying to catch my rhythm with the games I played,” LaVine said Monday at the Advocate Center. “I’d play two good games and two bad games. I felt like that up and down was a little bit with the consistency of not playing. Now that I’m back fully I think that’s where I should be.”

The offensive uptick is a sight for sore eyes, especially with Markkanen on the mend. But where LaVine can quiet his harshest critics – including himself – is on the defensive end.

It’s just a five-game sample size, but LaVine’s individual defensive rating of 97.3 was better than the team’s overall 100.2 rating. A year ago, LaVine’s defensive rating was 113.9, the worst on the team, and worse than the team’s overall 110.4 mark. They’re baby steps, but steps nonetheless for a player who knows what the book says about him on that end of the floor.

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” he said. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

The preseason is one hurdle cleared, but they get much taller and difficult to get over when Thursday and the Philadelphia 76ers come around. No matter who starts in the frontcourt – Fred Hoiberg isn’t ready to announce Bobby Portis and Wendell Carter Jr. yet – or if the Bulls get good Jabari Parker instead of preseason Jabari Parker, all eyes will be on LaVine.

It’s the contract. It’s being the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butle trade. It’s how well he played before the injury and how dominant he looked in the preseason. He’s off to a good start and knows now is this time to build on it.

“There are a lot of things you want to reach and get better at every year, and I put a lot of work into this offseason,” he said. “I have a lot of things to prove and want to get better at, and yeah, I feel like it’s just motivation for yourself when you want to accomplish things.’’

VOTE: Viewers' Choice Game Of The Week

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NBC Sports Chicago

VOTE: Viewers' Choice Game Of The Week

Who wants it more?

We are putting High School Lites, Chicagoland's top prep sports show, in the hands of area football fans in our "Viewers' Choice Game of the Week." Fans will get the chance to pick one game that the @NBCSPreps crew will cover on Friday night. We will send our cameras to the game that gets the most votes; highlights and postgame reaction of that game will appear on that night's "High School Lites" broadcast at 11 p.m. The show also live streams at www.nbcsportschicago.com/watchlive. High School Lites will also have broadcast replays at 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. the following Saturday. 

Week 9 is “Bubble Week” for many teams fighting to stay on the right side of the postseason bubble. Who moves on? Whose bubble will burst? Will Wauconda advance to the playoffs after finishing 2-7 last year? Or will Grant end their season on a winning note? Schaumburg and Fremd both stand at 4-4. The winner goes to the postseason. The winner stays home for November. Zion-Benton hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2003. A win over Libertyville gets them there. But for the Wildcats, this ‘is’ their playoff game. Who wins in the North Suburban conference? We’ll send our cameras to one of the following:

Grant at Wauconda, 7:15 p.m.

Schaumburg at Fremd, 7:30 p.m.

Libertyville at Zion-Benton, 7:30 p.m.

— Follow @NBCSPreps on Twitter.
— Note the "pinned Tweet" atop the @NBCSPreps feed. Vote for the game you want us to cover.
— Spread the word! 

We will make an announcement on @NBCSPreps just after 4 p.m. Thursday with the official results of which game will be covered. And as a reminder, be sure to follow @NBCSPreps for updates on the "Viewers' Choice Game of the week," along with other high school sports news, scores and highlights this season.