Curie's 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander and Whitney Young's 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor are best of friends. "We are close, like brothers," Alexander said. They also are two of the top four or five high school basketball players in the nation in the class of 2014, maybe 1-2.
They'd like to go to college together, which would be the equivalent of landing Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the same recruiting class. The odds of that happening, according to Alexander, are 7 out of 10. Both are being recruited by Kentucky, Michigan State, Illinois, DePaul, North Carolina State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
For the time being, however, they are focusing on the 2012-13 season. Each believes he can lead his team to a state championship, something they failed to do a year ago, so they have put the recruiting process on the back burner until after the season.
"Michigan State and Kentucky are the ones I like most, also Baylor," Alexander said. "I want to get an offer from UCLA, also North Carolina. I would like to consider them. But I haven't heard from them. It bothers me a little bit."
Like Okafor, he has no timetable for making a decision. "I will commit after next season. I'm not paying attention to the recruiting process now. I'll think about it at the end of this season. I want to focus on this season," Alexander said.
As he continues to develop his skills, especially offensively, more school can be expected to join the pursuit. He has 22 offers as he prepares for Curie's Nov. 30 opener against perennial national power Oak Hill Academy in Benton, Kentucky. Other big dates are Homewood-Flossmoor in the Derrick Rose Shootout on Dec. 8-9 at the Ray Kroc Center in Chicago and the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.
In last Friday's opening 72-39 loss to perennial national power Oak Hill Academy of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, Alexander had 26 points and 13 rebounds.
In last Sunday's 37-36 loss to Benet, Alexander was limited to six points, seven rebounds and three blocks. He was outplayed by 6-foot-9 junior Sean O'Mara, who had 13 points, including a game-winning free throw with 12.5 seconds left, as Benet scored the last six points.
Despite an 0-2 start, Curie coach Mike Oliver remains optimistic.
"Potentially, this could be the best team I have had," said Oliver, who has won more than 300 games in 16 years. "We have a lot of talent, a lot of new players and the best player (Alexander) I have ever had. Our guard play will be good. We are quick, play well together and can shoot well from the outside."
Last year's team finished 26-3, losing to state champion Simeon in the Public League final and the Pontiac Holiday Tournament final and to Marist in the regional final at the buzzer.
"It hurt bad. It took a long time to get over it," Alexander said. "We have to come out stronger this year. It's my team. I'm the only returning starter. I have to step up. Last year's team was better than this year. It had more talent. But we can pull it out this year. We have good shooters. They will take pressure off me and let me operate on the post. My eyes light up when when they don't sink in and double me."
Oliver has a new game plan for Alexander this season. And his eyes light up every time he thinks about it. Alexander reminds Oliver of New York Knicks star Amare Stoudemire, a shot-blocker who is very athletic, like former Public League stars Leon Smith of King and Russell Cross of Manley, who dominated games on defense.
"He knows how to play the game now. He will bet the ball a lot more this year. We have added low post moves to his game so he can dominate more on offense than before. He has gotten stronger. He spent a lot of time in the weight room. He is thinking more offense this year," Oliver said.
Last year, Alexander averaged 14 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. This year, Oliver hopes he will average 20 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. Alexander's personal goals are 25 points and 15 rebounds.
"He doesn't have to impress anyone. He is like a big kid in a candy factory," Oliver said.
It took some time for Alexander to realize that basketball, not football, was his game. He didn't play basketball in grammar school. Until his freshman year, he thought he would be a football player in college and maybe beyond. "I didn't think I had a future in basketball," he said.
But Alexander said he got hooked on basketball as a freshman and forgot about football. "I liked dunking," he said. Now his game is so much more.
"The coach wants me to be more dominant on offense this year and that sounds good to me. I have been staying after practice to work on post moves and jump shots. I went to summer camps...Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James, adidas. I have post moves this year. And I put on some muscle. I'm much stronger and I feel in much better shape.
"I have to be the most dominating player on the floor every night. My skill set is better. My attitude has changed. I want to come out every game and dominate. Last year, I didn't do it every game. I folded up. I didn't do too good. My teammates and coaches tell me to dominate every game, to bring the dog out. That's what I plan to do."
Oliver will surround Alexander with 6-foot-1 senior guard Marcellus Davis, 5-foot-9 senior guard Demarcus Richardson, 6-foot-6 senior Malik Elbey and 6-foot-3 junior Joseph Stamps. Davis, a transfer from De La Salle, averaged nine points off the bench last season.
Top reserves will be 6-foot-4 sophomore Joshua Stamps, Joseph's brother, and 6-foot-3 junior Sheriff Matlock.
Over the years, Oliver has been one of the most successful coaches in the Public League without generating much fanfare. He has won 20 or more games for the last 10 years, has won the Central Division title 12 years in a row and reached the Final Four in the city playoff for the last two years and the final eight in nine of the last 10 years.
A 1987 graduate of Curie, Oliver was the No. 3 scorer in the state as a senior, in a class with more celebrated Marcus Liberty of King and Joe Daughrity of Crane. He attended Aurora University, then became sophomore coach at Curie in 1992. He won back-to-back city titles, then became head coach in 1996, succeeding James McLaughlin, who went to Homewood-Flossmoor.
"We play pressure defense and an uptempo offense. We play more like a Red-West team but we are on the Southwest Side, which is why we have been so successful," Oliver said. "We get in your face and we are aggressive. We push the ball. We're not afraid to play four guards."
As long as Alexander is in the middle of them.