Homewood-Flossmoor coach Jim McLaughlin rolled his eyes. It was the kind of thing every coach dreads to see--two full-page stories on his team on successive days in a daily metropolitan newspaper. Too much publicity can often lead to inflated egos, petty jealousies and overconfidence. And that isn't good.
But McLaughlin, in his eighth season at H-F, thinks his 2012-13 squad is mature enough to handle it. The No. 4 ranked Vikings are 7-0 going into Friday night's game against Lincoln-Way East. Then they'll meet Ellison on Dec. 22 in the opening round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
With three starters and nine players returning from a 22-8 squad that lost to Bloom in the sectional final, McLaughlin had every reason to believe that this team could be comparable to his 27-2 team in 2008 or his 28-4 team in 2006 or former coach Roy Condotti's 31-3 powerhouse with Julian Wright that lost to Peoria Central and Shaun Livingston in the Class AA state championship in 2004.
"We have some pieces," he said. "We have size, two 6-foot-8 kids, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound power forward, big people who an move and get up and down the floor. And we have guards who are long and lanky and have speed. Size and length with quickness. Potentially, we will be very good.
"We saw it last year in practice. The junior class was a unique group. They competed and played hard. They pushed the seniors. They never backed down. When we got them together in the summer for 25 days, they won some tournaments and beat good teams. We saw they were a unique group."
The leader is 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior power forward Maurius Hill, who averages 12 points and 10 rebounds per game. "He is our hardest worker, a great competitor. He brings his lunch bucket every day," McLaughlin said.
Other starters are 6-foot-4 senior point guard Rashaan Surles (16 ppg), 6-foot-8 senior Lamar Wofford-Humphrey (8 ppg, 4 rpg), 6-foot-4 senior Ricky Bullock (5 ppg) and 6-foot-4 senior Jason Scott (7 ppg, 4 rpg). Tai Odiase, a 6-foot-8 junior, contributes eight points and five rebounds off the bench.
"I like how hard they work every day," McLaughlin said. "They are committed to defending. Even on bad nights you can find a way to win when you play good defense. We have the pieces to apply a lot of pressure on people and execute in a half-court setting."
It all revolves around Hill. McLaughlin said he had circled last Sunday's game against Curie and 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander on his calendar. H-F scored only two points in the last 5:33 but still managed to win 42-40 as Hill had 14 points and 12 rebounds. For his effort, Hill was named Athlete of the Week by the Chicago Sun-Times. Two back-to-back full-page stories with color pictures to boot.
"The players saw it. The coach mentioned it but he didn't make a big deal of it. He said to be humble and continue to play with the same intensity," Hill said. "I feel it is like taking baby steps. The bigger prize is out there. I don't want it to make my head big. I'm the Athlete of the Week. I'm handling it pretty well. I enjoy the moment but I don't let it go to my head. I feel I can do better."
Hill admits he doesn't mind the spotlight. "Some friends gave me a lot of grief. But some congratulated me. I would like to have more of those days," he said.
And fewer of the kind of days he experienced last season. "It was a disappointment. It wasn't a failure but a learning experience. Some kids didn't work as hard as they should have. The seniors had too many egos. It showed us that nothing is handed to you. You have to earn it. You can't let egos get in the way. You have to be together on and off the court," he said.
"This is my team. My role is to keep everybody together, to keep everybody on the same page. Everybody knows what is going on. Everybody has a clue. I have to make sure everyone is dedicated to working hard. My personal goal is to get my team Downstate."
Hill said what he likes most about this team is the players all get along on and off the floor and push each other in practice. Every day, they play a game called 'war,' a box-out drill designed to prevent opponents from getting rebounds.
"There is a lot of intensity," he said. "You have to box out and not foul in the drill. There is a lot of pushing and shoving, a lot of cuts and bruises, very physical. It gets us ready for games."
But McLaughlin admits it isn't all roses. There is one dandelion in the garden. His team has a shortcoming that he hopes to remedy during the two weeks his team has to prepare for the Proviso West tournament.
"We must become smarter on offense, what is a good shot for us, where to take it from, get the right guys I the right spots," he said. "We have guys who want to be coached. They are quick learners. Proviso West is a big test every year. We have touched every trophy at Proviso West but only won once (2003). Our goal is to play our best basketball when we get to March."
"Other teams weren't as focused to go Downstate. This group is focused," Hill said. "The last time H-F was Downstate was the Julian Wright team. This team can do it. It would be a big disappointment if we don't do it. We have the pieces to get there."