"It ain't bragging," former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith once said, "if you can do it."
Morgan Park basketball coach Nick Irvin ain't bragging. His team is 16-1, ranked No. 2 in the Chicago area, the early favorite to win the Class 3A championship and will challenge three-time defending Class 4A champion Simeon on Wednesday at Chicago State in a Public League Red-South showdown.
In the wake of Morgan Park's spectacular performance at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament--the Mustangs overwhelmed five opponents by an average of 26 points per game and stomped perennial power Proviso East 82-57 in the final--Irvin can be excused if he takes a few liberties with the English language.
"We can compete with any team in the country. This is the time. Now people are seeing what I envisioned for this year. But we must keep showing people who we are. We are on a mission. We can't get too satisfied with what we are doing."
"Billy Garrett Jr. and Kyle Davis are the best backcourt in the state. They do different things. It was easy to put them together. They are defense-minded, too. They could take on any backcourt back in the day."
"Garrett sacrifices his game for the benefit of the team. He just wants to win. He should be up for Player of the Year and the McDonald's All-America team. He is our anchor, our trigger, our leader, a type of player like Quinn Buckner and Sergio McClain."
"Davis (a transfer from Hyde Park) is a great all-around player, a winner, as tough as they come. He brings leadership and toughness that we needed. He takes on the challenge of guarding the best backcourt player on the other team."
"Cunningham is the best player in the Class of 2014 after (Whitney Young's) Jahlil Okafor. The difference between him and others is he plays with a motor. He never takes a play off. He is the anchor of our defense. He shows you how tough he is, that he isn't soft. He will be a pro."
"Markee Williams keeps everybody happy. He makes sure the table is set. He gets everybody in the right spot. He plays in the shadow of Garrett and Davis but the ball is in his hands when the game is on the line. He has a winning mentality."
"Lamont Walker is the toughest player in the state. He brings energy and toughness. He is a player you need on your team, a junkyard dog. He makes your team that much better when you tell him to take an opponent off his game. He is the best defensive player in the state."
"Charlie Moore is the best freshman in the state. He reminds me of Isiah Thomas with the way he is flashy with the ball. He is a great outside shooter and has led us in scoring in four games. As a senior, he will be mentioned with Derrick Rose, Imari Sawyer, Isiah Thomas and Tim Hardaway."
"At Proviso West, we won five games by an average of 26 points per game. But if we rebound better and make free throws, the margin would have been 36 points per game. There is always room for improvement."
"At this point, we are playing as well as we can. I can't imagine playing much better than this. But after our loss to Bishop Gorman, the kids came back to win their next game and the Proviso West tournament. The season isn't over, they told me, it is just beginning."
Morgan Park's five-game sweep at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament was the stuff that legends are made. The Mustangs, who are averaging 87 points per game while allowing only 41, won by an average of 26 points per game and capped their impressive run by crushing Proviso East 82-57.
"I was surprised by the Proviso East game," Irvin said. "I thought we were 10-15 points better. But 25? I told the team that they showed me something. But they have been doing it all year."
How good is Morgan Park? "They are a virtual all-star team. They are very good at all positions, strong, smart, athletic. I can't imagine a better Class 3A team. They are as good a team as I've seen in 14 years," said Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose after losing to Morgan Park 67-52 in the semifinals of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
In his fifth year, Irvin, a former All-State basketball player at Carver, is seeking to establish a program that will contend with Simeon and Whitney Young for supremacy in the city. Morgan Park won the Public League title with Wayne Blackshear in 2010 and finished 22-9 last year, losing to Hillcrest in the sectional final.
But the Mustangs have advanced beyond the sectional only four times. In 1974, they qualified for the Elite Eight. In 1975, they lost to Phillips in the Public League final. In 1976, Bill Warden's team, led by Levi Cobb, Laird Smith, Jeff Berry and Eric Bowman, won the Class AA championship. In 2001, coach Herb Ray's team finished third.
"I felt this is the team to win it all," Irvin said. "I knew coming in that we had a great backcourt with Williams, Davis and Garrett. Then add Cunningham and White and this is the time."
If anyone thought Morgan Park would suffer a letdown after Proviso West, that notion was dispelled when the Mustangs overwhelmed highly rated Normal University High and Ohio State recruit Keita Bates-Diop 81-51. Davis had 16 points and six steals, Garrett 19 points and six assists and Cunningham 11 points and seven rebounds.
Against Brooks last Wednesday, Morgan Park prevailed 93-45 as Garrett scored 13 points in three quarters, Davis had 19 and Williams 14.
"Coming into this season, this team has a different bond," Irvin said. "I could see it forming in the summer. We won every tournament we were in, all four of them. We won 50 games and lost only two. They love each other. They hang out together. They go to the movies together. They have great unity."
The starting lineup features Garrett (17.7 ppg, 7 rpg, 6 assists), a 6-foot-5 senior guard who is committed to DePaul; Davis (18 ppg, 6 rpg, 4 assists, 5 steals), a 6-foot-1 senior guard who is committed to Dayton; Cunningham (14 ppg. 11.3 rpg, 4 blocks), a 6-foot-7 junior who has offers from DePaul, Bradley, Iowa, Oklahoma and Nebraska and is attracting interest from Michigan State; Williams (10 ppg, 6 assists, 3 steals), a 5-foot-11 senior who originally enrolled at Morgan Park, started on the 2010 Public League championship team, transferred to Crane, then played only four games last season after returning to Morgan Park; and White (12 ppg, 8 rpg), a 6-foot-5 senior. Moore (9 ppg), a 5-foot-9 freshman guard, and Torry Johnson (10 ppg), a 6-foot-3 junior guard, come off the bench.
"Defense is the strength of this team. That's our main priority," said Irvin, who is ably assisted by Terry Johnson, brother Lance Irvin, Walter Woghiren and Curtis Blair. "We have always been a defensive team. That's what makes it so special. They defend man-to-man.
"On offense, we share the ball. We make plays for each other. We are unselfish. The kids love passing the ball. They play as one. We're playing good basketball but we can get better at a lot of things...free throw shooting, rebounding, even defense. To go Downstate, we must make free throws and rebound. Everyone has to rebound, not just Cunningham."
Irvin isn't worried about complacency.
"I know they will lay it on the line every night," he said. "After we won at Proviso West, I said we have two more goals to accomplish--city and state championships. We want to gear up to play our last game on March 16."