Downers Grove South coach Jay Baum doesn't believe his current team, despite the presence of two Division I recruits, is as good as last year's 25-4 sectional qualifier. Only three players have varsity experience. The Mustangs lack a dominating big man. There are a lot of question marks.
"I hope they will prove me wrong," Baum said. "If we are going to win, we need balanced scoring and defense. We have learned that when we take bad shots, it allows the other team to run down the floor and we can't set up our defense. When we set up our defense, we are an outstanding defensive team."
Jerron Wilbut and Jamall Millison, those two Division I recruits, said they are determined to prove their coach wrong. Wilbut, a 6-foot-3 senior, is averaging 15 points per game. Millison, a 6-foot-2 senior, is averaging 12. They led Downers Grove South (8-1) to a smashing 59-26 victory over Palatine in the opening round of the York Holiday Tournament on Tuesday in Elmhurst.
Against Palatine, Wilbut scored 21 points and Millison had 12 points and three assists as the Mustangs demonstrated the kind of energy and defensive handiwork that their coach believes could lead to a trip to the Final Four in March.
"The coach feels we don't get the ball inside enough, as much as he'd like us to," Wilbut said. "Not having a dominating player inside like we have had in the last two years means that we are relying on guards to score more. I feel I need to score more. I feel I have to pick it up to help my team because of our weaknesses."
Wilbut, whom Baum said could score 30-40 points per game "if we allowed him to do it," thinks he should score 25 per game. "I'm a scorer but I know I have to facilitate and get my teammates involved. I try not to do too much because we are a team. The coaches emphasize the word t-e-a-m."
Millison also predicts that the 2011-12 Mustangs will prove the coach wrong "because we prove him wrong every year. He didn't think we would be as good as we were last year. This year, we're faster than we ever have been in my four years. We can pick up where we left off last year and make a run at state," he said.
"We have no big man (like last year's star, 6-foot-8 Ziggy Riauka, now at Wisconsin-Parkside). But we get up and down faster. We spread the court more because we have a lot of people who can handle the ball. Speed will be the difference. The problem will be when we don't make jump shots. But we can get to the basket and the free throw line."
Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye agree with their summation. "When everyone considers the fact that high school basketball continues to become more of a game for guards, Downers Grove South has an opportunity to go a long way in the state tournament because they have possibly the best backcourt duo in the state in Jerron Wilbut and Jamall Millison," Roy Schmidt said.
The Schmidt brothers describe Wilbut, whose recruiting is on hold because he is a borderline academic qualifier, as "the one unsigned prospect in the class of 2012 in Illinois who we have no doubt could play for a high major program right now. He can play either guard spot, can score and distribute, has a great feel for the game and the ability to make all of his teammates better. Come spring, there is no question that he will be one of the most heavily sought recruits."
As good as they are, however, Wilbut and Millison need a supporting cast if the Mustangs are to qualify for the Final Four since former coach Paul Runyon's 30-4 team finished third in 2005.
The other starters are 6-foot-5 senior Kevin Honn (10 points per game), 5-foot-10 sophomore point guard Danny Spinnuza and 6-foot-6 senior Greg Garro. In a recent game against Willowbrook, Spinnuza had eight points, eight assists and four steals. He reminds Baum of former Downers Grove South star Bryan Mullins.
The bench includes 6-foot-2 junior guard Jordan Cannon, 6-6 juniors Robert Mara and Kevin Hall, 5-9 junior point guard Tray Simmons, 6-1 senior guard Kevon James and 6-5 junior Scott McNellis. James scored 15 points in the second half against Willowbrook.
"I'd be thrilled to death to get Downstate," Baum said. "I like the fact that although we are talented, the kids recognize the need to work hard in practice and games. It stems from defense. They know what it means to work hard on defense. But what does it mean to work hard on offense? Not settling for jump shots, making the extra pass, moving without the ball. They have accepted the challenge to work hard in everything they do. Win or lose, we are putting out our best effort."
Baum, 54, is in his third year as Downers Grove South's head coach, following three successful coaches in Bill Pelekoudas, Dick Flaiz and Paul Runyon who gave the program a lot of respectability and stability. Baum isn't a newcomer. He has been at the school for 27 years, serving as freshman coach for 12 years, then as sophomore coach for 11 years before moving up. He also coached football for 16 years.
"I waited my time to be head coach," Baum said. "I followed two guys (Flaiz, Runyon) who are in the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame."
Baum mixes old-school with a flair for modern-day communication. He still shows up for games in suit and tie. He puts statistics in a computer and pins articles and other motivational material on a bulletin board. High school basketball isn't the only game in town anymore so Baum believes he has to sell it every chance he gets.
"People have no idea what we do as coaches, if it is just 3-to-6 in the gym for practice and showing up for games on Friday and Saturday," he said.
"But coaching in the gym is only 60 percent of the job. The other 40 percent is scheduling, scouting, arranging for buses, dealing with the athletic director, talking to teachers and reporters, dealing with behavioral issues, college recruiting, fund-raising, summer camps, booster meetings, dealing with parents, talking to elementary schools. It's like running a small business."
Baum still recalls his first game as an underclass coach at Schaumburg. He showed up in a sport coach and tie for a Saturday morning freshman game.
"Coaching was a great thrill," he said.
"When the game was over, I took a deep breath and felt like I had just played. The score was 49-21. We won by 28 points and I was a nervous wreck. From then on, it has been a rush. I feel most at home when I'm in the gym."
So do Wilbut and Millison. Wilbut has been playing basketball since he was 7 years old. He often steps on the court early in the morning and doesn't leave until late at night. At the Downers Grove YMCA, five minutes from his house, he began working out at 8 in the morning and didn't leave until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. In the summer, he would take 200 jump shots, run a couple of miles, lift weights and play 5-on-5 games with friends and teammates--all in one day.
"Last season, all of us were disappointed when we lost to Glenbard East in the sectional," Wilbut said. "We felt we didn't give it all we had. We felt we were good enough to get to Peoria.
"But this team, talent-wise, is still there. We are a very young team, only three seniors, and have to learn our roles. But we are crafty. We'll surprise you at times. Everyone has something they do well that will surprise you in the game. You don't know what to expect."
Millison was a soccer player until eighth grade. In fact, he admits he was better in soccer than basketball at the time. But he began to concentrate on basketball and his skills began to develop rapidly.
"All of a sudden, I was getting more attention for basketball," he said.
"I get more excitement out of basketball. There are more exciting plays. You can't be flashy in soccer and I like to be flashy. You can't make oohs and aahs in soccer and get the crowd involved."
But Millison knows this might be his last chance to stir up the crowd. One of his goals is to go Downstate and, as a senior, this is his last chance.
"I thought we would go last year," he said. "I still have a chip on my shoulder from last year. It was so disappointing. We were so close but we came up short. We didn't play as a team like we normally would. We started to play team ball at the end but it was too late.
"We learned a lesson--to always trust in your teammates and play hard from the start with a lot of energy. I see that this year."