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Holiday hoops: What we learned

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Across the state of Illinois there was enough hoops action to keep every high school basketball fan happy. At tournaments in Pontiac, Kankakee, Pekin, Proviso, and Pontiac, among others, teams and players showcased their skills. Here's a quick look at some things we learned on the road last week.
Austin gets things done - 2014 guard Larry Austin keeps hearing that he can't shoot very well or that he isn't a point guard. Regardless, the kid just keeps making plays. As he earned the MVP at the Pekin tournament and led Lanphier to the title, he scored, rebounded, defended and showed off his ability to make his teammates better. In 4 games he probably did not hit a shot outside of 12 feet, so there are still questions in that area. However, his vision and ball handling continue to improve and his jumper looks better in warm ups. Once the game starts, he rarely takes jump shots.
Finke has room to grow - He's not perfect. Although it's been an amazing start to the season for Michael Finke, the Illini commitment had a couple or rough outings in Bloomington. He now measures just over 6-foot-9, and he showed off his outstanding ability to knock down shots, but still needs strength as he prepares for college. Although he posted double digit rebounds in 3 of his 4 games, he still needs to be more aggressive in attacking the glass. What was good to see was a baseline drive and dunk that showed off some underrated athleticism, and a 29 point game in the 4th and final game of the State Farm Classic. He fits as a stretch 4 in the John Groce system, and if he gains 25 pounds will eventually be a player that can see some time at the 5 position.
Defense ruled the day - At Pontiac and Pekin we got to see three of the top defenders in the state in Cliff Alexander, Kendrick Nunn, and Larry Austin. A shot blocking machine, Alexander has great timing, gets up high off of two feet, and plays bigger than his 6-foot-8 frame. Nunn is probably the best on-the-ball defender in the state. He makes it tough to get the ball up the floor with long arms and good lateral quickness, and if you expose the ball he is going to pluck it away from you. With Austin, it's all about tenacity. He never lets up defensively, constantly harasses ball handlers, and gets into passing lanes.
-Tyler Ulis led Marian Catholic to the title at the Dipper at Rich South. Ulis continues to show a complete game, and although there are questions about how he fits at the high major level, there is no doubt that he is a dominant force at the high school level.
-Xavier Bishop is just a freshman for Lanphier, but he made big plays in helping the Lions to the Pekin title. Although he is just 5'7, he's a playmaker and has a ton of confidence at a young age. His growth has made Lanphier an improved team after a 4-4 start.
-Illinois commitment Malcolm Hill almost led his team to the title at the Schnucks Holiday Classic, hitting a 3 late to give them the lead. A game winner on the other end gave them the loss, but Hill was outstanding during the week, scoring and showing an improved motor. He may be the steal of the 2013 class in Illinois. He scores at all 3 levels and will be a great fit as a 3 for John Groce.
-Illini commitments Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn continue to play well. Tate is emerging as a much better player this year and has raised the hopes of Illini fans. Nunn, although battling a hip injury, is as explosive as any player in the state. Still a bit inconsistent with his jumper, Nunn brings numerous intangibles into play that the Illinois coaching staff loves.
-Cliff Alexander had a great week in Pontiac, dominating the interior with his scoring and shot blocking. He's an immediate impact player that John Groce made a point to watch play following the Illinois win at the United Center.
-Jabari Parker is getting better, but he's still not in shape yet. His inconsistency is in large part due to conditioning and being out of action for months.
-2015 point guard Jalen Brunson continues to play well, and many now believe he is the top point guard in the class of 2015. It's hard to argue with that assessment. Brunson has an unbelievable feel for the game.
- Chicago Curie freshman guard Devin Gage is a player to watch in the class of 2016. Gage (6-foot) is already college-ready physically. Strong and possessing a quick cross-over dribble, Gage gets to the rack and finishes.