Illinois-Chicago coach Jimmy Collins took one look at the Tribune's 1997-98 All-State basketball team and made this proclamation:
"Give me those five guys right now, and I'd go a long way in the NCAA tournament."
Collins' dream team would feature 6-foot-8-inch Michael Wright of Farragut at center flanked by a pair of 6-6 forwards, Quentin Richardson of Young and Corey Maggette of Fenwick. The backcourt would have 6-4 Frank Williams of Peoria Manual at the point and 6-5 Joey Range of Galesburg at off guard.
"When you watch players like these, you forget that you're watching high school kids," Collins said. "These kids are playing far beyond anything I can remember."
These five players are the elite of what many experts believe is the best recruiting class since the Isiah Thomas-Terry Cummings group of 1979.
In a normal year, standouts like Bobby Simmons of Simeon, Lance Williams of Julian and Young point guard Cordell Henry would be shoo-ins for All-State honors. This year, they're relegated to the second team along with King's Anthony Johnson and Arizona-bound guard Traves Wilson of Moline.
"This is certainly the best class I can remember in 25 years," Collins said. "What's special about these five All-State guys is their versatility. They can all play two or three positions."
They also have done their homework. What really makes the class of '98 so great is that many of the highly recruited athletes have qualified or are close to qualifying for a Division I scholarship.
Richardson, Maggette and Range have led their teams to the Class AA quarterfinals Friday at the Peoria Civic Center and will showcase their skills to a statewide audience.
"Quentin is a true All-American, and the bigger the game, the more he loves to compete," said Young coach George Stanton. "He is a tough inside player, one of the best rebounders I've ever seen who can also step outside and bury the three-pointer. I've coached Nick Anderson, Ben Wilson and Deon Thomas, and none of them was any better than Quentin."
Maggette, the Duke recruit who is a repeat All-State selection along with Williams, has been entertaining crowds with his flashy creativity the last four years.
"He is an artistic player who also enjoys writing poetry," Fenwick coach John Quinn said. "He is a very humble young man and an honor roll student who is among the most respected kids at Fenwick."
Despite scoring 55 points against Glenbrook North in January, Range is known more for his unselfishness.
"He is in a class by himself," said Galesburg coach Mike Miller of Iowa's prize recruit. "I've never been around a superstar who was so completely team-oriented. You've got some great athletes in Richardson, Maggette and Williams, and Joey is definitely in that class."
There are some in basketball-mad Peoria who believe Williams is better than all of them.
"Frank should win the Mr. Basketball award," said ex-Manual All-Stater and last year's award winner, Sergio McClain. "Look at how Richardson and Maggette have good teams around them. Nobody gave Manual much of a chance this year, and Frank brought them to the supersectionals."
"Nobody has done more for his team than Frankie," said Manual coach Wayne McClain. "He leads our team in scoring, rebounding, assists and always has to guard the other team's center. He breaks presses at one end of the court and makes steals at the other. What (he's done for us) this season is truly amazing."
Statistically, nobody had a season like Wright. The Arizona signee averaged 29 points and 16 rebounds and was honored as the Tribune's Athlete of the Month for January.
"Michael Wright is pretty much unstoppable," Proviso East coach Andrew Johnson said. "To me, he is the best big man in the state."
The Public League may never have produced more individual talent in one season. Out of the 10 first- and second-team All-Staters, six came from the city.
No wonder DePaul coach Pat Kennedy didn't venture far from Alumni Hall in assembling what he hopes will be a breakthrough recruiting class for next season.
"I'll never forget when I arrived here and saw these people for the first time," Kennedy said. "Wow, you talk about timing--God put them in our lap at the right time.
"What I find so remarkable is that we were very fortunate to get three tremendous youngsters like Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons and Lance Williams. But that still left some incredible talent like Maggette, Wright and Williams for Duke, Arizona and Illinois. This senior class was so good, I almost had to pinch myself every morning when I woke up."
FIRST TEAMQuentin Richardson, Young
The numbers: Averaging 24.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, shooting 60 percent from the field.
The scoop: The McDonald's All-American so far has made good on his guarantee that Young wouldn't lose another game after its only defeat in mid-January. He's being counted on to spark a basketball renaissance at DePaul next season.
Corey Maggette, Fenwick
The numbers: Averaging 25 points, 11 rebounds, shooting 54 percent from the field.
The scoop: The two-time All-Stater leads the Friars into the Elite Eight for the first time. Maggette, also a McDonald's All-American, will play at Duke next year.
Frank Williams, Peoria Manual
The numbers: Averaged 23 points, eight rebounds.
The scoop: Repeat All-Stater and McDonald's All-American finally experienced losing his final game Tuesday when the Rams fell to Quincy in the supersectional. Williams, who played on three of Manual's four state championship games, will join former teammate Sergio McClain at Illinois next year.
Michael Wright, Farragut
The numbers: Averaged 29 points, 16 rebounds.
The scoop: The Tribune athlete of month for January has been called the best post player in the state by opposing coaches. He will play for defending NCAA champion Arizona next season.
Joey Range, Galesburg
The numbers: Averaging 21 points, 8 rebounds
The scoop: The most versatile scorer outside the Chicago area lit up Glenbrook North for 55 points in January, equalling his career high. Signed with Iowa along with 6-6 teammate Roderick Thompson. The duo leads the Streaks into the Elite Eight.
SECOND TEAMPlayer, school Yr. Pos. Ht
Cordell Henry, Young Sr. G 5-10
Anthony Johnson, King Sr. F 6-6
Bobby Simmons, Simeon Sr. G 6-6
Lance Williams, Julian Sr. C 6-9
Traves Wilson, Moline Sr. G 6-3
SPECIAL MENTIONBrian Cook, Lincoln, 6-10, jr.; Travon Davis, Nazareth, 5-10, sr.; Kevin Frey, Maine West, 6-7, sr.; Dennis Gates, Young, 6-4, sr.; Sean Harrington, Elgin, 6-4, jr.; Jon Harris, Edwardsville, 6-7, sr; Jerrance Howard, Peoria Central, 6-1, jr.; Lucas Johnson, Maine West, 6-7, sr.; Damir Krupalija, Rockford Boylan, 6-7, sr.; Marlon London, St. Joseph, 6-3, sr.; Darius Miles, East St. Louis Lincoln, 6-9, so.; Quiande Moore, Zion-Benton, 6-2, sr.; Imari Sawyer, King, 6-1, so.; Leon Smith, King, 6-10, jr.; Rod Thompson, Galesburg, 6-6, sr.; Chris Williams, Fenwick, 6-2, sr.