I don’t know if it had anything to do with the groundhog seeing its shadow, but March madness arrived about six weeks early this year. Actually, the Illinois High School Association brought it on by ending the practice of giving a berth to the Public League boys’ and girls’ champions in the state tournaments’ so-called Elite Eight. In theory the change would allow more than one Chicago team to go downstate; in actuality, the IHSA stacked the deck against the top city teams by putting them in the same sectionals and supersectionals. Regardless, the Public League playoffs now had to be done with before the IHSA elimination process began. So the boys’ playoffs began last week, and the girls’ actually ended Saturday with the city championship game. The girls drew a good crowd to DePaul’s new Athletic Center for their title game, but the early opening of the boys’ playoffs seemed to catch everyone off guard. At least that’s the impression I got at Whitney Young for the Dolphins’ opening-round game against lowly Taft.

The fact the game was a mismatch might have had something to do with it. As the Young players retired confidently to their locker room before the game, Taft ran a three-man, full-court, no-pass fast-break drill, and the more the Eagles ran it the worse they got, missing layups and throwing the ball away when they weren’t committing obvious traveling violations. A fan wearing a rugby shirt striped blue and orange–the Young colors–sat down nearby. “Nobody here. It’s a shame,” he said. “You can almost hear an echo.” Young entered to a thumping rap track on the PA system, but there was no band and no cheerleaders, just a few girls in orange shirts in the front rows screaming–the pep club or something of the sort–and a few loudmouthed boys up in the last row against the wall. “Yeah, Whit!” one shouted.

It was indeed a shame so few came out to Young’s near-west-side campus for the game, because the Dolphins have a terrific team. They entered the playoffs ranked tops in the city by the Tribune at 20-1, above even unbeaten Crane, which had received an opening-round bye. I knew nothing about the Young players, but their quality was immediately apparent. They were led by a long, lean center named DeWitt Scott; it turned out the boys in the back were shouting Witt to him, not Whit for the school. He wore a white headband tucked behind the ears in the manner of Quentin Richardson, the Los Angeles Clipper who led Young to the state championship five years ago. Equally impressive was Andre Knox, a shorter but more muscular player, broad-shouldered and lithe-waisted, sporting a Giancarlo Esposito moustache. These two were smooth and polished; point guard Anthony Harris–the orange headband holding his braids back, the black shoes setting him apart from his teammates–had more of a playground style, driving and dishing the ball with panache. Arms over shoulders, the Young players formed a circle before the game began and rocked back and forth with a rhythmic chant, while the Taft huddle seemed almost dreary. The Eagles collected around their coach for a pep talk punctuated by a group shout that sounded like Dee-fense! The Young players sported various stylish shoes–most of them Nike–while some Taft players wore Nikes or Converse All-Stars, others dark and tattered shoes seemingly bought some time ago at Kmart.

The differences weren’t only cosmetic. Even without a crowd at the home gym Richardson used to call Sea World for the various Dolphin figures all around–as in “Nobody beats us at Sea World”–Young all but ran Taft off the court. The Dolphins scored the first five points, Taft muffed a series of short shots, and a wag in the back shouted, “Shutout!” Knox elegantly drove the lane for a basket, and when Scott, who was controlling the game inside, showed his range by hitting a three, it was 14-0. Taft finally scored, but Scott’s soft, lovely turnaround jumper made it 16-2. Young was throwing a wicked full-court press at Taft, swarming in the backcourt and using superior quickness to pick off long passes–Knox especially beating the slower Taft players to the ball and cruising around defenders on the dribble. One Taft player got so flummoxed trying to inbound the ball he tripped over his own feet and stumbled across the baseline for a turnover. This was greeted not by hoots but by stifled snorts of derision in the stands; one guy behind me said matter-of-factly, “Sad.”

Harris stripped the Taft point guard of the ball at midcourt and cruised in for a layup to make it 22-6, and then Young called off the press and sat back, taking a 26-7 lead at the quarter. Taft tried to get back in the game by running a press of its own, but after one turnover Knox recognized what was going on and started beating it, setting up his teammates for easy baskets near the hoop. Harris, too, used Taft’s press to his own advantage. Trying to break a half-court trap, he faked a pass to get his defender in the air, then put the ball on the floor and dribbled in to hit a floating runner in the lane. And while Scott rested on the bench, Knox took advantage by dropping a series of threes on the Eagles. Knox has a slightly unusual shooting style, holding the ball in front of his face and almost shot-putting it up heavy with backspin; but the longer the shot the better that style suited him, and with time running out in the second quarter he found the ball in his hands behind the center line and calmly banked it in to send Young into intermission up 54-27. Someone should have shouted, “No prisoners!”

We were privileged to see a ceremony honoring the seniors at halftime, and it turned out Scott, Knox, and Harris were all about to graduate. Accompanied by their parents, they received commemorative plaques at center court, as did Dwayne Curtis, a hulking player in street clothes and on crutches who made Scott seem small. Curtis broke his foot last month after being named the most valuable player as Young triumphed at Proviso West’s holiday tournament, and I can’t imagine what this team would be like with him in the lineup adding inside muscle to go with Scott and Knox’s inside-outside elegance and Harris’s street smarts. Young is a fine team without him, but they could have been truly special with him.

Taft kept scrambling and pressing and never gave up. A fluffy-haired guard made an old-fashioned running hook shot crossing the lane, but Knox answered at the other end with a three to put Young up 77-38. It was 84-42 after three quarters, and Young coach Ron Branch emptied his bench. The Young students in the back row grumbled with exasperation as the scrubs dwindled away a chance to top 100 points, but that didn’t make the 91-53 final any less of a drubbing. Still, Young had avoided rubbing it in.

Unfortunately, Young had a game the following day at south-suburban Thornwood, and the fourth-quarter rest wasn’t enough to refresh Scott, Knox, and Harris for a quick turnaround. Young came out flat, and Thornwood–recent home of Eddy Curry and Melvin Buckley–had regained its balance after losing four straight and came out smoking. Young lost, but the Dolphins may get a chance to get even down the line in the state playoffs.

I passed on the Young-Thornwood game to stay home and watch the girls’ city championship on Channel 11, which was finally giving the girls some screen time after introducing a Public League game-of-the-week series earlier this year. Marshall and coach Dorothy Gaters were there, of course, as they have been for every girls’ Public League title game since 1978–winning 22 of those, by the way. This year they were met by fledgling Hope, in only its fourth year as a high school program. Marshall clearly had the more talented players, with Jacquay Holmes, a lanky center reminiscent of Young’s Scott, augmented by guards Lashonda Grant, a flashy passer with a good outside shot, and Britney Jones, a skilled dribbler even as an underclassman. Early on, Holmes controlled the play inside, but then Jones got a little out of control coming down on a fast break, committed herself in the air, and made a bad pass. That led to a three-point play at the other end by Shuntae Roberison, a stumpy, scrappy, but talented player who came to epitomize Hope’s entire team.

Marshall led 19-14 at the quarter and padded its lead early in the second period. Grant went coast to coast with a rebound, finishing with a behind-the-back dribble and a running jumper in the lane to make it 23-17. But when Marshall went up 25-17 Roberison answered with a three-pointer, and then Hope seized the initiative and forced Marshall back on its heels. Hope ran off 13 straight points to end the half ahead 30-25.

Both teams seemed to be suffering from title-game nerves as the second half opened, going scoreless for the first two and a half minutes. Holmes finally converted an offensive rebound, but Hope scored 10 of the next 11 points and led 40-30 going into the final quarter. Roberison was everywhere, dishing out assists, hitting shots in traffic, even taking a brutal charge Norm Van Lier would have been proud of to stymie a Marshall fast break. She was fearless, and she all but carried her team through the rest of the game as Marshall rallied. When Marshall’s Grant drove and scooped one in to make it 44-41, Roberison responded with a drive and dish to set up an easy basket and a three-point play, thanks to an unnecessary Marshall foul. Then Roberison drove and took the shot herself, bouncing off a defender but making the shot in the manner of the Bulls’ pre-Jordan great Chet Walker–except that Roberison, contrary to Chet the Jet’s usual modus operandi, missed the free throw. Fouled again, Roberison made two free throws and Hope led 51-45, and though she missed two foul shots at 53-46 with 90 seconds to play, she came through just over a minute later, hitting a pair to make it a two-possession game at 57-52 with seconds left. That’s where the game ended.

It may be only February, but I don’t expect to see a more heroic or gritty performance than Roberison’s this year. Though Marshall had to accept turning over the city championship to Hope, the team it beat in last year’s title game, the new IHSA scheme makes it possible for both schools to triumph downstate. Little Hope will compete in the Class A division, while mighty Marshall plays in AA. If the city champ and the runner-up bring home two state titles, that will make March truly maddening for the competition.