A Rough Road

Whitney Young and Long Beach Poly ready for battle on Poly's home court. Glenn Nelson for ESPN.com

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- After all the free-throw-a-thons and begging for funds, the early-morning flight through Phoenix where half the party got bumped to a later departure, the three-games-in-three-days-and-three-cities, the two technical fouls on a hostile floor and, worst of all, the two losses. After flying to the shadow of Disneyland and seeing nothing but two gyms and a hotel room. After all of that, Corry Irvin and her Whitney Young High School girls' basketball team may be rethinking the wisdom of scheduling a trip to California for back-to-back games against two of the nation's top 10 teams -- Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly.

After all, as Irvin points out, "I had a full roster when I originally planned this."

And she had the Chicago Public League championship game on an altogether different week.

The best-case scenario would have had Whitney Young, recently installed as the country's No. 2 team by several media outlets, ripping Bogan for the city title, getting ultimate California love with consecutive crushes over No. 5 Mater Dei and No. 8 Poly, and be sitting in the catbird seat for a mythical national championship with only a matchup against hated Bolingbrook in the way.

Instead, already down star guard Chanise Jenkins, Irvin learned on Wednesday that 6-foot-1 super soph Sinclair Cunningham was declared academically ineligible. Then CPL officials stayed firm on the city championship being played on Thursday night and, kids being kids, energy was expended in slapping down a challenge from familiar -- and hungry -- rivals. And barely recovered from the night before's championship high, Whitney Young boarded a wee-morning flight, sleepy-eyed, short-handed and hoping to re-discovered their unbeaten (22-0) magic during the four hours, plus layovers and delays, in the air.

At Mater Dei, the Dolphin starters huddled at 11 p.m., their time, in a dark pierced by klieglights and the hyperbolic introductions of their opponents. And they waited. And, awkwardly, waited some more.

When play finally began, sophomore Jordan Adams, a USA Basketball team member, signaled early she was going into another gear offensively, so it didn't matter that the Dolphins were causing some shooting problems for Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, another USA Basketball member and leading national player of the year candidate. Just before the half, Jessica Duarte exposed a vulnerability in Whitney Young's defense, which she and Mosqueda-Lewis continued to pick apart with Adams providing air cover from behind the arc.

Afterward, Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan praised his team's toughness, which he said he'd like to "bottle up" for the rest of the season. However, he bemoaned the fact that he had to back down on the Monarchs' fullcourt pressure against a team that proved faster than any they'd faced before.

Asked after her 21-point performance if any previous components compared, Adams suggested Long Beach Poly, Whitney Young's opponent the next day.

"But I think they (Whitney Young) are even faster," Adams said. "I'd see No. 1 (Kiana Johnson) flying by, and No. 11 (Janee Thompson) and their other guards. But then their big girls were getting down, too. Poly doesn't have that."

But Poly does have the bigs, enough to have two on the floor at all times and slice apart Whitney Young's smallish defense with high-low entries. Like Kiernan, Poly coach Carl Buggs didn't like the way his team handled the Dolphins' pressure, but he was without senior guard and Colorado-bound Ashley Wilson, who'd injured her right knee the night before. As it did against Mater Dei, Whitney Young dug itself a big hole, clawed and scratched its way back, only to fall short.

Buggs called the matchup great preparation for the long postseason ahead because "the best basketball is on the West Coast."

Told of Buggs' assessment, Irvin replied, "Some people like to say that. I think it's tough to know. It's certainly a different style (in the West). ... There are quick guards and it's a little more finesse. On the East Coast, they're in your face, and the Midwest is more come down and run your offense. It's all good for high-school basketball."

Not good for those who want everything neatly ranked and to know who likely would beat whom. The national scene basically is as it was before Whitney Young made the two-game swing. The Dolphins essentially took on a mission impossible and had to shovel out of more adversity than the D.C. area had snow. They did, however, show themselves, even without their bottle rocket, Jenkins, to be the fastest team in the country, as well as one of its most resilient.

Neither Mater Dei nor Long Beach Poly can make a strong case to climb too much higher in the rankings because of a victory over Whitney Young. First of all, they earned that victory on their home floors, over a team playing either its second game in two nights or third in three. On the other hand, both also are short-handed. Mater Dei still is without its third USA Basketball team member, Alexyz Vaioletama, and recently lost defensive gem Taylor Spears to transfer. Poly lost arguably its second-best player, Ashley Wilson, and only recently returned forward Thadessia Southall from knee surgery.

What the weekend demonstrated, more than anything, is the near impossibility of getting the huge beast that is high-school basketball under control. For starters, there is little uniformity among the 50 states -- for example, Whitney Young thrives on forcing five-second counts, could California doesn't have such a rule because it has shot clocks. Timing is a challenge and there aren't enough common opponents among the hundreds of schools that have to be considered for rankings.

The most effective way to rank teams would be seeing as many as possible play in person, but almost no media outlet does so. Which is why, for example, there are teams from the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast that are ranked way higher than they should be. St. Mary's of Stockton had the great fortune of the timing of Mater Dei's lone loss to Brea Olinda. Yet Mater Dei probably has the best argument for being No. 1 -- it won the Nike Tournament of Champions, it has the best player in the country this season in Mosqueda-Lewis and it has a big three in her, Adams and Jessica Duarte, who Kiernan said in Phoenix "saved our season."

The challenge even is getting two teams in a neutral setting with fairly even circumstances. The Nike TOC comes as close as anything, but Whitney Young could not play because school still was in session. That likely will not be a problem next year. Dare we say it? Next year is when we might have more definitive answers. Most of the best teams this season are young, which means the likes of Brea, Bolingbrook, Long Beach Poly, Mater Dei, Memphis (Tenn.) Central, Norcross (Ga.), Potter's House Christian and Whitney Young should be attracted to Arizona, where they can answer all questions on a basketball court.

Such a scenario would save a lot of guesswork, not to mention the coffers of programs such as Whitney Young, chasing certainty in such an unpredictable sport.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.