There are eight Illinois high school basketball teams left playing –– four in Class 3A and four in Class 4A.
It’s a shame the four-class system has stripped us of a true big school state champion. (Yes, I’m still whining about it eight years later). Simeon vs. Althoff, anyone?
All we can do is pose the question and imagine this: If Simeon and Althoff played on a neutral court, which team would you choose?
So since the state’s best won’t actually face one another in Peoria this weekend, the City/Suburban Hoops Report ranks all eight teams remaining in 3A and 4A.
How fun would it be to seed the eight remaining teams and play it out in four quarterfinal games: Belleville Althoff vs. Rockford Auburn; Simeon vs. Lincoln-Way West; Curie vs. St. Joseph; and Peoria Manual vs. Benet.
1. Belleville Althoff
This is an experienced and confident team with high-level talent that is on cruise control heading into Peoria. Althoff has that combination of super talent to go with cohesiveness and confidence. There are five potential Division I players averaging in double figures.
After falling just short last year –– the Crusaders lost in the state championship game to St. Joseph –– a hungry Althoff has been the state’s best team since last season ended. And it may have arguably the state’s best, most productive high school player in junior Jordan Goodwin.
The Wolverines are playing their best basketball of the season, winning a city championship, rolling through the Bloom Sectional and dominating United Twp. in the super-sectional. There are senior leaders to lean on, and it’s a team that provides a presence at both ends of the floor.
Seniors Zach Norvell and Josh Thomas remain the backbone. Norvell, a Gonzaga recruit, has evolved into a go-to player as a senior. Junior point guard Evan Gilyard has become a catalyst, and the young players in the program are providing just the right amount of poise and production.
Simeon is the 4A favorite and in search of the program’s eighth state championship.
The Hoops Report was extremely high on Curie when the season began (preseason rank of No. 3) and when the postseason started (picking the Condors to reach the 4A title game). There was a stretch in the season where you started to wonder which version of Curie would you be getting on any particular night?
Now we are three months and nearly 30 games into the season. Curie is what the Hoops Report thought it would be: a state title contender.
Coach Mike Oliver’s team won the Pontiac Holiday Tournament in December, where it knocked off both Simeon and Peoria Manual. They also have two wins over Kenwood and have beaten both Niles Notre Dame and Young. That’s a list of heavy-duty wins.
Devin Gage, a senior guard headed to DePaul, has been able to pick up his team when it needs it the most. But Curie has a nice blend of size in 6-7 Traevon Martin, 6-5 Terry Smith and 6-6 Tyree Martin, along with a host of dangerous perimeter shooters in Elijah Joiner, Landers Nolley and Allante Pickens.
4. Peoria Manual
It was a little over a month ago when I spoke with coach Derrick Booth about his team. You could tell in the conversation the Rams were not anywhere near where he needed his team to be or where he thought they should be. There was work to be done.
A late-season loss to Bloomington –– after Bloomington had lost its best player, Charles Payton –– only raised more questions. But Manual has put it together and, to Booth’s credit, at the right time.
The Rams cruised to a pair of sectional wins, beating Metamora 58-43 and then whacking Bloomington 84-64 after having lost to the Purple Raiders two weeks earlier. And with each team trading jabs and punches in Tuesday night’s super-sectional, Manual impressed in a high-level win over Rockford Boylan.
Coach Derrick Booth has a star in junior guard Da’Monte Williams, who impacts games in a variety of ways with his size, length and athleticism on the perimeter. A.J. Youngman is a long-distance threat from beyond the arc, and Romon Douglas-Watkins is an athletic 6-5 junior who gets a lot done around the basket and getting to the rim.
While Benet may not have the ballyhooed stars or even a Division I prospect on the roster, the Redwings are extremely balanced (five different players have led them in scoring) can space the floor with their shooting (five players who can shoot the three), play unselfishly and are well coached. There is also the dependability senior Dan Sobolewski provides. That all adds up to a sparkling 30-3 record with a few impressive wins on the résumé.
The road to Peoria hasn’t exactly been a minefield, but the Redwings have gone about their way in a business-like fashion. They don’t blow out many teams, they stay true to their man-to-man principles, and this team has a little more offensive punch than you realize.
6. St. Joseph
With a true big man inside in 6-11 Nick Rakocevic, St. Joseph is a threat in Peoria and a difficult matchup for any high school team. Rakocevic, the top unsigned senior in the state, has the potential to impact every game he plays in.
Rakocevic, the lone returning starter from last year’s state championship team, is the dynamic figure for legendary coach Gene Pingatore. But St. Joseph’s young guards have held it together and gained confidence and produced at a higher level in the postseason.
Rakocevic led St. Joe’s in scoring in 25 of 28 regular-season games; youngsters Joffari Brown, Ahmad Muhammad, Jason Towers and Marquis Walker led the Chargers in scoring in the regional championship and both sectional wins.
7. Lincoln-Way West
Lincoln-Way West’s résumé may not glisten quite like a few others who are still playing this weekend in Peoria. But the shocker heard around the state Tuesday night –– Lincoln-Way West over mighty Morgan Park in the Joliet Central Super-Sectional –– has pumped added life and confidence into a team that is playing in unchartered waters.
Yes, that makes the nine-loss Warriors a much more dangerous team right now than they were just one month ago –– or maybe even two days ago. This is a locked-in group, as proven by the mettle they played with against heavily favored Morgan Park in the Super and Hillcrest in the sectional. They’ve handled athleticism and quickness while instilling their will and playing fearless behind rugged, hard-nosed junior Marco Pettinato (20.1 ppg).
8. Rockford Auburn
In beating Rockford East, Rockton-Hononegah, Jacobs, St. Charles East and Conant, the Knights were fortunate to reach Peoria without having to play any of the state powers. However, coach Bryan Ott has done a tremendous job with this program. Auburn has been to Peoria before, finishing third in 2012, and has averaged an eye-popping 26 wins a year over the past six seasons.
Auburn has built a system and reputation of putting pressure on opponents at both ends of the floor. Trayvon Tyler is a competitive, high-energy senior guard who fills a stat sheet. He heads to Peoria averaging 18.9 points, 5.1 assists and 4 rebounds a game.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport