What a time of the year for the high school basketball fan. There is great, must-see basketball with some intriguing matchups across the state this week. Here is a preview of the state’s best holiday tournaments.
■ Pontiac Holiday Tournament • Dec. 28-30
Team to beat: Simeon has become the adopted basketball son for the people of Pontiac through the years, winning a total of 13 tournament titles in the last 20 years. The Wolverines, led by star Talen Horton-Tucker, athletic big man Messiah Jones and a host of other talented weapons, are favored again. And to make matters worse, Simeon is a little grouchy having dropped a pair of games to a couple of national powers in Florida this past week.
Keep an eye on: Curie. The Condors have what it takes to play and beat anyone in Illinois. It all hasn’t quite come together just yet for coach Mike Oliver’s team, which has added young players to the mix with talented transfers in Maurice Commander, Marquise Walker and Jayden Gasby. … Does anyone want to play Benet? Ever? That potential Benet-Danville second-round matchup is pretty appetizing. … Bloomington’s Chris Payton is among the top half dozen prospects in the Class of 2019 and has already committed to Illinois State. Payton and the Purple Raiders hope to make their presence felt at Pontiac after a less than memorable experience a year ago. Bloomington lost in the second round and finished 1-2, losing both games by a combined three points.
Go watch: Kendle Moore and Danville. When talking both best and exciting players and teams in Illinois, please include the Drake-bound Moore and his team. Danville is legit while Moore is a dynamic scoring guard who can take over games.
We want to know: Is this Oak Park team, which heads to Pontiac unbeaten at 7-0, set to take the next step? Coach Matt Maloney has a blend of size, depth and talent, including a guard in Isaiah Fuller who is playing the best basketball of his career. It’s been 25 years since Oak Park last won this tournament. A tournament title here would be that resounding next step for this program.
■ Proviso West Holiday Tournament • Dec. 27-30
Team to beat: Young and Orr. Take your pick. Both are defending state champs in their respective classes. Both are among the state’s elite teams and loaded again this year. Both are in the same conference and know each other well.
Keep an eye on: Early-round matchups as you won’t find any better anywhere else, including Larkin-Kenwood, Bogan-Proviso East and New Trier-Hillcrest in the opening round. How about Fenwick-Orr in the second round?
Go watch: The individual talent on display is always special at Proviso West. This year it starts with the Young tandem of Javon Freeman and Xavier Castaneda and continues with Uplift’s Markese Jacobs, Larkin’s Jalen Shaw and Fenwick’s D.J. Steward, one of the better sophomore prospects in the country.
We want to know: With so much quality throughout this 16-team field, there is no doubt a lot of questions will be answered over the four days of basketball played here.
While we know where the likes of Young and Orr stand regardless of the outcome at Proviso West, there are other upstarts who hope to show they belong and can play and beat anyone. Just how good is unbeaten New Trier? Can Fenwick become the team we expected? Is Bogan ready to take off? Is Hillcrest’s fast start for real? Can Larkin beat the city powers?
■ Hinsdale Central Holiday Classic • Dec. 27-30
Team to beat: Bolingbrook. The defending tournament champs, led by the junior backcourt of Joseph Yesufu and Tyler Cochran, play with difference-making speed and are off to a 7-1 start. Coach Rob Brost has received a lift inside from 6-7 senior Joey Saracco.
Keep an eye on: DePaul Prep is 9-1 with its only loss coming to unbeaten Niles North. With a go-to junior in Perry Cowan and the emergence of junior guard Raheem Anthony, coach Tom Kleinschmidt’s team is looking to make a statement. … Danger looms throughout the bracket for the top two teams with Maine South, H-F, Marian Catholic, St. Charles East and St. Rita all talented enough to make a run at a title. Can one of these teams win four straight and head into January with a ton of momentum? … Don’t dismiss two Public League teams, Lincoln Park and Urban Prep Englewood. Lincoln Park heads into the holidays sky high after stunning Whitney Young 96-91 in double overtime, while Urban Prep Englewood is unbeaten.
Go watch: Justin Hardy. The St. Charles East senior is one of the more under-appreciated players in the Chicago area. The 6-5 Hardy is a productive, blue-collar senior who fills a stat sheet.
We want to know: After dropping six straight games and having lost seven of its last eight, can St. Rita right the ship? The Mustangs were a preseason top 25 team but head into the holidays with just a 5-7 record. … Is Marian Catholic the best team no one is talking about? The Spartans have wins over H-F, Hillcrest and Waukegan.
■ Wheeling Hardwood Classic •Dec. 27-30
Team to beat: Niles North. Coach Glenn Olson’s team has met the high expectations thus far, but the unbeaten Vikings will be tested at Wheeling. Damaria Franklin leads a Niles North team that will welcome back a talented, key starter in Jamal Stephenson this week.
Keep an eye on: The junior talent in the tournament could also prove to be the biggest threat to Niles North. Waukegan junior Bryant Brown and St. Viator junior Jeremiah Hernandez lead a pair of teams talented enough to win four games at Wheeling. Both are Division I prospects. … Fremd is Fremd. The Vikings remain a threat as coach Bob Widlowski’s team is off to a solid 8-3 start. … Prospect, with unheralded guard David Swedura, is red-hot with eight straight wins and could be a factor in the Niles North bracket.
Go watch: Drew Peterson. The 6-7 Libertyville senior is putting up monster numbers and is the top unsigned prospect remaining in the Class of 2018 in Illinois.
We want to know: Just how good is Waukegan? There is nothing to be ashamed of in having lost to the likes of Carmel, Libertyville, Marian Catholic and North Lawndale, especially with key players missing time here and there. But this was a preseason top 10 team loaded with potential, even if the star players are just juniors. It’s time to put it together.
■ Jack Tosh Holiday Classic at York • Dec. 26-30
Team to beat: Naperville North. The Huskies won 25 games and a sectional title last year but fell short at York. With size and talent in 6-7 senior Chris Johnson and 6-7 junior Tom Welch, unbeaten Naperville North is the favorite.
Keep an eye on: There are a host of teams ready to make a run in this massive 32-team field, including Batavia, Brother Rice, Hinsdale South and Conant. But keep an eye on a pair of surprising teams, St. Laurence and Sandburg, who are a combined 17-3. These two are both playing a fast, aggressive style of basketball. Sandburg is averaging 67 points a game and St. Laurence has scored 75 or more points in 10 of its 11 games.
Go watch: Hinsdale South’s Zion Griffin and Conant’s Ryan Davis are a pair of top 10 prospects in the senior class and all-state candidates. The high-flying, athletic Griffin has signed with Iowa State, while the 6-8 Davis, who is headed to Vermont, is proving to be one of the real recruiting steals in the Class of 2018.
We want to know: Winning a 32-team tournament is no small task. What team is going to be able to put together five wins in five days against a balanced field and head into the new year with a big shot of confidence?
■ Big Dipper at Rich South •Dec. 26-29
Team to beat: Morgan Park. Despite the uncharacteristic record heading into the holidays, the Mustangs are still favored. The loss of big man Tamell Pearson to injury has hit Morgan Park hard.
Keep an eye on: Talented Romeoville, led by Deandre Heckard and Eddie Creal, are a sparkling 10-1 on the year but lost its headline game to Bolingbrook badly. The Spartans would love a shot at Morgan Park in the championship and earn a marquee win and respect along the way.
Go watch: Ayo Dosunmu. The Illinois recruit is a game-changer. The 6-4 point guard is averaging over 26 points a game –– he scored 61 points in a recent win in Las Vegas this past week –– and ranked among the top 30 senior prospects in the country.
We want to know: What’s up with this Rich East team? This team has talent, speed and athleticism, depth and can put up points. The Rockets were averaging 88 points a game during its 6-3 start before being whacked by Marist, 67-49, last week and its head coach, Craig Hodges, stepping down.
■ Centralia Holiday Tournament • Dec. 28-30
Team to beat: Belleville West. The Maroons are one of the state’s best and feature 6-7 star E.J. Liddell, arguably the top prospect in the junior class, and Wright State recruit Malachi Smith.
Keep an eye on: The Chicago representatives, Marist and Evanston, are a combined 19-2 on the season and have climbed the rankings. Can the Redhawks, who are a perfect 11-0 on the season, or the young and dangerous Wildkits bring home a title?
Go watch: While Liddell is the the star attraction –– he’s a high-major prospect averaging 22.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.1 blocks –– Marist guard Morgan Taylor has been one of the most productive seniors in Illinois.
We want to know: How will Evanston and Marist stack up against some of the state’e best?
Evanston, led by junior guard Lance Jones, must first get past O’Fallon and star guard Jalen Hodge (24 ppg) in the opening round. Then the Wildkits would get talented Champaign Central and Tim Finke in the second round.
Marist has the host school, Centralia, in its path before it could get a shot at either Evanston or Champaign Central in the semifinals, so there is some heavy lifting to be done for unbeaten Marist. And, of course, powerful Belleville West is lurking in the opposite bracket.
■ State Farm Holiday Classic at Normal •Dec. 27-30
Team to beat: Wheaton-Warrenville South. The Tigers are unbeaten and the No. 1 seed but seven of their eight wins have come to teams with a combined record of 15-45. The eighth win came against shorthanded Batavia. Here’s a big opportunity to pick up a whole lot more cred.
Keep an eye on: The Chicago area teams. In addition to Wheaton South, North Lawndale is the No. 2 seed and Joliet Central is the No. 3 seed. North Lawndale sophomore guard Demetrius Douglas has been one of the breakout players this season, while Joliet Central is once again better than people expected.
Go watch: The State Farm Classic and the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. With the two tournament sites just a 35 minute drive down Interstate 55, pick the games and teams you want to see between the two tournaments and enjoy some of the best holiday tournament hospitality you will find.
We want to know: Can the Wheaton-Warrenville South magic of a year ago really be repeated? Coach Mike Healy has his team off to another fantastic start at 8-0. Last year the Tigers headed to the State Farm Classic 10-0, won three to move to 13-0 before falling to Joliet Central in the championship game.
■ Pekin Holiday Tournament • Dec. 27-30
Team to beat: Springfield Lanphier. The Lions are unbeaten, have a star in senior guard Cardell McGee and are a Class 3A title threat after finishing fourth a year ago.
Keep an eye on: There was a lot of buzz surrounding Lake Zurich when the season started –– the Bears were the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s No. 23 ranked team in the preseason –– but losses to Waukgan and Warren, along with a blowout loss to Niles North, have quieted that buzz. As a No. 3 seed at Pekin, it’s an opportunity for Lake Zurich and Ryan Kutsor restore itself.
Go watch: Francis Okoro. The 6-9 center is a manchild physically, one of the better junior prospects in the country and leads a Normal West team that is dangerous.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport