The Class 3A and 4A IHSA State Finals will be played in Peoria this weekend. But before those four semifinal games tip off on Friday, let’s take a look at seven state tournament storylines to follow this weekend.
■ Can the Chicago area continue its big school dominance?
How dominant has the Chicago area been in the state’s largest class?
Whether it was Class AA in the old two-class system or in Class 4A since the four-class system began in the 2007-2008 season, a Chicago area school has won every single state championship in the last 13 years in the state’s biggest class. That’s quite a run.
While Champaign Centennial, Rock Island, Peoria Central and Belleville Althoff have all won Class 3A state championships since the advent of four-class basketball, no one from outside the Chicago area has claimed a state championship in the state’s largest class since 2004.
The great Peoria Central team led by Shaun Livingston was the last big school state champion from outside the Chicago area, winning back-to-back state titles in 2003 and 2004.
Normal came close, reaching the state championship game before falling to Jalen Brunson and Stevenson in 2015. Carbondale, Peoria Richwoods and O’Fallon all lost in the state championship game in the final three years of two-class basketball in 2005, 2006 and 2007, respectively.
■ Star power
While there will be a debate from some as to who is the best prospect in each respective class in Illinois, it can be argued the top prospect in the sophomore, junior and senior class will be on display in Peoria.
Senior Ayo Dosunmu of Morgan Park, junior E.J. Liddell of Belleville West and Adam Miller of Morgan Park are all high-major talents and are all ranked among the top 50 prospects nationally in their respective classes.
There is plenty of individual talent in Peoria this weekend, including a senior group that includes Belleville West’s Malachi Smith (Wright State), Young’s Javon Freeman (Valparaiso), Xavier Castaneda (South Florida) and Justin Boyd, Larkin’s uncommitted Jalen Shaw and Anthony Lynch, Morgan Park’s Tamell Pearson (UAB), Kenyon Duling (Tennessee State) and Cam Burrell.
Several underclass Division I prospects to keep an eye on include junior Myles Baker and sophomore Tyler Beard of Young, junior Anthony Fairlee of Springfield Southeast and junior Lance Jones of Evanston.
But the state finals in Peoria provides an opportunity for the Chicago area and the rest of the state to get a look at Liddell, who the City/Suburban Hoops Report profiled earlier in the week.
■ Another shot for Ayo Dosunmu
As terrific of a career as Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu has had and for as much attention and accolades as he’s received, there have been some tough setbacks he’s had to deal with.
When Morgan Park won the Class 3A state championship game a year ago, beating Fenwick 69-67 in overtime, the Mustangs did it without Dosunmu playing. The standout point guard was injured in the first quarter of the state semifinal, didn’t return and then missed the title game.
This season he missed his team’s run to the Big Dipper Holiday Tournament title with an injury. He came back and tried to play through the injury but eventually was put on the shelf for an extended period of time, missing or playing through pain in a dozen games. As a result, Dosunmu was knocked out of Player of the Year contention.
This is another chance for the star guard and Illinois recruit to make a lasting impression. More importantly, it’s a chance for Dosunmu to enjoy the feeling of being on the court in a state championship atmosphere and an opportunity to finish off his career with a bang.
■ An unmatched Young legacy?
Young has won state championships in 1998, 2009, 2014 and 2017. The rosters of those state championship teams were filled with a long list of decorated prep stars, including Quentin Richardson, Dennis Gates, Cordell Henry, Jahlil Okafor, Sam Thompson, Marcus Jordan, Chris Colvin, Anthony Johnson, Ahmad Starks and Lucas Williamson.
But this year’s stars –– and returning players from last season –– can do something no other former Dolphin has done: win back-to-back state championships.
The 2009-2010 team had a chance. But that group, led by Starks, Johnson and Thompson, lost to Simeon in the state championship after winning a state title the previous March.
Seniors Javon Freeman and Xavier Castaneda were instrumental in leading Young to last year’s state title. They are again the catalysts for a team on the cusp of leaving a legacy at one of the most powerful programs in Illinois that no one else has in the program’s history.
■ Marian Catholic’s rise from irrelevancy
No, it’s not a known or even a catchy acronym, but that’s Life Before Mike Taylor. And at Marian Catholic, the basketball program was non-existent before Taylor took over the program in 2003.
This is a program that had zero juice in the south suburbs and played second fiddle to Bloom in its own town of Chicago Heights for decades.
In 42 basketball seasons before the arrival of Taylor, Marian Catholic put up these forgettable numbers:
• Eight different head coaches.
• One 20-win season in 42 years (20-7 in 1992-1993).
• One regional championship in 42 years (1991).
• 17 single-digit winning seasons in 42 years.
But in the last 12 seasons Marian Catholic has averaged 20 wins a year, won six regional championships and three sectional titles.
Yes, the great Tyler Ulis had a whole lot to do with the arrival of Marian Catholic basketball. The dynamic point guard and fan favorite was a four-year starter who led the Spartans to 85 wins in four years, including two super-sectional appearances in 2013 and 2014.
Taylor, however, produced a 22-win season and two regional titles before Ulis and won 23 games and a regional title after Ulis. And he’s now led the Spartans to this run to Peoria and the first basketball state trophy.
■ Young + Evanston = speed, quickness and fun
The most entertaining game on Friday in Peoria will likely be the final game of the day when Evanston and Young meet in a rematch of last year’s super-sectional.
Both are talented. Both play with very little size. Both were able to navigate the toughest roads to Peoria. Both are highly entertaining with their speed and quickness.
Evanston turns defense into offense as quickly as anyone. The Wildkits have scored 60-plus points 19 times this season and have multiple perimeter threats, led by juniors Lance Jones, Ryan Bost and Jaheim Holden and freshman Blake Peters.
Young, meanwhile, can put points on the board with an attacking style. They run off backcourt turnovers, missed shots and even when the opposing team scores. With four different players in double figures –– Castaneda, Freeman, Beard and Baker –– the Dolphins have scored 70-plus points in 20 different games.
■ No need to wait till next year
As the season progressed and the wins started to pile up, both Evanston and Springfield Southeast entered the state rankings –– somewhat prematurely. These two teams were supposed to be a year away.
But here they are, in Peoria, playing in the state semifinals –– Evanston in 4A and Southeast in 3A –– with underclassmen leading the way.
After losing star Nojel Eastern and a host of seniors off last year’s 28-4 super-sectional team, Evanston wasn’t expected to exceed last season’s success. But a group of juniors –– Lance Jones, Jaheim Holden and Ryan Most –– along with a couple of freshmen, shooter Blake Peters and 6-3 Jaylin Gibson, gelled and exceeded expectations.
Coach Mike Ellis has guided what was a very inexperienced team when the season began to 26 wins and a guaranteed state trophy with one role-playing senior, 6-7 Matt Hall, and a group of talented juniors and freshmen.
Southeast will return six of its top seven players next year, including junior and leading scorer Anthony Fairlee, a budding college prospect with uber-athleticism. The Spartans will miss senior shooter Kobe Medley, but coach Lawrence Thomas’ team will be one of the favorites to win Class 3A next season.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport