Pontiac is the only remaining top-tier holiday tournament in the state. Proviso West is a shell of its former self, the Big Dipper is on life support and Hinsdale Central still hasn’t caught on with fans.
Centralia, Pekin and Bloomington continue to roll on successfully, but no tournament in the statecomes close to matching the field at Pontiac.
Part of the problem is that most of the elite Public League programs have no allegiances to in-state holiday tournaments. Curie and Simeon are fixtures at Pontiac, and Proviso West has held on to Bogan, but Young, Orr, Lincoln Park and Morgan Park are all leaving Illinois for the holidays.
The community and a smart tournament director have kept Pontiac thriving. The tournament began in 1926 and was the first high school basketball holiday tournament in the state and likely the country.
The local fans give the tournament a unique feel. One side of the gym is filled by season-ticket holders that watch every game. Tournament director Jim Drengwitz also has resisted the urge to turn the event into a cash grab, despite its importance to the local economy. He might be the only man in Illinois high school basketball to ever turn down a Nike sponsorship.
There are five Super 25 teams in this year’s field: No. 1 Bloom, No. 6 Curie, No. 16 St. Charles North, No. 21 Oak Park and No. 25 Simeon. Two other teams, Benet and Joliet West, have cracked the rankings at some point this season.
Bloom (9-1): The pressure is on. Anything less than a title will be a disappointment for the Blazing Trojans. All five starters are future Division I players. Guard Dante Maddox Jr. and forward Christian Shumate are serious contenders for Player of the Year. Shumate’s combination of shot-blocking and dunking make him perhaps the area’s most feared player. The road to the title won’t be easy. First-round opponent Lockport (6-4) is on a five-game winning streak, and a resurgent Oak Park likely will be waiting in the quarterfinals.
Curie (7-0): Once again, the Condors have arrived at Pontiac undefeated and more highly regarded than they were in the preseason. Ramean Hinton has been dominant, and his supporting cast is full of heady, gritty guards who defend and make shots. Keep an eye on Saiveon Williams, a 6-6 senior who starred last week in a win at Simeon.
Simeon (4-4): Forget the record and the ranking. The Wolverines have the talent to turn their season around by winning Pontiac. DePaul recruit Ahamad Bynum is a dynamite scorer. If St. Laurence transfer Jeremiah Williams finds his footing during the tournament, anything is possible for Simeon.
Oak Park (5-3): It was a rough start to the season for the Huskies, with losses to Morton, Riverside-Brookfield and Fenwick. But a win against Stevenson erased a lot of doubts and showcased just how dangerous guards Isaiah Barnes and Josh Smith are.
The dark horses
St. Charles North (9-1): The North Stars always seem to play well in the tournament, and this year’s team is off to the school’s best start. Guards Luke Scheffers and Christian Czerniak have earned raves, and Connor Linke, a 6-9 Bradley recruit, is one the few quality big men in the field.
Joliet West (9-1): New coach Jeremy Kreiger has the Tigers hungry. Guard Jamere Hill is having a breakout senior season, and junior Jaiden Lee is a dangerous scorer.
First Round, Dec. 26
Benet vs. Danville, 9 a.m.
Manual vs. Warren 10:30 a.m.
Bloom vs. Lockport, 1
Oak Park vs. Plainfield North, 2:30
St. Charles North vs. New Trier, 4
Curie vs. West Aurora, 6
Simeon vs. Pontiac, 7:30
Joliet West vs. Bloomington, 9