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Three-Pointer: Providence-St. Mel tops in 1A, red-hot Maine South and regional host debate

Maine South's Fillip Bulatovic (14) shoots over Crane's Jimarius Sneed (5) in their 60-40 win in Park Ridge, Saturday, February 9 2019. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Providence St. Mel thinking big as the 1A and 2A state tournament begins with regional play this week. Maine South is hitting its stride at the right time. And the debate over regional hosts continues. All three of those topics are discussed in this week’s City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Three-Pointer.

No. 1

There is a tradition-rich basketball history at Providence St. Mel that reaches four decades. Yet there is only one banner hanging up in the gym –– a 1984-1985 state championship banner.

“We don’t hang regional and sectional banners,” says St. Mel coach Tim Ervin. “You play at St. Mel, that 1985 team is the standard.”

This 2018-2019 edition gives the program its best chance of winning its first state championship since that historic and legendary team, which was led by Lowell Hamilton and Fernando Bunch.

The road to Peoria starts tonight for St. Mel. The Knights, the No. 1 ranked team in Class 1A, play a regional semifinal game at Ida Crown in Skokie. And after getting so close a year ago –– St. Mel lost a 61-60 heartbreaker to Sterling Newman Catholic in a Class 1A super-sectional ––this veteran group is aching to get at it.

“They are so hungry, because I won’t let them forget how close they were,” says Ervin of the sting that was left from that super-sectional loss a year ago.

This is a team that will be heavily favored to win its sectional, with a likely matchup with East Dubuque (25-1) in the DeKalb Super-Sectional in two weeks.

A talented, senior-dominated group with superior athleticism and speed, especially for a Class 1A team, is well prepared. St. Mel has beaten Waukegan, Loyola, Brother Rice, Fenwick, North Lawndale, Leo and wrapped up the regular season in convincing fashion with a 70-48 win over St. Rita.

In the win over Leo, a Class 2A state title contender, St. Mel found itself down 20-3 after one quarter. The makeup of this year’s team showed.

“The seniors did all the talking in the huddle when they were down big,” says Ervin of that early deficit to Leo. “I really didn’t have to say a thing. This team has taken ownership. They know it’s their season, that this is their team.

There are six seniors in Deion Jackson (15 ppg, 6 rpg), Tyriel Nelson (16 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg), Eric Jordan (14 ppg), Jason Mason (7 ppg), point guard T.J. Ervin (10 ppg, 6 apg) and 6-9 Taeyon Neal (9 ppg, 8 rpg) who are well aware of what’s at stake.

“They understand they have a chance to make history,” says Ervin.

No. 2

Maine South is one hot team.

While coach Tony Lavorato’s program is accustomed to 20-win seasons –– Maine South has averaged just over 22 wins a year over the past 11 years –– this particular team is rolling at the right time. And that’s after playing a more beefed up schedule this season.

The Hawks have relied heavily on a group of seniors, led by guard Essam Hamwi (13.6 ppg, 2.5 apg and 76 three-pointers), 6-3 Danny Crane (8.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Fillip Bulatovic (16.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg).

Bulatovic has taken his game to another level during Maine South’s hot streak, which includes eight straight wins and 10 wins in its last 11. The versatile 6-5 wing averaged 13.9 points and 5.8 rebounds a game during the team’s 11-8 start to the season. During the current 10-1 run he’s averaged 20.6 points and 8.3 rebounds a game.

In that stretch, Bulatovic scored 33 in a win over Marshall, 26 in beating Glenbrook South and 23 in a big win over ranked Homewood-Flossmoor over the weekend.

Maine South was awarded the No. 3 seed in the tough Niles North Sectional, where Central Suburban League South rivals Evanston and New Trier are seeded one and two, respectively. With a regional semifinal win next Tuesday night, Maine South would play either Loyola or Max Christie and Rolling Meadows in a regional final at Rolling Meadows.

No. 3

The IHSA needs to evaluate regional sites. It’s a growing complaint among high school basketball coaches, especially with the scenario of a low-seeded team playing a higher seeded team on the road in a regional final.

There was a time when the top four seeds in the sectional would host the regional. Maybe there can be added stipulations and requirements, including a minimum amount of gymnasium seating, but there should be a reward for a great regular season and earning a top four seed.

Curie, the top-ranked team in Illinois, may have to play a dangerous Fenwick team in Oak Park in the regional final. Top-seeded Geneva could play at No. 6 Glenbard West.

Simeon, a No. 3 sectional seed, may have to play Marquise Kennedy and Brother Rice on the road in a regional title game.

Others include No. 2 New Trier playing at No. 9 Glenbrook North. No. 2 Fremd playing at No. 7 Barrington.