Class 3A and 4A regional play begins this week. Here is a state tournament primer as we begin a three-week sprint to Peoria.
Teams to beat in Class 4A: Belleville West and Curie
Belleville West, the defending state champs, boast a 27-4 record and the state’s best player in 6-7 Ohio State recruit E.J. Liddell. Big-game guard Lawrence Brazil and 6-5 physical force Keith Randolph are two others who have been through the rigors and pressure of March.
Curie and still under-appreciated star Dajuan Gordon haven’t lost to a single in-state team and have impressed all year long, winning both the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and the city championship last week.
Both Belleville West and Curie have difficult roads to Peoria, but they are the state’s two best teams and would meet in the state semifinals if they were to get there.
Top challengers in Class 4A: Young, Simeon and Evanston
While there are a surplus of challengers, these three stand out as true contenders.
Young has true star power in D.J. Steward and a couple of big-time wingmen in Tyler Beard and Myles Baker. The Dolphins lost to Belleville West in overtime in last year’s state championship game.
Simeon is playing its best basketball of the season, narrowly losing to Belleville West and Morgan Park while beating Young in the final month. The talented youngsters have gained valuable experience against a killer schedule while Antonio Reeves has established himself as a proven scorer.
With Lance Jones, Blake Peters and the bulk of last year’s team back, Evanston has the experience of last season’s state tournament run to lean on as it heads into March. The Wildkits want better than a third-place finish this year.
Teams to beat in Class 3A: Morgan Park and Springfield Southeast
It shouldn’t surprise anyone if these two powerhouses met in the Class 3A championship game for the second straight year. They remain the two best teams in 3A.
Morgan Park, led by star junior guard Adam Miller, is seeking its fifth state championship in the past seven years. With Miller, Marcus Watson and the rise of senior Deshawndre Washington, the Mustangs are the team to beat.
Southeast has a glitzy 26-2 record and has one of the more unheralded stars in the state in senior Terrion Murdix. The Spartans, who have never won a state title in basketball, have lost two games all season –– to Belleville West and Bolingbrook by a combined three points.
Top challengers in Class 3A: Bogan, St. Viator and DePaul Prep
The deep and talented Bengals, led by 6-7 Rashaun Agee, should get another shot at Morgan Park in the St. Laurence Sectional. Promising junior Antoine Bloxton is a late addition to this team and has been adding some offensive output of late.
St. Viator and DePaul Prep, two teams who have been built for a state run this season, are on a collision course to meet in the Grayslake Central Sectional. Both have go-to players you win with in March –– St. Viator’s Jeremiah Hernandez and Trey Calvin and DePaul’s Perry Cowan, the Catholic League Player of the Year.
STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
■ Chicago Heights hoops
Well, this should be fun.
Chicago Heights is big enough to enjoy both Bloom and Marian Catholic, and the fans in the south suburban community certainly have this winter. But Class 4A and, specifically, the Eisenhower Sectional, isn’t big enough for both.
After putting together terrific regular seasons, Bloom and Marian Catholic are the top two seeds in one of the state’s toughest sectionals and on a collision course to meet in a sectional final.
■ Geneva quest for statewide respect
If not for an upset loss to Lake Park back in January, the Vikings (28-1) would be an even bigger storyline as the state’s only unbeaten team heading into state tournament play.
Nonetheless, there remains a lot of curiosity surrounding a highly-ranked, top-seeded but still unrecognized team with an unsung star in point guard Jack McDonald. Come on! They’re 28-1. They do what great teams do –– share the ball, make the extra pass, run their stuff and play with cohesiveness –– just without the fanfare and Division I talent.
These seniors were in 8th grade when the Vikings finished fourth in the state with a school record 30 wins in 2014-15.
When have we ever been able to say a program like Simeon has a chance to do something it’s never done before?
With 14 losses, coach Robert Smith’s team has a chance to be the state champions with the most losses in state history. Several teams have won a title with nine losses. But only once has a team with double-digit losses –– Decatur High School in 1935-36 –– won a state championship.
Simeon will have its work cut out just getting to Peoria in what is a loaded sectional and then likely facing either Curie or Young in the super-sectional.
There are a pair of Class 3A schools looking to make history –– Bogan and St. Viator.
St. Viator has never played in Champaign or Peoria since its first graduating class of 1965. The Lions were built for this season, however, and as an added bonus dropped down from Class 4A to Class 3A to bolster their hopes. With the tandem of Jeremiah Hernandez and Trey Calvin, this is the team that could break through.
Bogan has taken over the undistinguished mantle of being the most successful program without reaching Peoria, though the Bengals came close in 2014 with a sectional title. The Bengals will have their old nemesis, Morgan Park, standing in their way once again.
■ Brother Rice. No one wants to play this particular No. 6 seed in a regional final. The regional is at Brother Rice where the Crusader Crazies will be in position to make a difference this Friday night. Throw in a difference-making superstar in Loyola recruit Marquise Kennedy and … Well, lets just say be ready, Simeon.
■ Schaumburg. In a Central Suburban League South-filled sectional — the top five seeds are from the CSL South — this Mid-Suburban League team is primed to potentially shake things up as the No. 7 seed. First, it must get by Glenbrook North — at GBN — in the regional semifinal.
The résumé may not be stacked with high-profile opponents, but the Saxons have 21 wins and have won eight of their last nine. There is size in emerging 6-8 sophomore Chris Hodges and some athletic firepower on the perimeter in seniors Michael Hodges and Heze Trotter.
■ St. Laurence. The Vikings can put up points, feature junior star Jeremiah Williams and will be playing the sectional on their home floor. Morgan Park and Bogan will get No. 3 seed St. Laurence’s best shot in Class 3A.
■ Naperville North. An intriguing team simply because it’s a quality double-digit seed. With a play-in game on Monday, the Huskies will have the tall task of winning three games just to get out of the regional. But with an improved team since the start of the season and a go-to player in 6-8 Tom Welch, this is a dangerous No. 11 seed for the likes of Glenbard West and Lyons in regional play.
■ Riverside-Brookfield. If this No. 5 seed is humming along offensively it can knock off fourth-seeded Lincoln Park in the regional. There are three players averaging 14-plus points a game in Zach Vaia (16 ppg), Andrew Veon (14 ppg) and shooter Patrick Hanley (14 ppg), who has made 93 three-pointers while shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc. In all, there are five seniors who can all score in some capacity.
■ Oak Park/York winner. Oak Park is a sixth seed who has beaten the third seed, York, twice already this season. So there’s that. Plus, there is senior experience and talent. But York will be a tough team to beat for a third time –– this time in a regional final at York.
If the Dukes can finally get over the OPRF hump, this 27-win team has the type of guard play and shooters in Nick Kosich, Erik Cohn and Nate Shockey, along with a funky defensive style, that could put a scare into just about anyone on the right night.
Here are the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s sectional picks in Class 4A and Class 3A:
NILES NORTH SECTIONAL: Evanston over Maine South … Evanston’s overall talent and the experience from last year wins out over a red-hot Hawks team and the rest of the CSL South-filled sectional.
WAUKEGAN WAUKEGAN: Stevenson over Waukegan … Yikes. How difficult will it be for top-seeded Stevenson to beat Waukegan a third time? And at Waukegan’s Dog Pound to boot? A hot No. 2 seed, Fremd, is lurking.
BARTLETT SECTIONAL: Benet over Geneva … Benet loses four out of six and then loses senior guard Will Engels and promptly closes out the season with five straight wins, including impressive victories over Notre Dame, Stevenson and St. Viator.
ROCKFORD SECTIONAL: Rockford East over Cary-Grove … A dream season for a talented Rockford East includes a very winnable sectional. But beating rival Rockford Auburn in the regional for a third time after beating them twice this season by a combined six points won’t be easy.
EAST AURORA SECTIONAL: Bolingbrook over Oswego East … There are few teams in this sectional who can match Bolingbrook’s speed, quickness, athleticism and experience in the backcourt in Joseph Yesufu and Tyler Cochran. Boise State recruit RayJ Dennis of Oswego East will try.
EAST MOLINE UNITED SECTIONAL: Belleville West over Normal … While Normal has a real tricky road to get to the title game, there is no need to bet against EJ Liddell and the defending state champs.
EISENHOWER SECTIONAL: Bloom over Simeon … It’s a sectional with six conference champs, eight 20-plus win teams and 15 teams with 15 or more wins. Bloom is healthy as Keshawn Williams will work off some of the rust in the regional. This junior group of Williams, Dante Maddox, Donovan Newby and Martice Mitchell make a statement by winning the state’s toughest sectional.
PROVISO WEST SECTIONAL: Curie over Young … These top two seeds are ultra-talented and highly ranked. But there are some dangerous teams lurking, including a York team the Hoops Report is extremely high on.
NORTH LAWNDALE SECTIONAL: Farragut over North Lawndale … Farragut lost to North Lawndale back in December. But after a 2-3 start to the season, Farragut has gone 15-4 to close the season.
GRAYSLAKE CENTRAL SECTIONAL: St. Viator over DePaul Prep … The return of a healthy Trey Calvin gives the Lions a slight edge in what should be a back-and-forth, down-to-the-wire sectional finish if it materializes.
ST. LAURENCE SECTIONAL: Morgan Park over Bogan … These two South Side powers met way back in early December, so there’s been a lot of basketball between then (Morgan Park’s 85-77 win) and now. But Morgan Park remains the class of 3A.
RICH SOUTH SECTIONAL: Hillcrest over Ottawa … Ottawa sneaks by upstart Oak Forest. But after a relatively quiet regular season, you get the feeling Hillcrest is lying in the Class 3A weeks. The Hawks have the guard play and have rattled off 13 straight wins.
MASCOUTAH SECTIONAL: East St. Louis over Carbondale … East St. Louis features Saint Louis recruit T.J. Hargrove, lost to Curie and Rockford East in overtime and beat Orr and St. Louis Vashon. That’s enough for me.
SPRINGFIELD SOUTHEAST SECTIONAL: Springfield Southeast over Lincoln … While it’s aching to get back to Peoria to finish business, Southeast must first get past 24-win Lincoln and its funky style.
MARENGO SECTIONAL: Johnsburg over Glenbard South … High-scoring 2,000-point Johnsburg guard Zach Toussaint takes advantage of a wide open sectional field without a ranked team.
PEORIA SECTIONAL: Peoria Notre Dame over Rock Falls … Raise your hand if you knew Rock Falls was 29-2? Anyone? But that January loss to Woodstock North is an eye-sore. Notre Dame has been better tested and boasts more talent.
The Picks: City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Peoria Picks
Class 4A State Semifinals: Belleville West over Curie; Evanston over Rockford East
Class 4A State Championship: Belleville West over Evanston
Class 3A State Semifinals: Morgan Park over St. Viator; Springfield Southeast over Peoria Notre Dame
Class 3A State Championship: Morgan Park over Springfield Southeast