Class shifting: A look at the new high school basketball playoff landscape

There is plenty to look forward to — even if it is still five months away. And that includes several programs making moves and changing classes.

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Simeon’s Avlyon Morris (0) controls the ball past St. Patrick.

Simeon’s Avlyon Morris (0) controls the ball past St. Patrick.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

After a state tournament that was cut short in 2020 and one that was wiped out altogether in 2021, the thought of this March playing out how it’s supposed to will be jubilation for the high school basketball fan. 

In addition, the IHSA will finally make the move to Champaign for its State Finals and its revamped format which will bring all four classes together on the same weekend.

So there is plenty to look forward to –– even if it is still five months away. And that includes several programs making moves and changing classes.

Top teams petition up from Class 3A to Class 4A

The trio of Benet, Brother Rice and St. Rita would have really bolstered Class 3A basketball by the time March rolled around. That’s where all three were supposed to be playing this season. But all three have petitioned up and will play in the Class 4A state tournament. 

Maybe the most intriguing of the three is St. Rita, a program loaded with young talent and with big expectations ahead. The Mustangs have never made the State Finals or even won a sectional title in program history. 

Instead of what would appear to be a very winnable Class 3A sectional, coach Roshawn Russell’s program will have to go through the likes of the perennial Chicago area 4A heavyweights. 

“It really was simple for us,” Russell said of the decision. “When I took this job we knew that if we do win a sectional, if we were able to get to state, we wanted to do it against the best. I know Class 3A is very competitive, but we don’t want to dodge anyone. We want to play against, compete and beat the premier programs. We want to do it at the highest level. Maybe I’m stubborn, naive or just dumb to do it, but it’s the only way I want to do it.”

Benet spent the 2019-20 season in Class 3A, winning a regional and advancing to a 3A sectional final before the pandemic shut everything down. But coach Gene Heidkamp’s program has already come so close in Class 4A, finishing second in the statein 2014 and 2016 while playing in the state’s largest class. With those types of seasons in the books, Benet saw no need to remain a Class 3A school. 

Brother Rice coach Bobby Frasor wasn’t interested in playing Class 3A basketball, due mostly to the historical factor.

“It’s what we’ve always done, and it’s where we’ve always competed,” said Frasor. “I think 3A vs. 4A is six of one, half a dozen of the other. There are great teams all around, so I don’t think there’s a competitive advantage in one or the other.”

The Crusaders will be a sleeper this year before being a potential major player the following season in Class 4A. 

Simeon returns to Class 3A for first time since 2007-08

When the four-class system arrived in 2007, Simeon reached Peoria and the State Finals, finishing second in the state as a Class 3A school. Coach Robert Smith’s program has been a Class 4A school ever since, winning four state championships along the way. 

Now the Wolverines are back in 3A and remain a state title contender while Public League powers Curie, Kenwood and Young will all battle it out in Class 4A. 

Lake Forest one to watch in Class 3A

Accustomed to playing in 4A regionals and sectionals against its North Suburban Conference foes like Stevenson, Libertyville, Mundelein and Zion-Benton, Lake Forest drops to Class 3A in 2021-22. The Scouts do so with one of the state’s elite players leading the way in junior Asa Thomas. 

Lake Forest, which has the bulk of its team back, will be a legit threat in 3A this March. 

Lake Forest will now go from North Suburban Conference rivals in Class 4A to battling East Suburban Catholic Conference teams in the postseason in Class 3A, including Notre Dame, St. Viator and St. Patrick. 

The Scouts have never won a sectional championship in program history. The last regional title came as a Class 4A school in the 2014-15 season, a team that was led by Evan Boudreaux, the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. 

New postseason look for Thornton

Perennial power Thornton is accustomed to facing its south suburban rivals Homewood-Flossmoor and Bloom in what is always a rugged sectional full of familiar foes and rivals.

Since the advent of the four-class system 14 years ago the Wildcats have always been a Class 4A school. Now coach Tai Streets and his Thornton program will drop down to 3A this year as one of the largest schools in the class. 

Thornton’s enrollment of 1,609 students keeps them just below the Class 3A/4A cutoff of 1,636 students. 

Thornton will still get some south suburban power flavor in Class 3A as both Hillcrest or Marian Catholic, a program that has jumped back and forth between 4A and 3A, could be waiting for them.

DePaul Prep falls to Class 2A

After doing quite a bit of damage in recent years as a Class 3A school, DePaul Prep drops down to Class 2A this year. The Rams won Class 3A regional championships in 2018, 2019 and 2020, a run that included a third-place finish in Class 3A in 2018-19.

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