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15 reasons to be excited about this season

It has been 620 days since the last time high school basketball seemed completely normal. The sport returns today.

Simeon’s Jaylen Drane takes the ball down the court past Young’s DJ Steward (21).
Simeon’s Jaylen Drane takes the ball down the court past Young’s DJ Steward (21).
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

It’s been 620 days since the last time high school basketball seemed completely normal.

I was in La Grange watching a sectional semifinal game between Young and Simeon at Lyons in March of 2020. Since then — just like everything else in the world — nothing has really been normal in high school basketball.

There was a makeshift season a year ago that came and went in about a month. There were no fans in the stands, no holiday tournaments or shootouts, and for the second year in a row no state champions.

But today high school basketball is back. Yes, masks are still being worn but the season is set to tip off with Thanksgiving tournaments today and end in March with four state champions. You know — like normal.

Here are 15 reasons to be excited about the 2021-2022 high school basketball season.

The state finals in Champaign and a whole new look

How about one more thank you to Peoria? From 1996 through 2019 Peoria did its job as host of the IHSA state basketball tournament.

But a change was needed. Badly.

The IHSA has moved its highest profile event back to where it belongs in Champaign. It’s been a two-year delay due to the pandemic, but the state tournament is back to its roots. Champaign was home to the state tournament for 77 years before the move to Peoria in 1996.

Now high school players can dream of playing in a state-of-the-art arena filled with history and on a Big Ten floor.

In addition, in a completely new look the state finals in all four classes will be played in one three-day weekend this March.

New basketball blood

College basketball fans get a little tired of the Blue Bloods and all their winning and the attention they receive. Plenty of fans enjoy rooting against them. The same can be said with some Illinois basketball fans when it comes to the perennial powers in this state.

But take a look at some of the new blood near the top of the preseason rankings. The likes of top-ranked Glenbard West, Glenbrook South, St. Ignatius, St. Rita, Kenwood and Yorkville Christian have a combined one sectional championship between them.

That’s fresh, new and exciting.

Return of fans and student sections

Last season was flat-out weird being in gyms with either no fans or very few and students absent. You heard things during a game, including the ball bounce and coaches in the huddle from across the gym, you just weren’t used to hearing.

No, the pandemic isn’t completely behind us and there will continue to be some precautions, but there will at least be some life in gyms across the Chicago area this winter. And, hopefully, the buzz will be back for those select big games.

The holiday tournaments will be back in December

Holiday tournaments in December throughout the state are special to Illinois. And they’ll be back.

Last year would have been the 90th Pontiac Holiday Tournament. But for the first time since 1946 it wasn’t played due to the pandemic and the season not starting until well after Christmas.

All the tradition-rich holiday tournaments are unique in their own way. But Pontiac is one of the true highlights of any high school basketball season, and it will be as stacked as ever with the ideal holiday tournament feel and atmosphere.

And the Public League playoffs return

One of the real letdowns of last season — yes, even the shortened one we experienced — was the loss of the Chicago Public League playoffs. This is a historical piece of the sport that still means so much to the city and its fans. It will return in February.

Big shootouts are back

Take a look at the When Sides Collide Shootout lineup at Benet in a couple of months. It will feature five of the top six teams ranked in the Sun-Times preseason Super 25, six of the top nine and seven ranked teams.

You can also count three of the top seniors in the Class of 2022 who will be showcased: Yorkville Christian’s Jaden Schutt, Glenbard West’s Braden Huff and Young’s AJ Casey.

The top two teams in the preseason rankings — No. 1 Glenbard West and No. 2 Whitney Young — will meet in what could materialize as a potential game of the year. The No. 5 and No. 6 teams in the preseason, Simeon and Glenbrook South, respectively, will square off, while No. 4 St. Ignatius faces Benet and top 10 New Trier takes on ranked Yorkville Christian.

It’s not very often I circle the calendar for any out-of-state team traveling to Chicago. But once in a blue moon there is a reason to be excited.

Greg Oden, Mike Conley and the great Lawrence North team from Indianapolis playing Jon Scheyer and Glenbrook North at Northwestern back in 2006 was one of those times. Watching my favorite out-of-state team ever, Lone Peak from Utah, take apart Proviso East and seeing Jayson Tatum play for Chaminade, both in the Chicago Elite Classic, were others.

But this season includes another as Simeon will face Sierra Canyon from California in early February. Yes, the Sierra Canyon team with Lebron James’ son, Bronny. Plus, UCLA-bound Amari Bailey, the No. 2 ranked senior the country who is originally from Chicago, also returns as part of the Sierra Canyon team that is ranked No. 1 in the country.

Jaden Schutt’s shooting

In the quarter century of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, there hasn’t been a better shooter I’ve evaluated in this state than Yorkville Christian’s Jaden Schutt.

We’re talking form, release, footwork, elevation and the ability to get his shot off that makes it so pure. And it’s why he’s headed to Duke.

The skill set of Braden Huff

You simply don’t get to see a player at 6-10 with the skill set of Braden Huff very often. It’s difficult to even find a player comp for Huff from this state.

The Glenbard West star can handle point guard duties when necessary. He can find teammates and make them better with his passing. He can score around the basket and from the three-point line. He’s the quintessential skilled big that college coaches covet in today’s game, including Gonzaga which is where Huff is headed.

Rise of the Catholic League

You know who makes up 20 percent of the Sun-Times Super 25 preseason rankings? The Chicago Catholic League.

The league ended with a bang last season, albeit a shortened one, when DePaul Prep won the only tournament that mattered last season. Coach Tom Kleinschmidt’s Rams beat Young, Fenwick and Bryce Hopkins and then Evanston to win the Chipotle Clash of Champions while generating one of the few big headlines of the season.

With the overall talent level throughout the league continuing to rise, the next step for this league is consistent, high-level March success.

The Central Suburban League South race

One of the real highlights of last year’s abbreviated season was the conference race in the Central Suburban League South. New Trier, Glenbrook South and Evanston went at it for four weeks in entertaining fashion. They will do it again this season, just with some roles reversed but with the same heightened expectations in the regular season and in March.

The Nick Martinelli-Cooper Noard combo

What can this highly-productive tandem from Glenbrook South do for an encore as seniors?

As juniors these two Division I recruits — Martinelli signed with Elon and Noard is headed to Cornell — combined to put up 40 points a game. Maybe last year was just the beginning as these two hope to go out with a bang.

A new star — and future Illini — to watch

Welcome, Ty Rodgers.

The Michigan native moved to Illinois this fall and instantly rejuvenated Thornton’s fortunes this season. He also brings a whole lot of excitement to high school basketball in this state with how he plays and where he’s headed next.

Rodgers offers up big-time effort and competitiveness as an athletic 6-6 warrior who plays above the rim. Plus, Fighting Illini fans will have a chance to check out their prized recruit in the Class of 2022.

The arrival of Nojus Indrusaitis

Not only do we have new blood when it comes to several of the top teams, but how about a bonafide young star and high-major college prospect playing at Lemont?

There is plenty of time to see Nojus Indrusaitis because he’s only a sophomore, but he’s a player worth getting excited about this season. Last year as a freshman the 6-4 wing averaged an impressive 19 points a game. He’s already among the top prospects in the state in the Class of 2024 and boasts an Illinois offer.

There is just something fun and entertaining about star players showcasing their high-level talent in new places. The last four years we watched Max Christie stay true to his hometown school and raise the perception of Rolling Meadows basketball. Now it’s Nojus and Lemont’s turn.

Exciting freshman class

Getting an early look at an impressive young group of freshmen who are must-see for the diehard high school basketball fan is yet another reason to look forward to this season. The crown jewels so far at this early juncture are the foursome of Kenwood’s Bryce Heard, Young’s Antonio Munoz, St. Rita’s Melvin Bell and Joliet West’s Jeremiah Fears will surely all open eyes at some point this season.

St. Rita’s sophomore stars

How often have the top two prospects in any class played together in high school? Never.

There have been some dominating duos. The Farragut dynamic tandem of Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields come to mind as arguably the greatest, but they were one year apart. The same with Bruce Douglas and Michael Payne of Quincy in the early 1980s and LaPhonso Ellis and Cuonzo Martin in the late 1980s.

But the state’s top two prospects in the sophomore class is what you will find at St. Rita as 6-9 James Brown and 6-8 Morez Johnson, the Illinois commit, form quite the 1-2 punch.