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State Farm Holiday Classic preview

Breaking down the favorite, top contenders and top storylines in Bloomington.

Brother Rice’s Ahmad Henderson (11) crosses the lane and goes to the left hand as St. Ignatius’ Kolby Gilles (32) defends,
Brother Rice’s Ahmad Henderson (11) crosses the lane and goes to the left hand as St. Ignatius’ Kolby Gilles (32) defends,
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

State Farm Holiday Classic

Where: Bloomington-Normal

The favorite: Who can beat the local team? Normal, led by Liberty-bound Zach Cleveland, one of the top 15 senior prospects in Illinois, is off to a fast 9-1 start. The Ironmen boast a three-year veteran at point guard in Trey Redd and are blessed with talented size in 6-6 Zach Cleveland and a pair of highly-regarded sophomores: 6-8 Jaheem Webber and 6-7 Noah Cleveland. Plus, Normal has beaten the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds –– Rock Island and East St. Louis –– already this season.

Top contenders: Second-seeded Rock Island and high-scoring senior guard Amarion Nimmers would love another crack at Normal. The senior guard is putting up 24 points a game this season. East St. Louis, the No. 3 seed, is led by 6-4 Missouri recruit Christian Jones and athletic 6-4 junior Macaleab Rich who are both averaging 18 points a game.

Sleepers: A pair of Chicago area teams, Wheaton-Warrenville South and Brother Rice, are on a collision course as the 4-5 seeds to meet in the second round. But both are capable of making a run and winning this tournament. Playing Wheaton South without any prep work or time is a daunting task for any team in a tournament. Since a 60-57 loss to Curie, Brother Rice and point guard Ahmad Henderson have rattled off seven straight wins.

Tournament storyline: This is a fun and unique tournament. There is a small school and large school tournament. And it’s one of the few tournaments that brings together teams from all different geographical areas of the state. The top four seeds in the large school tournament are from central Illinois, the Quad Cities, southern Illinois and the Chicago area.

Top five players to watch: Owen Freeman, Bradley-Bourbonnais; Zach Cleveland, Normal; Amarion Nimmers, Rock Island; Ahmad Henderson, Brother Rice; Ethan Kizer, Metamora.

Schedule

Dec. 27, First round

Normal vs. North Chicago, 8

Lincoln-Way West vs. North Lawndale, 9:30

Wheaton Warrenville South vs. Harlem, 1:30

Brother Rice vs. Mahomet-Seymour, 3

Rock Island vs. Joliet Central, noon

Springfield vs. Metamora, 10:30 a.m.

East St. Louis vs. Normal U-High, 6:30

Bradley-Bourbonnais vs. Peoria, 5

Dec. 28, Quarterfinals

Dec. 29, Semifinals

Dec. 30, Championship