The area’s top high school basketball teams might not have a state championship to play for at the end of this abbreviated season. But there will be a chance to play each other with something on the line in a tournament format.
While high school basketball finally is being played again, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the sport over the last 12 months. Former New Trier and Fenwick coach Rick Malnati has tried to find something for several of the state’s top teams to look forward to in 2021.
Malnati announced there will be a season-ending tournament March 12-13, featuring eight highly ranked teams: DePaul Prep, Evanston, Fenwick, Mundelein, Notre Dame, Simeon, St. Patrick and Young.
Those teams are ranked among the top 10 in the Sun-Times’ Super 25 rankings.
Malnati, who has worked as an analyst the last two years on high school basketball broadcasts on WCIU-TV, began brainstorming when he heard there could be a season. Regardless of the length of the season, Malnati believed creating a postseason opportunity to play for something was important.
He reached out to several coaches from the top teams to gauge interest. The response was overwhelming, and the process began.
“I thought it would be great to somehow create an ending to whatever season would be played,” Malnati said. “So when I talked with the coaches and told them, they said, ‘If there is a season, we are in.’ ”
While the logistics are still being ironed out in terms of tournament format and quarterfinals location, the plan is to have four quarterfinal games played March 12, followed by the semifinals early the next day. The championship game would be played Saturday night. All of the games will be streamed online. The semifinal and final will be at Notre Dame in Niles and streamed on ESPN3.
Notre Dame was a team that was competing for a state championship last March and began the season ranked No. 1 in the area. Coach Kevin Clancy welcomes the idea of a tournament and calls it a “carrot at the end of the year” for a team with such high expectations.
“Winning conference is a priority and a goal for us, especially this season,” Clancy said. “This adds another dimension. This is a chance to play and compete at a high level, for our kids to be -challenged while playing against some of the best teams and top talent in the state.”
Young is accustomed to playing in high-profile events across the country in preparation for a state championship run in March. This year, it will have to settle for an opportunity at the end of the season to play some of the best the state offers in an eight-team field.
“My overriding thought relates to the kids and having something for them to look forward to,” Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. “There are no championships, really, to play for in this truncated season. This allows kids to have a chance to play quality opponents and against great coaches and players with one team being crowned champion.”
Although Malnati would have loved to have had a chance for an expanded tournament and included more teams, it wasn’t possible with all of the obstacles because of the pandemic and regulations.
“You make the most of what you can do, and I think this is a great opportunity for at least some of the teams,” Malnati said.
There were certain teams throughout the Chicago area who were unable to compete in the tournament because of either school district or conference policies and protocols. Geographically, the travel factor of playing teams within 30 miles also was a hinderance for a few teams.
“This should be a lot of fun for these teams,” Malnati said.