Previewing Bloomington’s State Farm holiday tournament

Exactly how good is Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin?

SHARE Previewing Bloomington’s State Farm holiday tournament
Brother Rice’s Khalil Ross (31) controls the ball.

Brother Rice’s Khalil Ross (31) controls the ball.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

State Farm Holiday Classic at Normal

When: Dec. 27-30

Team to beat: Sacred Heart-Griffin

Sacred Heart-Griffin is the returning tournament champ –– but did so last year in the small school bracket. It moves up to the big school bracket this year and is more than ready to step up in class and do what it did here last December.

This is a team that’s turned into a machine. And with all five starters back from last year’s Class 3A state championship team, maybe that’s to be expected. Through its 7-0 start, the Cyclones have an average victory margin of 34 points and have beaten every opponent by 25-plus points.

The veteran senior tandem of Jake Hamilton and Zack Hawkinson are again leading the way, combining for 35-40 points a game while playing sparingly due to the blowout wins.

Top challenger: Brother Rice

The transition from coach Bobby Frasor to coach Conte Stamas, even with it coming as late as it did in the summer, appears to be going smoothly. The Crusaders are where they were expected to be. They’re ranked in the top 10 and playing some very good basketball.

The catalyst remains Ahmad Henderson, the Niagara recruit whose ability to score on and off the ball makes life easier for teammates. Opponents figuring out how to neutralize Henderson allows for Nick Niego and Khalil Ross to flourish. Plus, underclassmen like juniors Cole Cosme, Zavier Fitch and Tre Dowdell and sophomore Marcos Gonzalez are getting better and better.

Darkhorses: Wheaton-Warrenville South, Rock Island, Peoria and Romeoville

When isn’t Wheaton-Warrenville South a darkhorse? The Tigers are a very difficult team to face when there is a quick turnaround like you see during holiday tournament time. While coach Mike Healy’s defense always sets the tone with its ball press, the versatile Braylen Meredith and Colin Moore have provided some offensive pop.

Tradition-rich programs Rock Island and Peoria might not be powerhouses this year, but they’re capable. The Rocks feature 6-3 guard Cameron Atkinson. Peoria has a bonafide offensive weapon of its own in junior guard Dekwon Brown.

Five players to watch: Ahmad Henderson, Brother Rice; Zack Hawkinson, Sacred Heart-Griffin; Jaheem Webber, Normal; Meyoh Swansey, Romeoville; Dekwon Brown, Peoria; Cameron Atkinson, Rock Island

Underrated player to watch: Cameron Atkinson, Rock Island

The Rocks always seem to have some under-the-radar player. That player this year is Atkinson, the 6-4 guard with some size and length on the perimeter. His forté is shooting the basketball, which he does extremely well from the three-point line. Atkinson is consistent threat and is averaging 15 points and four rebounds.

Storyline to follow: Exactly how good –– and dominant –– is Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin?

We know the Cyclones are good. Very good. That goes without saying when every single player returns from a state championship team.

But with all the talk thus far about Simeon being the team to beat in Class 3A –– the Wolverines are currently the state’s top-ranked in 3A –– might SHG be Simeon’s equal? We’ll find out a lot more about the Cyclones at the State Farm Classic.

SHG hasn’t played a team the quality of a Brother Rice, and it hasn’t played a challenging defensive-minded team like Wheaton-Warrenville South. But if SHG rolls through this field like it has all of its opponents thus far, that’s going to be a major statement.

Title game pick: Sacred Heart-Griffin over Brother Rice

Bloomington (Large school) bracket

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