Eight questions and answers on the IHSA state basketball playoffs

Here are several postseason questions we will look to see answered as the 2022 state tournament plays out over the next three weeks.

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Glenbard West’s Bobby Durkin (33) dunks in the second half of the Hilltopper’s win over Simeon.

Glenbard West’s Bobby Durkin (33) dunks in the second half of the Hilltopper’s win over Simeon.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

The 2020 state tournament was abruptly canceled in the heart of March Madness with the arrival of a global pandemic.

The 2021 state tournament never even started.

But, thankfully, we are on our way to crowning state champions for the first time in three years.

Here are several postseason questions we will look to see answered as this 2022 state tournament plays out over the next three weeks.

1. Can Glenbard West go wire to wire at No. 1?

Glenbard West was the preseason No. 1 team, hasn’t lost to a single in-state opponent and has been the top-ranked team every week of the season.

Yes, we have a true, legitimate Class 4A favorite as the Hilltoppers begin their journey in what would be the first state championship in school history. Normally, even a sectional title would be massive news for a program that’s had little to no postseason success.

But this team, this group of players, want it all. And after dismantling Simeon last week it’s easy to call the Hilltoppers a heavy favorite. They’ve ascended to a tier all its own.

Running the table against all Illinois opponents — the only loss came at the buzzer to Sierra Canyon out of California — would be a distinctly alluring achievement.

The team’s two stars, Braden Huff and Caden Pierce, are now a combined 71-2 since June in both high school and AAU play as they teamed up together with the Illinois Wolves. But a state championship is the ultimate goal and would trump anything they’ve accomplished up to this point, both team wise and individually.

The community is fully on board and ready to fill gyms for what should be a lengthy and exciting ride over these next three weeks.

2. Can Simeon, Robert Smith extend their record-breaking numbers?

No program in the state has more state championship hardware in the trophy case than Simeon.

The Wolverines have won seven state titles with the most recent coming 2013. Peoria Manual is next with five.

Then there is the Robert Smith coaching legacy that he’s been building since taking over for Robert Hambric in 2004. Smith has six state championships and has won nine state trophies overall.

Forget the recent losses, which includes three of the last four games in the regular season, Simeon is the favorite and top-ranked team in Class 3A. Now Simeon and Smith have an opportunity to extend their respective all-time state title lead even further.

3. Which teams can win their first sectional title?

There are a number of programs who have been waiting 12 months for the start of this postseason. But those who are new to the chance of winning big in the postseason are especially anxious for state tournament play to begin.

There are an abnormal amount of top seeds in this year’s Class 4A and Class 3A sectionals looking to hoist their first sectional plaque this March.

Glenbrook South, Lake Forest, Kenwood, Oswego East, Burlington Central, and Wauconda have never won a sectional championship in program history. All are in a position to do so in the next two weeks.

Let’s go ahead and rank these seven teams by best chance to capture their first sectional title.

1. Burlington Central: They’ve been building towards this season with this group and the time is now to take advantage of the opportunity. The No. 1 seed in the sub-sectional has a likely road of Rockford Boylan and either Wauconda or St. Francis in sectional play.

2. Lake Forest: The Scouts hope to make the most of their move from Class 4A to Class 3A. The sectional doesn’t have a ranked team, so top-seeded Lake Forest is primed and ready. The biggest roadblock appears to St. Patrick, the No. 2 seed with a 18-10 record, while Notre Dame, Deerfield and Carmel will be the other threats.

3. Oswego East: The Wolfpack, the top seed in the Oswego Sectional, will have their fans in abundance in the sectional to create a definite home court advantage. Oswego East has shown a penchant for winning close games during its 30-1 season, which is never a bad thing at this time of the year.

4. Glenbrook South: There is a lot going for the Titans. First, this is the best team on this list. Second, the sectional will be on its home floor. But playing in what is arguably the state’s toughest sectional prevents this team from being higher on this list.

While the Titans can certainly win it, there are familiar rivals waiting for them. Glenbrook South may have to beat Evanston a third time, while New Trier, which beat the Titans the last time they met, could be the sectional final opponent.

5. Kenwood: This won’t be easy. The Broncos haven’t exactly been playing their best basketball down the stretch. Plus, there are plenty of teams in this sectional, including H-F, Brother Rice, Bloom and St. Rita, that could turn this sectional upside down.

6. Wauconda: When everything shut down in March of 2020, coach Scott Luetschwager’s team was set to play in a sectional championship. They didn’t get that chance after winning its first regional title in five decades. Here is another shot.

A sub-sectional top seed in the Crystal Lake South Sectional, Wauconda will have its hands full. The Bulldogs will have to likely beat favored Burlington Central in the sectional final. The first go-around against a Fox Valley Conference team, Huntley, didn’t go well. Wauconda lost 59-43 back in November. Burlington Central went 18-0 in the Fox Valley.

4. Which team can take advantage of a great Class 2A opportunity?

Leo and DePaul Prep have been battling their way through the rugged Catholic League and played rugged non-conference schedules.

Orr and Clark have grinded their way for two-plus months in the Public League’s Red-West/North.

These four have played a more rigorous schedule than any Class 2A schools in the state. Now they embark on what is a very winnable Class 2A state tournament.

So starting this week all eyes should be on the road through the Joliet Central Supersectional. That’s where the winners of the Julian and North Lawndale sectionals will collide.

The state’s top two Class 2A ranked teams, Leo and DePaul Prep, No. 4 ranked Clark, No. 7 ranked Perspectives-Leadership and No. 10 ranked Orr will all be working their way through Joliet Central.

With half of the top 10 Class 2A ranked teams all feeding into Joliet Central, the last team standing in two weeks will likely be favored heading to Champaign. And they’ll be well prepared to finish it off once reaching the state semifinals.

5. Will the suburbs continue their 2021-22 dominance over the city?

The suburban powers played the city powers this past season at a rate we probably haven’t seen before.

While there is no question the traditional city powers are down in comparison to past years, the suburban powers could care less. They went out and took care of business against the best the city has to offer in this 2021-22 season.

Among the true state contenders, Glenbard West pummeled Young and Simeon by a combined 43 points while Glenbrook South beat Simeon by three and Curie by 24. Thornton went to Kenwood and won last week in overtime.

The lone big city victory among powers was Simeon beating New Trier. That came in overtime and in a dramatic, come-from-behind fashion at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.

6. Now the question is can they do it again when it matters most?

Everyone expects some sort of suburban-city clash to eventually transpire along the tournament trail. Glenbard West is a heavy favorite to reach Champaign. The expectation is either Glenbrook South or New Trier will join them.

Also, it would be surprising if either Young, Kenwood or Curie were not in Champaign playing in a Class 4A semifinal.

In Class 3A, both Simeon and Thornton could meet in a super-sectional.

So there are all kinds of potential head-to-head matchups deeper in tournament play among the best of the best in the city and suburbs.

7. Is Yorkville Christian really a heavy Class 1A favorite with just 17 regular-season wins?

Yes.

That was simple.

Now that the season has played out, check out this scheduling factoid: Yorkville Christian has played 10 teams in Class 4A or Class 3A that have been ranked at some point this season. That includes current No. 1 Glenbard West, No. 2 Glenbrook South, No. 7 Kenwood, No. 9 New Trier and No. 11 Oswego East.

Then there were the heavyweights from outside Illinois, including a pair of highly-ranked Missouri teams from St. Louis — Vashon and Chaminade.

With all due respect to current AP No. 1 Scales Mound, this is Yorkville Christian’s state title to lose in Class 1A.

While there were plenty of losses to those top teams all season long — there were 13 in the loss column — the Jaden Schutt-led Mustangs are well prepared for this specific moment.

There will be a significant difference in the speed, size, athleticism and overall talent Yorkville Christian will face in coming weeks than what it saw all season long. Everything should slow down considerably for the Mustangs against the likes of Scales Mound, Liberty, Fulton, Flanagan, Fenger and whoever else they might play.

There will be some blowout wins along the way. And while it would be a major upset if Yorkville Christian were to go down, don’t expect it to be a total walk in the park.

Remember, the aforementioned Scales Mound played highly-ranked Leo late in the season and held its own, losing 55-50.

Yorkville Christian would not meet Scales Mound until the state championship game.

8. What downstate teams will we be hearing from?

Normal and Moline are the only two Class 4A teams in the AP state rankings.

Normal, though, with its sparkling 30-1 record is the cream of the crop. The Ironmen haven’t lost since early December to Champaign Centennial, 61-59. They pounded Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, the No. 4 ranked team in Class 3A, in the season finale, 54-33.

Zach Cleveland, one of the top 15 prospects in the state who is headed to Liberty, is an all-state caliber star.

Normal could face Moline (26-4) and standout point guard Brock Harding in the sectional semifinal. Normal beat Moline 60-47 two weeks ago.

Keep an eye on East St. Louis, Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, Lincoln and Centralia in Class 3A. Led by standout junior Macaleab Rich (19 ppg) and Missouri recruit Christian Jones (15 ppg), East St. Louis (23-5) is the best of the bunch.

The only in-state losses for the Flyers came in a pair of defeats to 4A power Normal.

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