Previewing the IHSA state basketball finals

A look at this weekend’s slate in Champaign.

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Glenbard West’s Braden Huff (34) shoots the ball over Young’s Xavier Amos (5).

Glenbard West’s Braden Huff (34) shoots the ball over Young’s Xavier Amos (5).

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

It’s finally here. After more than 700 days, the Illinois High School Association’s state basketball finals have returned. Both the venue and the format have changed. 

The tournament has left Peoria, returned to Champaign, and will take place in the newly renovated State Farm Center. Champaign hosted the tournament from 1919 to 1995. 

Crowds had dwindled in Peoria and a refresh was needed, so there’s a great deal of excitement around the return to Champaign. The new format has been less well-received. Many fans are taking a wait-and-see attitude. 

All four classes will play over a three-day span. In the past, Class 1A and Class 2A had a two-day weekend tournament followed the next weekend by a two-day Class 3A and Class 4A tournament. 

In the new format, Class 1A and Class 2A will play semifinals on Thursday and Class 3A and Class 4A will play semis on Friday. All four title games will take place on Saturday. 

The IHSA decided to play the third-place games in the prime 7 p.m. slots on Thursday and Friday, which is odd. All the semifinals will be in the morning and afternoon. 

“I’m a little confused by it, but I guess I will have to work with it,” Simeon coach Robert Smith said.

The IHSA is betting on the finals Saturday becoming a must-see event for basketball fans. The finals are also one week earlier now, which avoids overlapping with the NCAA Tournament. 

“We’re pretty excited that the state tournament is back in Champaign,” St. Ignatius coach Matt Monroe said. “I remember my dad bringing me down to watch games there. The format of having all four championship games in one day is awesome. Hopefully we can bring people from all over the state to celebrate basketball in our state.”

Here’s a look at all four Class 4A and Class 3A semifinals and an overview of Class 1A and 2A.

Class 4A semifinal: Young (25-9) vs. Barrington (28-4), Fri., 2:30 p.m

Young starters
F AJ Casey, 6-8,  Sr.
G Dalen Davis, 6-0, Jr.
G Marcus Pigram, 6-3, Jr.
F Xavier Amos, 6-8, Sr.
F Matthew Somerville, 6-6, Sr.

Barrington starters
G Daniel Hong, 6-2, Sr.
G Nick Bordenet, 5-11, Sr.
G Evan Jno-Baptiste, 5-10, Sr.
C Nate Boldt, 6-10, Sr.
G Will Grudzinski, 6-6, Sr.

Young started living up to preseason expectations a few weeks ago as it charged to the city championship. The Dolphins didn’t peak though, they have kept on improving. Athletic junior Daniel Johnson is healthy and has added another dimension to coach Tyrone Slaughter’s offensive attack. 

Junior guard Dalen Davis was excellent in Young’s supersectional win against Kenwood. When he plays well the Dolphins are very difficult to beat. 

“[Davis] completely controls our team,” Slaughter said. “He makes us what we are. He’s a young man that has a great idea of how the game should be played.”

Seniors AJ Casey and Xavier Amos are long, athletic, and consistent. Slaughter says the 74-59 loss to Glenbard West in late January was a turning point for his team. 

“That may have been what has catapulted us to where we are today,” Slaughter said. “From that point on our season changed. The kids became humbled by what they saw. They didn’t like it and decided to change.”

Barrington pulled off the biggest upset in the supersectionals, shocking Glenbrook South. 

The Broncos opened some eyes when they knocked off Rolling Meadows in the Mid-Suburban League championship game and have won 15 consecutive games. 

Barrington’s pieces all fit together well. Senior Will Grudzinski is a dynamic scorer, averaging 19 points. Point guard Daniel Hong is smart and reliable and has picked up his scoring in the playoffs. Nate Boldt, a 6-10 center, averages 7.5 points and five rebounds. All three will play college basketball. 

Evan Jno-Baptiste, a 5-10 guard that will play baseball in college, is the leader. 

“[Jno-Baptiste] is our heart and soul,” Barrington coach Bryan Tucker said. “I’ve had a lot of great players but as far as leadership, he sets the bar high. He has a sense for when there is a big moment and he steps up and gets us a basket.”

Do not count the Broncos out of this one. Young is a heavy favorite, but Barrington just knocked off a Glenbrook South team that put together a better and more consistent season than the Dolphins. 

Class 4A semifinal: Bolingbrook (30-6) vs. Glenbard West (35-1), Fri., 4 p.m.

Bolingbrook starters
G Mekhi Cooper, 6-1, Jr.
G Josh Aniceto, 5-8, So.
G MJ Langit, 6-2, Sr.
F Donaven Younger, 6-9, Jr.
F Michael Osei-Bonsu, 6-4 Sr.

Glenbard West starters
G Caden Pierce, 6-6, Sr.
G Paxton Warden, 6-4, Sr.
F Bobby Durkin, 6-7, Sr.
F Braden Huff, 6-11, Sr.
C Ryan Renfro, 6-8 Sr.

Bolingbrook coach Rob Brost is playing up the underdog angle, and rightly so.

“I would rather be playing the Lakers than Glenbard West,” Brost said. “We could back off Russell Westbrook, let him shoot it and get some rebounds. There is not a guy on the Glenbard West roster we can do that to.”

The Hilltoppers have dominated nearly every local team this season. Bolingbrook’s greatest strength is Michael Osei-Bonsu’s rebounding. The undersized post is averaging 11.8 points and 9.3 rebounds but will have his hands full with all of Glenbard West’s size. 

Bolingbrook rolled through the sectional and has won 16 consecutive games. But it is hard to see exactly how it would manage to upset Glenbard West. This is the moment the Hilltoppers have been building towards for two years. 

“We are where we want to be and we are playing our best basketball,” Glenbard West coach Jason Opoka said. “We don’t feel pressure. We feel prepared.” 

Class 3A semifinal: Sacred Heart-Griffin (33-3) vs. St. Ignatius (23-12), Fri., 10 a.m.

Sacred Heart-Griffin starters
G J’Veon Bardwell, 5-10, Jr.
G Jake Hamilton, 6-3, Jr.
G Keshon Singleton, 6-1, Jr.
F Zach Hawkinson, 6-5, Jr.
G Will Hamilton, 6-3, Jr.

St. Ignatius starters
G AJ Redd, 6-0, Sr.
F Noah Davis, 6-2, Sr.
G Richard Barron, 6-5, Jr.
F Jackson Kotecki, 6-8, Jr.
F Kolby Gilles, 6-6, Sr.

This might be the most interesting semifinal. 

St. Ignatius wasn’t challenged in the playoffs until the overtime supersectional win against St. Patrick. The Wolfpack is talented and experienced and has been through several ups and downs after opening the season ranked No. 4. 

Junior Richard Barron can take over games with his shooting ability. He could power St. Ignatius into the final if he heats up. 

Sacred Heart-Griffin advanced to the state finals in 2020 as a Class 2A team, but that tournament was never completed due to COVID. The Cyclones return with a very young team that most believed was a year away from postseason success. 

Jake Hamilton and Zach Hawkinson both average 15 points for Sacred Heart-Griffin, a Springfield school. 

Keep an eye on junior guard Will Hamilton. He’s a lockdown defender with a knack for scoring big buckets. 

Class 3A semifinal: Simeon (28-5) vs. Metamora (29-6), Fri., 11:30 a.m.

Simeon starters
G Aviyon Morris, 5-7, Sr.
G Jaylen Drane, 6-3, Sr.
G Jalen Griffith, 5-9, Jr.
F Wesley Rubin, 6-7, Jr.
F Miles Rubin, 6-9, Jr.

Metamora starters
G Zack Schroeder, 6-3, Sr.
F Ethan Kizer, 6-6, Jr.
G Tyson Swanson, 6-2, Jr.
G Drew Tucker, 6-2, Jr.
G Tyler Mason, 6-0, So.

Simeon is a heavy favorite to win the title. The Wolverines have a talented backcourt that has been together for three seasons. Jaylen Drane, Aviyon Morris, and Jalen Griffith complement each other well and are talented and experienced. 

And the bigs just keep getting better. Wes and Miles Rubin, the 6-9 twins, are more than just post scorers and rebounders. Wes is a talented passer and Miles may be the state’s best shot blocker. 

Metamora is making its first appearance in the state finals. The Redbirds lost to Joliet West and Wheaton Warrenville South this season and narrowly beat Oak Park. 

It’s difficult to imagine Metamora upsetting Simeon with that resume, but the Redbirds are on a 17-game winning streak and 6-6 Ethan Kizer is a very talented junior. 

“Tyson Swanson is our leading scorer,” Metamora coach Danny Grieves said. “He doesn’t pass the eye test. You look at him and think he can’t play.”

Class 2A

DePaul Prep starters
G Trevon Thomas, 6-1, Sr.
G Alex Gutierrez, 6-2, Sr.
G Payton Kamin, 6-6, So.
F Dylan Arnett, 6-9, Sr.
F Jaylan McElroy, 6-6, So.

Nashville starters
G Carter Schoenherr, 6-3, Jr.
G Nolan Heggemeier, 5-11, Sr.
F Saxton Hoepker, 6-7, Sr.
F Kolten Gajewski, 6-5, Sr.
G Isaac Turner, 6-3, Sr.

DePaul Prep (26-5) faces Nashville (27-4) in the semifinals with the winner of Rockridge (26-6) vs. Monticello (32-3) waiting in the championship game. 

The Rams are always one of the state’s best defensive teams. Dylan Arnett, a 6-9 senior, is a skilled and hard-working post player and 6-6 sophomores Jaylan McElroy and Payton Kamin are emerging as difference makers. 

Trevon Thomas and Alex Gutierrez are leaders in the backcourt. Both seniors waited their turns to take over starting roles and have thrived this season. 

DePaul Prep was the area’s best team last season. All five starters graduated, but coach Tom Kleinschmidt reloaded. And did it without a transfer. 

“We have a program now instead of a varsity basketball team,” Kleinschmidt said. “The numbers won’t jump out at you but we have four to six guys that can put the ball in the basket.”

Nashville held Teutopolis to 18 points in the supersectional. Like DePaul Prep, the Hornets are defensive-minded. Expect a low-scoring game. 

“We play a very specific brand of basketball: Win ugly,” Nashville coach Patrick Weathers said. “It is not the most entertaining and it is not for everybody.”

Class 1A

Yorkville Christian starters
G KJ Vasser, 6-2, Sr.
G Jaden Schutt, 6-6, Sr.
G Tyler Burrows, 6-2, Sr.
G David Douglas, Jr., 6-3, Jr.
G Brayden Long, 6-4, Jr.

Steeleville starters
G Lane Lazenby, 6-0, Sr.
G Jacoby Gross, 6-0, Jr.
G Carter WAsson, 6-0, Jr.
G Zach Mevert, 6-1, Sr.
F Reid Harriss, 6-5, Jr.

Yorkville Christian (23-13) may be the biggest favorite in any class in the history of the IHSA state tournament. The Mustangs, led by Duke recruit Jaden Schutt, have simply dominated so far in the playoffs, with an average margin of victory of 43.8 points. 

First up for Yorkville Christian is Steeleville (29-6), a school with 151 students about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis. 

Liberty (29-5) and Scales Mound (35-2) matchup in the other semifinal. 

“I’ve coached these kids since third grade,” Scales Mound coach Erik Kudronowicz said. “They decided to work as hard as they could. They have that sixth sense playing together. Being in the state semis is a dream come true. They are making their own little niche in history. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all finishes.”

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