Previewing the Class 4A state tournament

This is as wide open of a Class 4A field that we’ve had in a number of years. And there’s a whole different feel than a year ago.

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Kenwood’s Calvin Robins Jr. (10) shoots against Simeon.

Kenwood’s Calvin Robins Jr. (10) shoots against Simeon.

Sun-Times

Here’s a look at the Illinois High School Association’s Class 4A state tournament.

Team to beat: Is there one?

This is as wide open of a Class 4A field that we’ve had in a number of years. And there’s a whole different feel than a year ago.

Last season Glenbard West was an overwhelming favorite when it all started and then won every state tournament game by 22 or more points with an average postseason victory margin of 32 points.

This season? There are easily a half-dozen legitimate state title contenders –– or more –– including Kenwood, Curie, Young, Benet, Joliet West and Moline.

Kenwood, Curie and Young will all collide at some point on the same tournament path to Champaign, while also dealing with other stalwarts along the way. But there is no question that if one of those three emerge from a rugged road it would likely head to the State Finals in Champaign as the favorite among the four semifinalists.

Toughest sectional: Hinsdale Central

There is a mixed bag of high-level, highly-ranked, 20-plus win teams in this sectional with a host school that’s riding a 20-game win streak, the longest in the area.

Four of the current Super 25’s top 10 resides in the Hinsdale Central Sectional. There are the two perennial powers out of the city, Young and Curie, along with red-hot Hinsdale Central and dangerous Downers Grove North.

Alarmingly for any team with hopes of making it out of this minefield, that doesn’t even include No. 17 Proviso East (22-6), No. 20 Lyons (24-5) and 25-win Riverside-Brookfield.

This sectional is really a West Suburban Conference vs. Public League affair. Can the likes of Hinsdale Central, Downers Grove North or Lyons take down the city powers?

Best tournament road: Benet

This is always a jinx for the poor team labeled with the best tournament path. But without question it’s Benet, the No. 2 ranked team in theSuper 25, that has the best tournament road in Class 4A.

Coach Gene Heidkamp’s team has impressed all season, losing just one game and beating Proviso East, Joliet West, Kenwood, Riverside-Brookfield and both Marist and Marian Catholic twice.

Benet is the only ranked team in the Bartlett Sectional. But there is some unfamiliarity for the Redwings, both stylistically in the sectional and who they’ve played. They haven’t played anyone in this sectional all season other than No. 13 seed Willowbrook.

The two top seeds in the sub-sectionals that feed into the DeKalb Super, where Benet would play, are Huntley and DeKalb. Those two are a combined 4-8 in the last two weeks.

That’s a favorable path for a team that is senior-dominated and has played in its share of big games already this season.

Toughest tournament road: Curie

The combination of a loaded sectional and the fact both the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds will be hosting regionals, thus they cannot play one another, it was Curie that received an unfortunate draw –– even as a No. 3 seed.

Curie is a team that has wins over Oswego East, New Trier, Joliet West, Simeon and Young while losing to Kenwood in overtime. But it must go on the road and beat Lyons in LaGrange just to get out of the regional. The 24-win Lions are senior dominated, are led by a Division I player in 6-6 Niklas Polonowski (Penn recruit) and should be invigorated by the home crowd.

Most dangerous lower-seeded teams: Loyola, Prospect and Glenbard West

When it comes to lower-seeded teams making a run, we’re looking for a seed outside the top five that can pull off a regional upset and make its way into a sectional semifinal.

A trio of No. 6 seeds in their respective sectionals are lying in the weeds.

When isn’t Loyola a pain-in-the-neck team to play in the postseason? If the Ramblers are healthy –– the injury bug hit them late in the season –– this is not the team No. 3 seed Rolling Meadows wants to face in the regional championship.

Loyola plays a brand of basketball that is often nightmarish for opponents, particularly a free-flowing offensive team like Rolling Meadows. The well-prepared Ramblers will dictate tempo and play its typical stingy defense that prevents drives to the basket and easy looks.

But again, coach Tom Livatino’s team has been decimated by injuries down the stretch of the regular season.

Following a 6-8 start to the season, Prospect finished the year going an impressive 11-4. But more importantly the Knights beat Stevenson and Glenbrook South and just missed in their upset bid against Rolling Meadows.

The problem for Prospect is it will have to go on the road and beat a Palatine team that is flying high after beating Rolling Meadows in the Mid-Suburban League title game last week.

Glenbard West is still on the radar? Yep.

A year after graduating all five starters from a state championship team, the Hilltoppers are another pesky six seed. Glenbard West is a very respectable 18-win team. Plus, it’s spent the season knocking heads with all those ranked West Suburban Silver Conference teams all season.

While it would have to do so on Geneva’s home floor, Glenbard West could sneak its way past No. 3 seed Geneva and into a sectional semifinal. After a 19-3 start to the season, Geneva has hit the skids, going 3-6 down the stretch.

Anticipated matchup to see: Jeremy Fears, Jr., vs. Brock Harding

If Joliet West were to face Moline in the super-sectional –– both teams are favored to win their respective sectionals –– it would pit two of the elite, most fun to watch point guards in the state. These two stars, both heading off to the Big Ten next year, facing off with a whole lot on the line is just the type of matchup you look forward to in state tournament play.

Biggest storyline: Will an unexpected Cinderella team emerge and make it to Champaign?

In a season that’s been often characterized as a parity-filled one, what are the realistic chances an unexpected team arrives in Champaign in three weeks?

Maybe fans were surprised last season to see Barrington in the state semifinals. But the Broncos were still a top-seed in their sectional, thus the only upset along the way was a super-sectional win over Glenbrook South.

If it’s Cinderella you’re looking for in Class 4A, the odds are against you. If you don’t have a No. 1 next to your name on the seed line –– or at least a No. 2 –– history tells us you won’t be playing the state semifinals.

It’s been over a decade since any team that wasn’t a No. 1 or No. 2 seed has made it to the state semifinals. That team was Glenbard East, a No. 3 seed in 2011.

That Glenbard East team won a sectional featuring unbeaten and No. 1 ranked Benet and a Ryan Boatright-led East Aurora team, beat Fred Van Vleet and Rockford Auburn in the super, before falling to Simeon 56-53 in the state semifinals.

The numbers are overwhelmingly on the favorite’s side.

With Covid wiping out two state tournaments, the nine IHSA State Finals that have been played since Glenbard East’s 2011 run as a No. 3 seed have included 30 teams with a No. 1 seed and just six teams with a No. 2 seed reaching the state semifinals.

With the parity we’ve seen this year, the top seeds are vulnerable. The likelihood, while still low, appears to be at least doable. But what third seed –– or lower –– do you have this postseason that can end that streak? The best options are St. Rita, Oswego East, Rolling Meadows and Curie.

A dozen Class 4A difference-makers: Darrin Ames, Kenwood; Cameron Christie, Rolling Meadows; Jeremy Fears, Jr., Joliet West; Brock Harding and Owen Freeman, Moline; Morez Johnson and James Brown, St. Rita; Daniel Johnson and Dalen Davis, Young; Ahmad Henderson, Brother Rice; Carlos Harris, Curie; Jake Fiegen, New Trier

Five unheralded Class 4A stars who can lift their teams to wins: Connor May, Palatine; Jack Stanton, Downers Grove North; Luke Williams, Naperville North; Ben Oosterbaan, Hinsdale Central; Niklas Polonowski, Lyons

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