Previewing the Class 3A state tournament

Both defending champ Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin and last year’s runner-up, Metamora, are legit title contenders again.

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Lake Forest’s Asa Thomas (5) goes to the basket over Glenbrook South’s Anestis Hadjistamoulou (23).

Lake Forest’s Asa Thomas (5) goes to the basket over Glenbrook South’s Anestis Hadjistamoulou (23).

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Here’s a look at the Illinois High School Association’s Class 3A state tournament.

Team to beat: Simeon

Attaching “team to beat” to really any Simeon team is hardly anything new. This has been the state’s premier high school basketball powerhouse for two decades.

But with two teams that played in last year’s Class 3A state championship returning virtually intact this season –– and having lived up to the preseason hype –– giving Simeon this label took some thought.

Both defending champ Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin and last year’s runner-up, Metamora, are legit title contenders again. However, with its recent run to a city championship, where it beat Curie and Kenwood long the away, Simeon is the favorite.

The schedule the Wolverines have played, along with the menacing and tough-to-match inside tandem of 6-10 Miles Rubin and 6-9 Wesley Rubin, has Simeon primed and ready for a run at a state record eighth state championship.

Toughest sectional: Hillcrest Sectional

There isn’t exactly a sectional you can categorize as “loaded,” but the Hillcrest Sectional is the toughest among those in Class 3A.

Hillcrest is at the top, ranked in the top 10 and sporting a 25-3 record. Lemont, led by Matas and Rokas Castillo, is a 25-game winner and the No. 2 seed.

Marian Catholic is a tough No. 3 seed with 24 wins and playing perhaps its best basketball of the season. The Spartans, who lost to Hillcrest back in November, are fresh off nice wins over Marist and De La Salle to close out the regular season.

The 4-5 seeds, Kankakee (20-10) and TF North (19-5), will likely tangle in the regional final for a shot at Hillcrest in the sectional. Even though it seems like more of an aberration than a warning sign, TF North beat Hillcrest 84-64 in the regular-season finale last week.

Agricultural Science, the No. 6 seed, is 24-7 on the season.

While it arguably is the toughest sectional, it’s one where Hillcrest will still be heavily favored to win on its home floor. Coach Don Houston’s team has senior leaders in the backcourt with Bryce Tillery and an impactful 6-9 big man in Darrion Baker.

Best tournament road: Lake Forest

This sets up nicely for a Lake Forest team that has had its ups and downs this season but has rattled off six straight wins to close out the season.

The Scouts, which have played arguably the toughest schedule in the sectional, will host their own regional. Then it’s off to the Grayslake Central Sectional.

Lake Forest, led by Clemson recruit Asa Thomas, has beaten the No. 2 seed, Grayslake Central, 55-34, and also took care of third-seeded Deerfield 61-50 back in January.

St. Patrick, the No. 4 seed, started the season 9-2 but is 9-8 since.

When you break it all down –– the Scouts playing their best basketball and the field of teams in the sectional –– Lake Forest is in position to win its first-ever sectional championship.

Most dangerous lower-seeded teams: Lakes, Marmion and Kaneland

Lakes is a No. 6 seed with 20 wins on the season. The Eagles will play the regional on their home floor and could get another shot at No. 2 seed Grayslake Central, a team they split with during the regular season and shared the Northern Lake County Conference with.

Keep an eye on Marmion and Kaneland, two teams that should meet in a regional final. The two played in December with Marmion coming away with a tight 72-69 win.

Remember, Marmion has 19 wins while facing a strong Class 3A schedule playing in the Catholic League. Kaneland is a 25-win team no one has talked about while going unbeaten in the Interstate Eight Conference. The winner would have a real shot at taking down top-seed Crystal Lake South in the sectional semifinal.

Anticipated matchup to see: Simeon vs. Sacred Heart-Griffin

Maybe this is disrespecting Metamora. After all, Metamora beat Simeon in last year’s Class 3A state semifinals and handed Sacred Heart-Griffin a loss back in January. But most everyone still believes Simeon and SHG are the best of the Class 3A state title contenders. If they were to meet, it would happen in the 3A state title game.

SHG is led by one of the underrated stars in the state in uncommitted Zack Hawkinson, a 6-5 forward who combines a ruggedness with his athleticism. There is experience, a toughness and a winning mentality with this team. Several players were part of the Class 4A state championship football team and last year’s Class 3A state basketball championship team.

Biggest storyline: Robert Smith’s farewell tour

The legendary coach is stepping down. The only question is when will a remarkable coaching career, which includes six state championships and 10 trips to state, come to an end? As one of the teams to beat in Class 3A, it’s very conceivable Smith and the Wolverines are playing on the final night of the season.

A dozen Class 3A difference-makers: Darrion Baker, Hillcrest; Jurrell Baldwin, Hyde Park; Richard Barron, St. Ignatius; Matas Castillo, Lemont; DeAndre Craig, Mount Carmel; Miles Rubin, Wesley Rubin and Jalen Griffith, Simeon; Zack Hawkinson, Sacred Heart-Griffin; Macaleab Rich, East St. Louis; Drew Scharnowksi, Burlington Central; Asa Thomas, Lake Forest

Five unheralded Class 3A stars who can lift their teams to wins: Matas Castillo, Lemont; Richard Lindsey, De La Salle; Ethan Kizer, Metamora; Quinton Jones, Marian Catholic; Angelo Ciaravino, Mount Carmel

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