By Joe Henricksen
The Elite Eight weekend in boys basketball is a festival, a hoops oasis as fans, high school coaches, media members, officials and college coaches come together to celebrate a season and a sport. After spending four days in Peoria last weekend — my 21st trip in the last 23 years to the state tournament — it was no different. Everyone came together as usual to socialize and talk basketball, be it in restaurants, bars, hospitality rooms, hotel lobbies or Carver Arena.
The basketball was better than most people expected, with the parity in Peoria much like what we saw throughout the season. Richards and Zion-Benton both stepped up and played at an extremely high level for themselves, playing a terrific Class 4A title game. If this were the NCAA Final Four, the Richards tandem of Carl Richard and Shaun Pratl would have made themselves millions in improving their draft stock.
Simeon and Marshall again showed why they are the two premier basketball programs in the Chicago Public League — and the state. In three years Simeon now has a pair of state titles and a state runner-up finish. Marshall, meanwhile, has a state championship to add to its two third-place trophies in that same time period. Marshall’s attack mode, both in transition and defensively, was fun to watch. And Stan Simpson’s rapid rise gave Illinois fans hope for the future with a big man who could actually knock down free throws.
The Washington–Marshall matchup in the 3A semifinal was entertaining. And the Zion-Benton–Evanston battle was a classic state tournament thriller/heartbreaker, with Z-B’s Ronald Steward ending a dramatic game with a steal and buzzer-beating 40-footer to stun the Wildkits.
In the end, though, despite the positive storylines and the quality, competitive basketball, it just wasn’t the same. It was just as I expected — tradition lost, probably forever, with very little buzz or electricity. So many people I ran into — coaches, fans, media members — had similar thoughts and phrases …. “It just feels different.” …. “Why does the IHSA continue to try and fix things that don’t need to be?” …. I watched a very competitive field of teams in both 3A and 4A and thought to myself, “There is no reason why any of these teams can’t compete with any other team that is in Peoria.” There is no need for these two classes to be separated. You felt as if there were more games to be played, maybe a Richards-Marshall title game?
I felt for Simeon and Marshall, who finished their tightly contested game with probably 2,000 fans in attendance. It resembled a midseason shootout. The atmosphere was stunningly dead. And while Richards and Zion-Benton played their hearts out and could probably care less if there were two classes or four, it’s a shame these two worthy teams didn’t get their shot at the two teams — Simeon and Marshall — that are perceived to be the two best in Illinois.
There is so much that will be missed.