O’Brien: A special year at historic Pontiac

Curie's Terry Smith Jr. (34) and Dennis Handy (10) celebrate after winning the 85th Pontiac holiday tournament against Peoria Manual. Worsom Robinson/ For the Sun-Times.

The Pontiac Holiday Tournament has a long, proud history. Pontiac coach Don Cash Seaton created the event in 1926. It took a five-year hiatus during World War II, so this year is the 86th edition.

The tournament was a radical idea when it started. It was definitely the first Christmas basketball tournament conducted in Illinois and most likely was the first in the country. Basketball itself was still in its infancy. The NCAA Tournament didn’t begin until 1939 and the NBA’s inaugural season was in 1946.

Even with all that history behind it, this tournament is going to be a special one. There likely isn’t an elite player to add to the list of former greats, which includes stars like Dwight Eddleman, Bruce Douglas, Kenny Battle, Walter Downing, Lowell Hamilton, Sergio McClain, Bobby Simmons, Frank Williams, Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker and Cliff Alexander. But this could be the strongest field of teams ever.

That’s a bold statement to make about a tournament this old, but tournament director Jim Drengwitz, who has been in charge since 1994, can’t remember all four top seeds arriving undefeated during his time.

Curie, the top seed and defending Class 4A state champs, is 9-0. No. 2 seed Simeon is 7-0, No. 3 seed Joliet West is 10-0 and No. 4 Bloomington is 9-0. And the quality teams don’t end there. Oak Park is 9-1, St. Charles North is 8-1, Benet is 8-2, West Aurora is 7-2 and Bloom and Danville are both 6-2.

The Wolverines knocked off highly-regarded Young on Wednesday at UIC, but coach Robert Smith didn’t think his squad’s performance was nearly good enough for Pontiac.

“We have to be way better than that to win Pontiac,” Smith said after the game. “You can’t play like that and win at Pontiac.”

Things tip off on Wednesday at 9 a.m. with Oak Park against St. Charles North, which is easily the best first round game of any tournament in the state. The quarterfinal matchups on Friday could feature eight teams that have been ranked in the Super 25 or the Associated Press state rankings this season, which is an incredible feat for a tournament that regularly keeps the same programs.

“We believe in the teams that are in the tournament,” Drengwitz said. “Changing things year to year based on who is good for awhile isn’t who we are.”

That philosophy has paid massive dividends over the years. The teams have returned the loyalty. Simeon, Curie, West Aurora, Peoria Manual and Joliet have all received invitations to play in glitzy national holiday tournaments over the past few decades but have remained loyal to Pontiac.

If the seeds hold the semifinals will feature Simeon against Joliet West and Curie against Bloomington. The title game could be a showcase of nationally ranked teams. Simeon is No. 9 in USA Today’s national rankings and Curie is No. 12.

Pontiac’s third day is unique. The semifinals are at 1 and 2:30 p.m. and the title game is a 9 p.m.

Curie or Simeon has won the past five years. One of the major reasons for that is the depth both squads have featured. It pays off in the second game of the day. But neither team is especially deep this season. They won’t be able to overwhelm the suburban teams with a ten-deep wave of talent, and that could help open things up for Joliet West, Bloomington or Benet.

Regardless of how the basketball shakes out, Pontiac is always special. The town comes together to provide the visiting teams, fans and media with authentic warmth and hospitality. That’s the secret weapon that has allowed Seaton’s radical idea to thrive for more than 90 years.

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