Here are a few of the top storylines that developed from the many holiday tournaments across the state and other thoughts and impressions.
Unbeatens rise to the occasion: A year ago at this time there was just one team –– Glenbard West –– both ranked and unbeaten following holiday tournament play. Grayslake North was another unbeaten heading into January but unranked.
This year there are still six ranked teams heading into the new year with an unblemished record, including Simeon, Bolingbrook, Jacobs, Fremd, Marist and Geneva.
The road to Peoria this March features the possibility of several of these teams meeting one another along the state tournament trail.
Simeon and Marist could be on a collision course to square off in the Thornwood Sectional. Jacobs and Fremd would meet in the Hoffman Estate super-sectional, while Geneva and Bolingbrook would face one another in the DeKalb super-sectional.
Still unbeaten in Illinois: While there are six unbeaten teams remaining in Illinois, there are two others who have beaten every team they’ve played in Illinois.
Evanston and Kenwood, who both spent the holidays playing out of state, are a combined 23-5 and ranked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively in the most recent Sun-Ties Top 25 rankings. But neither has lost to an in-state team.
Evanston went to the highly-regarded Beach Ball Classic and impressed. The Wildkits lost in the championship game to Imhotep (PA) 78-76 after knocking off Providence (FL), Scott County (KY) and Pace (GA).
Senior star and Purdue recruit Nojel Eastern put up numbers. The 6-6 guard averaged 22 points, 8 rebounds and 3.2 assists in leading the Wildkits to a 3-1 record. And 6-5 senior Elyjah Williams continues to show his importance to this team. In the final three games of the tournament the overlooked Williams averaged 11.3 points and 9.3 rebounds a game.
Kenwood, meanwhile, went 2-1 in the Poplar Bluff Showdown in Missouri, beating Cordova (TN) and Poplar Bluff (MO) before falling to Jonesboro (AK) in the final.
Uplift proves it belongs: Although it’s just a Class 2A school, Uplift solidified itself as a Public League threat and true state title contender over the holidays.
Behind Proviso West all-tournament selection Demarius Jacobs, who averaged 21.5 points a game in leading his team to a 3-1 record, Uplift finished third. The lone loss came to Morgan Park in a tight 66-64 semifinal defeat.
The trio of Demarius Jacobs, sophomore guard and Kansas commit Markese Jacobs and junior forward Toraze Dobbs combined to average a whopping 53 points a game for the Titans in tournament play.
Red-hot recruit: While Edwardsville’s Mark Smith plays in the southern part of the state, he’s become a hot name among local college programs. Illinois and DePaul have both offered the 6-4 senior guard while Northwestern has shown interest.
Smith led his team to a tournament title over Jordan Goodwin and Belleville Althoff with 35 points in the championship game win. Smith has been a stat sheet-stuffing machine averaging 21.6 points 7.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists a game while leading his team to a 11-1 record. Smith and Edwardsville could face No. 1 ranked Simeon in the Normal super-sectional this March.
Smith kicked off the new year in style by leading Edwardsville to a win over East St. Louis and Jeremiah Tilmon Tuesday night as he scored 26 points.
ESCC leaves an impression: Let’s survey the East Suburban Catholic Conference after what was quite a week in holiday tournament play for this league.
The highlight was Marist improving to 16-0 while capturing the 74th annual Centralia Holiday Tournament behind tournament MVP Morgan Taylor.
Benet is 11-3 and reached the championship game of the state’s toughest holiday tournament at Pontiac, losing to Simeon 54-52. Notre Dame and St. Patrick both finished second at Wheeling and York, respectively. Joliet Catholic won the East Aurora Holiday Tournament, while Marian Catholic reached the semifinals at Hinsdale Central before settling for a 3-1 record and third-place finish.
The other Joliet: With all the talk about Joliet West’s Peoria potential this March, Division I talent and high ranking all season, it was Joliet Central that claimed a holiday tournament title last week.
First-year coach Larry Thompson, who had a successful 16-year run as head coach at Lockport, has guided the Steelmen to a 12-1 start.
While senior guard Jose Grubbs was an all-tournament selection and all-around force in helping lead Joliet Central to a State Farm Holiday Classic title in Bloomington, it’s been a balanced effort.
Over the course of four tournament wins Joliet Central had five players –– Grubbs, Jomarre McNair, Jason Bingham, Don Joachim and Cameron Blackmon –– who were all double-figure scorers in at least one of the tournament wins.
Joliet West and Joliet Central are now a combined 25-2 and will meet Feb. 18.
Other holiday hoops thoughts …
➤ The team that’s clearly much better than I thought before the season started? St. Patrick.
Coach Mike Bailey’s Shamrocks have a blend of athleticism, solid guard play and shooting to contend in the East Suburban Catholic Conference.
They showcased all of that last week in going 4-1 at York, losing in the final to Conant. This team is putting up points. St. Patrick scored 65-plus all of two times a year ago. This season the Shamrocks have eclipsed that total eight times, including six games in which St. Pat’s has scored 75 or more.
While the guard tandem of senior Laurence Merritt and junior Xavier Pinson is one of more underrated backcourts in the Chicago area, the name that has emerged this season is Alton Thompson. The uber-athletic 6-4 wing transferred in from California and has been a revelation. Thompson has shown he’s a legitimate scholarship player.
➤ The early-season concerns surrounding Conant? Forget about them. While the Cougars did look a bit out of sorts offensively early on, this team ran the table at York and looked impressive in doing so.
Those two losses –– to highly-ranked Evanston and unbeaten Fremd –– aren’t anything to be concerned about when you consider neither of those teams has lost to an in-state opponent yet this season. Since that Fremd defeat, Conant has impressive wins over Benet, Brother Rice, Downers Grove South and St. Patrick.
➤ It wasn’t a title game win and it didn’t even lead to a tournament championship, but I’m glad I was able to take in Wheaton-Warrenville South’s win over North Lawndale at the State Farm Classic. That win –– and the play from senior Dillon Durrett –– certainly raised the ceiling and expectations I had for the Tigers.
➤ For those who weren’t paying attention, Simeon heads into the new year as the state’s top team. The Wolverines are unbeaten, won the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, beat Young and won on the road at Morgan Park.
➤ What a benefit it is to be the No. 1 team in the state and have a role player like Madison Lowery, a 6-4 senior who brings it every possession and at each end of the floor. Big, strong, physical and a player who does all the little things and anything asked of him.
➤ It was a nice trip to Hinsdale Central for Westinghouse, which is led by the under-recruited Coreyon Rushin. The 6-6 forward was instrumental in leading Westinghouse to a 3-1 record over the holidays. The lone loss came to unbeaten Bolingbrook in a game they were tied heading into the fourth quarter. Rushing averaged 16.7 points and 8.5 rebounds in the four games.
➤ Brother Rice is sneaky good, thanks to the 1-2 punch of Josh Niego and Mike Shepski, along with the steady hand coach Bobby Frasor is providing. Frasor, the former Rice star and player at North Carolina, is one of the rising young coaches in high school basketball. When watching the Crusaders you can’t help but come away impressed with their ball movement and spacing offensively and how hard they play.
➤ I think the York Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament should expand –– from 32 to 64 teams.
➤ In regard to the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament suggestion above … I’m kidding. I’ve never been a big fan of a 32-team tournament but there is no doubt the tournament organizers can handle it. Things are run so smoothly at York.
➤ That little run at the Wheeling Hardwood Classic for Niles Notre Dame, which included a 54-53 overtime loss to Fremd in the final, has me believing again in the team the Hoops Report had ranked No. 34 in the preseason. While there is a ton of talk about Notre Dame’s terrific size and length, senior guard Matt Stritzel has been a rock for coach Tom Les this season.
➤ I don’t typically get into consolation bracket results, whether it’s a true consolation bracket or even a fifth-place bracket. But I did pay close attention to the Pontiac Holiday Tournament’s fifth-place bracket. That’s because the bracket was loaded with high-level teams that suffered upset losses in the quarterfinals.
Joliet West, Bloomington and Curie all came into Pontiac unbeaten. And all lost on the second day to send them to the fifth-place bracket. Throw in a talented Oak Park team and the Pontiac fifth-place bracket was better than the majority of holiday tournament’s semifinals.
With a potential showdown with Simeon on tap in the semifinals Joliet West was upset by Bloom in the quarterfinals. The Tigers could have easily slumped the rest of the way, but they came back to beat Oak Park and Curie to wrap up tournament play.
➤ Well off the beaten path, both as a program and in holiday tournament news, Andrew won the Kankakee Holiday Tournament. Why this is so significant is the strides third-year coach Dave Wilson has made with a program that isn’t blessed with a whole lot of individual talent.
Wilson took over a program that was struggling mightily, fresh off a 6-20 season. He took his lumps the first two years as well, winning four games in his first season and eight last year. Now in his third season the Thunderbolts are 10-4, winners of eight straight and are 2-0 in the Southwest Suburban Red.
➤ With an improving Larkin posing a threat –– the City/Suburban Hoops Report highlighted the impact big man Jalen Shaw is having HERE –– and St. Charles East and St. Charles North both dangerous, it’s going to be nearly impossible for unbeaten Geneva to run the table. But it’s going to set up for a fun two months in the Upstate Eight River.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport