The regular season was illuminated by on-the-rise revelations (Fremd and Jacobs), strong traditional powers (Morgan Park, Simeon and Young) and teams that lived up to the preseason hype (Bolingbrook, Evanston and Naperville North).
Now, two weeks into state tournament play, they’re all still alive and vying for spots in Peoria this weekend.
[For a story on why sectional basketball is the best, READ HERE]
There are highly-ranked teams, sparkling records and star talent squaring off in Tuesday’s Class 3A and 4A super-sectionals across the state. Here is a rundown of the very best that Super Tuesday has to offer and what to watch:
➤ Simeon vs. Edwardsville
This is the matchup. The Illinois State super-sectional boasts the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in Class 4A. Edwardsville, which has made five trips to state and averaged 22 wins a season over the past 24 years, has done everything as a basketball program it can do with the exception of one thing: play for a state championship.
But mighty Simeon, which is now three wins away from the program’s eighth state championship, stands in Edwardsville’s way. This has the makings of a classic super-sectional between arguably the two best teams in the state.
Coach Robert Smith’s team is playing its best basketball and was able to take Thornton’s Alonzo Verge out of his comfort zone with a box-and-one. Edwardsville, though, has more weapons than just superstar Mark Smith.
This is a well coached team with size –– 6-6 A.J. Epenesa averages 15.2 points and 13.3 rebounds a game –– and shooting. Senior sharpshooter Oliver Stephen has already knocked down 110 three-pointers and junior Jack Marinko has hit 63 from beyond the arc.
Edwardsville has been the most complete team all season long. The Tigers beat Danville, a team that knocked off Curie earlier this season, 81-59. But Simeon has the talent and pedigree to win this titanic showdown.
If the super-sectional and a trip to Peoria happens to serve as the introduction of the Edwardsville star to the rest of the state, well, better late than never. Success has come rapidly.
The 6-4 do-everything star guard has gone from a player taking visits to Northern Illinois, SIUE and Wright State in the fall to one ranked among the top 100 players in country and coveted by Illinois, Northwestern, Texas, Butler, Kansas State, Ohio State, Indiana and others. Smith’s rapid ascent includes a 45-point sectional championship game performance last Friday night.
Smith (22.2 ppg) is dangerous in a number of ways, including his passing (8.5 apg) and rebounding (8.3 rpg). While he has the ability to carry his team with his shooting and scoring, Smith can also close out games with his strength, savvy and getting to the foul line (82 percent from the line on 196 free-throw attempts). That’s all you can hope for from a lead guard in March.
➤ Unbeaten Fremd
The heroics of Kyle Sliwa reverberated throughout the northwest suburbs last Friday night. Fremd’s senior guard’s buzzer-beating three-point heave stunned Conant, 42-41, and, more importantly, moved the Vikings to a perfect 30-0.
Teams that win so often have a funny habit: They keep winning. Fremd, a tough, determined, unselfish team committed to one another and their coach and distinct style, hopes to become the first unbeaten big school state champion in 24 years. They’re now just three wins away.
➤ Cameron Krutwig
In this day and age, Cameron Krutwig is a transcendent big man. The Loyola recruit is more than just an on-the-block presence; the 6-9 senior is one of the best passing big men the state has ever seen. That is not an exaggeration.
In a sectional final win over Larkin, Krutwig finished with this eye-popping stat line: 20 points, 23 rebounds, 11 blocks and 9 assists.
Krutwig can control and neutralize the paint with his wide-bodied size and allows the other Jacobs players to extend and be a little more aggressive defensively. Offensively, Krutwig is an anchor as a low-post force and a nightmare matchup for a team like Fremd that lacks size.
➤ Young’s rising star
Lucas Williamson made a serious run at Player of the Year over the course of his senior season. Point guard Xavier Castaneda was the big-named prospect heading into his junior year and has already generated scholarship offers. But coach Tyrone Slaughter’s Dolphins are a different team when junior Javon Freeman is showing flashes of playmaking brilliance.
Freeman (16.4 ppg), an athletic 6-3 wing, has been a consistent difference-maker over the second half of the season. He scored 17 points in a sectional championship game win over Oak Park and has elevated his game and Young’s title hopes, averaging close to 19 points a game over the second half of the season.
➤ Heavily-favored Fenwick
Last year everyone picked Fenwick to be playing in Peoria, but the Friars were upset by St. Joseph in the sectional. This year coach Rick Malnati’s team is 28-4 and a heavy favorite in its Class 3A super-sectional matchup with 15-16 St. Viator.
Fenwick, led by the trio of seniors Jamal Nixon and Jacob Keller and freshman D.J. Steward, is one step away from reaching Peoria for the first time since 1998.
➤Bolingbrook’s balance and breakneck speed
There isn’t a team in Illinois that thrives in transition and puts pressure on an opposing team with its speed, quickness and athleticism more than coach Rob Brost’s Raiders.
With Nebraska recruit Nana Akenten, rugged Malik Binns and the underclass guard trio of Joseph Yesufu, Kaleb Thornton and Tyler Cochran, the Raiders have multiple options on the offensive end as all five starters are double-figure scorers.
That’s bad news for Naperville North, which must find a way to slow the pace and handle Bolingbrook’s constant attacking style. Can Naperville North, led by 6-6 Mitch Lewis, prevent a track meet from developing and keep it a halfcourt game where it can then utilize its size?
The Huskies have won 19 of their last 20 games and own a win over Evanston, though Bolingbrook plays at a different speed and style than the Wildkits.
➤ Stars rising to the top
So many of the remaining teams rely so heavily on their stars, including the aforementioned Mark Smith of Edwardsville and Cameron Krutwig of Jacobs. But what Evanston’s Nojel Eastern and Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu do for their respective teams is equally immeasurable.
Both Eastern and Dosunmu can take over a game but not at the cost of playing selfishly. They are creators by nature with the ability to change the game they play in.
Dosunmu is the No. 1 ranked junior in the state for a reason. Morgan Park relies on the 6-4 point guard to not only score but also to distribute the ball and make the offense hum. He’s fresh off a dominating performance in a sectional semifinal win over St. Rita.
Eastern, meanwhile, can almost play too unselfishly at times. The 6-6 senior is headed to the Big Ten and Purdue because he has such great versatility, feel and basketball I.Q. for a player his size.
But in these final two weeks of the season there have been and will be times where Eastern will have to become a take-over-the-game player. He did just that in the sectional final win over Waukegan with 29 points and 19 rebounds.
The City/Suburban Hoops Report has been rolling along with its picks this March. While Fremd’s stunning buzzer-beating win over Conant did knock out my first 3A/4A Peoria finalist, seven of the original eight are still alive. Thus, there is no reason to change much now.
Chicago State Super: Evanston 62, Young 61
These were the two teams the Hoops Report projected to be playing in this super-sectional. The matchup has materialized, and it should be a dandy.
While Young may have as many shot makers as any team remaining in the field, Evanston’s seasoned seniors, led by 6-6 Nojel Eastern, Chris Hamil and 6-5 Elyjah Williams, find a way.
Hoffman Estates Super: Fremd 44, Jacobs 42
This is the Super the Hoops Report had wrong, picking Conant over Jacobs when the pairings came out three weeks ago. I’m tired of picking against Fremd (sorry, Fremd). This is a true toss-up that can go either way between two teams with a combined record of –– I love this! –– 60-1. While it will be low scoring, expect some drama.
DeKalb Super: Bolingbrook 61, Naperville North 49
Of all the teams Naperville North could be matched up against on paper, this would be the least appetizing. As hot as the Huskies have been, the speed, quickness and athleticism of Bolingbrook is going to be a big issue.
But if the Huskies can control tempo, take care of the ball and eliminate those monstrous, game-breaking Bolingbrook runs, it can keep this game close. If North can keep it close, coach Jeff Powers’ team has played in enough tight games to feel comfortable, including four different overtime games and two down-to-the-wire sectional wins.
Normal Super: Edwardsville 55, Simeon 53
The best game in the state on this Super Tuesday. This showdown features the state’s best player –– Yes, Mark Smith has my Mr. Basketball vote and will undoubtedly be the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Player of the Year –– against a perennial power and best team from the Chicago area.
Although Simeon got through last year, the Chicago area representative has had some issues playing in this super-sectional in recent years.
Hoffman Estates Super: Fenwick 57, St. Viator 48
While St. Viator has played a tough schedule to prepare them for a soft Class 3A road, this is where things get a little more tricky. But Viator knows it can play with some of the state’s better teams, including wins over Marian Catholic, Benet and St. Patrick.
DeKalb Super: Bloomington 70, Marengo 57
Talent takes over as Bloomington, which escaped a scary sectional final over Washington, heads to the State Finals for the first time since all-stater and future college coach Bob Bender led them to the Elite Eight in 1975.
Joliet Central Super: Morgan Park 68, Hillcrest 59
Morgan Park beat Hillcrest 72-54 when the two met back in December at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. The stakes are higher and the game will be closer but coach Nick Irvin’s Mustangs get back to Peoria after being stunned last year by Lincoln-Way West in the Super.
Springfield Super: Springfield Lanphier 63, Centralia 57
Centralia makes the 2-hour, 108 mile trek to Springfield while Lanphier heads a little over a mile down 11th Street. Though the travel might play a part in this one, the big difference will be Lanphier’s speed and talent on the perimeter with the red-hot Yaakema Rose, junior Cardell McGee and Aundrae Williams.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport