O’Brien: What’s wrong with the state tournament and how to fix it

Morgan Park's Lenell Henry (23) gets fired up after a dunk in the first half against Lanphier. Worsom Robinson/ For the Sun-Times.

PEORIA—There was a major disconnect between the terrific basketball played on the court this weekend at Carver Arena and the dismal turnout in the stands.

The four best teams in Class 3A were all in Peoria. There were teams from all over the state: Chicago, the suburbs and two from central Illinois. Bloomington brought a decent crowd, Springfield Lanphier’s was small.

Class 4A featured two interesting semifinals and the games were as good as expected. But once again, the crowds were bad.

Everyone connected with high school basketball wants to fix the state tournament. Well, lets assume the Illinois High School Association does, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

For the past several years most people assumed that the switch from two classes to four classes in 2008 was at fault. That is definitely when attendance began to thin.

The problem isn’t just the four classes. It is how the four class tournament is setup. The super sectionals need to be rotated more often. In Class 4A it has been impossible for a team from the south suburbs and from central or downstate Illinois to both advance to the state finals. That’s ridiculous, both areas are basketball hotbeds. Not having a representative in the state tournament from those areas hurts the sport.

Look at Saturday’s title games. Morgan Park and Fenwick, which played for the Class 3A state title, are separated by just 19 miles. The schools that played for the Class 4A title, Simeon and Young, are just 11 miles apart. Neither game feels like a state tournament final. If you are setting up a tournament based on geographical representation there is no way teams that close to one another should play for the title.

The massive success of the Public League is another significant factor in the attendance downswing. The Public League has won a state title every year since the switch in 2008. It has won 11 or 12 (depending on the Morgan Park-Fenwick result) of the 20 Class 3A or 4A titles since the split.

The Public League schools don’t bring many of their own fans to the state tournament. There are several good reasons for that, but it isn’t the only issue with Public League dominance. Fans from around the state lose interest in the sport when they see all-star teams from Chicago dominating. A state championship just doesn’t seem possible for traditional high schools in Evanston, South Holland, Edwardsville or Aurora. That’s not good for the sport.

Then there is the Peoria problem. The downtown has crumbled over the past decade. The bare necessities are not available within walking distance of Carver Arena anymore. It’s far from a family-friendly atmosphere overall. I polled fans on Twitter this weekend, asked why they weren’t going to attend the state tournament.

2,273 fans voted in the poll. The results:

46% said it is just too far away
19% said Peoria is the issue
19% said they were attending
16% blamed the four class format

Those results surprised most reporters around the state. It appears the four class format isn’t a major factor anymore. It likely was ten years ago, but time moves quickly. A majority of fans don’t even remember two class basketball. For high school students two class basketball is the distant, distant past and they don’t care at all.

There are several ideas floating around to fix things. Some think the tournament should be split, with Class 3A and 4A moving to the northern part of the state and Class 1A and 2A remaining in central Illinois.

Lately switching to the format used in Michigan has been discussed. All four classes would play on the same weekend. The 1A and 2A semis on Thursday, 3A and 4A semis on Friday and then four title games would be played on Saturday. The key factor with this format is the weekend. It would all happen before the NCAA Tournament gets started. That event’s massive surge in popularity over the past 20 years has also heavily impacted attendance at the state tournament.

There are so, so many ways the IHSA could improve things. It’s time to do something. Continuing with the same failing location and/or format is insanity. At this point there is nothing to lose.


  • Luke

    Why can’t so many people on these posts spell correctly. It’s embarrassing so many of your spelling skills!
    On to basketball: There should be only one state champion. The state of Illinois needs to stop being a bunch of softies! You can’t have more than one state champion, there is only one state. You can’t have four state champions in one state it’s stupid and ridiculous.
    Finally, never have state events at University of Illinois it is a lousy town and the University is overrated and a tax burden on the entire state.

    • Treehouseboy

      The current system is in place for good. Principles not fans determine its future. The demise of the tournament started in 1972. However the two class system worked well enough. The Class A tournament outdrew the Class AA most every year. Yes to your point today’s product isn’t worth following.
      On a different note Univ of Illinois is a great place to get a degree from!

  • Ralphie

    Ken, so the CPL always got cheated by the refs? Really, always every time? All white refs are racist? Wow.

  • Ken Johnson

    Suburbs and down state schools stop crying. Prior to 1971 there was one class. CPS schools had to play in the suburbs in at least 4 regional sectional and super sectional to play downstate. They were always cheated and the officials were all white. This is not racial this is the truth. A lot of CPS coaches fought hard th level the playing field. Every time CPS CPS plays by the rules and wins they want to change the rules. Talk about fairness just ask Charlie Brown and the 1954 To DuSablePanthers. They were out right cheated by the officials in the state championship game. But I will say this. The Chicago teams need to be supported more downstate. Peoria is a great place to have the tournament. The hotels are reasonable they have a lot of restaurants and there’s a lot of things to do. Peoria is just right.

    • Leegs1

      You might want to look at the ihsa site for basketball records. I went from 1971 back through 1961. There were very few years where more than one Chicago school was ranked in the final regular season AP poll. Racial polling? The big difference since single class is aau and summer ball where players can be recruited or think about transferring to certain schools. In my opinion, it didn’t happen back then as least to the extent it does now. To bring race into it is a stretch. It was a different game forty seven years ago. Athletes back then, in large measure, couldn’t compete with today’s athletes. But, I think you have to admit, that’s there is a lot of basketball program shopping going on. That’s why Fremd was an interesting program this year. Home grown athletes competing with the biggies. Just my opinion

  • Rich

    Murder capital of the USA writer complains about Peoria not being family friendly. Lol.

  • Gov

    My comment is that they went to the (4) Class the system became broken. To settle this” My opinion “. Take the four class and make in (1) Class. As they do in Indiana.
    The way we have it now is that the most teams were from Chicago, with the exception of 4 teams the balance brought a small fan base. Food for thought

  • ralphie

    i have heard from a number of supporters of the Public League here state that when the Catholic League recruits in football and wins big nobody complains. That’s simply not true. Anyone who follows these posts consistently has seen long debates on how to level the playing field in football as well as basketball. It’s not just a racial issue because of Public League basketball. It’s just a fairness issue because of the limitation boundary schools have versus schools that can freely recruit. At any rate, let’s not take anything away from the coaches and players who win championships and produce excellence, they still have to go out there and get it done. And they do.

  • ralphie

    Craig, I just read your post. I don’t want to denigrate the accomplishment of the kids from the Public League who win the state championship. They do have a lot to overcome. I’m just pointing out its really hard on the towns who really can’t consistently compete because of the system. They would like to win a championship too when they have a really special group of kids. Maybe we are putting too much emphasis on winning the state. Winning a ton of games, conference championships, regional and sectional crowns also really mean something and for the most part these are played on level playing fields.

    • Craig S. Siller

      I get you and I understand. But when our student-athletes are participating working hard to try to be the best football players that they can be, then go up against not just the Catholic League but other schools that are bigger have more coaches better facilities and get destroyed by those schools who believe me are enjoying every minute of it, it becomes pretty disheartening to say the least. But our kids they just keep battling and keep grinding to get better because they love the game and they believe that’s some point someday they’re going to win. And then comes my alma mater Phillips High School and we win a championship it feels really good and we’re so happy for the kids. Now it would have been real easy to stay out of the state playoffs in football and just stick two are traditional prep Bowl but that’s not the case so we stick it out. I don’t think we defend CPS as much as we know how it feels when it’s football and baseball season. We tried not to make it so much about winning but it’s very disheartening when you work so hard only to run into one of these schools that beat you 63 to 0.

  • Treehouseboy

    Indiana’s HS administrators killed their jewel of a tournament a generation ago and Illinois’s HS administrators followed suit 10 years later. These folks are all educators not event marketers. The “Golden Days” of March Madness died with the decision to hand out more trophies and crown more champions. The public never bought it. Today its not even as interesting as the Proviso West Holiday tournament.

  • Steveo

    I don’t want to hear that Peoria is too far, think Champaign is really that much closer? If the tournament is moved to Chicago where are you going to stay? Hotels are more expensive here than in Peoria. The so called magnet school thing cracks me up. Its a magnet alright it attracts the best players. I think when Peoria Manual won four in a row they didn’t have a magnet, correct me if I’m wrong.

  • Steveo

    You need to back to when all the Chicago teams played each other and had they’re own super sectional so only one team goes downstate.

  • Force Of 1

    In both classes 1 and 2A, 3 and 4A teams usually play each other during the year anyway or are in the same conference. Instead of trying to have 4 State Champs, the IHSA should seed them like they do now for each class 1-4A AND seed them OVERALL. Seed 1A and 2A together 3A and 4A together prior to the start of the tournament. You are now awarding the teams in each class to make it down to the Elite 8. Now you can seed them according to the Original OVERALL Seeding. The winners Friday advance to Saturday as in the past and the losers go home. The two winners in the morning/afternoon would play for the 1/2A or 3/4A Championship with the 3rd place game preceding. You will produce 1 Champion for 1/2A and 3/4A. Now you have awarded each class for making it to the finals, have the elimination games on Friday and you then have the best team wins 3 games in two days to become a TRUE State Champ!

  • Leegs1

    The wheels came off the bus a long time ago. Good luck to anyone trying to fix it. Just my opinion.

  • mjg

    i remember when a teacher at our high school was arrested for scalping tickets to the tournament in Champaign !! It was a 16000 seat sellout ,always! How times have changed !! For the worst !!


    • Treehouse Boy

      Back then each school in Illinois were given comp tickets. With a enrollment of 3,200 my school was allotted 4. It was impossible to buy tickets by just showing up at Assembly Hall. Every Elite Eight game was sold out when the tournament was a single class tournament.

      • Steveo

        Oh for the good old days! I remember at Champaign that at the end of a game you’d go to the lower level and ask the people leaving if you could have their ticket stub so you would have a better seat for the next game.

  • Rob

    The IHSA cant tie their shoes without screwing it up. Go back to the 2 class system.
    Not to mention the girls playing in an almost empty arena. Let Chicago Public Schools have only 1 representative. Baseball is also ridiculous.

  • Just the Facts

    Cant take the whining. There was nothing athletically overwhelming about the city teams, this year at least. It came down to coaching and execution (and the refs). Fremd showed you how to compete. Benet last year showed how. Normal before that showed how.

    We as Chicagoans (I’m including the Burbs) have to (I guess we don’t) stop complaining about leaving the area. Sure I don’t trust south of I80 as much as the next man, but it’s good to see the state. It was something about driving down 74 seeing only farms then through the crack in the distance you see skyscrapers.

    It’s also not going back to 2 classes so forget it. One thing Mike said previously may fix whatever issues: Moving the finals up a week to not go head up with the NCAA, but instead of just the 4 teams, they could make it the Super Sectionals too.

  • Common sense

    This is not a basketball issue. It is a rules issue. Private school and open enrollment schools have a complete advantage since they can recruit athletes to their school. Public schools with boundaries must work with the hand they are dealt. It is comical the IHSA ignores how the rule affects fair play in all high school sports

  • Mother of three

    I’m a single parent (mother) with three boys from Chicago. In which my son did make it down state this year which was amazing. He attends a 1A school because of me. Mostly because of a safety. My son and I was oblivious to the different class and how the system works. I really feel it has to be a better solution in all. There are really great players that gets over look because they don’t get the same exposure as 4A or 3A students. Those kid work extremely hard maybe even harder to have certain colleges looking at them or even to notice there existence. I’m not commenting on facts just my experience. To make it as far as to state you would think that was an accomplishment but even reading the comments how you would perfer to leave 1A and 2A in Peoria and take 3A and 4A else where speaks volume. It’s just not fair to kill these kids hoop dreams. Just make it fair all over the state. So every child can have its fair shot.

  • Ken Hunter

    LOL all star teams ? Some of you sound like sore losers and whiners .

    As someone mentioned earlier they should move the state championship for both classes to the New Depaul Arena which is connected to Mcormick place and make a giant festival out of it highlighting the state HOF and history of basketball in the state overall. They could also have various educational session for families about college,financial aid ,the high school rules recruiting etc .

    You want the tournament to be a big deal well make it a big deal and bring it the city and encourage teams with marching bands etc to bring them .

    I think people really have forgotten that march madness originated here in Illinois

  • Brandon

    Sounds like this is only a “problem” because all-black teams from Chicago public schools are winning every year and the surbanites don’t like it. Yet no one says a thing when the Catholic League wins football titles every year and CPS teams get pounded. If the best teams in Illinois are all in Chicago, why is it such a shock that the state finals are all Chicago teams?

    If you want to get people in the stands, then move the tournament out of Hicksville, IL. Put it somewhere that people would actually like to go to.

    • Paul Mazzone

      Brandon- my comments have nothing to do with the cops schools being black. The team that I support is almost all black. My comments were in regards to the fact that when we had two classes system, getting downstate was special. Now everyone knows in 4A you season ends when you meet Simeon or Young. In 3A it’s Morgan Park. All three are great programs but Simeon and Morgan Park are not south suburban schools. We should not have to meet them in our sectional every year. If this sounds like sour grapes, well so be it.

  • Duke Carnoustie

    I’ll add this. I stand by my statement that Peoria is lousy. I don’t want to spend a weekend there – it sucks, I have been there. Look at where neighboring states have their championships – Wisconsin – Madison, Indiana – Indianapolis, Michigan – Lansing. Not only are those cities great but you have two Big Ten buildings and one NBA arena. Carver Arena in Peoria is a joke in comparison. Who wants to play at Bradley compared to Wisconsin and Michigan State, that’s just silly.

    Not having this in Champaign also hurts Illinois in a big way, when you look at it that way. The IHSA and the whole thing is a disgrace. The fact that the IHSA actively hurts the Illinois program is ridiculous. Poor Brad Underwear has to try to fix this.

  • Preston pruitt

    I guess when it comes to football, the almost impossible task of East St Louis winning the championship against bigger and financially schools of different cultures are not mentioned…. Stop moving the goal posts

  • CB

    I like the success factor used in Indiana. If that were used in Illinois for all schools not just private schools Morgan Park, Simeon and Whitney Young would all be in the same class. In 2A Orr H.S has only about 200 students all those kids live in that horrible area. The coach had two players shot walking home over the last two years. The comment about all star teams is funny. Ho do you explain that most of Fenwick and Morgan Parks teams are underclassmen Freshmen on both teams were the best players in the championship Freshman. If Jordan Goodwin dose not go down with injury Bellville Althoff is in the final four again.

  • ralphie

    Well Craig you said a lot of things there but you didn’t deny the advantage the Public league has in open enrollment in a city of 3 million people. It’s intellectually dishonest to deny it. Jabari Parker won four state championships. Winning four consecutive state championships in any other city or situation in Illinois is simply impossible. And this will continue. It won’t happen in football because of the difference in culture of the sports and the number of players needed in football. And yes the Public league is at a big disadvantage in football given available resources in wealthier school districts. But basketball only needs a couple stars and some supporting role players to dominate.

    • Craig S. Siller

      Ralphie, I understand your point I just don’t agree with it. Jabari Parker was without a doubt a great player but had he not gone to Simeon he would have one somewhere and been great. The point to all of this is simple. When the city schools start winning championships it becomes a point where is time to complain about a tournament that gives many schools a chance to win. Because City Schools are not winning like this in the other sports no one complains. Catholic schools in basketball have feeder programs. They actually have a freshman team and a sophomore team. They have an opportunity to develop players. And they don’t always concern themselves with weather a kids going to get murdered or not. What these kids go through just to participate in athletics is amazing. Trying to keep their head on straight so I can get an education and not get killed trying to get one and play sports. So I say move the tournament I’m good with that but let’s not complain about the tournament because City Schools are winning it. These kids deserve better from us as adults they work too hard.

      • Johnny

        Craig, Catholic Schools are not the only programs in the state with feeder programs. Public schools all around the Chicago suburbs have feeder programs. Most Catholic Schools do not anymore. Where did Jabari Parker live? He did not live in the City but he some how went to Simeon. How did Whitney Young get Jahil Okafor to go to school there? He lived in Rosemont with his uncle before Whitney Young came knocking. This is what people are saying CPS has All Star teams. Nothing against the kids.

  • Ralphie

    Well Craig you said a lot of things there but one thing you didn’t try to deny is the inherent unfairness of the system. Because you can’t. It’s simply undeniable that open enrollment in a city the size of Chicago creates a massive advantage over smaller towns with boundaries. It won’t happen in football because of the number of players on the field and the totally different culture of the sport. Jabari Parker teams won four straight state championships. That would be simply impossible in any other city in the state.

  • Craig S. Siller

    All Star teams​ from Chicago lol. That’s so hilarious, this isn’t even a conversation when it comes to football. With all of the advantages those other schools have and the disadvantages that City schools have. It’s not a problem in football as long as City Schools don’t win on a consistent basis. But that day is coming and it’s coming sooner then everyone expect. And when that day comes I’m sure they will be complaining about the state tournament and all the different classes and of course the attendance. Which by the way they do not pack them there either. So CPS is winning State championships in basketball, get over it. Your problem with the state tournament is not City Schools, we were winning in the two-class system and then they wanted to go to the for class system and City Schools originally did not want to do it because they did not want to give up there automatic bid. But they agreed to do it and play alone with the game and now we’ve mastered the game and now it’s time for change just simply hilarious.

  • ralphie

    People aren’t interested in witnessing a rigged game. The advantage the public league has makes it a rigged game. A school like Fremd playing with players from their district cannot consistently compete with a couple schools recruiting from a population base of 3 million people. The coaches and players from the handful of public league schools that dominate do a terrific job but the advantage they have is undeniable and will continue. It’s too bad. Texas A&M left the Big 12 because of the advantages Texas had over them. Schools would leave the IHSA if they could. The tournament today compared to what it once was is doomed.

  • Coach K

    People are always complaining!!! This is the only sport CPS is dominant in. Nobody is complaining about make the football state tournament better or Baseball State tournament better when the Catholic schools win!!! Is the tournament for attendance or for schools try and win a State Championship!!!

    • Craig S. Siller

      And I agree with Coach K. The huge advantage that the Catholic league has in baseball as well as football is unbelievable but nobody’s complaining are they?

      • mikenike

        Actually, people have complained about the Catholic schools recruiting for decades, especially in football. It’s why the ‘success factor’ was initiated. Any time schools who are unable to recruit have to play schools who can or have open enrollment, people are going to complain. I don’t know what the answer is and I don’t want to penalize students, particularly in Chicago where the public schools are in debt and turmoil, from going to a better school, but somehow you have to level the playing field or the lack of interest is going to totally kill off tournaments, which are the best part of football and basketball. I realize schools are about education and not sports but there are sports fans who put a lot of money into the school systems and they are getting less and less. I still go to local games but haven’t been downstate in over a decade, and probably won’t ever be even if one of my hometown schools go down. Combination of age and being able to see it online or TV and knowing they won’t beat a Simeon or Young.

  • Jack Halpin

    Remember when you deal with the IHSA any changes you make for a single sport applies to all sports. Only allowing one team downstate for. The Public League means that only one team could go downstate in each class for all other sports. Also moving to Chicago would simply require some school make a quote to the IHSA to house ALL classes in the city. Like health care, there are no simple solutions.

  • PJJay

    Solution simple. Chicago teams draw no one to Peoria. Go aback to giving them one champion. They are all-star teams with no boundaries. Let the city champ play in 4A. That is all they deserve with the fact that they can recruit from anywhere. Otherwise, get used to no attendance.

  • Red South Alumni

    Now that the Public League isn’t limited to one automatic qualifier everyone cries. For decades we had to beat each other up just to send one team. And keep in mind with all the “super teams” the talent is spread out. Give those coaches credit for the work they put in. The solution is to move State to Champaign.

  • Ken

    It’s not the tournament that needs to be fix. Start at the bottom. The high school and coaches are the problem. Free agency has allowed kids/parents to take over entire programs. We as fans have no connection with the players or coaches. No one wants to support kids being exploited by coaches & politics. The school boards need to be held accountable. You have to address the problem before you can find a solution. If you want someone to buy your product then the product has to be worth buying. Think about. Ticket sales alone will not generate interest or dollars. Concessions sales are the key. Photographers can sell action shot if players are riding the pine.

  • Scott

    It would be nice to have it closer to Chicago
    They are building the new DePaul or should I say the Wintrust center

  • William Palmer

    No interest in going to Peoria. Going to Assembly Hall used to be an honor in itself. 2 classes is plenty. Everything the IHSA has done for 50 years has made it worse incrementally. End the TV timeouts. That makes HS ball unique. Also that would make the coach use their timeouts to control tempo and not stop the clock umpteen times in the last minutes.

    • William Palmer

      The lapdog TV coverage doesn’t help either. Give it back to Mike Liedermann. And allow the local radio and TV to be synched up so fans at home can keep the local flavor. If the royalties don’t meet expectations, and they probably aren’t anyway, fire all the people at the IHSA and sell the headquarters.

  • Jim

    The solution is simple. Keep your four class system but change how it is devided. Two classes of schools with finite boundaries. Split them in half by enrollment. Two classes of schools that don’t have set boundaries. This includes the CPS, the Maines, the Glenbards, Champaign, Bolingbrook and all private schools. Split them how you like and you can get rid of the multiplier. Let those who recruit play against each other and those who can’t, play the hand that they are dealt.

  • Duke Carnoustie

    A state championship just doesn’t seem possible for traditional high schools in Evanston, South Holland, Edwardsville or Aurora.

    If these teams aren’t good enough, what do you do? I mean Evanston was supposed to be all that and a bunch of chips but they crumbled like a wet suit against Whitney Young. Edwardsville had the fans at ISU and the hype and fell flat on its face.

    Chicago Public League hoops is the gold standard and all the hayseeds and suburbanites should support their school ice hockey or soccer team if they want to win a state title. Or maybe pay off more South and West side kids to come play for them like they do in NCAA hoops.

    • mikenike

      Because “Fans from around the state lose interest in the sport when they see all-star teams from Chicago dominating.” If Chicago schools were only getting kids from the schools boundaries it would be different. 2 kids from Aurora were playing downstate this weekend but it wasn’t for an Aurora school. I like good basketball and I enjoy watching Simeon, Morgan Park etc but knowing that the best schools from Aurora, Joliet, Elgin, Rockford etc are never going to get down state or win any more is frustrating. You have to do like Bolingbrook did this year and get transfers from other schools like Simeon and MP and Young do to have a chance.

  • CP3

    They should go back to sending the Elite 8 to state. They will have a wider geographical represenration of our state. Plue alot more fans willing to travel.
    Moving the weekend is an absolute must as well.
    Switching back to the new U &I gym may help. It’s still Champaign.

    • Norm

      Sending the Elite 8 to State means having the supersectionals in Peoria. There are 8 teams at State now it’s just split into 3A and 4A. There aren’t enough teams to have 8 teams downstate for both classes.

  • Keith Goodloe

    They should move it to Chicago and generate interested there. You won’t get to many city folks going downstate. Mostly family. Format like Wisconsin or Michigan

  • Norm

    If I remember correctly only one Public League team was allowed downstate in the past. It was whoever won the PL tournament ( supersectional). And since it was basically in class 2A at the time, which left 8 teams alive after the SS, that meant only one of the 8 teams downstate was from the city. This year between 3A and 4A there were 3 teams in Peoria. In the past it seemed as if the city was not fairly represented as it deserved more than one team. Now it seems as if things have soured because the city is too dominant

  • Coach LB

    Good article I agree. They should move it to the United Center or UIC or the University of Chicago would be a great place to have the tournament. People would feel comfortable and it is around a lot of different venues that people could go too.

  • used to be ihsa fan

    All star teams from Chicago make the tournament a complete joke. 4 classes is a joke. Just because time passes quickly does not make what was done makes things ok. I saw every final since 1957 to 2007. Have not gone since. The truth is tough to take. buy!

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