The road to Peoria: Assessing and predicting every sectional across the state

Curie's Tyree Martin (12) holds the ball away from Simeon's defense Thursday 01-25-18. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

The regular season was illuminated by one-name novas and initials (THT, Ayo and E.J.), on-the-rise revelations (hello, Loyola and Marist) and strong defending state champs capable of making another run (Young and Morgan Park).

But most agree this wasn’t high school basketball’s finest year. So what?

The road to Peoria begins Monday in regional action across the state in Class 3A and Class 4A.

Even in this season of fluid rankings and few true upsets, some teams appear to be on the fast track to Peoria. Others face plenty of bumps in the road in the coming weeks.

To help get you ready for an exciting three weeks of IHSA state basketball tournament play, the City/Suburban Hoops Report is breaking down and forecasting each Class 4A sectional across the state.

 

GLENBARD EAST SECTIONAL

Team to beat: Naperville North

Naperville North broke through last season and won its first regional since 2006 and first sectional championship in 19 years. The Huskies started this season in the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s preseason top 25, so the expectations remained high. Up to this point, the Huskies have met those expectations, winning a DuPage Valley Conference championship and sporting a sparkling 24-2 record heading into regional play.

But the doubters exist.

Coach Jeff Powers believes this team may be better defensively than last year’s team. He may be right. In 26 games this season only two opponents have scored more than 55 points. North won both of those games convincingly, beating West Aurora 87-72 and Joliet West 82-58. The Huskies boast size and around-the-rim scoring in 6-7 Chris Johnson and up-and-coming 6-7 junior Tom Welch.

However, from top to bottom the DuPage Valley, a league the Huskies went 15-1 in over the past three months, is really down. Plus, Naperville North’s non-conference schedule since playing West Aurora and Proviso East all the way back in November has been extremely soft. Is this team prepared for the rigors of March?

Also, is the guard play dependable enough? A heavy burden and a whole lot of responsibility will be placed on guard Jack Hill if another run is to be made this March. Aside from Hill, this team lacks multiple ball handlers, while opposing team’s speed, quickness and pressure can give the Huskies issues. Fortunately for the Huskies, there aren’t the type of teams in this sectional that will pose that type of pressure on North’s shaky perimeter play.

Top threats: Benet, Wheaton South and Hinsdale South

There isn’t a hotter team in the sectional than Benet (23-4). The Redwings haven’t lost a game since dropping two straight at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament in December. Benet does it’s thing –– executes on offense while sprinkling in a few threes and winning games. A lot of games. Benet has now won 20-pus games for nine straight years.

More importantly, the defense has progressively improved and the offense is taking better care of the basketball during Benet’s 14-game win streak.

Benet is not going to wow anyone individually; it’s a team that could certainly fall earlier than later. But it’s a team with 23 wins and has played arguably the toughest schedule in the sectional. Senior David Buh has put together a complete season at both ends of the floor, leading Benet in scoring with 14 points a game. Buh can stretch a defense with his shooting and is an underrated defensive player.

Wheaton South continues to be the poster child for overachieving teams. The Tigers are limited, due mostly to their lack of size and overall talent level in comparison to other top teams. However, coach Mike Healy, the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s 2017 Coach of the Year, has this team playing hard, competing and using an aggressive zone defense to take opposing teams out of what they want to do offensively.

Wheaton South, led by the senior trio of Chase Stebbins, Jake Healy and Parker Robinson, has held 21 of its 28 opponents to 40 or fewer points this season. But is there enough offensive firepower to take down multiple teams and win four games in this sectional?

Despite a tough one-point loss to Oak Park to close out the regular season, Hinsdale South is feeling pretty good heading into state tournament play. The Hornets, the four seed in this sectional, are 10-2 since December with two wins over Proviso East and a victory over Willowbrook. But Hinsdale South has had difficulty closing out tight games. In games decided by one or two points this season, the Hornets are 1-4.

There will be so much attention paid to star Zion Griffin, who will have to play like the star that he is if the Hornets want to win their first sectional championship in school history. In addition, the supporting cast will have to make plays at some point. Can the likes of Matas Masys, a three-year varsity veteran, and others rise to the occasion?

Sleeper: Willowbrook

This is an experienced group that has now won a whopping 47 games over the past two seasons. That’s some unchartered water for this program. But a regional championship is still the goal this group has yet to reach.

Last year’s 24-win season ended with an upset loss, as a No. 5 seed, to Addison Trail in the regional semifinals. That bitter taste lingers. The Warriors, who are led by versatile big man Ethan Schuemer, are in the same spot as a year ago –– a No. 5 seed with 20-plus wins and in search of the program’s fourth regional championship in nearly 60 years.

Super sleeper: Batavia

Although the No. 6 seed Bulldogs have faltered a bit down the stretch, going 3-4 in their final seven games, this is still a 21-win team with weapons. And it’s a team the City/Suburban Hoops Report has pumped up quite a bit over the past few months. Sophomore Jayden Johnson, along with the senior tandem of Kyle LeFevre and Eric Peterson, are all scoring threats. That trio helped Batavia to some wins that should open the eyes of anyone in this sectional. Batavia has knocked off Naperville North (24-2), Rockford Jefferson (23-6), Burlington Central (25-3) and beaten 18-win St. Charles East twice.

Most likely to carry a team: Zion Griffin, Hinsdale South

There isn’t a player in the sectional who poses a bigger mismatch for opponents or has the capability of carrying a team quite like Griffin. This is the type of player you win big with in March. He is now pretty comfortable operating anywhere on the floor when he has to, whether that’s in the high post, along the baseline or on the perimeter. The Iowa State-bound senior has elite athleticism, size and a game that’s grown. He’s averaging 21.1 points and nine rebounds a game.

Most appetizing regional matchup: Willowbrook vs. Hinsdale South

These two are so familiar with one another having battled over the past two years for West Suburban Gold supremacy. Now they’re on a regional collision course after splitting two regular-season matchups. If this game does materialize, Hinsdale South will have the advantage of playing the regional title game on its home floor.

Outlook: This is a sectional that serves as a reminder that there are no sure things in March. It would be shocking if this sectional went according to plan.

For a team with such a sparkling record as Naperville North (24-2), the Huskies looks vulnerable as a No. 1 seed. And, yes, red-hot Benet has kind of snuck up on everybody with this 23-win regular season, but this is far from being coach Gene Heidkamp’s most talented team. In fact, it’s probably the least imposing Benet team in Heidkamp’s 10 years. Wheaton South doesn’t pass the look test and Hinsdale South has lost to the likes of Addison Trail, York and Wheaton North this season.

But in this decade-long rise of Benet Academy, from a quirky pick nine years ago to a legitimate, 20-plus win powerhouse, the Redwings are the safest choice –– if there is such a thing –– in an absolutely wide open sectional field.

The point? This sectional is lacking heavy hitters. Someone just needs to step up and snatch it.

Sectional semi picks: Naperville North over Hinsdale South; Benet over Batavia

Hoops Report pick: Benet


JACOBS SECTIONAL

Team to beat: Larkin

Larkin is a good, talented team but a weird one. It’s a team that was ranked among the top 25 in the preseason, won 19 games and ripped through a quality Upstate Eight River with an 11-1 record. But those losses … Lost to Fenwick by 25, to Uplift by 32, to New Trier by 19 and, most recently, to St. Charles North by 14. The defense has come and gone all season.

But the Royals have played a very challenging schedule and have two seniors, Jalen Shaw (16 ppg, 11 rpg) and Anthony Lynch (19.5 ppg), who were instrumental in helping Larkin reach a sectional title game last season. If Larkin plays to its potential, with Shaw active and engaged, it can win its first sectional title since 2005.

Top threats: Rockford Jefferson, St. Charles East and Jacobs

On paper, Rockford Jefferson is arguably the most talented team in the sectional. This is certainly the best Rockford Jefferson (23-6) team since the 2004-2005 team surprised everyone, went on a postseason run –– beating Larkin in the super-sectional –– and finished fourth in the state. There is a trio of seniors in Quillin Dixon, Terry Ford and 6-4 My’Quion Garrett who are all double-figure scorers and capable of going on scoring binges.

Both Larkin and St. Charles North finished ahead of St. Charles East in the Upstate Eight River standings, but you get the feeling the Saints may be the most dangerous team at this time. Since a triple overtime loss to Geneva in early January, St. Charles East won eight of its final nine games.

Offensively, the Saints have a lot going for it: arguably the most productive player in the sectional in Justin Hardy and a team that has made 200-plus three-pointers and is shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc for the season as a team. Beating opponents with the three in March is never the best recipe, but that’s why a player like Hardy, with his combination of craftiness around the basket and face-up ability, is so important.

The strength of Jacobs is the belief this group of players has after winning 30 games and a sectional title last season and another 24 victories thus far this season. The weakness is the schedule it has faced. Jacobs has played just two teams (West Aurora and Barrington) all season that have won at least 20 games.

The Golden Eagles were hit with bad news when leading scorer Ryan Phillips recently went down with an injury, though he is hopeful he will be back for the regional. With a healthy Phillips (14.7 ppg), along with Kameron Mack (12.3 ppg) and Nik Balkcom (9.4 ppg), Jacobs can play with anyone in the sectional.

Sleeper: St. Charles North

The North Stars have the home court in the regional and they don’t have to put too many eggs in one player’s basket. But you can’t ignore the versatility and importance of 6-5 Kyle King (15.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4 apg). Cade Callaghan (10.1 ppg) and guards Zach Ludwig (7.3 ppg) and Brendan Dal Degan round out the balanced attack. Plus, coach Tom Poulin’s team built some mojo late by winning its final three games and beating Larkin late. Plus, STC North owns wins over Bogan, Bloom, Benet and St. Charles East this season.

Super sleeper: Rockton-Hononegah

While the attention seems to be on the Rockford schools –– Jefferson, East and Auburn –– two of which earned higher seeds, keep an eye on Rockton-Hononegah. Coach Mike Miller’s team has 20 wins and finished off the regular season winning 10 of its final 11, including a late-season win over Rockford East.

Hononegah, led by guard Kameron Kolberg (15.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg), junior Caleb Donaldson (11.6 ppg) and shooter Brayden Hennis (62 threes) also beat state-ranked Normal West in January. But the No. 3 seed in the sub-sectional must beat Rockford Auburn, on the road, and Rockford East just to get out of the regional.

Most likely to carry a team: Justin Hardy, St. Charles East

Hardy’s game is what will drive any St. Charles East sectional push. He’s a player who will be called on in the biggest moments. The often under-appreciated 6-5 senior has been a consistent, high-level producer for the past three seasons. He’s averaging 21.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists a game, an assist total that shows he recognizes when it’s best to keep it himself or find an open teammate.

Most appetizing regional matchup: Larkin vs. St. Charles North

St. Charles, the No. 4 seed in this sub-sectional, is the only team in the UEC River that has beaten Larkin this season –– and it was as recently as last week. Larkin beat STC North 51-50 back in January. St. Charles North, playing on its home floor in the regional, is more than capable of winning the rubber match.

Outlook: Talk about a sectional that could go a number of ways. All the Upstate Eight River teams (Larkin, St. Charles East and St. Charles North) have all played and beat one another. All the NIC-10 teams (Rockford Jefferson, Rockford Auburn, Rockford East and Rockton-Hononegah) have all payed and beat one another. So this one is wide open.

Sectional semi picks: Rockton-Hononegah over St. Charles North; St. Charles East over Rockford Jefferson

Hoops Report pick: St. Charles East


ROMEOVILLE SECTIONAL

Team to beat: Bolingbrook

Among ranked teams, a major question all season long has been just how good is Bolingbrook? Coach Rob Brost’s team has dealt with injuries and illness. The Raiders endured a late season stretch where they lost three out of four games as a result. And they beat Morgan Park in what was supposed to be a measuring stick game, but it was against a hobbled Ayo Dosunmu. So it’s been difficult to measure how good this team is.

Unlike last season when everyone believed in the Raiders and their dominance shined through, there are doubts centering around this year’s team.

But here the Raiders sit –– with the No. 1 seed, 19 wins and a talented roster with some big wins in its recent history. The trio of Tyler Cochran, Joseph Yesufu and Kaleb Thornton have been through some big-game battles, helping last year’s team to a third-place finish in Class 4A. Plus, Thornton is back from an injury, scoring 22 points the season finale. Big man Joey Saracco has been a bit inconsistent, but when he’s played well some of the deficiencies are glazed over. His size and underrated impact will be crucial to Bolingbrook’s success in March.

No, this is not the vaunted team of a year ago. But it’s certainly one that’s talented enough to win another sectional championship.

Top threats: West Aurora, Lincoln-Way East and Joliet Central

All West Aurora has done since losing to Curie and Bloomington at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament is rattle off 13 straight wins. The Blackhawks have done so in impressive fashion, beating up 12 of those 13 teams by 12 or more points. Oddly, West Aurora has played only three games all season long that were decided by fewer than eight points.

But a question, maybe even a concern, arises from that type of dominance: How will West Aurora handle the unfamiliar game pressure it did not experience during the past two months

Regardless, coach Brian Johnson has to like where his team is at right now heading into regional play. When senior Camron Donatlan is locked in and focused, the highly-athletic guard can be a difference-making weapon. But the run from West Aurora has coincided with the rise of Jared Crutcher. The 6-5 senior has become such a force with his athleticism, endless length and growing versatility. And he seems to get better by the week.

Last year was the first 20-win season in Lincoln-Way East basketball history. Now after a second straight 20-plus win campaign, the Griffins, the No. 3 seed in this sectional, are set on winning the first regional title in the program’s history. And there is a belief. In the second half of the season the Griffins split two games with top-seed Bolingbrook, beat fourth-seeded Joliet Central and played H-F tough in a 47-44 loss.

There is enough offensive firepower, led by Southern Illinois recruit Sam Shafer and senior guard Zach Parduhn, for Lincoln-Way East to make a splash in this sectional.

In back-to-back seasons, Joliet Central has taken its fans on a surprisingly wonderful ride. Last year the Steelmen went 23-6 when no one expected them to. This year Joliet Central surprised again, winning another 21 games and, on top of that, a conference championship when everyone penciled Romeoville in as the Southwest Prairie favorite. Kudos to coach Larry Thompson. While Joliet Central has won two straight regional championships, the program is still in search of its first sectional title since the Joliet schools split nearly a decade ago.

Sleepers: Oswego East and Romeoville

After winning 15 of its final 17 games, Oswego East has grabbed some people’s attention. While this team may be a year away from being a sectional favorite rather than a sleeper, the Wolves are primed for an upset or two this March.

The City/Suburban Hoops Report is excited about the young tandem of junior Ray J Dennis (17 ppg, 5.2 apg), a silky smooth guard and Division I prospect, and 6-7 Sam Schultz (13.8 ppg, 11.2 ppg), a versatile sophomore with size. Plus, Oswego East will host the regional and likely face No. 4 seed Joliet Central, a team it beat two weeks ago.

Ok, Romeoville, the slate has been wiped clean. After this preseason top 10 team lost seven games, fell out of the rankings and finished second in the Southwest Prairie Conference, it’s time to forget about how others have viewed the regular season. A few wins in March will do wonders for that. The biggest black eye, however, are the two losses to the top two seeds in this sectional (Bolingbrook and West Aurora) –– by a combined 44 points. Led by seniors Deandre Heckard and Eddie Creal, there is talent to make a run.

Super sleeper: Andrew

Coach Dave Wilson has turned in one of the underrated coaching jobs in the Chicago area this season, taking a team with marginal talent, little to no size and a program with zero history to 18 wins and only the second conference championship in school history. Now the stakes are raised.

When Andrew heats up from outside the arc, it can cause trouble. As a No. 7 seed, the Thunderbolts can hang with any top four seed –– if they’re shooting the basketball well. This team can wreak havoc when hot. Troy Murphy (17 ppg) and Evan Yerkes (14.8 ppg) have been consistent perimeter threats all season, while Dan Gierhahn (10 ppg) has had his moments as a third offensive threat. The Yerkes, Murphy and Gierhahn trio have made 88, 72 and 45 three-pointers, respectively, while combining to shoot 44 percent from beyond the three-point line.

Big Mike Dehaan, a 6-5 senior with strength, will need to be a presence. Dehaan must be a factor if Andrew is to become the Cinderella of this sectional and beat a ranked team for the first time all season.

Most likely to carry a team: Tyler Cochran, Bolingbrook

With Cochran it’s not about the numbers. He averages over 14 points a game and has had multiple 30-plus point games this season. The burly Cochran does have a knack for coming up big in the clutch. Plus, with his versatility in creating and shooting the basketball, along with his basketball feel and instincts, the 6-2 junior guard can beat a team in a variety of ways. Cochran is a player you want with the ball in his hands at the end of a game.

Most appetizing regional matchup: Lincoln-Way East vs. Romeoville

For different reasons, both of these teams need this regional win so badly. Lincoln-Way East is in search of its first in school history, while Romeoville tries to live up to the heavy preseason expectations and wash away some of the negativity that’s engulfed this team during the regular season.

Outlook: This sectional is good. But it’s not great as the top teams in the sectional are vulnerable and have some tricky regional games to navigate through. As just one example, top-seed Bolingbrook may have to play on the road, at Lemont, in the regional final and face the twin towers of 6-8 Paul O’Leary and 6-7 Nate Ferguson and a team with 18 wins.

While it may not necessarily feel right in doing so with so much upset potential, the Hoops Report is sticking with the top seeds getting through and meeting in a sectional final. Bolingbrook is the most talented team in the sectional and West Aurora has a ton of momentum and doesn’t have a single bad loss all season.

Sectional semi picks: Bolingbrook over Oswego East; West Aurora over Lincoln-Way East

Hoops Report pick: Bolingbrook

 

PEKIN SECTIONAL

Team to beat: Belleville West

With junior E.J. Liddell as a dominating force, Belleville West (25-2) is not only a sectional title contender but a state title contender as well. The City/Suburban Hoops Report has been hyping a potential Simeon-Belleville West title game since the brackets were announced, and there is no reason to believe that won’t transpire.

Belleville West hasn’t lost to an in-state team in compiling its 25-2 record, and they’ve hammered teams of late with an average victory margin of 32 points a game in its last five wins. The Maroons should cruise to a sectional final game where it would then be matched up with either Danville, Normal West or Bloomington.

There is some beef and physicality with the 6-7 Liddell (20.6 ppg) and rugged 6-5 junior Keith Randolph (10 ppg, 6.3 rpg). Malachi Smith’s arrival from Belleville East put this team over the top. The 6-3 guard is headed to Wright State next year and is averaging 16.5 points and 3.4 assists a game while shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc.

Top threats: Danville, Normal West and Bloomington

Hoo-boy, there is a wealth of star power in this sectional. In addition to Belleville West’s Liddell, the three biggest sectional challengers are all led by game-changing, all-state caliber players.

Danville’s Kendle Moore, a dynamic scoring guard, is headed to Drake and has fueled the Vikings all season. The Vikings (25-2) have won 15 consecutive games, including a 62-49 mid-February win over state-ranked Normal West.

While everyone has been forecasting a Belleville West-Danville sectional showdown at Pekin, there may be a team out of the Bloomington-Normal area that has a thing or two to say about that.

Normal West features 6-9 Francis Okoro, who is one of the top 40 juniors nationally, while Bloomington’s athletic 6-6 Chris Payton is among the top five juniors in Illinois. Both are big, physically gifted players who pose so many problems at the high school level. Those two are likely to meet in what should be the best regional championship game in the state this Friday night in Rock Island.

Sleeper: Quincy

Can Quincy upset Belleville West in a sectional semifinal game? The Blue Devils took off once star guard Aaron Shoot returned from injury and are playing well. Quincy (21-4) dismantled Geneva last week on the road, jumping out to a 54-27 lead in the third quarter en route to an easy win. The only loss since the calendar turned to 2018 came to a Webster Groves team out of Missouri.

Super sleeper: None

With a sectional featuring a piranha-like tank when looking at the top teams in this sectional field, it’s difficult to imagine a “super sleeper” having a chance to even emerge.

Most likely to carry a team: E.J. Liddell, Belleville West

E.J. Liddell is legit, one of the more dominating players in the state. He brings size, strength and a relentless motor to the table. When you add in the fact he’s a 6-7 monster on the block with 19 three-pointers and an ability to pass and block shots, the junior is a matchup nightmare at the high school level.

The top 50 player in the country has been ultra-productive throughout his career, averaging 20.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 5.9 blocks a game on the year. Liddell has also shown a penchant for being an absolute alpha dog in the most important games and on the biggest stage. And he’s a player fans across the state are anxious and excited to see play.

Most appetizing regional matchup: Normal West vs. Bloomington

Normal West vs. Bloomington? Francis Okoro vs. Chris Payton? In a regional final? That’s a big-time matchup in March. Sign me up. Normal West and Bloomington split their two matchups during the regular season with both winning by three points.

Outlook: Aside from the ridiculous travel involved, where all these teams will be crisscrossing the state over the next couple of weeks, this sectional is terrific. The degree of difficulty ramps up quickly in this sectional.

Sectional semi picks: Belleville West over Quincy; Danville over Normal West

Hoops Report pick: Belleville West

 

MAINE EAST SECTIONAL

Team to beat: Evanston

The Wildkits have won 21 games and grabbed a share of the Central Suburban League South behind the junior trio of Lance Jones, Jaheim Holden and Ryan Bost, along with an infusion of youth, highlighted by the play of freshman sharpshooter Blake Peters. But the Wildkits are still young and have no size. There are few forces inside in high school basketball, but the worry is whether bigger teams will create enough matchup problems and pose issues for the ‘Kits on the glass.

But the truth is, in a loaded sectional like this –– the best sectional in the Chicago area –– Evanston is the team to beat by seed only.

Check this out as it pertains to the top five seeds:

• Evanston has beaten Maine South twice by a total of five points, split with New Trier (one of which was in overtime), beat Loyola 43-40 and lost to Niles North twice.

• New Trier beat Loyola by five points, split with Evanston, split with Niles North and beat Maine South twice, including the last game in overtime.

• Niles North split with Evanston, losing the last matchup in overtime, split with New Trier and lost twice to Maine South by a total of eight points.

• Loyola lost to New Trier and Evanston by a combined seven points.

• In the last three games involving New Trier, Niles North and Evanston, Maine South is 1-2 with the three games being decided by a total of six points and one overtime.

Top threats: There is no sectional in the state with more legitimate threats to win a sectional. Niles North, New Trier, Loyola Academy, Maine South and St. Viator, along with top-seeded Evanston, make up the best top six of any sectional in Illinois.

Where do you begin? This sectional has a group of teams all capable of winning it, yet they really are all so different, both in the makeup of their respective teams and where they’ve come from as far as surprises vs. the expected.

Niles North and Evanston get up and down the court, play with speed, quickness, athleticism and are capable of putting points on the board. They are both most effective when pushing tempo. Unlike Evanston, however, Niles North is senior-driven, led by the experienced trio of Damaria Franklin, Jamal Stephenson and Dravon Clayborn. But all four of Niles North’s losses this season have come to CSL South teams –– and sectional foes.

New Trier was rolling right along until finishing the season with two losses. Even with Andrew Kirkpatrick, a gutty, clutch, senior guard, is there enough perimeter ammunition for the Trevians to make an extended run in March in this sectional? A sharp-shooting team that can draw the the junior tandem of 6-9 Ciaran Brayboy and 6-8 Spencer Boehm away from the basket will help beat the Trevians.

Loyola simply makes it difficult for you on both ends of the floor. They limit opposing team’s possessions with their tidy defense and patience and execution on the offensive end. Senior guard Kevin Cunningham has been a rock, senior Pete Mangan a warrior, and junior Connor Barrett has blossomed. Yes, it’s been a collective effort and a team that epitomizes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But do the Ramblers have a player that can go make a play when needed and win a tight, high-level game down the stretch in March? And do it multiple times?

St. Viator is as dangerous of a No. 6 seed as you will find with the junior combo of Jerry Hernandez and Treyvon Calvin, along with senior veteran Peter Lambesis. This is also a team that’s beaten Benet, Conant, Prospect, Marian Catholic and Marist but has lost to two of the top four seeds in this sectional, Loyola and New Trier.

Sleepers: Maine South, St. Viator and Prospect

Despite playing in anonymity, there are four players for Maine South who can beat you in any given trip down the floor, starting with junior guard Essam Hamwi (14.9 ppg). There is size and production in the trio of 6-7 Grant Miller (12.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg), 6-7 Tommy Gardiner (10 ppg) and 6-4 junior Fillip Bulatovic (10.9 ppg). There is talent and there is experience, but the Hawks are defined by their balance, unselfishness and ball movement. That’s why this team has 21 wins on the year. However, the lack of depth for the Hawks is a concern. That lack of depth severely thins the margin for error.

St. Viator is as dangerous of a No. 6 seed as you will find. The Lions ran the table in the East Suburban Catholic Conference and are 23-5. Again, that’s a sixth seed.  From a personnel standpoint, junior combo of Jerry Hernandez and Treyvon Calvin, along with senior veteran Peter Lambesis, make this a potent offensive team, one that has scored 60-plus points 20 times this season. This is also a team that’s beaten Benet, Conant, Prospect, Marian Catholic and Marist but has lost to two of the top four seeds in this sectional, Loyola and New Trier.

Prospect, the Mid-Suburban League champs, are a No. 7 seed with 21 wins and one of the underrated players in the sectional in senior guard David Swedura. But the Knights are 0-4 playing the higher seeded teams in this sectional. Prospect will have to win on New Trier’s home floor in the regional, but it’s a battle the No. 3 seed Trevians will need to be ready for.

Super sleeper: Maine West

This is the feel-good story in the Maine East Sectional. The basketball history at Maine West is pretty bleak. But coach Tom Prokopij has done a terrific job of squeezing everything possible out of this senior-dominated team.

The Warriors, a No. 8 seed with its sights set on winning that 8-9 game and getting its shot at top-seed Evanston, closed out the season by beating New Trier. There was no late-season win that did more for a team than that one. Mighty mite guards Julian Dones and Darrington Bates have been the cornerstones of this two-year resurrection, but the emergence of two seniors, 6-5 Jack Collins and 6-5 Milos Dugalic, is why this team has thrived, winning 19 games and the first conference championship in 20 years.

Most likely to carry a team: Damaria Franklin, Niles North

The 6-3 senior doesn’t put up gaudy numbers, but he’s a gamer. Franklin is a big-bodied, physical wing who produces. Although a bit inconsistent from beyond the arc, Franklin can get hot from the three-point line. More importantly, he has shown a knack throughout his career in making big plays and key shots in the most important moments. Those are “carry-the-team” characteristics.

Most appetizing regional matchup: Loyola vs. Maine South

Although points may be difficult to come by, you will be hard pressed to find a better regional final matchup anywhere in the Chicago area if it materializes. A pair of teams many outside the north suburbs overlook, yet they both execute, play at their pace, are extremely efficient, are opportunistic and play to their strengths as well as anyone.

Outlook: Go ahead and try to forecast and predict this sectional. Go ahead, try it. You would like to think it would all be about specific matchups. But look at those results from the past three months and it becomes even more confusing.

Someone has to win it, so it may as well be an underdog. The City/Suburban Hoops Report loves what the winner of the Maine South-Loyola Academy regional 4 vs. 5 dog fight can do in this sectional going forward and the problems it can cause.

Sectional semi picks: Maine South over Evanston; Niles North over New Trier

Hoops Report pick: Maine South

 

LAKE ZURICH SECTIONAL

Team to beat: Lake Zurich

In what could be, from top to bottom, the most wide open sectional in the Chicago area, the Bears get the nod as the team to beat as the No. 1 seed and sectional host.

Despite the sectional not being one of the strongest, Lake Zurich isn’t a No. 1 seed by accident. This was the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s preseason No. 23 team when the season began, so there were some high expectations. Senior Ryan Kutsor, who surpassed 1,000 career points earlier this season, is the headliner.

Lake Zurich is looking for its first sectional championship in school history and is in the ideal position to win it –– at home as the top seed in a winnable sectional after winning 15 of its final 18 games.

Top threats: Barrington, Stevenson and Libertyville

While it’s been a pretty remarkable season for Barrington, winning 21 games and claiming a share of the Mid-Suburban League West after losing so much from last year’s team, there are still plenty of doubters. Nonetheless, the No. 2 seed in this sectional has size, some shooting and strong guard play from veteran Anthony Spann.

While Barrington has Conant’s number –– the Broncos own two regular-season wins over the Cougars –– the rest of the résumé is lacking.

There aren’t many coaches who have done a better job this season than Stevenson’s Pat Ambrose. He’s guided the Patriots to a surprising share of a conference title with a young, inexperienced team. Jackson Qualley is one of the unheralded players in the area in terms of how much me means to his team. The 6-3 senior, who averages 13.4 points a game, leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and is the team’s top defender.

But Stevenson will have its hands full going on the road and playing a 17-win Buffalo Grove team that finished strong and will be on its home floor.

With one more victory Libertyville will have won the most games in a season in 15 years. But it’s been 24 years since the last sectional championship. Libertyville, the No. 4 seed, boasts a game-changer in 6-8 Drew Peterson, one of the top 10 players in the senior class. The Wildcats also have a confidence in knowing it recently beat top-seeded Lake Zurich, 64-45.

Sleeper: Conant

If the IHSA state tournament happens to serve as your introduction to Ryan Davis, Conant’s big, 6-8, Vermont-bound senior, you will not be meeting the same person basketball observers witnessed and watched only eight months ago. Everything has changed with Davis and, as a result, has made Conant a big threat to win this sectional as a No. 5 seed.

Super sleepers: Warren and Waukegan

Warren is a No. 8 seed that will have to get past a pesky Highland Park team in the regional semifinal. But if it does, the Blue Devils, led by talented senior Branden Ellis, know in their back of their mind they can beat the top seed. Warren did it a couple of weeks ago, knocking off Lake Zurich 51-44. And, oh, the Blue Devils beat them back in December, too.

Palatine, the No. 7 seed, will have something to say about this as the Pirates play 11th-seeded Waukegan in the regional semifinal. But if Waukegan and junior star Bryant Brown get a regional win under its belt and is playing the regional final in the Dog Pound? Look out Barrington.

Most likely to carry a team: Drew Peterson, Libertyville and Ryan Davis, Conant

Conant and Libertyville have something other top contenders don’t have –– a true, go-to, difference-maker. Conant’s 6-8 Ryan Davis has been a monster all season, averaging 25 points and 11 rebounds a game while shooting 80 percent from the free-throw line. Drew Peterson of Libertyville has been equally impressive. The multi-faceted 6-8 Peterson is putting up 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists a game and has surpassed 1,500 career points.

These two have size and versatility for their respective positions, and they are used to being the go-to guy. Don’t underestimate the advantage of having that type of weapon and luxury in March.

Most appetizing regional matchup: Conant vs. Libertyville

The 4-5 seeds always bring expectations to any matchup in any tournament field. Also, see above: Drew Peterson and Ryan Davis. Not too shabby. Throw in the fact these two played once this season and it went to overtime, with Libertyville pulling out a 49-46 win, and the intrigue in this regional final is heightened.

Here’s a bold statement: The City/Suburban Hoops Report loves the chances for the winner of this likely regional final to win this sectional. But picking the winner?

Outlook: This sectional has the potential to get wild. There are some dangerous double-digit seeds, ranging from Lake Forest to Mundelein to Zion-Benton to Waukegan. There are some teams who feel overlooked and likely disrespected, including Palatine and Buffalo Grove. And there is such a fine line between so many of the teams in this sectional field.

Sectional semi picks: Libertyville over Lake Zurich; Stevenson over Waukegan

Hoops Report pick: Libertyville

 

THORNTON SECTIONAL

Team to beat: Simeon

Forget the team to beat in this sectional –– Simeon is the team everyone across the state has to try and figure out how to beat. Coach Robert Smith’s team has been the most complete team all season. What Simeon has, no one can match.

The Wolverines are loaded, led by Player of the Year favorite Talen Horton-Tucker and blue-collar workhorse Messiah Jones inside. But the supporting cast, the intangibles this team possesses and the defense it plays has made this a dominant team.

Simeon has already played the state’s best –– minus Belleville West –– and ripped through its schedule. The Wolverines beat Curie twice by a combined 36 points and handed Morgan Park, Young and Orr double-digit defeats. Simeon walloped Danville by 25 points and beat Fenwick by 17.

While everyone keeps stating Simeon is vulnerable on the inside, the Wolverines played much bigger teams outside of Illinois and handled themselves well. So just how do you beat this Simeon team?

Top threats: Marist and Homewood-Flossmoor

Marist has highly-productive all-state candidate Morgan Taylor in the backcourt, some athleticism and length with 6-4 David Daniels and 6-4 Jack Ellison, and a sparkling 24-4 record. The perimeter shooting and depth are issues, however. The bigger problem is Marist just isn’t a threat to this Simeon team.

Homewood-Flossmoor is playing its best basketball of the season at the right time. The Vikings have ripped off eight straight wins to close out the regular season behind a balanced, athletic group, including senior guard Sean Jones, 6-4 junior Isaac Stanback, 6-4 junior Maurius Hill and 6-4 sophomore R.J. Ogom. The problem is H-F just isn’t a threat to this Simeon team.

Sleeper: Brother Rice

This isn’t the Brother Rice team of 2005. That’s when the Crusaders stunned Simeon and Derrick Rose, 77-76, in double overtime to win a sectional title. Current Brother Rice coach Bobby Frasor scored 20 points for the Crusaders in a game that is probably one of the five best high school games the City/Suburban Hoops Report has ever watched. Back to present day …

The Crusaders have some shooters, though not the most consistent bunch from the perimeter. There is talented junior guard Marquis Kennedy and wiry athlete Josh Boulanger. But the problem is Brother Rice just isn’t a threat to this Simeon team.

Super sleeper: Bloom

No, this young Bloom team isn’t going to win a sectional with a group of sophomores who were given a No. 10 seed. But the Blazing Trojans do have talent, albeit young talent, are playing better and could pull off a couple of upsets. Led by sophomores Dante Maddox, Jr., Keshawn Williams, Donovan Newby and 6-9 Martice Mitchell, Bloom closed the season winning eight of its final nine games.

An upset win over No. 7 seed Thornwood is certainly doable since Bloom has beaten them twice already this season. Then Bloom would get Brother Rice, a team it lost to 60-55 back in December.

Most likely to carry a team: Talen Horton-Tucker, Simeon

THT dominates in a different fashion as the rare player who has the ability to dribble, pass and shoot. He can score inside with his strength and length while stepping out and knock down a three-pointer with range. He also make those around him better as his understanding and I.Q. are off the charts. He’s playing with so much confidence. And his undeniable talent is impossible to ignore.

Most appetizing regional matchup: T.F. South vs. Homewood-Flossmoor

No one is talking about T.F. South. No one. (Well, the City/Suburban Hoops Report Three-Pointer did last month). But coach Townsend Orr’s team is smoking hot. The Rebels began the season 3-12 but have climbed to the .500 mark, thanks to winning 10 of its last 11 games. The lone loss came to Hillcrest in a tight one, 64-58.

And, oh, T.F. South hosts the regional. That’s a scary combination –– a hot team on its home floor –– for No. 3 seed Homewood-Flossmoor.

Outlook: There will be some teams excited about winning regional plaques, and there will be a few shooting for a sectional semifinal win and a David vs. Goliath opportunity against Simeon. But there is no sectional in the state with a bigger favorite.

Sectional semi picks: Simeon over Brother Rice; Homewood-Flossmoor over Marist

Hoops Report pick: Simeon

 

RIVERSIDE-BROOKFIELD SECTIONAL

Teams to beat: Curie and Young

With both Curie and Young as the top two seeds, you’re splitting hairs in trying to decide who’s favored. These two city powers have played rugged schedules but have yet to play one another. That could change in the sectional championship game at Riverside-Brookfield.

Curie’s offensive attack revolves around its perimeter, led by junior Marquise Walker, Tennessee-Chattanooga recruit Maurice Commander and emerging 6-3 junior Dajuan Gordon. But the tandem of 6-8 Treavon Martin and 6-7 Tyree Martin, with their size, experience and presence around the basket defensively, could be a big factor in this sectional. Curie’s only in-state losses have come to the state’s top two teams –– Simeon (twice) and Orr.

Young, however, is the defending Class 4A state champs. Xavier Castaneda is a steady and experienced point guard while Javon Freeman is one of the state’s most electric talents. That duo has played in a ton of big games over the past two seasons. But the midseason return of sophomore guard Tyler Beard has infused more life and balance into the Dolphins attack. Beard, who has averaged nearly 16 points a game since his return, has been a huge shot in the arm for coach Tyrone Slaughter’s team.

Top threats: Oak Park and Fenwick

These two rivals would love to face one another again. Oak Park, the No. 3 seed, beat Fenwick, the No. 4 seed, 64-59, back in early December. A rematch would likely mean these two took out the aforementioned city powers in the semifinals. That’s a tall order right there.

Both Fenwick and Oak Park haven’t been talked about a whole lot in recent weeks. Fenwick has experienced pieces who were a part of last year’s run to Peoria in Class 3A, led by super sophomore D.J. Steward. The Friars are a battle-tested team. And Fenwick is no stranger to Public League foes having played Young (lost 74-73), Orr, Bogan, Simeon and Morgan Park this season. But coach Rick Malnati’s team is just 1-4 in those five battles with city heavyweights.

Oak Park started fast and has finished strong after an up-and-down middle part of the season. Senior guard Isaiah Fuller has been the catalyst, but you have to like the balance the Huskies have in Fuller (13.5 ppg), Dashon Enoch (12 ppg), Chase Robinson (10.5 ppg) and emerging Anthony Roberts (10 ppg). Last year’s sectional win over Curie also gives this group some confidence.

Sleeper: Proviso East

Some of the buzz surrounding Proviso East dissipated with a couple of late-season losses, including one to Morton, the No. 15 seed in this sectional. Despite the fact coach Donnie Boyce’s team has had issues with the top teams on its schedule –– Proviso East is just 2-6 against teams that have been ranked this season –– the Pirates, led by senior guard Quinlan Bennett, remain a threat. Look for a Fenwick-Proviso East regional final to develop.

Super sleeper: Lane Tech

Although Lane is not a serious threat to win the sectional and will be challenged to win three regional games, the Indians are a double-digit seed to keep an eye on and a team capable of pulling off an upset.

Lane’s schedule may not match up with the other top teams in this sectional, but it’s a 20-win team, nonetheless, and the Indians play a Lincoln Park team in the regional semifinals that no one is quite sure what to make of after a rough final stretch to the regular season. Plus, Lane, led by seniors Zach Krysztopik and 6-5 Calvin Keyes and juniors Jimmy Mulvaney and 6-6 Vuk Djuric, will be on its home floor in the regional.

Most likely to carry a team: D.J. Steward, Fenwick

While he’s only a sophomore, Steward is not your typical sophomore. Remember, as a freshman this 6-3 guard was the leading scorer for a team that finished second in the state last year in Class 3A. With his talent and versatility, there are moments where he’s special and is capable of taking over a game.

Most appetizing regional matchup: Young vs. St. Joseph

Young would be favored –– pretty heavily –– if this regional championship game develops. But St. Joseph, a No. 7 seed, will be at home and has played well down the stretch. The Chargers beat Loyola, Batavia, St. Charles North and Homewood-Flossmoor in the final month of the season, while playing both St. Rita and DePaul Prep very tough in close losses. It’s a senior-dominated team with some size and physicality, led by the senior foursome of 6-5 Jalen Boyd, 6-3 Joffari Brown, point guard Ahmad Muhammed and 6-6 Jordan Boyd.

Outlook: While there are some dangerous lower-seeded teams, the sheer number of potential upsets involving the top four seeds are slim. So look for the top four teams to separate themselves, maintain the status quo to make up what should be a couple of terrific sectional semifinal games.

Sectional semi picks: Fenwick over Curie; Young over Oak Park

Hoops Report pick: Young

12 comments

  • earl

    Good job on the bball coverage. Job well done all season (probably with no staff).

  • reason

    Again why slurp Andrew their half of the conference is BAD a Mickey Mouse thanksgiving schedule plus that conference schedule its easy to get 15 wins and have we forgotten That former pushed out coach Mike O’Halloran was the one to put Andrew on the map he played EVERYONE in the conference and had GREAT YEARS slow the roll with coach wilson why not discuss 3A Morgan park is not a done deal

  • Duke Carnoustie

    Is this the same idiot that dogged the previous Glenbrook South coach. And I like Ralston too and things will get better but my dog could go 0-10. Let’s not hail the program as new and improved until they can win a conference game.

  • hank johnson

    Wow…what a great and complete preview for the state tourney. Nice work Joe, keep the stories coming.

  • Duke Carnoustie

    I want to commend everyone involved on the documentary Shot in the Dark. As you all know, it chronicles the Orr HS team and it shows Chicago in a completely different light than what the rest of the country knows about it. Coach Lou Adams was great and he is doing an amazing job on the West Side. This was the complete cinematic experience and I can’t wait to watch it again.

    Many of you may not realize that filmmakers Dustin Nakao-Haider and Ben Vogel are both from ETHS and our entire community is proud of them. While basketball is big, we know that it is “more than a game” and kudos to these ETHS grads for proving that with a tremendous film that everyone should see.

    • friartown

      It was a great documentary and I enjoyed every minute of it but they did not show the sectional final game against Fenwick. They substituted film of that game with a random game from the city playoffs. They also acted like the sectional final happened before Greer was shot when in fact it happened the weekend before they played Fenwick and he actually got in when they were up big with a couple minutes left in that. Obviously the way they presented it made the story a lot more intriguing but I thought it was funny that they overlooked that game when at the time Greer coming onto the court at the end of the game was kind of the feel good ending until he made it a storybook ending by hitting that shot in the next round.

  • CSL fan

    Glenbrook South will beat Evanston.

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