Holiday tournament time: 16 reasons to get excited

Kenwood's Artese Stapleton (1) slows down the ball. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.
Kenwood's Artese Stapleton (1) slows down the ball. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

With all the holiday tournament brackets now out, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas for high school basketball fans across the state.

While the season is a marathon, holiday tournament play is a less-than-a-week sprint starting Dec. 26.

Here are 16 reasons to be excited about holiday tournament time in Illinois.

Different teams in different places. The holidays are a chance for teams to crisscross the state. And in doing so teams have the opportunity to experience new surroundings while getting a chance to play various styles and with different types of officiating.

Kenwood and Joliet Central are the top two seeds at the State Farm Classic in Bloomington-Normal.

Evanston will make the 300-mile trip to Centralia and the Pekin Tournament will welcome Mt. Carmel, Lake Zurich, Plainfield East and Hersey.

And Pontiac has brought so many Chicago area teams to central Illinois for decades, including Public League powers Simeon and Curie.

Emerging prospects. The holiday tournaments always seem to bring out the best in individual players, including young, emerging prospects. The diehard fans are anxious to get their first look at these prospects during the holidays. They have a month of varsity basketball under their belt and are poised to take a big step forward on a big stage.

It’s an opportunity to get out and see the next wave of talent in the freshman and sophomore classes.

Thus, there will be a lot of eyes on the up-and-coming players at Pontiac (Simeon freshmen A.J. Casey and sophomore Ahamad Bynum, Danville’s Tevin Smith and Oak Park’s Isaiah Barnes), Proviso West (Fenwick sophomore Bryce Hopkins), Wheeling (Notre Dame sophomores Anthony Sayles and Troy D’Amico and Buffalo Grove freshman Kam Craft) and York (Schaumburg’s Chris Hodges).

No. 1 Curie vs. No. 2 Bloom. Well, some serious work will have to be put in by these two unbeaten teams for this marquee matchup to materialize, because the Pontiac Holiday Tournament is loaded as always. But how much fun would it be to have this matchup on the night of Dec. 29 in Pontiac.

Simeon’s bond at Pontiac. Pontiac has been Simeon’s home away from home over the decades. The Wolverines have become a fan favorite there and have rewarded those dedicated Pontiac fans with sterling performances, superstar talent and a whole bunch of tournament titles. There is a mutual respect between Simeon and Pontiac.

But it’s also time for the field to get a crack at a wounded Wolverines team that is off to its worst start in coach Robert Smith’s time there. … Or is it? Be careful what you wish for.

Second-round games at Pontiac. As far as second-round games go, you’re not going to find better than what takes place at Pontiac.

Several of the potential second-round matchups at Pontiac will be as good or better than many holiday tournament championship games. If the seeds play out, Danville-Simeon and Benet-Bloomington are as good as it gets in any second-round holiday tournament game.

Max Christie. He’s the super sophomore fresh off a 51-point performance and already a coveted high-major recruit. The 6-6 point guard can do it all and fans at the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament and western suburbs could potentially get five games of Christie and Rolling Meadows.

Double dip for Loyola fans. If Naperville North and Brother Rice both win their opening round games at York, Loyola basketball fans could get out to Elmhurst to watch their two prized recruits. Naperville North’s Tom Welch and Brother Rice’s Marquise Kennedy, two of the top five prospects in the Class of 2019, would play in back-to-back games at 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Dec. 27. You may even get a Porter Moser sighting.

Host with the most. It’s fun when the host school of a tournament is firmly entrenched in title talk. York is one of those teams –– one of the few teams this holiday season –– where that’s a distinct possibility.

Now, can the Dukes go and string together five wins to capture their own Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament? York is a fun and intriguing storyline as coach Vince Doran’s team tries to capture its second title in the past four years.

EJ Liddell. The 6-7, Ohio State recruit is the state’s best high school basketball player. He’s the No. 1 senior prospect in Illinois, ultra-productive and a state champion. Liddell, one of the top 50 prospects in the country, is a draw and leader of a Belleville West team that’s unbeaten and looking to repeat at state champs.

Centralia Holiday Tournament. The always strong, tradition-rich Centralia Holiday Tournament is an attraction in the southern part of the state. It’s quite a drive for Chicago area fans –– and it’s been several years since the City/Suburban Hoops Report has made the trek –– but it’s worth the trip for high school basketball junkies. There is a great vibe at Centralia that is really only surpassed at Pontiac.

Evanston vs. Belleville West is looming. They are both three wins away but everyone is anticipating and pulling for a title game matchup of Evanston vs. Belleville West at Centralia. These are two of the state’s best teams who both played in Peoria last March.

How creative can Evanston coach Mike Ellis be in trying to slow down the 6-7 Liddell with a roster with little size? Southern Illinois fans can get a glimpse of Saluki recruit Lance Jones of Evanston.

Adam Miller. While the Big Dipper is a far cry from where it once was, the 6-3 guard from Morgan Park will be the star attraction at Rich South. The top-ranked junior prospect in Illinois and a top 30 player nationally, Miller dazzles with his shooting range and scoring capabilities.

Continued growth at Hinsdale Central. While only in its fourth year of existence, it could be argued that the Hinsdale Central Holiday Tournament is making a strong push as one of the top tournaments over the holidays.

There isn’t the history or tradition of other tournaments, but the 16-team field includes six teams that are or have been ranked at some point this season. DePaul Prep, Marian Catholic, Oswego East, Lincoln Park and Homewood-Flossmoor are all currently among the top 25.

This tournament continues to make positive strides in its short existence.

A new face at Pontiac. The Pontiac Holiday Tournament continues to add to its unique geographical representation with the addition of a team from the north suburbs –– New Trier. The Trevians also just happen to be a ranked team with difference-making size.

You get a little of everything at Pontiac, from central Illinois teams to Chicago Public League teams, private schools and public schools, and teams from the south suburbs, western suburbs and northern suburbs.

Pontiac hospitality. The tournament hospitality goes beyond the tremendous VIP/Media/Coaches Hospitality Room that organizers graciously put together every year. The overall unique feel of the tournament hasn’t changed and fans keep coming back for a reason while crowds at other tournaments dwindle. The people in Pontiac care about the product and it shows.

Out-of-state opportunities. There are a number of teams throughout the Chicago area who are headed out of the state over the holiday break.

Loyola Academy will board their plane Dec. 26 and play three or four games in the Sunshine State before returning Dec. 30. Bolingbrook is also playing in Florida, where the Raiders will play in the Kingdom of the Sun Tournament in Ocala, Fla..

Evanston hits the road before Christmas and will play in the King of the Bluegrass Tournament in Kentucky Dec. 20-23. Not only will New Trier head to Pontiac after Christmas, but the Trevians travel to a tournament in Phoenix, Ariz., in the days leading up to Christmas.

And right after the new year, St. Rita will travel to New Orleans Jan. 2-5 to play in the Sugar Bowl Classic.

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