It didn’t take a weekend win over Simeon at the Bank of O’Fallon Shootout to remind anyone who needed to be reminded that Belleville West is a defending state champ and remains the team to beat in Class 4A.
Coach Joe Muniz’s team is 23-2 and features the state’s top high school basketball player, Ohio State recruit E.J. Liddell.
The Maroons have been ranked No. 1 all season. In fact, Belleville West had not lost to an in-state team since the 2017 postseason until falling to Collinsville Tuesday night. But that loss came with Liddell on the bench in street clothes. The star senior played on one leg for much of the game against Simeon after injuring his ankle and sat out the 58-56 loss to Collinsville.
The other loss this season came to Shadow Mountain, the defending state champs in Arizona.
While we have our team to beat in Class 4A, this year’s Belleville West team is different than the one that beat Young last March to claim a state championship.
“The significant difference in this team is the confidence the players are playing with,” said Muniz when I caught up with the highly-successful coach a couple of weeks ago. “I can see it’s at a whole other level with this team, and that was gained by the players in that state championship run a year ago.”
In addition to going through the experience of that run last March, Muniz upgraded the schedule in 2018-2019 and the grind of this regular season has been far greater than last season. But it’s also going to prepare the Maroons for March.
“They’ve played in tight games, they’ve been down in fourth quarter of some games and had to come back, and they are finding ways to win,” says Muniz.
Belleville West returned the cornerstone and a dominant figure in Liddell, who is averaging 20.6 points a game this season to go with 9.5 rebounds and nearly four blocks a game.
Senior guard Lawrence Brazil, who was so huge in the title game win over Young last season, is another key component and is averaging 13.8 points and 4.1 assists a game. Big 6-5, 245-pound Keith Randolph, an Illinois football commit, was the third returning starter from a year ago.
Senior Jaylin Mosby, who hit the game winner to beat Simeon last weekend, gained experience last year off the bench and is averaging 8.7 points a game, while promising sophomore Tommie Williams and 6-5 senior Will Shumpert (9 ppg) are also contributing.
“Now, I don’t think we are as good defensively as we were last year,” Muniz points out. “But these guys do know how to win.”
The graduation of Malachi Smith, who signed with Wright State, and Curtis Williams on the defensive end is missed from last year’s team. But with Liddell and the supporting cast having so much high-level experience, Belleville West is the team to beat, even with a bulls-eye on its back.
The East Moline Sectional, however, is deep. It will feature not only Belleville West, but the likes of Collinsville, Alton, Danville, Bloomington, Normal and Rock Island.
Here is a look at the other top teams from around the state from outside the Chicago area.
◆ Danville (19-3)
A great record and some standout talent props this team up as one dangerous team in Class 4A . The problem is the thud left from its three days at Pontiac in December, which included an opening-round loss to St. Charles North and a consolation bracket loss to West Aurora. Danville also lost to Normal this past weekend.
But with senior Sean Houpt (17.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 3.8 apg), a hard-nosed guard who has knocked down 58 three-pointers this season, and the sophomore tandem of 6-5 Tevin Smith (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and guard Nathaniel Hoskins (11.5 pig, 5 rpg, 4.5 apg), this is a team that could be primed and ready for a shot at Belleville West in the United Twp. Sectional.
◆ Moline (19-4)
The Maroons were cruising along until it hit a road bump this past weekend, losing to both Normal and Rock Island, a pair of schools that will both be in the same sub-sectional this March. Prior to the weekend Moline had won 12 straight games.
Deonte Billups, who just recently picked up an offer from Indiana-Fort Wayne, is putting together a monster senior season. He’s averaging 23 points and eight rebounds a game.
Moline has wins over two Chicago area teams, including a 60-59 win over Plainfield East and an 82-77 win over Carmel.
◆ Rockford East (25-2)
Coach Roy Sackmaster has his team rolling. With one more win the E-Rabs will tie the school record for most wins in a season, set in the 1947-48 season and equaled again in 1960-61. If you’re counting, that’s over a half a century ago.
A win this Friday night and Rockford East will clinch its first conference championship since 1981.
A special season is brewing at Rockford East.
This is a fast-paced team with multiple weapons and potency on the offensive end, starting with up-and-coming junior Sincere Parker, a high-scoring guard with unlimited range. Parker is averaging 19.1 points a game, while a pair of seniors –– long, athletic 6-5 Sha’Den Clanton and physical guard Chris Burnell –– are averaging 13.7 and 13.5 points a game, respectively.
The E-Rabs have won 10 straight games, including wins over Joliet Central, Benet and York to win the Wheaton South Martin Luther King Tournament.
Rockford East will be favored in the Rockford Sectional, though it will be facing common league opponents and rivals from the NIC-10 that it will likely have to beat for a third time.
◆ Normal (21-3)
Maybe the top team no one is talking about but probably should after piling up the record it has and beating Danville and Moline this past weekend. The Ironmen have beaten Bloomington, North Lawndale and Oswego East in January.
The leader is 6-7 senior C.J. Wilbourn, who is averaging 17.2 points and six rebounds a game and has signed with Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The versatile big man has also dished out 40 assists, has blocked 21 shots and taken 13 charges.
There is chemistry, depth, senior-dominated experience and balance surrounding Wilbourn, including guard Daylen Boddie, 6-6 Evan Pogge, guard Ben Witzig and 6-3 Dishon Hall.
◆ Bloomington (15-8)
Don’t discount a Bloomington team that has piled up some losses but has played a very challenging schedule. The Purple Raiders have scuffled of late, losing three of their last four games with losses to Lincoln Park (by 25 points), Normal and Peoria Notre Dame.
Bloomington has also played Simeon, Bloom, Leo, East St. Louis, Benet, Danville and Class 2A power Bloomington Central Catholic. So coach Mike Mosley’s team will be well prepared for March.
Southern Illinois recruit Chris Payton is a physical and athletic presence who has the potential to dominate around the basket at both ends of the floor. The 6-7 senior is averaging 21.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a game this season.
Payton, together with 6-5 guard Caleb Donaldson, Nate Duckworth, Donzell Johnson and Illinois football recruit Griffin Moore make this a dangerous team.
The overall talent is undeniable. Now it’s a matter of whether or not Bloomington can put it together in March.
◆ Collinsville (23-3)
This is arguably the biggest obstacle for Belleville West in its sub-sectional. The two met Tuesday night where Collinsville beat an E.J. Liddell-less Belleville West. The two could meet again in a few weeks with a whole lot more on the line.
Collinsville’s three losses, which came to 3A power Springfield Southeast, Alton and East St. Louis, were by a combined eight points. This is a formidable team, for sure, but the win over Belleville West obviously comes with an asterisk.
The Kahoks have a star in junior guard Ray’Sean Taylor, one of the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 15 prospects in the Class of 2020. The slender but smooth scorer is averaging 21.9 points a game and is shooting 41 percent from the three-point line (56 of 135). Marshall Harrison, a 6-3 senior, is another double-digit scorer who averages 13 points a game.
◆ Alton (17-8)
The Redbirds beat Collinsville in a close one and played Class 3A state title contender Springfield Southeast tough last weekend, losing 64-58. Alton has also lost to Belleville West twice — by a combined 11 points — and beat Evanston. So this is an under-the-radar team to keep an eye on.
Do-it-all 6-6 Donovan Clay has been one of the breakout stars in the senior class. He’s averaging 20 points a game and has skyrocketed up the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s player rankings. Malik Smith, a 6-4 senior wing, averages 14.6 points a game.
◆ Rock Island (14-8)
The Rocks are sitting there in the weeds in what is a pretty loaded sectional. But they’ll be prepared as coach Thom Sigel’s team has played a very competitive schedule. In addition to owning wins over potential sectional foes Moline and Normal, the Rocks have played Bogan, Ottawa, North Lawndale, Kenwood, Waubonsie Valley and Alton in non-conference play.
Senior JaMir Price, a 6-3 guard and Bradley recruit, and 6-4 junior Taurean Haltom and sophomore guard Jordan Rice leads Rock Island.
◆ Springfield Southeast (21-2)
All the Class 3A basketball talk in the Chicago area this season has centered around both Morgan Park and Bogan. Don’t forget about this team from Springfield.
Southeast reached Peoria last season before falling in the state championship game to Morgan Park. This team is better, largely because senior guard Terrion Murdix has turned into one of the top players in the state and taken his game to a whole other level.
The Spartans also returned a strong supporting cast around Murdix and have seen sophomore shooter James Dent become a weapon on the perimeter over the course of the season.
Southeast has just two losses on the season and played two Class 4A powers down to the wire. Back in November the Spartans lost to Bolingbrook, 90-88, while also losing a 74-73 heartbreaker to the state’s No. 1 ranked team in 4A, Belleville West.
◆ East St. Louis (20-5)
The Flyers have reeled off nine straight wins and have played some of the state’s heavyweights tough in losing efforts. East St. Louis has lost by single digts to Curie, Rockford East and Belleville West, three teams with a combined record of 72-4.
Terrance Hargrove, one of the top five prospects in the Class of 2019 in Illinois, has signed with Saint Louis. The 6-7 forward is averaging 17.5 points and 8.9 rebounds a game and has blocked 70 shots.
At 6-7, Richard Robinson is a defensive presence with his shot blocking, while senior guard Cornelius LeFlore averages 11.5 points a game and has made 58 three-pointers.
◆ Peoria Notre Dame (18-4)
You have to like Notre Dame’s fortunes going forward in a very winnable Class 3A sectional. In fact, Notre Dame could very well be playing in Peoria. If the Irish can win the Peoria Sectional they will be favored no matter who they play in the DeKalb Super.
Since the middle of December the Irish have won 13 of 14 games, including a win over Bloomington, Ottawa and Peoria Richwoods.
Junior Connor Dillon is one of the more underrated players in Illinois. The high-scoring 6-2 guard has put together an outstanding season. Junior Declan Dillon and 6-3 senior Joe Gustafson are two other proven scorers.
Another big push is coming from the likes of Noah Reynolds, who is finally healthy and has played in the last four games. The sophomore scored a game-high 17 points in a huge win over Bloomington.
◆ Lincoln (19-2)
The record is good but the Railers have lost to the two best teams on their schedule –– Collinsville and Rockford East. But legendary coach Neil Alexander has the type of system and style no one wants to face and a team that’s won eight straight, including a win over Rock Island last week.
While it’s still a relatively young team, there is size inside in 6-9 senior Jermaine Hamlin and a talented guard in junior Kaden Froebe.
◆ Ottawa (17-2)
If Ottawa can beat Kankakee and get through the sub-sectional, the Pirates would likely face Hillcrest or Oak Forest in the sectional final.
The trio of seniors Wyatt Hill (11 ppg) and Dakota Deverteuil (13 ppg) and junior Myles Tucker (14 ppg) lead the way for the Pirates.
◆ Rock Falls (21-2)
A glitzy record grabs your attention and the sectional road certainly isn’t imposing. However, the résumé the Rockets have compiled isn’t one that screams state’s elite.
The two losses came to Bloomington Central Catholic by 16 points and a recent 68-57 loss to Woodstock North, the third-place team in the Kishwaukee River Conference.