The first few days of state tournament play are fun. There is no dipping your toe into the fire once it begins.
You get the occasional scare, a small upset here and there and then maybe one big one (Hello, Niles West!). But Friday night marks the beginning of the matchups where anything can happen and it all matters so much for those top seeds.
The basketball season is fluid. There are ebbs and flows, even week to week. Heck, when I put out my state tournament preview I made some sectional and state picks that have since changed. That’s what happens when you dig deeper into the head-to-head matchups this week.
Will we get the topsy-turvy March some are expecting? There are some toss-up games this Friday night, and there are some scary matchups for No. 1 seeds across the Chicago area.
I’m calling for a few upsets in this regional forecast. Here are previews and picks for 15 regional championship matchups that should offer a combination of intrigue and excitement.
■ YORK REGIONAL
#17 York (28-4) vs. #22 Oak Park (18-9)
These two have met twice already this season with Oak Park winning both games. Oak Park won the first matchup in January in convincing fashion, 59-30, and then swept the two-game set with a 54-52 win late in the season.
York is 15-1 at home this season with the one loss coming to Oak Park. No one wants to have to go and beat a quality three times in a season, especially with two of them on the road. That’s what coach Matt Maloney’s Huskies are up against. But he has two productive seniors in Anthony Roberts (17 ppg) and guard Chase Robinson (14.5 ppg) who are more than ready to do it.
Oak Park will need to utilize its biggest advantage –– length and athleticism –– both defensively and on the glass.
York has several options offensively and one can hurt you just as much as the other with perimeter threats Erik Cohn, Nick Kosich and Nate Shockey all averaging between 11-13 points a game. Then there is the unheralded Sam Walsh, another double-digit scorer.
Both teams boast balance and experience. But the third time is the charm for York, which has broken the school record for wins in a season. The Dukes pull out the most important matchup with their conference rival and claim a regional title in front of the home fans.
Hoops Report pick: York 53, Oak Park 50
■ BROTHER RICE REGIONAL
#3 Simeon (17-14) vs. Brother Rice (22-8)
This one is juicy and takes me back to one of the best high school basketball games I’ve watched in the past three decades. Back in 2005, Brother Rice stunned Simeon and Derrick Rose in double overtime in a sectional title matchup at St. Xavier. Current Brother Rice coach Bobby Frasor was playing and Simeon’s Robert Smith was in his first season as head coach.
There isn’t quite as much at stake in this one and the talent level isn’t as high, but the intrigue and win-or-go-home status remains.
Simeon’s young talent and senior scorer Antonio Reeves (21.7 ppg) go into a hostile environment. Brother Rice’s Crusader Crazies will be in full effect and the Wolverines will have to deal with do-it-all star guard Marquise Kennedy and his whopping overall numbers of 23.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and nearly two steals a game. And, oh, he hit the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in the regional semifinal win.
Hoops Report pick: Simeon 63, Brother Rice 56
■ T.F. NORTH REGIONAL
#14 Homewood-Flossmoor (21-7) vs. St. Rita (24-8)
Toss-up. That’s what you would expect from a No. 4 vs. No. 5 seed in what is arguably the deepest sectional in the Chicago area.
By winning 14 of its last 16 games, including wins over Leo, DePaul Prep, Hillcrest and Mt. Carmel, coach Gary DeCesare’s St. Rita team is playing its best basketball of the season. Jeremiah Oden’s length and athleticism stand out, along with his 15 points and 5.5 rebounds a game. H-F is a not-too-shabby 13-3 in its last 16 games and has bodies and athletes to throw at Oden.
Look for the size and length of these two teams to match up well with one another. But it also will likely make things challenging, somewhat ugly on the offensive end and points hard to come by.
The difference-maker? H-F will be without leading scorer and rugged athlete Issac Stanback and his 15 points a game. R.J. Ogom (12 ppg) and Maurius Scott (9 ppg) will try to pick up the slack.
After winning back-to-back Class 3A regional titles the past two years, St. Rita steps up in Class 4A and wins its third straight in a close one.
Hoops Report pick: St. Rita 49, Homewood-Flossmoor 46
■ STAGG REGIONAL
#7 Bloom (25-3) vs. Thornwood (22-7)
In preparation for a showdown with Bloom, Thornwood discarded a ranked Richards team in arguably the toughest regional semifinal game you’ll find. And while no one was looking, Thornwood has ripped off 14 wins in its last 15 games. That’s a confidence-builder going into Friday night.
You know what else is? Although it was way back in November, the Thunderbirds also know it played Bloom to a two-point loss earlier this season.
While guard Zachary Carr is Thornwood’s leading scorer, 6-5 big-bodied Jeremiah Tarver is the unsung player on this team. He uses his body and feet so well around the basket and takes up space in the lane. Plus, Donald Coats stepped up with a huge effort in the win over Richards with 21 points and a trio of big threes.
This is a talented Bloom team that appears ready for the bright lights of March. The highly-heralded junior class of guards Keshawn Williams, Dante Maddox and Donovan Newby and 6-9 Martice Mitchell is a potent and balanced group. They’ve taken turns taking care of business all season. Plus, seniors Emani Burgess and Kevin Vance provide a great backbone with size, rebounding and interior defense.
But before it takes its shot at the likes of Simeon and Marian Catholic in sectional play, the Blazing Trojans must take care of a tough task in the regional against no ordinary No. 9 seed.
Hoops Report pick: Bloom 66, Thornwood 60
■ DOWNERS GROVE SOUTH REGIONAL
Downers Grove South (22-7) vs. Downers Grove North (20-11)
This should be fun. Who doesn’t love a local rivalry with a ton on the line? A Downers Grove battle for a regional plaque on the first Friday of March brings some buzz.
When the season began the talk centered around Downers Grove North.That narrative shifted in December when Downers South, fueled by a 17-0 run, came from behind to knock off Downers North 46-42. DGS came into that game with a 4-4 record; since then the Mustangs are 18-3 over the past two months.
Downers South’s Justin Eagins, a deep-range shooting threat who has added to his offensive game, has been huge down the stretch of the regular season.
Downers North, which is enjoying its first 20-win season in 18 years, counters with the talented and athletic guard tandem of Trey Boston and Sema’j Henderson, who had a big game in the regional win over Willowbrook.
Expect a tight, back-and-forth game that goes down to the wire in Downers Grove. DGN finally gets over the hump, goes on the road and finds a way to pull off the upset to win its first regional championship since 2002.
Hoops Report pick: Downers Grove North 51, Downers Grove South 50
■ EVANSTON REGIONAL
#6 Evanston (26-4) vs. Notre Dame (19-11)
A dangerous No. 9 seed goes into Evanston to take on the No. 1 sectional seed.
Notre Dame had a slow start to the season as it waited for its football players to get back into basketball mode. The Dons have also played a very competitive schedule to prepare them for March. Throw in a talented 1-2 punch in sophomore guard Anthony Sayles and 6-6 sophomore Troy D’Amico and coach Kevin Clancy’s team should come into this one free, easy and with nothing to lose.
Those are all scary propositions for a top-seeded team like Evanston when facing such a low seed at home.
However, there is plenty of big-game experience to go along with talent as Evanston leans on senior guard Lance Jones and sophomore shooter Blake Peters. Do you know how many wins Jones has been a part of over the past three seasons? How about an impressive 82 wins and counting.
After taking care of business during the regular season, including winning another CSL South title, Evanston sets its sights on a return to Peoria in two weeks. This is the first step.
Hoops Report pick: Evanston 65, Notre Dame 55
■ MORTON REGIONAL
#9 Lincoln Park (23-7) vs. Riverside-Brookfield (27-4)
Another marquee 4 vs. 5 game featuring two teams that are both extremely hot. Lincoln Park has won 13 of 14 heading into the regional final with the only defeat being a 72-69 loss to Morgan Park. Riverside-Brookfield has won 13 straight.
Lincoln Park must use its speed and quickness and apply pressure and get R-B out of its comfort zone offensively as the Bulldogs have some potency with Zach Vaia (16 ppg), Andrew Veon (14 ppg) and sharpshooter Patrick Hanley (14 ppg).
The Lions have a combination of youth and veterans. The catalyst in the second half of the season has been Julio Montes. The double-figure scoring sophomore guard has averaged 19 points a game since the calendar turned to 2019. Senior Tahir Thompson (11 ppg) and sophomore Ismail Habib 10 ppg), who like Montes has upped his production in the second half of the season, are two more weapons.
Hoops Report pick: Riverside-Brookfield 66, Lincoln Park 64
■ YOUNG REGIONAL
#4 Young (23-7) vs. Lane (18-10)
People seem to forget Young finished second in the state last season –– and didn’t have D.J. Steward, who is without question the best player the Dolphins have trotted out there during these past two seasons. The junior guard is a dynamic figure and capable of carrying a team. Myles Baker and Tyler Beard round out one heck of a perimeter trio for the Dolphins.
Lane, fresh off an upset win over Proviso East, has played several high-quality teams tough. The Indians beat Niles North and Uplift when Markese Jacobs was still playing. They lost to DePaul Prep, Simeon and, yes, Young by single digits earlier this year.
Lane is a great story. There is a ton of four-year varsity talent, starting with 6-6 Vuk Djuric, 6-3 Johnny Colombo and point guard Michael Molloy. They won’t be afraid and will believe they can pull off a stunner. But this is too tall of a task for the Indians to go into Young and knock off a top five team.
Hoops Report pick: Young 70, Lane 61
■ ROLLING MEADOWS REGIONAL
#23 Maine South (23-9) vs. Loyola (20-12)
A couple of 20-game winners collide in a systematic battle between two teams that consistently play sound, disciplined basketball at both ends of the floor.
Loyola started the season 15-4 but was hit hard with an injury to scoring guard Connor Barrett, finishing out the regular season just 4-7. Barrett returned in the regional opener, played minimal minutes but provided a huge impact in shooting 5 of 5 from the three-point line in beating Rolling Meadows.
The difference, however, is Maine South is playing its best basketball of the season with 10 straight wins. The Hawks have been getting outstanding production from 6-5 senior Fillip Bulatovic, who has taken his game to another level during the hot streak.
Hoops Report pick: Maine South 43, Loyola 40
■ FENWICK REGIONAL
#1 Curie (30-1) vs. Fenwick (17-13)
You wouldn’t think the No. 1 team in the state would get pushed this early. And its veteran leadership and professional approach likely won’t let them get into trouble.
But this is still a scary No. 9 seed team with the homecourt advantage and the dangerous tandem of senior Solomon Oraegbu and 6-5 star sophomore Bryce Hopkins, who is a 20-plus point scorer who pumped in 29 points in the semifinal win over Kenwood.
Look for an early push from the Friars as it feeds off some early energy before Curie does what it does best –– and pulls away to win by double figures.
Hoops Report pick: Curie 65, Fenwick 53
■ GLENBROOK NORTH REGIONAL
New Trier (24-6) vs. Schaumburg (22-6)
Schaumburg is surging and New Trier is persevering.
New Trier was in prime position to win its second straight regional championship, but the Trevians suffered injuries and the lost three of its last four games in the regular season.
The big hit was losing versatile senior Sam Silverstein, who was lost for the season with an injury in early February. Harvard recruit Ciaran Brayboy missed some time as well with a concussion. But the 6-9 physical big man is back and, along with 6-8 Spencer Boehm, give New Trier an advantage inside.
By winning nine of its last 10, Schaumburg is feeling good heading into its regional title matchup with New Trier.
The Saxons have a talented piece inside in 6-8 Chris Hodges to contend with New Trier’s size, along with a couple of weapons in Heze Trotter and Michael Hodges, who scored 21 points in the regional semifinal win over Glenbrook North. Hodges continues to evolve into a complete scorer as an underrated player. But it’s been Schaumburg’s halfcourt defense that has impressed down the stretch of the regular season.
Schaumburg has something to prove in this top-heavy Central Suburban League South sectional. If it can handle the moment, the Saxons upset New Trier to win their first regional title since 2012.
Hoops Report pick: Schaumburg 51, New Trier 48
■ ARGO REGIONAL
#11 Marian Catholic (26-4) vs. Thornton (22-8)
Surprising Thornton has gone 9-2 in its last 11 games but did lose both of its high-profile games during that stretch, falling to Bloom and Bogan. Thornton has also lost to Proviso East, Farragut and Thornwood.
So while the record is rock solid, the Wildcats have yet to beat a ranked team. Marian Catholic is another highly-ranked team in Thornton’s way. Ahron Ulis & Company advance.
Hoops Report pick: Marian Catholic 62, Thornton 54
■ CONANT REGIONAL
Niles West (14-17) vs. Glenbrook South (23-8)
The top five seeds in the Niles North Sectional are all from the Central Suburban League South, so you’re going to run into one sooner than later. But we didn’t expect Niles West to be one playing in a regional championship.
After going 0-10 in CSL South play this year, the Wolves pulled off a regional semifinal stunner over conference foe and No. 4 seed Niles North in what has been the upset of the week thus far. That leaves Niles West as the early Cinderella story as the lowest-seeded team (No. 13) remaining in Class 4A.
Glenbrook South won both matchups during the regular season –– by 23 and 18 points –– so the Titans are the heavy favorite.
Glenbrook South is in search of its first regional title since 2009 and only its fifth in program history. As an added incentive, the Titans are fast approaching the all-time win total of 25 victories set in 2005-2006.
Dom Martinelli has been one of the breakout players this season. The 6-4 junior has been a monster, averaging 24 points and 7 rebounds a game. He scored 31 points in the regional semifinal win.
Hoops Report pick: Glenbrook South 61, Niles West 47
■ DE KALB REGIONAL
#20 Benet (24-7) vs. Lake Park (22-10)
Lake Park is a team no one has talked enough about this season, particularly in regard to where it came from, the expectations this season and the fact it’s playing in a new system under first-year coach Billy Pitcher. The Lancers have probably arrived a year earlier than expected.
After a ho-hum 3-4 start to the season, Lake Park has gone an impressive 19-6 since. That included a confidence-boosting midseason win over the top seed in the sectional, Geneva. But it also included a grind-it-out 47-41 loss to Benet in January. The Lancers will try to keep the positives going behind the trio of Trevon Montiel, Luke Sgarbosa and Montrell Perry, the hero of the regional semifinal win over DeKalb.
Benet has seen a resurgence in the past two weeks. After falling to ranked Marian Catholic, the Redwings have won five straight, including confidence-building wins over Notre Dame, Stevenson and St. Viator. The size of 6-6 Kendrich Tchoua and 6-7 Collin Crothers will pose a major challenge for Lake Park, especially if Benet can knock shots down from the perimeter as it did in the win over Glenbard East in the regional semifinal.
With 10 consecutive 20-plus win seasons and six regional titles in the last nine years, Benet is accustomed to being in this position. But the Redwings have also felt the sting of the upset, losing in the regional final as a No. 2 seed in 2015 and as a No. 3 seed two years ago in 2017.
Hoops Report pick: Benet 52, Lake Park 47
■ JOLIET WEST REGIONAL
Oswego East (22-7) vs. Lemont (16-14)
The best players step up in March.
Oswego East’s RayJ Dennis, a Boise State recruit, did so Tuesday night, burying a three-pointer at the buzzer against Neuqua Valley to keep the No. 3 seed alive. Lemont’s Nate Ferguson, a 6-8 senior headed to Drake, put up 31 points in leading his team to a regional semifinal upset over Romeoville.
Hoops Report pick: Oswego East 62, Lemont 52