PEORIA—Public League teams dominated the area this season, winning the major major holiday tournaments and most matchups against the top Catholic League and suburban teams.
That dominance ran into a Southwestern Conference brick wall this weekend at Carver Arena. The Southwestern Conference is made up of seven large public schools in the Metro East area of suburban St. Louis: Alton, Belleville East, Belleville West, Collinsville, East St. Louis, Edwardsville and O’Fallon.
It’s a basketball hotbed. Three players from the Southwestern earned Sun-Times All-State honors: Belleville West’s EJ Liddell, Alton’s Donovan Clay and East St. Louis senior Terrence Hargrove.
The Maroons ended last season by beating Young in the Class 4A state championship game. They beat Simeon in February and then dominated Curie in the state semifinals on Friday.
East St. Louis outlasted Bogan in the Class 3A title game, lost in overtime to Curie and beat Orr in November.
Alton didn’t advance to Peoria. The Redbirds lost to Belleville West in the sectional semifinals but proved their quality with an 80-68 win against Evanston in the Centralia Holiday tournament.
Those are impressive resumes, and despite what southern Illinois basketball fans on social media seem to think, the Public League coaches and players didn’t head to Peoria doubting the competition the downstate teams would provide.
Young coach Tyrone Slaughter and Simeon coach Robert Smith invited Belleville West to the Chicago Elite Classic the past two seasons, but the Maroons declined. Several high-level Public League programs have made the trip to play in the St. Louis area recently, which is a clear sign of respect.
“We didn’t take Belleville West lightly,” Curie coach Mike Oliver said. “How could you? They were the defending state champs.”
The state finals are at their best when the title games matchup teams from different areas of the state. That was on display this weekend. No one needs to go to Peoria to watch a suburban team play a Public League team.
So why not do this more than once a year and why depend on the Illinois High School Association to schedule it? It’s clear a Southwestern Conference vs. Chicago Public League shootout in mid-January would be a hot ticket. Maybe switch off and play in Chicago one year and the St. Louis area the next? The more these teams play one another, the better it is for the sport.
Third place games are always a hot topic. Most fans seem to find them annoying, but coaches and the IHSA seem firmly set on keeping them around. The IHSA has already confirmed that the third place games will remain if the state tournament format switches to just one weekend.
Peoria Manual coach Willie Coleman extolled the virtues of the third place game after his team lost in the Class 3A semifinals on Friday. His players were sitting next to him at the press conference, but they didn’t seem to get the message.
The Rams lost the third place game to DePaul Prep on Saturday and Coleman, a former Manual star player, didn’t hold back. He called his team’s performance “horrible for the city.”
“The team came out flat, like we weren’t interested in the third- and fourth-place game,” Coleman said. “We had no fight. Defensively, it was horrible. Offensively, it was horrible. Overall, it was just bad.”
That isn’t unusual. I’ve been talking to players before and after consolation games all season. The kids are universally against loser’s bracket games. Maybe it is time for the adults to move on as well.