My first state basketball tournament was also my most memorable one.
March 22, 1997. Peoria Manual vs. Thornton. Two of the top five boys basketball teams in the country met in the Class AA semifinals. At least eight future Division I players were on the floor that day.
It felt like a college game.
Manual beat Thornton and that night rallied to defeat West Aurora for its fourth straight state championship.
Manual-West Aurora was a game worthy of a state championship. Yet, after that afternoon's matchup, a major letdown. With all due respect to West Aurora, the championship was won earlier that day.
Unfortunately that situation is all too commonplace in the world of Illinois state tournament basketball.
Put simply, the IHSA doesn't get it.
The basketball state championship should be one of the IHSA's marquee attractions. It should be the crescendo the playoffs build toward. All too often it is anti-climactic.
And it could happen again this season in girls basketball.
Last week the IHSA released the pairings and brackets for the upcoming girls basketball playoffs.
Even before pairings were released, several area coaches lodged cries of inequity. Glenbard South, for example, was placed in the same regional as Montini. In most years two teams of that caliber would meet in a sectional final.
In Class 4A a sectional at York features Fenwick, Bartlett, Proviso East and Trinity. Any one of those would be No. 1 seeds in most other sectionals in the state.
Both of those are legitimate complaints.
But not the most glaring mistake.
Take a peek further at the potential state finals matchups.
In Class 3A defending champion and top-ranked Montini could meet No. 2 Springfield or No. 3 Springfield Southeast (both in the same regional) in one state semifinal.
Montini beat Springfield in last year's 3A semifinal. Those two teams are generally regarded as the top two returning teams in 3A.
But because of the IHSA's "blind draw" of the bracketed order for the state finals, only one will play for a state championship.
The 4A draw is even worse. Two-time defending champion Bolingbrook could meet Whitney Young in one semifinal. Those two teams have played for the state championship the last three years. Both are nationally ranked. Those two, and Montini, are pretty much the consensus three best teams in Illinois.
And one will play for third place, then watch the 4A final. Hard to stomach.
Already there has been a wane in interest and attendance at the state basketball tournament in recent years. Blame the poor decision to expand to four classes.
But really, shouldn't the championship game feature the two best teams? Yes, I know, upsets happen. And in some years it is hard to truly gauge who are the best teams. But still.
A coaching friend suggested several years ago that the IHSA should "re-seed" after the supersectionals to ensure a more competitive, balanced state tournament. It's an interesting option. It will never happen.
No, I say the IHSA should plan ahead. Bracket the state tournament in advance -- and not blindly. If you are going to charge fans $10 for each session of a high school tournament, you owe them the best possible matchup.
Or be prepared for a letdown.