March Madness has no equal in the world of high school boys basketball, but the annual December tournament frenzy about to unfold offers its own brand of intrigue.
For struggling teams, the upcoming holiday tournaments present a chance to work out the kinks and settle rotation issues before the conference battles heat up in January.
For the area's top contenders, it's an opportunity to gauge readiness for the big tournament only 10 weeks away.
"We want to work on our game and pretend it's a postseason tournament," said Elgin coach Mike Sitter, whose defending regional champions are 7-1, "see how we react in regionals, how we might react in sectionals."
Fox Valley area fans can gauge the contenders for themselves beginning Saturday, when the 16-team field at Jacobs opens the tournament season with eight pool-play contests. The 16-team Elgin tournament tips on Monday.
Here's a look at both tournaments and where other Fox Valley area teams will spend the bulk of their respective holiday vacations.
Elgin Tournament: The host Maroons are off to a great start, but they are far from the favorite. That distinction belongs to La Lumiere Academy, a prep school from LaPorte, Ind.
The Lakers play a national schedule and feature multiple division I talents, including 6-foot-10, 265-pound forward Jay Simpson (Purdue) and 6-8 Hanner Perea (Indiana), not to mention 7-footer Obij Aget in the middle.
"Obviously, La Lumiere is the favorite," Sitter said. "They play a national schedule and have six D-I signees last time I looked, including the No. 15 player in the nation who is going to Indiana (Perea)."
How did such a team join the Elgin Tournament? La Lumiere's roster includes sophomore guard Johnathon Wilkins, the son of former Maroon Jeff Wilkins, a member of Elgin's 1972-73 state qualifying team. Jeff Wilkins attended Illinois State before playing eight seasons in the NBA, mostly with the Utah Jazz.
Elgin seeks to win the tournament for the 11th time overall and first time in 12 years. The Maroons reached the title game last season only to fall short against Upstate Eight Conference rival Neuqua Valley.
The tournament runs all day, Monday through Thursday. Monday's pairings (beginning at 9:45 a.m.) include: F.W. Parker vs. Buffalo Grove, Rockford East vs. Batavia, Dundee-Crown vs. Hoffman Estates, La Lumiere vs. Walther Lutheran, Neuqua Valley vs. Rockford Guilford, Larkin vs. Harlan, Romeoville vs. Glenbard North and Elgin vs. Senn.
Larkin, voted one of the top four seeds along with Elgin, LaLumiere and Rockford East, could square off in a Wednesday semifinal against crosstown rival Elgin if each wins its first two games. Larkin enters tonight's contest at Batavia with a 6-1 record.
"It's a great compliment that we're in the top four seeds," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. "We get a tough draw. If we're in the top four, Harlan is in the top five. They're a really good team, so we'll be challenged right out of the gate. That's good. We'll see a really good team right away and see what we've got."
Dundee-Crown (4-4) handed Larkin its first loss Wednesday by rallying from 14 points down in the third quarter to win 66-61. Coach Lance Huber is a strong backer of the Elgin Tournament and plans to remain involved indefinitely.
"I've talked to some people from some other schools who have left and said they want to get back in," Huber said. "It's a great tournament."
At Jacobs: Tournament guru Jim Hinkle had to do more juggling than a carnival act to complete the schedule for the first three days of pool play, which take place Saturday, Monday and Tuesday.
The reason? Eight of the 16 teams involved are still in school until Dec. 21, which is why the tournament has a scheduled day off Wednesday.
To accommodate the schools still in session, Jacobs abdicated its normal prime-time tipoffs next week. The Golden Eagles begin pool play against Rockford Jefferson on Saturday night in their customary time slot at 7:30 p.m., but they will play Elk Grove Monday at noon and face a rematch against Barrington on Tuesday at 3 p.m.
Defending champion Mundelein is in the same pool with Crystal Lake Central, Crystal Lake South and Cary-Grove. The battle of Crystal Lake takes the prime-time stage Monday at 7:30 p.m.
St. Charles North, which has advanced to multiple title games at Jacobs, is grouped in the same pool with Bartlett, Zion Benton and Class 2A power Chicago Hope Academy.
The favorite in Pool IV is Huntley (5-1), which lost to Mundelein in the title game last season. The Red Raiders won a sectional semifinal on the same floor against Elgin last March before bowing out in the Sweet 16. Huntley is grouped with Lake Zurich, Marian Central and Prairie Ridge.
"Since we haven't played so many games in December, it's more learning about our team, what our strengths and weaknesses are," Huntley coach Marty Manning said of his tournament goal. "We've only played 6 games and it's still a work in progress, especially on the offensive end. We're still seeing how we'll score and who is going to score in half-court sets."
Elsewhere: Hampshire returns to the DeKalb Tournament, which takes place Dec 22-23, 26-28. The Whip-Purs will face Moline, DeKalb and Winnebago in pool play ... Burlington Central has left DeKalb in favor of the Plano Tournament, which runs for five consecutive days between Dec. 26-30 ... South Elgin will compete in the 16-team Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament at York High School in Elmhurst, Dec. 27-30. The Storm have played at York every season since the program's inception ... Streamwood returns to the Wheeling Hardwood Classic. The Sabres open tournament play on Dec. 27 vs. Stevenson ... St. Edward has opted out of the mostly Class 4A Jacobs Holiday Tournament in favor of the brackets at Immaculate Conception, which should allow the Class 2A Green Wave to enjoy more success around the holidays. St. Edward begins pool play Dec. 26 against Westmont with pool play games to follow against Morgan Park Academy and Elmwood Park ... Westminster Christian will compete once again at the Marengo Holiday Tournament. The Warriors will play pool games against Woodstock, Marengo and Antioch, beginning Dec. 22.