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An emptier and emptier Carver Arena gives traditionalists more fuel for the argument of classier not being better for the boys basketball state tournament.
Time has not healed all wounds from the IHSA's expansion to four-class basketball in 2008. Some observers said last weekend's interest was lagging more than ever for the small school finals.
So, can the big boys give the tourney a needed boost in Peoria this weekend? The potential is there for some intriguing Class 3A and 4A title matchups as we also try to boost our sliding fortunes of recent years in the annual predictions game.
Springfield Lanphier (28-3) vs. North Chicago (24-6), noon Friday: Aaron Simpson has carved out a remarkable career at North Chicago. The 6-foot, Illinois State-bound guard is the school's all-time scoring leader and he's averaging 26.3 points with 87 3-pointers this year.
And Simpson has the Warhawks ready to bring home a final four trophy for the second straight year. Which one it is, after finishing fourth last year, will depend on how they handle the state's top-ranked 3A team.
Lanphier hasn't been to state since it took second in 2002 with NBA all-star Andre Iguodala. But this team has gradually improved under fourth-year coach Chuck Shanklin and has a crew of solid guards in all-state senior Everett Clemons (18.9 ppg, 5 rpg), sophomore and budding star Larry Austin Jr. (12.5 ppg) and Jaylen Briggity (9.8 ppg, 3.5 assists a game).
The Lions even proved they can win in another team's uniforms. When they brought the wrong ones to the Lincoln sectional final, they borrowed the hosts and rolled to the supersectional.
North Chicago can put up points in a hurry as its 91-81 supersectional win over Marshall was the 10th time it's scored 90 or more. JaVairius Amos-Mays (11.6 ppg), Marzohn Bryant (11.5) and Kurt Reed (9.7) add to the explosiveness.
The Warhawks have been tested, too, with two losses to Warren, one in OT to Curie and one to prep-school power LaLumiere (Ind.).
The pick: It would be nice to see North Chicago and alum and coach Gerald "King" Coleman win the first elusive title by a Lake County school. But I'm taking Lanphier 73-68.
Hillcrest (24-5) vs. Peoria Central (26-3), 2 p.m. Friday: Hillcrest hasn't had a problem with Don Houston in charge as he tries to win the school's second title in three years. The Hawks survived a supersectional scare from underdog DuSable and their balanced attack is led by junior Jovan Mooring (15.2 ppg, 50 3s), 6-6 Jalen Loving (12.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and 6-5 Jayon'e Thornton (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg.
But that size is nothing compared to the Lions, who are led by 6-7 Trey Kellum (12.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg), 6-10 Kevin Jordan (7.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and 6-5 Aldonis Foote (11.2 ppg).
Central lost to cross-town rival Manual in the regular-season finale but recovered to return to the state finals for the first time since Shaun Livingston led back-to-back title teams in 2003-04. Hillcrest's losses include Simeon, Rockford Auburn and Bloom.
The pick: The offensive scales may be balanced but the measuring stick isn't. Central uses its size for a 58-50 win.
Third place, noon Saturday: North Chicago has a chance to improve on last year's fourth-place finish and Simpson can depart on a high note. The Warhawks beat Hillcrest 69-65.
Title, 2 p.m. Saturday: It's a great matchup in terms of proximity and history. The two schools with the Lions' nickname were once in the same conference and split title matchups, with Central winning in 1977 and Lanphier in 1983,
But what's happening now is what matters and Central took care of Lanphier 70-59 on Feb. 18. The big men are inspired by the home crowd to keep the trophy in Peoria and match Manual's title total of five with a 62-54 victory.
Proviso East (31-0) vs. Rockford Auburn (31-2), 6:30 p.m. Friday: If you like guards and speed then this should be a high-energy matchup.
It's been a dream season for Proviso East and first-year coach Donnie Boyce, one of the famed "Three Amigos" with Michael Finley and Sherell Ford that won the third of the school's four titles in 1991.
St. Louis-bound guard Keith Carter (20.2 ppg, 5 apg, 65 3s) leads an unselfish group that wears people out with its pressure defense. The "French Connection" of Paris Lee and Paris Burns averages 12 points apiece and 6-4 Sterling Brown (12.7 ppg, 9 rpg) and 6-5 Trashaun Carroll (8 ppg, 8 rpg) provide the inside presence.
And Brown and Carroll will look massive next to Auburn, which has won 22 straight despite losing 6-3 Jaylin Marshall in the sectional to a knee injury.
But Wichita State-bound Fred Van Vleet (21 ppg, 7 apg, 6 rpg) and LaMark Foote (14 ppg, 5 rpg) showed they can cut down the big guys when they stopped Warren and 6-9 Darius Paul and 6-8 Nathan Boothe 49-43 in the supersectional.
The pick: Proviso East won their meeting with Auburn 75-56 in the semifinals of the Proviso West tournament. This semifinal isn't much different as the Pirates keep rolling 75-63.
Simeon (31-1) vs. Bloom (28-3), 8:15 p.m. Friday: You have to go all the way to Las Vegas to find the team that marred Simeon's chance of a perfect season. The Wolverines still have a shot to hit the jackpot with a record sixth boys hoops title.
Driving them is 6-9 junior and unanimous all-stater Jabari Parker (19 ppg). The smooth Parker, whose dad Sonny played in the NBA, can do it all and is one of the country's top high school players.
But it's hardly a one-man show with 6-7 Marquette-bound Steve Taylor (17 ppg, 8 rpg), another standout junior in Kendrick Nunn and senior point guard Jelani Neely.
That's the daunting challenge facing a Bloom team that has won 13 straight since an early January slump. Donald Moore (13.7 ppg) leads the balanced attack and 6-4 Johnny Griffin will be a key inside against Simeon.
The pick: Simeon has been taking care of business on its way to a fifth title in seven years. No change here with a 66-48 victory.
Third place, 6:30 p.m. Saturday: Auburn has been to the finals twice but Van Vleet makes sure the school's first boys hoops trophy is for third place with a 70-57 win over Bloom.
Title, 8:15 p.m. Saturdayw: This is the headliner the IHSA wants and needs. Two storied programs that have produced some of the state's greatest players.
Can Proviso East's Carroll step up to handle the inside presence of Parker and Taylor? Can Nunn and Neely make sure Simeon doesn't break under Proviso East's pressure?
Two teams are chasing history as Proviso East can achieve a rare perfect championship season and equal the state mark of five titles.
But Simeon has seen and prepared for it all under the strong leadership of Robert Smith. Hopefully the matchup will interest fans to witness its state-record sixth title as it pulls away to a 63-53 victory.