We're finally here.
The three-month marathon that is high school basketball season becomes a sprint now. Regionals are this week, and the action really starts heating up next week in sectionals.
Before we go further, let's take a look at the four burning questions on my mind this playoff postseason:
Can anyone beat Montini?:
The three-time defending Class 3A champion seemed mortal when the season tipped off. With four transfers leaving and an almost all-freshman bench, chinks in the armor were thought to be there. Well, a 29-1 regular season and wins over Whitney Young, Rolling Meadows and Fenwick later, the Broncos look as unbeatable as ever.
Anything can happen on any given night, but it would take a monumental upset for Montini to lose before state. Don't bet on it. The list of teams who could topple the Broncos at Redbird Arena is short, too. Defending Class 2A champ Quincy Notre Dame has a win over Rolling Meadows on its resume and seems the most logical challenger. Joliet Catholic boasts as good a dynamic duo in 3A as there is in freshman Nicole Ekhomu and Montini transfer Jasmine Lumpkin.
And don't count out last year's runner-up Vernon Hills or Morgan Park. If Montini is on its game, though, a fourth state title -- what seemed a possibility before the year -- is a high probability.
What IHSA rule needs changing?:
It seems almost a rite of playoff passage for me to critique an IHSA rule, and I won't disappoint this season. The state needs to go back to having the top four sectional seeds host regionals.
That was the policy in the past, but in recent years schools apply to host regionals much like sectionals. It's only fair, right, to give everybody a chance? Well, not so much.
In this immediate area alone, higher-seeded teams Naperville Central, Neuqua Valley, Wheaton North, Willowbrook and Geneva will have to win regional finals on their opponent's home floor. I guarantee their coaches aren't singing the IHSA's praises on this one. Shouldn't a team be rewarded for a great season by hosting its first two playoff games?
If a school doesn't want to host a regional (hard to believe, maybe true) then they shouldn't field a basketball team. The IHSA has never shown an inclination to do what is fair or right, but this change back seems to make sense.
What are the games I'd pay to see?:
I'm always looking for the most competitive games with the best teams. But a juicy back story doesn't hurt. That's why a Neuqua Valley-Bolingbrook sectional final or a Montini-Joliet Catholic state championship would both be delicious matchups. Three of Bolingbrook's kids played for Neuqua last year before finding new homes with the Raiders. Similarly, Lumpkin for Joliet Catholic was a key player in Montini's state run last year. Don't tell me there won't be added spice and emotion if these matchups come to fruition.
On the other hand who outside of Geneva and Schaumburg wouldn't want to see an all-Wheaton sectional final at Bartlett? It's a friendly rivalry between WW South and Wheaton North, but I guarantee it would be a high-intensity environment if those two met for the third time next Thursday.
Who wins it all?:
And now, for the predictions sure to go wrong. Or not.
In Class 4A I am anticipating a Final Four of WW South versus Rolling Meadows and Whitney Young against Marian Catholic. In one semifinal I say Marian Catholic knocks off defending champion Young. In the other, in a matchup of maybe the two best junior point guards around, Rolling Meadows and Jackie Kemph edge out Meghan Waldron and the Tigers. And in the championship, Marian Catholic avenges its only loss and beats Rolling Meadows.
In Class 3A I am calling for Montini to meet Vernon Hills in one semifinal, Joliet Catholic against Quincy Notre Dame in another. I see Montini as once again just having too much talent and too much defense for Vernon Hills. In the other Ekhomu bursts onto the state's biggest stage by carrying JCA past Quincy Notre Dame.
And in a classic final, Montini does like its football team, beating Joliet Catholic to become the first girls basketball program to win four straight state championships.
Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96