There are a few weeks of the year that I enjoy a little more than most.
This coming week is one of them.
Monday night signals the opening tipoff of the Illinois High School Association's annual basketball tournament at gymnasiums throughout the state.
It's America's Original March Madness with a 4-day head start this time around that I like to call, "February Frenzy."
At South Elgin, second-seeded St. Charles East (15-11) and third-seeded St. Charles North (16-10) make up a 6-team regional field that has a definite mini-Upstate Eight Conference River Division tournament feel to it -- with top-seeded Larkin, No. 4 Elgin and No. 5 Streamwood along with the host Storm from the UEC Valley.
"There's obviously familiarity with each other," said North Stars coach Tom Poulin, whose team opens against South Elgin Monday night. "Most of us have played each other two times and we've played (St. Charles) East three times. While we haven't faced South Elgin, we know their system and tendencies."
While that would appear to make scouting reports easier, Poulin looks at another way.
"I think it makes it more challenging in some ways because we do know so much about each other," added Poulin.
"I actually think it's kind of unfortunate," said St. Charles East coach Patrick Woods. "Conference-wise, we've got a lot of strong candidates and because we've played each other so many times you can kind of throw everything out the window.
"It's not a bad thing but it would be nice to see some different teams," added Woods. "It is playoff time though, and you have to beat whoever to get where you want to get. You can't look past Tuesday because if you do, you won't be playing Friday."
If the top seeded teams win Monday, Tuesday's regional semifinal matchups will feature Elgin vs. Larkin at 6 p.m., immediately followed by St. Charles East vs. St. Charles North in a pair of cross-town clashes.
"If that happens, South Elgin might be the best location in the state to watch high school basketball Tuesday night," said Poulin. "It would be a great atmosphere."
St. Charles East went 2-1 in its 3 previous meetings against St. Charles North, as each team successfully defended its home court.
This time, there would be no home court advantage.
"We went 2-2 with East last season and we're hoping to do it again this year," said Poulin.
Last season, the friendly rivals met in the postseason for the first time in 7 years with the Saints winning, 63-50.
Although UEC River champion Larkin (21-5) heads into the playoffs with back-to-back losses (both to Neuqua Valley), the Royals rank as a clear-cut favorite to win their first regional since 2006.
"I've got all the respect in the world for Larkin," said Poulin. "They've beaten us twice convincingly. They're unselfish and they speed you up."
"Larkin is the favorite but you have to look at Elgin, too," said Woods. "Elgin has lost to them three times by about 10 points total (by 3, 9 and 2 points)."
The Maroons also possess one of the regional's top players in senior guard Arie Williams, who lit up the Saints for 35 points earlier this month.
Poulin and Woods agree that their regional is a strong one.
"I think that we have three of the top eight teams in the entire sectional and we're all going to be playing each other in the first or second round (of the regional)," said Woods. "Whoever comes out of our regional has a real strong chance of being in DeKalb on that supersectional date."
"The top three seeds in this regional are as good as anybody in the sectional," said Poulin.
Perhaps no team faces a more daunting task than Geneva.
If the Vikings want to capture their first regional crown since 1986, they'll likely have to knock off West Suburban Conference Silver Division champion Hinsdale Central (18-5) and perennial power West Aurora (20-6).
But first things first, the Vikings will have to get past host Wheaton Warrenville South Monday night.
"Our goal is to get that regional title that has been so elusive for us," said Vikings coach Phil Ralston.
While the 2 St. Charles teams are part of the DeKalb sectional, that field has been bracketed into 4 separate regionals.
Geneva, on the other hand, is part of a highly competitive 23-team Bolingbrook sectional.
How strong is it?
Four of the top 5 seeds are conference champions -- Oswego, Benet Academy, Neuqua Valley, and Hinsdale Central.
The Vikings head into postseason play with a 19-8 record after Friday's 36-34 win over Bartlett -- and they're seeded 12th.
"Our sectional is absolutely loaded with talented teams," said Ralston. "Unfortunately, a lot of teams will be going home early -- teams that would otherwise reach the Sweet 16."
Ralston would like the IHSA to go back to more geographic regionals.
He has a point.
If Geneva wins Monday's opener, it will face Hinsdale Central at Wheaton Warrenville South.
"I can't remember the last time we faced Wheaton Warrenville South, and I'm not sure if we have ever played Hinsdale Central," said Ralston, who hasn't been a proponent of the 4-class basketball system adopted by the IHSA in 2005-06.
"Looking at the sectionals put together and hearing from other coaches, they're (IHSA) treating teams differently," added the coach. "You'll only see a few gyms packed for regionals. Far too many gyms with seating capacities of 2,000 will only have a few hundred people there. That's not what Illinois high school basketball is all about.
"Maybe I'm more of a traditionalist but if we're out for what's best for the kids, then let's do what's best for all the kids. They deserve to be playing before the best crowds possible."
Having a sectional as spread out geographically as the one at Bolingbrook can make the seeding process tiresome -- if not almost unfair.
"Look at some of the teams in our sectional -- Lemont, Bolingbrook, Romeoville, Hinsdale South," said Ralston. "We're asked to evaluate them in the sectional seeding but how can I realistically fill out the online form for them when I haven't seen them before? How can I be fair to them?"
Batavia coach Jim Nazos, whose team opens play at home Monday against Plainfield East hoping to get a Tuesday date with No. 1 Oswego, agrees about the sectional's challenges.
"I think the sectional is the toughest in the state, from top to bottom," Nazos said. "You've got teams with .500 records around a 16 seed. I don't know how many times I've ever seen that.
"I think some of the best basketball in the suburbs is out here. Look at all the Aurora schools -- Neuqua Valley, Waubonsie Valley, Metea Valley, obviously West Aurora. East Aurora is down but they're not going to be down forever. Then you add all the Tri-Cities schools. You look at our sectional, because it's 4A you go all the way to Bolingbrook and over to Hinsdale Central.
"You've got to play a great game. There is no more first-round, play OK, get through it. I think winning a regional semifinal is, now, like winning a regional championship."
From here on out, one thing is plain and simple for all of the teams -- win or go home.
"Survive and advance," said Ralston.
"Five is the magic number to reach state," said Woods. "It's a fun time of the year but at the same time you don't want it to end."
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org
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