During West Aurora's annual extended stay for the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, West Aurora coach Gordie Kerkman has noticed Simeon's players are probably the quietest group in the hotel. The three-time defending tournament champions wisely saved their energies for the court.
Now, three-time Pontiac most valuable player Jabari Parker is at Duke, leaving Kansas-bound power forward Cliff Alexander of Curie as the focus of the prestigious, 83rd annual tournament. The 6-foot-8, 18-year-old has his own Wikipedia entry, for goodness sake.
West Aurora lost to Alexander and Curie in 2011. If the Blackhawks hope to repeat last season's championship-game appearance it's likely they'd meet again in the Pontiac semifinals. The Blackhawks, seeded fourth, would have to beat Joliet West and the Manual-Danville winner before they'd meet No. 1 seed Curie. No. 2 Simeon and No. 3 Oak Park are in the upper bracket, along with St. Charles North.
"It's going to be a challenge, no question about that," said Kerkman, whose career record now stands at 764-300. "I think from the first game on through there's not too many weak teams there."
Last season St. Charles North's Quinten Payne was Pontiac's leading scorer. This season West guard Jontrell Walker, a 2012 Pontiac second-team selection, has a shot at it. The 6-foot-1 senior is averaging 26 points with two games of 33, his jump shot benefiting by the move of Matt Dunn to point guard.
Marquis Howard, Tommy Koth, Brandon Wyeth, Konner Jensen and 6-foot-8 sophomore Carleton Williams also have Kerkman "fairly satisfied" during West Aurora's 5-1 start. Though maybe a year away, 6-4 Roland Griffin could be on the verge of a breakout like last year's Pontiac splash, Josh McAuley. Griffin is averaging 13.3 points.
Whether it's Curie or someone else, the goal at Pontiac is to play four games.
"(Tourney opener) Joliet West is our main concern right now at Pontiac," Kerkman said, "and we haven't looked that far ahead because Naperville Central is Friday night."
Another coach with more than Christmas on his mind is Geneva's Phil Ralston. The 7-2 Vikings have Streamwood on Thursday and Upstate Eight Conference River Division leader Larkin on Friday before heading to the 48th annual East Aurora Holiday Tournament, along with Aurora Central Catholic.
Ralston did manage to scout Oak Lawn, its first opponent at East Aurora. Geneva's second foe, Hubbard, may be a mystery.
"The way I look at it is they're going to have as little information about us as we have about them," said Ralston, whose squad rebounded from a home loss to St. Charles East last Friday with a win Saturday at Elgin behind double-figure scoring from Nate Navigato, Mike Landi, Justin Durante and Chris Parrilli.
"It's a little bit of an equalizer but I hate to go into a game blind. I've always been of the mind that you're preparing for success or preparing to fail."
Geneva went 2-2 last year at East, winning its final two games of the tournament after losing to Peoria and defending champion Neuqua Valley.
Ralston likes the fact that there's little travel involved while still playing unfamiliar opponents, and also playing in a great gym that hosts the Vikings' Class 4A sectional.
"I'd maybe like five games instead of four, but usually you get four really tough games that help prepare us for the rest of the season," Ralston said.
Batavia and Marmion will see their share of unfamiliar opponents in their respective tournament appearances.
Batavia, which took third place at Elgin last year with a 75-65 win over Centennial of Las Vegas, returning guard Micah Coffey scoring 12 points in that game, seem to have as good a shot as any to get back there again even with their 2-5 record. After an opener against Francis Parker the Bulldogs may face Huntley, 5-3 but with wins over Belvidere North and Rockford Boylan. Glenbard North and Rockford Guilford also reside in the Bulldogs' bracket.
Marmion reached the third-place game last season at DeKalb, at 86 years so old past winners include Waterman, Shabbona and "Glenbard." The Cadets avoid defending champion Winnebago in pool play, opening up against Schurz on Saturday before facing Belvidere North and DeKalb.
Marmion has gotten off to an interesting yet frustrating start at 1-6. Ryan Paradise's group started 0-5 at West Chicago despite three games of four players in double-figure scoring and two other games with three players in double figures, headed by Tyler Maryanski, Jake Esp, Michael Sheehan and Michael Murphy.
While steeped in history itself at 53 years, this is just the second year of the expanded, 32-team holiday bracket at Proviso West. That coincided with St. Charles East's arrival at this tournament, one of the best in the country. Last season the Saints went 2-2 with wins over Von Steuben and Glenbard East and losses to Stevenson and St. Joseph.
Saints coach Patrick Woods noted that his team was beating Stevenson, last year's Class 4A runner-up, when Kendall Stephens reaggravated a shoulder injury and was lost for the rest of the season.
Returnees Dom Adduci, A.J. Washington and Cole Gentry kick off their Proviso West bid with highly regarded Uplift, out of Chicago.
"We're challenged again right out of the gate," Woods said.
A possible second-round game against Morton awaits, with schools like Wheaton Academy, New Trier and Stevenson looming as prospective quarterfinal foes. Like Kerkman said about the Pontiac field, it's hard to find a weak team at Proviso despite doubling the field.
"Anything I think is going to help us get ready for March is a good thing," Woods said.
The 51st annual Plano Holiday Tournament doesn't have the cachet of a Pontiac or Proviso, but for a smaller-school tournament, it's always loaded. A 2A-3A tourney that has 6-1 Seneca as a No. 8 seed is pretty good.
"Actually, probably the top eight could have kind of went any way other than probably Ottawa and Burlington Central in the top two," said Kaneland coach Brian Johnson, whose 4-2 Knights are the fourth seed after Ottawa, Burlington Central and unbeaten Coal City. Aurora Christian is a 12-seed, which may have peeved Newark on Tuesday; the No. 13 seed at Plano, Newark beat the Eagles 60-57 in a nonconference game on Tuesday.
Things like that can happen at Plano. Mirroring what Johnson said, last year Ottawa was the No. 10 seed, and it won the title over No. 1 Belvidere.
Aurora Christian beat Kaneland for third place last season, and the Eagles also won the accompanying junior varsity tournament with Zack Singer as the fourth-leading scorer on that level. This season, a Kaneland-Aurora Christian varsity matchup would happen in the quarterfinals of the championship bracket provided Kaneland beats either Newark or Hinckley-Big Rock (they just did on Tuesday, 63-38) while Aurora Christian dispatches both Lisle and Genoa Kingston.
"Usually if you get three wins in the tournament you know you're going to probably have a nice second half of the year, from what I've noticed," Johnson said. "My first year (2008) we were able to win it with Dave (Dudzinski) and those guys, and we were able to finish strong that year, making it to a regional final."
St. Charles East on Saturday is hosting its second annual Hoops for Hope fundraiser during the freshman, sophomore and varsity boys basketball games against Batavia. The majority of the proceeds will support The V Foundation for Cancer Research, named for the late North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano.
St. Charles East students have been selling Hoops for Hope T-shirts, acquiring raffle prizes and selling special "tribute" basketballs in memory of loved ones. Last year's inaugural event raised more than $10,000 for The V Foundation.
"It's an opportunity for us to raise money for some cancer awareness," Saints coach Patrick Woods said. "We've gotten great support from the students, the players and the community."