There seems to be increasing chatter about moving the boys basketball big-school state tournaments to Chicago as a solution to decreasing fan attendance the last decade in Peoria.
There are no actual numbers to track the declining numbers of tickets sold because the last time the IHSA posted figures was in 2006 -- the second-to-last year of the Class A-AA split of tournaments. But the eye test in the four-class era that started in 2008 has typically shown that many of the previous attendees have lost interest in what's playing in Peoria.
One of the reasons cited is the preponderance and dominance of Chicago-area teams. Sixteen of the first 20 champions in 3A and 4A are from up this way.
Twelve of those champions have come from Chicago Public League schools which traditionally have not brought the masses of fans to Champaign or Peoria in the one-, two- or four-class formats. And this year there could be two more big-city champs with Morgan Park and Whitney Young returning to defend their crowns in 3A and 4A respectively.
Some believe the Chicago area fans would go to the new Wintrust Arena to see a tourney that has been dominated by local teams. If that move did occur, at least fans would be able to see some successful Chicago boys/men's teams in that building for a change.
A side note to DePaul fans taking offense with that snide remark -- I have relatives who have graduated or are about to graduate from the school and have been a big fan since I was a kid. And, in fairness, the same shots are taken at Illinois football when it hosts the state title games every other year.
Anyway, relocating to the Chicago area is not necessarily as easy as the IHSA saying it's done with Peoria since the contract to hold the tourney there runs through the 2019-20 season. And someone from Chicago has to put together a bid package and ensure the state dates are available to hold it at Wintrust.
So, this weekend, will the Chicago-area schools continue to make the case for a move? Or will schools such as Belleville West and Springfield Southeast provide evidence from the rest of the state that it should stay in the Peoria Civic Center's Carver Arena?
Belleville West (30-2) vs. Larkin (24-8), 5:30 p.m.: Last year was supposed to be the big year for Larkin, but those plans were dashed when talented big man Christian Negron, who is now a freshman at NCAA tourney qualifier Loyola, missed the season with a torn ACL. But with less fanfare this year, the Royals reached the Elite Eight for the first time in school history and will now bring the first top-four trophy back to the city of Elgin since the Maroons were second in 1955.
Larkin presents some tough challenges for opponents with dynamic 6-foot-3 senior Anthony Lynch (20 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.8 apg) and 6-10 senior Jalen Shaw (16.3 ppg, 12.2 rpg) inside. Lynch took over the sectional final win over Rockford Jefferson in the third quarter and Shaw is a defensive disruptor around the rim. Kindrel Morris (6.5 ppg, 6.2 apg) is a tough point guard who can get to the rim and Pierre Black (8,2 ppg, 80 3s) and Victor Perez are dangerous long-range threats.
Daily Herald Fox Valley prep gurus Jerry Fitzpatrick and John Radtke have done a tremendous job of chronicling how far this Larkin program has come since alum Deryn Carter took over. The toughness he instilled was evident as it held off late challenges from a Jefferson team it lost to earlier in the season and a Benet program that has been one of the state's best in the supersectional.
Now the challenge is even greater with Belleville West, which dismantled red-hot West Aurora 81-43 in the supersectional at Illinois State, and 6-7, 230-pound junior E.J. Liddell (20.8 ppg on 58 percent shooting from the field 8.3 rpg, 6 blocks per game, 3 apg). The Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois is ranked among the top 50 juniors in the nation and needs just 9 points to become the program's career scoring leader.
Liddell also showed his shooting range by hitting a 3 in the opening minutes Tuesday. It's no surprise coaches such as Illinois' Brad Underwood, Missouri's Cuonzo Martin and Kansas State's Bruce Weber were in attendance at his recent games.
But there is more to the Maroons than just Liddell. NCAA qualifier Wright State is getting 6-3 senior Malachi Smith (15.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.5 apg, 34 3s) and junior guard Lawrence Brazil (10.5 ppg, 49 3s) has been an impact player after transferring from St. Louis. And there is more bulk inside with 6-5, 242 junior Keith Randolph (9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) for a team that goes eight deep.
• The pick: The Larkin story is one that makes March Madness such a special time. And it is a team that has been tested with nonconference games that include Whitney Young (70-64 loss), New Trier, Fenwick, Willowbrook, Conant and Uplift. But this will be much different as Belleville West has won 13 in a row by an average of 28 points and outrebounded West Aurora 53-25. Belleville West hasn't lost to an Illinois team this season and that won't change here with an 80-67 victory.
Evanston (26-5) vs. Young (27-7), 7:15 p.m.: Whitney Young may have had one of the quieter state title defenses in recent history since nationally ranked Simeon, Morgan Park and 2A champion Orr grabbed a lot of the accolades this year in the Chicago Public League. But the Dolphins, who are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their first title with Quentin Richardson, are now looking for their fourth crown since 2009 under Tyrone Slaughter after upsetting Simeon 71-66 in overtime in the Chicago State supersectional.
They lost Lucas Williamson to NCAA tourney qualifier Loyola. But they return three starters in athletic 6-3 Valparaiso recruit Javon Freeman (19.6 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-2 South Florida-bound point guard Xavier Castaneda (11.8 ppg, 4.5 apg, 24 3s) and 6-4 senior Justin Boyd (7.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 30 3s). Six-3 junior Myles Baker (12 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and 6-6 senior Jake Kosakowski (6 ppg) also saw significant time in last year's 60-50 overtime title win over Simeon.
This was also a big milestone year for Evanston as it celebrated the 50th anniversary of its state championship team. The Wildkits reached the supers last year under Mike Ellis and then navigated a brutal Central Suburban South race and Maine East sectional to go one step further and guarantee the program its fifth state trophy.
The best days appear to still be ahead for the Wildkits with 6-7 Matt Hall the only senior starter. Two juniors, 6-2 Lance Jones (15.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg) and 5-11 Jaheim Holden (14.8 ppg, 41 3s), lead the way. Freshman guard Blake Peters (10.2 ppg, 73 3s) gained national attention in late January when he nailed a court-length heave at the buzzer off a missed free throw for a 45-44 win over Maine South. And Ellis has been through this before as he returns to the city where he led Richwoods to state runnerup finishes in 2006 and 2010.
• The pick: Young won't be bothered by the big stage in its return to Peoria. The fact it didn't wildly celebrate Tuesday's upset, which most teams rightfully would have, shows it had the bigger picture in mind. Evanston's young crew will make it tough, similar to what Fremd did in the semis last year, but Young will hold on 60-57.
Third-place, 5:30 p.m.: Because this is Larkin's first trip to state and Evanston has a group poised for more downstate runs this will be more competitive than some of the consolation games are traditionally. Evanston delivers that message about its bright future with a 59-54 victory.
Title, 7:15 p.m.: Although it's not the much-anticipated Simeon-Belleville West matchup, it's hardly a letdown to have defending champion Young representing Chicago in this test against the Illinois' side of the St. Louis-area's best. No one in Illinois has been able to stop Liddell and the Maroons and it won't happen here as they win their first title 72-67.
Marian Catholic (25-5) vs. Morgan Park (23-9), 11:15 a.m.: Some of the Metamora fans were apparently razzing Marian Catholic sophomore guard Ahron Ulis about not being as good as his brother Tyler, who starred at Kentucky and is now a second-year guard with the Phoenix Suns, during Tuesday's supersectional. But the younger Ulis one-upped his brother as he will help the Spartans bring back their first state trophy to Chicago Heights.
Marian, which suffered one of its losses by 2 to St. Viator in December, lost senior guard Chase Adams via transfer to 2A champion Orr. But the 6-foot Ulis (13.1 ppg, 4.1 apg), 5-9 junior supersectional hero Malik Tidwell (17.7 ppg, 4 rpg, 57 3s) and 6-5 junior Chris White (10.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg) picked up the slack.
Morgan Park had its share of ups and downs this year and much of it can be attributed to midseason ankle trouble for dynamic Illinois-bound guard Ayo Dosunmu. But with the 6-4 Dosunmu (24.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 7.3 apg, 57 3s) at full strength after missing 10 games the goal of a repeat title and fourth since 2013 under Nick Irvin has been back on track.
The Mustangs have rolled through the postseason -- beating Bogan 101-71 in the sectional final and racing to a 26-3 lead in the 71-59 supersectional win over North Lawndale -- with 6-6 senior Cam Burrell (17.7 ppg, 13.1 ppg) and 6-4 sophomore Adam Miller (15 ppg, 81 3s), a transfer from Peoria Manual. They got even more dangerous when 6-9 Alabama-Birmingham recruit Tamell Pearson scored 5 points off the bench in the final 3:15 Tuesday after not playing since the season opener with a detached retina in his right eye.
• The pick: Everything is clicking right now for Morgan Park as it returns to familiar surroundings triumphantly with an 81-66 victory.
Springfield Southeast (28-3) vs. North Chicago (22-8), 1 p.m.: The "King" has brought the Warhawks back to the Carver Arena court. Gerald "King" Coleman has done a fantastic job without much fanfare for turning his alma mater into a perennial 3A state tourney threat. A program that 20 years ago went through a winless season has made the Elite Eight seven times in Coleman's 13 seasons in charge and will claim its third top-four trophy since 2011.
The Warhawks endured some rough times with a 5-game December losing streak that dropped them to 4-7. But they recovered to win 18 of their last 19 and 11 straight behind senior guards Tyrek Cooper (14.6 ppg, 29 3s), Pierce Coleman (12.3 ppg, 18 3s) and DyShawn Gales (9.5 ppg). Coleman also has a rarity in that he can actually look a couple of his starters in the eye in 6-6 junior Raeshaun Samoa (7.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and 6-8 junior Achan Clinton.
After upsetting DePaul Prep in the sectional final, they got big efforts from Ishaun Walker with 16 points and Quency Gilmore with 15 in a 69-56 supersectional win over Rockford Boylan.
Most of the Capital City's boys basketball history has belonged to Springfield High and Lanphier. Southeast will finally be more prominent in the discussion with its first top-four trophy after Sweet 16 losses last year and in 1980 and a quarterfinal loss in 1941, when the school was known as Feitshans.
Coach Lawrence Thomas has altered the culture of the Southeast program in his successful 10-year tenure. Now he's getting the big payoff with 5-11 guard Kobe Medley (12.3 ppg, 76 3s) one of only two seniors in the eight-man rotation. Six-3 junior Anthony Fairlee (15.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg) is a Division I prospect and guard Terrion Murdix (12 ppg) adds to the balanced Spartans attack.
• The pick: Southeast has the gaudier record but North Chicago's last couple of wins are definitely attention-getters. I'll go with the Warhawks 66-64.
Third-place, 11:15 a.m.: With two teams that haven't been here before I don't see them going through the motions after the disappointment of their semifinal losses. Marian has faced challenges before the season even began and it answers this one 75-67 over Southeast.
Title, 1 p.m.: It was easy to question the likelihood of Morgan Park claiming a repeat title back in January. It's a lot different now for the healthy Mustangs and Dosunmu, who will give Illini fans a glimmer of hope after leading the way to another crown, 81-69 over North Chicago.