Final reflections of the weekend in Peoria
Today's post-state tournament column comes with a disclaimer.
This past weekend was the first time since 2006 that I've attended the Class 4A boys state basketball tournament in Peoria. Since then the opportunity just hasn't presented itself.
But it did this year, thanks to Larkin's magical run to the Final Four. And despite the fact the Royals went 0-2 and brought home the fourth place trophy, the weekend was entertaining and exciting, especially for this longtime Elgin resident who last got to see an Elgin boys team at state 20 years ago.
So here's some reflections on a weekend in Peoria and Morton, which is where I chose to stay as opposed to downtown Peoria.
Larkin could have been a sacrificial lamb and folded the tent when it got down double digits in both games but the Royals fought and never gave up, even though the mountain they had to climb was a big one.
When they got down to eventual champion Belleville West by 18 points in the semifinals, we couldn't help but think the Royals would become Belleville's latest 30-point victim.
But Larkin battled back and Pierre Black's 3-pointer with 94 seconds to play brought the Royals to within 7 points.
And even though they eventually lost 64-53, the Royals gained the respect of the entire Illinois basketball community for not folding up the tent.
Saturday was a much tougher game to play and it's not often a team gets behind in the third place game that it comes back to win. Larkin had the energy early on but Evanston took over midway through the second quarter and never let the Royals threaten its lead through the rest of the game, eventually winning 61-49.
Even so, Larkin battled to the final horn and when you go downstate and realize late in that third place game that it's not meant to be, it's awfully hard to keep battling. But Larkin did and that's a testament to coach Deryn Carter and his staff, which included his dad, Deryl, who has now had the rare privilege to coach in the state finals with both his son and his daughter. Deryl is also an assistant girls coach at Whitney Young, where his daughter, Corry Irvin, is the head coach.
We've long known Deryn Carter is a really good coach and motivator and that was proved this past weekend by the way his team battled on the court and conducted itself off the court and then during the awards ceremony following the championship game.
Should it go or should it stay?: Even though I haven't been to Peoria in over a decade, the question that seems to get raised every year was raised again this past weekend: Should the state tournament remain in Peoria?
There are plenty of reasons to debate the question. The current contract with Peoria runs through the 2019-20 season, which will become the 25th year of the tournament being played at Carver Arena.
The city of Peoria does an excellent job of hosting the tournament and you won't find another city where hotels and good restaurants are so close to the arena.
What Peoria has had going for it since the tournament moved there from Champaign in 1996 is the Peoria Civic Center. In reality, you never has to leave the building from morning until night if you don't want to. The March Madness Experience can take up your time, or there are plenty of places to sit and grab a quick nap between sessions if you so desire.
As for the basketball part of the tournament, which should always be the priority, Carver Arena is far from the best venue in the state. It's a hockey arena that gets transformed to a basketball facility for Bradley University games and the IHSA state tournaments. It's far from media friendly, for whatever that's worth, and it's just not great for basketball.
There are other venues around the state that would be better for basketball -- State Farm Center in Champaign, Redbird Arena in Normal and several venues around Chicagoland, such as Wintrust Arena on the DePaul campus, Allstate Arena in Rosemont or the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates.
Only Champaign and Hoffman Estates, in addition to Peoria, bid on the tournament the last time the contract came up for renewal and next year when that process begins again it's likely those two will again.
But it's going to take one heck of a proposal to wrestle the tournament away from Peoria, as long as Peoria chooses to continue to host, and there's no reason we've heard of that it won't.
Yes, attendance has dwindled over the years. The best guesstimate this past weekend is that about 6,000 was the high water mark in an arena that holds 11,000.
But attendance has dwindled at state final events in every sport across the country, so it's nothing Peoria is doing wrong that has kept people away.
Illinois' four-class system hasn't helped attendance, and the fact that Chicago Public League schools don't travel well hasn't helped any either.
Would attendance increase if at least the 3-4A tournament was held in Chicago or Hoffman Estates? Maybe, maybe not. That's a question I doubt we'll ever get an answer to because as long as Peoria wants to keep hosting the tournament, the safe bet is it will stay there.
We just hope it's not another 20 years before another team from Elgin is playing in Peoria.