Since I moved back to central Illinois in September, I’ve been waiting for this four-week stretch of pure basketball bliss. I grew up in the Springfield-area and was well aware of the deep basketball tradition that Peoria had and now I’m thrilled to be totally engrossed in the action.
I was at Carver Arena in 2004 when the Shaun Livingston led Central team completed a run of back-to-back titles. Since then, four big school teams have been back to the title game but haven’t held up a first place trophy.
Seven years after the Lions won, an undefeated Peoria Notre Dame team is the favorite to win the state title in 3A. The Irish would be the first undefeated champion in Peoria history. Central and Manual have won all nine of the city’s titles. Consider the dynasties - Manual’s titles teams loaded with Division-I talent from 1994 to 1997 are legendary, while the 2003 and 2004 Central teams were electrifying and have Peoria’s most notable NBA player in Livingston, who was the fourth overall pick out of high school in ‘04.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that times have changed - those squads won championships in a two-class system. Those teams had few measly losses, but are completely in a class of their own. It’d be hard to compare this year’s Notre Dame team against those aforementioned institutions.
Before any talk like that can even begin Notre Dame has to get through the gauntlet.
Before we go any further, the vast majority of games that I’ve seen this year have been in class 3A and 4A, so that’s why I didn’t do an extensive preview for the 1A and 2A schools. I just don’t think my opinion goes very far when I haven’t seen enough of those teams play in person.
CLASS 3A: DEKALB SUPER-SECTIONAL
PEORIA NOTRE DAME: Time and again during the regular season, the Irish proved they were the best team in 3A. They played a tough schedule that included St. Ignatius, Rock Island, Glenbard East, Niles Notre Dame and the two other area powers - Manual and Central. Now they’re sitting at 26-0 with a pretty clear path to the Sectional at Bradley’s Renaissance Coliseum. The Irish have quality depth at the guard position - they’re quick, handle the ball well, make crisp passes, are lockdown defenders and can hit the three when Max Bielfeldt and Drew Blumenshine are double teamed down low. With that being said, if Bielfeldt is defended well along the way the guards absolutely have to be able to make plays. There’s been few, if any off nights for the Notre Dame during the regular season and it’s imperative that the trend continues. They’ll handle Dunlap and beat Richwoods for the regional championship. Then, they probably face either Manual or Central for the third time this season. It’s never easy beating a team three times. If they move on from there, it’ll likely be Rock Island, who the Irish beat 68-51 during the State Farm Classic in December. My two biggest concerns for this team on their way to state: the potential regional championship against Richwoods and a possible sectional meeting with Manual or Central. Those teams know each other so well and tweaking one little thing that one of those teams saw during the regular season could mean the difference between a win and a loss. The difference between PND and those other three teams – consistency – and I think that’s what will put them in the final four.
PEORIA RICHWOODS: The Knights are a young team, but have really matured throughout the season. Richwoods has won six of its final 10 games, but it doesn’t really have a marquee win on its regular season schedule, besides a five point win over Central. Luckily, they’re not trying to get into the NCAA tournament, but if you look at quality losses – they only fell to Notre Dame by seven and four points in their two meetings this season. I think they can get past Galesburg (PND beat them 84-39 last Tuesday) and will get a third stab at the Irish for the regional title. It doesn’t hurt that the Dunlap regional got moved to Richwoods either; so having a home court advantage always helps. I like Preston Wells, Nate Desjardins and Will Jenkins play-making ability. Wells is only a sophomore and the Illini have kept an eye on him. Desjardins can make great passes and has proved to be a great shooter. All of these intangibles are a sign of good things to come, but their season will probably end against Notre Dame.
PEORIA MANUAL: The Rams have played in the state title game each of the two out of the last three years and has a team with some size and lighting-quick guards this season. Junior guard Jeff White is the straw that stirs the drink for this team and it was obvious that they missed him in a 79-48 blowout loss to Central on Friday night. White was wearing a boot on his foot, but is supposed to play in the postseason. They’ll need him to be on his game if they want to get past Central in the regional championship. White’s the rare underclassmen who is the team captain at Manual. He’s a great distributor, but can also create offense for himself almost effortlessly at times. I was really thrown off by the loss to the Lions on Friday, which leads us to…
PEORIA CENTRAL: They might be the hardest area team to figure out this season. Their team is composed of a group that could easily go to state. The Lions might have the deepest bench, but it seems like Central coach Dan Ruffin has had a hard time pinning down the right rotation for this team. They have shown signs of brilliance, but lately I’ve had to double and triple check scores to make sure I was hearing people right when the final score was called in to us. Before Friday’s thrashing of Manual, the Lions dropped three straight to Washington, Richwoods and Proviso West. Those are games they not only should’ve won, but won with ease. Travis Kellum and Darian White are athletic forwards who can grab rebounds and have some range, while Woodruff transplant Deontray Dorsey can hit the three ball and beat guys off the dribble. It’s highly likely that Manual and Central will meet for the regional title on Friday (East Peoria, Canton and Limestone just aren’t in the same league) and I’m having a hard time trying to pick round three. I really believe Manual’s Jeff White is one of the biggest keys. If he’s 100% healthy, I like the Rams. If he’s not, Central holds the edge.
CLASS 3A - SPRINGFIELD SUPER-SECTIONAL
MORTON: The Potters have played so well lately, they probably wish the regional seedings would have been done a week or two later. As a four-seed in the Lincoln regional, they got stuck with a play-in game against Springfield. If they win on Monday night, they’ll have to turn around and play on Tuesday against Lincoln. I believe they’ll be able to beat the first Central State 8 team, but it’s the potential second match-up that has the makings for a nail biter. Lincoln has Jordan Nelson, whose mission is to single-handedly outscore the opponent each night. He’s a phenomenal shooter and is a huge difference-maker. When Morton and Lincoln met way back at the beginning of the season, the Railers won in blowout fashion by a final score of 80-52. Expect the score to be much closer a second time around. In fact, if Morton can push past Lincoln, the path could be cleared for them to win the Decatur MacArthur sectional and perhaps even win the super’s and go to state. For now, I just can’t look past Tuesday night.
WASHINGTON: They’re the top seed in the Bloomington regional and will probably get past play-in opponent U-High or Pontiac with ease. That would likely set up another meeting with their neighbor for the regional title, the Metamora Redbirds. The Panthers have used a spread offense this season and it’s created a good perimeter game for them. The offense, at times, has also created a clock-eating, possession basketball game that can sometimes be exhausting to watch, let alone defend. I think the Panthers are a slightly better team over the Redibrds, but….
METAMORA: They have some pretty good outside shooters. Kyle Heck and Kyle Sasso are finesse players who can hit shots inside out and create plays for themselves. They have a winnable first game against Bloomington, and thanks to injuries, the Purple Raiders will probably be one and done after Monday. I still like Washington in a possible regional championship game, but I don’t think either team will be able to get by Springfield Southeast in the opening round of sectionals.
CLASS 4A – ILLINOIS STATE SUPER-SECTIONAL
PEKIN: They’ve really impressed me as time has gone on this season. The Dragons, like Richwoods, have a young group that is probably a year or two away from making a serious run in the postseason. However, it’s entirely possible that Pekin could get out of their own regional as a four seed. They face an inconsistent Moline team in the opening round of regionals. This was the same team that went down in the opening round of the Pekin Holiday Tournament as the top seed. Quincy and East Moline United Township are on the other side of the bracket. Basically, every team in this regional and is far from dominant. Factor in the travel each of these teams have and it’ll be a true home court advantage for Pekin. That’ll help guys like Nathan Taphorn and Tom Lohmann.
NORMAL COMMUNITY/NORMAL WEST: The Iron went the entire Big 12 season undefeated and have a pair of league foes in the Bourbonnais Regional. A regional championship match-up could include West or Danville. The Wildcats had a 59-34 win over Danville earlier this season and I wouldn’t mind seeing a Community/West game on Friday. NCHS is a solid team lead by junior combo guard Anthony Beane. He’s another prime example of a difference-maker type guy that can make plays with or without the ball. Parker Musselman stands tall at 6-foot-8. He has some range and can pull down the big rebounds. I see NCHS advancing all the way to sectionals and where they could face O’Fallon in the sectional title game. That’s another team favored to be playing in Peoria in a few weeks.
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