A couple of high school heavyweights, Simeon and Proviso East, headline a Class 4A field in Peoria.
While Simeon has been dominant over the past eight seasons and shoots for its record-tying fourth straight state title, Proviso East has been a state power and player for decades. Proviso East won state championships in 1969, 1974, 1991 and 1992, with state runner-up finishes in 1981 and 2012.
The most recent second-place finish last March, however, is partly what has fueled this season's return to Peoria. The Pirates lost a heartbreaker, falling to Simeon 50-48.
"What better way to reach our ultimate goal than by getting another shot at Simeon," says Proviso East coach Donnie Boyce. "Everyone in Illinois understands you have to go through Simeon."
Although many key parts returned from last year's 32-1 team, including SMU-bound Sterling Brown and Illinois State recruit Paris Lee, this group developed at a different pace.
"Last year, with the start we had and the unbeaten regular season, it was expected that we reached Peoria," says Boyce. "Getting back this year is more rewarding because there were plenty of people doubting us. It took us longer this year than last year to realize we had to do this together."
Simeon, however, is what it is -- a high school basketball giant in Illinois with talent and a presence. And the worst news for Proviso East, Stevenson and Edwardsville?
"We're playing our best basketball of the season," says Simeon coach Robert Smith. "I do feel a little more comfortable this year than last year with where we're at, with how our guards have played.
"But it's one game at a time right now. You can't ever look past that next game, and our focus right now is keeping them focused on Proviso East only."
Top storyline to follow: Simeon's quest to make history
What more can be said about this run? It's a dynasty. The Wolverines are two wins away from making history with a fourth consecutive state championship, which would tie Peoria Manual's four-peat back in the mid-1990s.
Everyone will be talking about the Simeon-Proviso East rematch on opening night. Then there is the curiosity of the 30-win Edwardsville team from southern Illinois no one knows much about. But what about the easily-forgotten Stevenson team? Unranked in the preseason, the Patriots are now assured of a state trophy and hoping to make their first-ever state title game appearance behind sophomores. Stevenson is disciplined, well coached and will run its stuff but probably has the smallest margin for error of any of the 4A teams in Peoria.
Best player: Jabari Parker, Simeon
The good news is fans are now finally getting a glimpse of the headline-making superstar at his best after a slow start to the season due to a summer foot injury. He's been dominant of late, especially in March. The bad news is for the teams in Peoria that sure wish this was the Parker people saw in December.
The unheralded: Connor Cashaw, Stevenson
You've all heard of Jalen Brunson by now, the uber-talented Class of 2015 star point guard who has been one of the state's elite players all season long. But how about the OTHER sophomore for the Patriots? The 6-3 Cashaw, who averages over 16 points and 7 rebounds a game, poured in 22 in the super-sectional win over Boylan. "He was huge," says Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose of Cashaw's performance Tuesday night. Cashaw also chips in 3 assists a game and shoots 50 percent from the three-point line.
The unheralded Part II: Kendall Pollard, Simeon
No team wins a state championship without a talented player willing to accept a less glamorous role. Pollard, the 6-5 Dayton recruit, is that guy. He does the dirty work and defends anyone, anywhere (Hello, Sterling Brown!). Ask coach Rob Smith or his staff an overlooked aspect that has made Simeon successful, and Pollard's contributions will be one of the first factors they'll cite.
Top 10 players:
Jabari Parker, 6-8, Sr., Simeon
Kendrick Nunn, 6-2, Sr., Simeon
Kendall Pollard, 6-5, Sr., Simeon
Jaylon Tate, 6-2, Sr., Simeon
Sterling Brown, 6-5, Sr., Proviso East
Paris Lee, 5-10, Sr., Proviso East
Jevon Carter, 6-1, Jr., Proviso East
Garret Covington, 6-5, Sr., Edwardsville
Jalen Brunson, 6-1, So., Stevenson
Connor Cashaw, 6-3, So., Stevenson
The unknown: Edwardsville
The downstate team is always the obvious choice. But the Tigers are more than just "the team from down south." This program has won A LOT under coach Mike Waldo, including a trip to the super-sectional a year ago and a 30-2 record this season. When you break it all down, Edwardsville really does have a whole lot going for it, beginning with star power in the Garret Covington (18.4 ppg) and Tre Harris (17.1 ppg) tandem.
The favorite: Simeon
You can't talk about the much-needed "tournament tough" without starting that conversation talking about Simeon. With one weekend to play, Simeon remains likable for so many reasons, largely unchanged from 12 months ago. Yes, elite talent. But we're talking veteran players, excellent guards and experience playing in this setting. The problem with preparing a game plan to defend against Jabari Parker is that there are so many other weapons that can hurt you. The backcourt of Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, combined with Parker, has made Simeon more multidimensional.
Hoops Report's 4A Picks
Class 4A semifinals
Simeon 59, Proviso East 53
Edwardsville 51, Stevenson 48
State Championship Game
Simeon 64, Edwardsville 55
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