The Chicago area’s top high school basketball teams may not have a state championship to play for at the end of this abbreviated season. But there will be a chance to play each other with something on the line in a tournament format.
While high school basketball is finally being played again, Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the sport over the past 12 months. But former New Trier and Fenwick coach Rick Malnati went to work to try and find something for several of the state’s top teams to look forward to in 2021.
Malnati announced there will be a season-ending tournament the weekend of March 12-13, featuring eight highly-ranked teams: DePaul Prep, Evanston, Fenwick, Mundelein, Notre Dame, Simeon, St. Patrick and Young.
Currently those eight teams are all ranked among the top 10 teams in the Sun-Times Super 25 rankings, including the top six teams.
Malnati, who has worked as an analyst the past two years while doing high school basketball games on television with WCIU-The U, began brainstorming when he heard there could be a season. Regardless of the length of the season, Malnati believed creating a postseason opportunity to play for something was important.
He reached out to several coaches of top teams to gauge the interest. The response was pretty overwhelming and the process began.
“I thought it would be great to somehow create an ending to whatever season would be played,” said Malnati. “So when I talked with the coaches and told them, they said, ‘If there is a season, we are in.'”
While the logistics are still being ironed out in terms of tournament format and an official site, the plan is to have four quarterfinal games played on Friday, March 12, followed by the semifinals early the next day. The championship game will be played Saturday night. All the games will be streamed online.
Notre Dame was a team that was competing for a state championship last March and began the season ranked No. 1 in the Chicago area. Coach Kevin Clancy welcomes the idea of the tournament and calls it a “carrot at the end of the year” for a team with such high hopes and expectations.
“Winning conference is a priority and a goal for us, especially this season,” said Clancy. “This adds another dimension. This is a chance to play and compete at a high level, for our kids to be challenged while playing against some of the best teams and top talent in the state.”
Young is accustomed to playing in high-profile events across the country in preparation for a state championship run in March. This year it will have to settle for an end-of-the-season opportunity to play some of the best the state offers in an eight-team field.
“My overriding thought relates to the kids and having something for them to look forward to,” said Young coach Tyrone Slaughter. “There are no championships, really, to play for in this truncated season. This allows kids to have a chance to play quality opponents and against great coaches and players with one team being crowned champion.”
Although Malnati would have loved to have had a chance for an expanded tournament and included more teams, it just wasn’t possible with all the obstacles due to the pandemic and regulations.
“You make the most of what you can do, and I think this is a great opportunity for at least some of the teams,” said Malnati.
There were certain teams throughout the Chicago area who were unable to compete in the tournament due to either school district or conference policies and protocols. Geographically, the travel factor of playing teams within 30 miles was also a hinderance for a few teams.
“This should be a lot of fun for these teams,” said Malnati.