High school basketball state playoffs: Previewing and predicting Class 4Aon March 2, 2020 at 3:45 pm

Hello, March!

The sectionals are seeded and the regular season has played out. We head into regional play this week with favorites and sleepers throughout the state. And to help you get started, here is a complete rundown of the Class 4A sectionals throughout the Chicago area — and some picks to go with it.

Lockport sectional

The favorite: Joliet West. The Tigers, who have been banged up and persevered over the past month, are primed for a run as the No. 1 sectional seed. Finally healthy — senior star guard Jamere Hill and junior Ashawn Burbridge are both back from injury — Joliet West has the weapons and are well prepared for March.

Top contender: Bolingbrook is familiar with the role of sectional contender, though this is an entirely different group. Coach Rob Brost returned just one of his top eight players from last season, but he was a good one — Darius Burford (see below).

Sleeper: Keep an eye on Waubonsie Valley, a team that has surprised with a gaudy 27-4 record on the year and boasts the stat-sheet-stuffing Marcus Skeete. The 6-5 senior is averaging 17.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists a game.

The health of Ben Schwieger, however, will be a key. The talented 6-5 junior enjoyed a breakout season but has missed the past few weeks with an injury and his return remains day to day.

Difference-maker: Darius Burford is a game-changer. He leads a Bolingbrook team in scoring at 25 points a game and a lot of what he does, including his punishing speed and productivity in transition, is difficult to game plan for in a scouting report.

Storyline to follow: Can Joliet West and virtually the exact same team that finished 5-18 a year ago complete the 180 degree turn? Can the Tigers capture a sectional title in coach Jeremy Kreiger’s first year on the job?

Stat to know: Bolingbrook is in search of its fourth sectional title in six years. The program won one sectional title the previous 40 years.

Sectional semifinal picks: Joliet West over Neuqua Valley; Bolingbrook over Waubonsie Valley

Sectional pick: Joliet West

Addison Trail sectional

The favorite: Lake Park has the type of seasoned seniors, guard play and experience of playing in last year’s sectional to do a whole lot of damage in a very winnable sectional. The senior trio of Luke Sgarbossa (17 ppg), 6-5 Trevon Montiel (16 ppg) and Montrell Perry (9 ppg) are arguably the best trio of players on one team in this sectional.

Top contender: Truthfully, there are a whole mess of contenders. Would anyone be surprised if any of top eight or nine seeds found themselves playing in the sectional title game? From a seed perspective, Glenbard East, Naperville Central and Wheaton South are the top contenders as they round out the top four seeds.

Sleeper: Again, the sleeper list is endless because the top eight or nine seeds are all capable in this sectional.

Wheaton North, after a rough stretch in the middle of the season, is coming together at the right time with six wins in its last eight games of the regular season.

But keep an eye on Batavia, the No. 7 seed, who have Jayden Johnson, a young mix of sophomores that now have some seasoning, a big man in 6-9 xxxx and a very winnable regional.

Difference-maker: There are a few 20-point scorers in this sectional who mean so much to their team.

We start with a couple of high-scoring guards who could collide in a regional semifinal who have flown under the radar — Glenbard East’s Daron Hall (21 ppg) and Willowbrook’s Everett Stubblefield. These two are capable of going on a scoring surge and taking over an individual game.

Batavia’s Jayden Johnson, however, has been a productive four-year varsity performer and continues to put up numbers as a senior. Johnson averages 19.8 points and seven rebounds a game. He scored 23 in a season finale win over Wheaton North, hitting the game-winning shot with less than a second to play.

Storyline to follow: In a sectional that is arguably the weakest in the state, is this where a true Cinderella — from a seed perspective — emerges?

Stat to know: There are just three teams in the sectional that reached 20 wins on the year, and two of them — Naperville Central and Glenbard East — barely eked out the win total with 20 victories apiece.

Sectional semifinal picks: Lake Park over Geneva; Naperville Central over Batavia

Sectional pick: Lake Park

McHenry sectional

The favorite: Cary-Grove will enter March with an unfamiliar role as favorite. But with a pair of horses to ride in hot shooting guard Beau Frericks (20.2 ppg) and 6-8 Frank Jakubicek (15.1 ppg, 8 rpg), the Trojans have put together a 28-3 record.

The Fox Valley Conference champs have a couple of impressive wins, including wins over Glenbrook South and Schaumburg in the second half of the season. Now it’s a matter of whether Cary-Grove can rise to the occasion, being in a position it’s never been before, and defend at a level that can lead them to Peoria?

Top contender: While DeKalb has flown under the radar for most of the season, the Barbs are a legitimate threat. Coach Mike Reynolds has guided DeKalb to a top seed in its sub-sectional behind the trio of double-figure scorers in junior guard Trenton Kyler (12 ppg), 6-5 Joe Owens (12 ppg, 7 rpg) and senior guard Zach Russell (11 ppg).

Sleepers: There are a host of sleepers to include in what is a very winnable sectional, starting with the St. Charles North and St. Charles East out of the DuKane Conference.

St. Charles North boasts a big man in 6-9 Connor Linke and a point guard in Luke Scheffers that have helped the North Stars sweep rival St. Charles East this season. Linke, a Bradley recruit, is such a defensive presence with his size and rim-protecting ability.

Plus, coach Tom Poulin’s team has been tested all season with a schedule that includes DeKalb, who they beat early in the season, Rockford Boylan, Curie, Peoria Notre Dame, Simeon and Benet.

St. Charles East has played its best basketball of the season in the second half. The Saints are 17-2 since starting the season 6-5.

These two rivals are on a collision course to meet a third time in the regional final at Elgin. Can St. Charles North sweep all three?

Rockford Jefferson, a very balanced team with multiple players capable of putting up double-figures, sports a 25-5 record but did lose to Cary-Grove in December.

Huntley is a sparking 25-6 and beat Cary-Grove in late January and has a tandem in Ryan Sroka and Uchenna Egekeze, a pair of 1,000-point scorers in their career, who can put a scare into any team in this sectional. Huntley hosts the regional and would face Rockford Jefferson in the title game.

Difference-maker: In a sectional with very few Division I players or even big names, Cary-Grove’s Beau Frericks is a player who has the ball in his hands and the capability to take over the game with his shooting and moxie. The 6-0 senior guard averages 20 points a game and is a threat from anywhere on the floor with his shooting capability. He can turn games around with his shot as he’s knocked down 84 three-pointers on the year.

Storyline to follow: There is an opportunity for history to be made by someone. The lack of postseason success among the programs who all have a chance to play in Peoria lends itself to making history.

Cary-Grove and Huntley each have one sectional title in 60 years. DeKalb hasn’t won a sectional in over 50 years. St. Charles East reached the state finals once — in 1927. St. Charles North, in its short 20 years of existence, has three regional championships.

Stat to know: Since the IHSA went to the four-class system in 2006, among the top six seeds in the McHenry Sectional — the top three seeds in each sub-sectional — there hasn’t been a single sectional championship won among the six teams.

Sectional semifinal picks: Cary-Grove over Huntley; St. Charles North over DeKalb

Sectional pick: St. Charles North

Elk Grove Village sectional

The favorite: Loyola has done its job to secure the No. 1 seed, beating Evanston on the road and adding wins over Notre Dame, DePaul Prep and Fenwick en route to xx wins on the season. With their length, consistent defensive mindset and efficiency, the Ramblers are looking for their fourth straight regional title and first sectional championship since 2014.

There is gritty point guard Billy Palmer and an extremely balanced attack featuring 6-8 Bennet Kwiecinski (13.1 ppg), 6-8 Jordan Kwiecinski (10 ppg) and 6-4 Matt Enghauser (12.2 ppg).

Top contenders: Evanston and Glenbrook South are about as quality of a two and three seeds as you will find in any sectional. And the rubber-match between these two would take place in what would be a terrific sectional semifinal.

Evanston’s March experience — the Wildkits have been through the state tournament grind the past two years with trips to Peoria — is such an underrated plus. More importantly, this team is dangerous with their speed and three-point shooting. Juniors Blake Peters (14 ppg) and Jaylin Gibson have been through some battles, so there isn’t anything you can throw at them that will be new.

Forget about Glenbrook South being a surprise this season. The Titans surpassed that label and more with an outstanding regular season. The star, Dom Martinelli, has shined while two sophomores, 6-6 Nick Martinelli and guard Cooper Noard, have blossomed over the course of the season.

Sleepers: While Niles North has a bonafide star in Aquan Smart and is a 25-win four seed to keep an eye on, the Vikings are 0-4 against area heavyweights, losing to DePaul Prep, Evanston and Glenbrook South twice. Nonetheless, Smart, the recent Maryland commit, is a game-changer. The 6-3 guard is putting up 23.8 points, 6.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds a game.

New Trier is going to be a pesky No. 6 seed to knock out. The Trevians have played well in the second half of the season. While it’s not an overly talented team, there is some toughness and energy with this team, led by underrated senior guard John Carragher (18 ppg).

An Evanston-New Trier battle in a regional final for a third time this season would be pretty appetizing for the North Shore.

Difference-maker: How do you stop Dom Martinelli? The Glenbrook South star has put together one heck of a career and a dominating senior campaign. The 6-5 Martinelli has an unorthodox game that’s uncanny but is ultra-effective.

He’s averaging 26.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and two assists a game. Martinelli lives at the free-throw line where he shoots 87 percent. He’s made a ridiculous 261 free-throws on the season, which comes in handy in the postseason when scoring is hard to come by.

Storyline to follow: There is such a distinct style difference between the top two seeds (Loyola and Glenbrook South) and the third and fourth seeds (Evanston and Niles North). And it’s clear which style had the edge during the regular season.

The up-and-down, breakneck speed of Evanston and Niles North are a combined 1-5 against the much more patient Loyola and Glenbrook South. Will this continue in the expected sectional rematches? It will be fun to watch how it all unfolds.

Stat to know: The top four teams in this sectional are a combined 105-17 on the year with six of those losses coming to each other. So take out head-to-head and the top four teams are quite an impressive 102-11 on the year.

Sectional semifinal picks: Evanston over Glenbrook South; Loyola over Niles North

Sectional pick: Loyola

Prospect sectional

The favorite: Stevenson won a sectional last year and returned four starters from that team. The Patriots went out and won 25 games and earned the top seed in the sectional. With senior leadership, chemistry and an offense that shares the ball, it’s no surprise this is as balanced of a team as you will find.

Pick your poison among seniors Matthew Ambrose, John Ittounas, Matt Kaznikov and R.J. Holmes and junior Evan Ambrose who all average between eight and 11 points a game.

Top contender: Forget about the notion that Mundelein is a year away. While it’s true the Mustangs are a junior-dominated team that has lost its four games to the four best teams on its schedule (Stevenson twice, Collinsville and Glenbrook South), it’s one that’s been battle-tested. And it’s more than capable of putting together a historic run in March. Mundelein has never won a basketball sectional in the program’s history.

Conor Enright is a junior point guard who has committed to Drake. He’s the catalyst. Enright oozes the competitive spirit that thrives in the postseason. Scottie Ebube offers something most teams don’t have — a 6-8 physical presence in the middle — and Trey Baker has developed into a reliable scoring threat.

Sleepers: Buffalo Grove, with Kam Craft and its three-point shooting, and Zion-Benton, with its electric 1-2 punch of Damontae Taylor and Amar Aguillard, have the personnel to really put a scare into one of the top seeds.

While Buffalo Grove did beat Zion-Benton way back in November, the Zee-Bees remain a team no one wants to play. They’ve taken down a ranked team, burying Evanston in January, and played Mundelein tough in a four-point February loss.

Difference-makers: There are some one-man wrecking crews in this sectional, starting with a pair of sophomores.

Buffalo Grove’s Kam Craft and Zion-Benton’s Amar Aguillard are offensive forces who can put 30 on you and end your season in March. Craft is averaging 23.5 points and 7.8 rebounds a game while Aguillard puts up 27 points a game.

Storyline to follow: The potential North Suburban Conference rematch between Stevenson and Mundelein — the top two seeds — would be intriguing.

Mundelein was consistent throughout the season, losing just four games all season while churning out 27 wins. However, a pair of those losses came to its conference foe and top sectional seed Stevenson. What has Mundelein learned from those two losses?

Beating a team as talented as Mundelein for a third time in a season is never easy.

Stat to know: Under coach Pat Ambrose, top-seeded Stevenson is gunning for its sixth sectional title since 2007, while second-seeded Mundelein has never won a sectional championship in program history.

Sectional semifinal picks: Stevenson over Zion-Benton; Mundelein over Buffalo Grove

Sectional pick: Stevenson

Bloom sectional

The favorite: This is what the folks in Chicago Heights have been waiting months for as mighty Bloom will host its own sectional as the No. 1 seed.

The Blazing Trojans have been talked about for years, but the hype was ramped up in November with the preseason No. 1 ranking. Now this starting five of exciting Division I players embarks on a journey where anything less than a trip to Peoria simply won’t do.

Top contenders: The south suburbs are loaded, which means Bloom’s sectional road will be daunting. They will be glad to let Thornton and Homewood-Flossmoor battle it out as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in one sectional semifinal and await the winner.

Thornton has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, rolling to a 28-1 record behind all-everything D.J. Williams and emerging junior Brandon Hall. The Wildcats play hard, together and their whole is greater than their individual parts. The Wildcats also own a win over H-F, beating the Vikings 55-43 in a January meeting.

H-F, led by 6-5 R.J. Ogom (15 ppg, 7 rpg), guard Josiah Palmer and a variety of players who can knock down a shot and space the floor, can play with and beat anyone in this sectional. With wins over the likes of Marian Catholic, Simeon, St. Charles East, Stevenson, DePaul Prep, Loyola and Bolingbrook, it’s easy to see why coach Marc Condotti’s team is such a threat. Yes, the schedule has prepared the Vikings well.

Sleepers: There are plenty to choose from in this sectional.

Don’t discount No. 4 seed Marian Catholic. No, not when the Spartans have savvy and talented veteran senior Ahron Ulis on the floor with the ball in his hands. There are few players who do more for their team than the Iowa-bound point guard.

Brother Rice has been one topsy-turvy team this season. The Crusaders own wins over DePaul Prep and Loyola in the second half of the season but have also lost by wide margins to Marian Catholic, Joliet West, Bolingbrook and Benet.

Oak Lawn has one regional title in the last 45 years — and that came way back in 1988. The Spartans head into regional play as a dangerous No. 6 seed with a 23-7 record. Plus, Oak Lawn has a heck of duo in 6-4 Sam Osmani (19.7 ppg) and guard Trey Ward (19.2 ppg) to give Homewood-Flossmoor a potential battle in a regional final.

Difference-maker: There are stars up and down this sectional, including Marian Catholic’s Ahron Ulis, H-F’s R.J. Ogom, Oak Lawn’s Sami Osmani, Thornton’s D.J. Williams and Bloom’s ultra-talented starting five.

But Dante Maddox, Jr., has been an absolute force all season for the Blazing Trojans, putting up numbers across the board that deserve more attention than he’s received. Maddox

The athletic 6-3 guard is strong with the ball and a sharpshooter from the three-point line. Maddox is averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals a game while being one of the better defenders on the perimeter.

Storyline to follow: There is a long, tradition-rich basketball history at Bloom. There have been 13 sectional titles and multiple trips to state. There were a couple of state runner-up finishes in the mid-1970s. There was the Class 4A fourth-place finish in 2012.

But Bloom remains in the category of being one of the best programs in the state without a state championship. This is as good of a chance as any, though the road to Peoria is a gauntlet.

Stat to know: There are seven teams in the sectional with at least 20 wins, including six teams with 22-plus victories.

Sectional semifinal picks: Bloom over Brother Rice; Thornton over Homewood-Flossmoor

Sectional pick: Bloom

Lyons sectional

The favorites: The best team, from start to finish through the regular season, has been Curie. But Simeon has been so tough and impressive down the stretch that it’s difficult to differentiate between the two right now. Thus, we have shared favorites.

The Condors have one of the most complete teams in the state and are playing so well. The season-finale win over Notre Dame, one of the top teams in the state and in front of a raucous home crowd for the Dons, was so impressive.

There is a go-to player in Ramean Hinton, who is shooting the basketball particularly well from the perimeter to add to everything else he can do, steady guard play in Elijah Pickens and Nick Owens, and an athletic, productive blue-collar workhorse in 6-5 Saiveon Williams.

Regardless of what happens in March, coach Mike Oliver and, particularly his assistants, don’t get enough credit for what they’ve molded this team into this season.

Top-seeded Curie has lost to just one in-state team all season. It just so happens that it’s Simeon.

Coach Robert Smith’s Wolverines are playing their best basketball of the season, and that includes star Jeremiah Williams. The 6-4 jack-of-all-trades senior has been outstanding down the stretch and teams up with the dynamic Ahamad Bynum (20.5 ppg) for a heck of a 1-2 punch. There is strong guard play, depth and a new-found confidence at just the right time.

Picking between the two state powers is nearly impossible, proven by the fact the two split their two games this season. Curie beat Simeon 67-66 in December while Simeon won the rematch in February with a 79-69 win in the city semifinals.

Top contender: Don’t forget about Young. The perennial state power is more than capable of not only winning this sectional championship but a state title as well.

Don’t let the 18-9 record fool you with the national schedule coach Tyrone Slaughter puts together each year.

Everything starts with D.J. Steward when it comes to Young. He’s a bonafide superstar who puts up numbers and plays with poise and confidence. The Duke-bound guard has received ample support from a re-charged Tyler Beard, who parlayed a big senior year into a Georgetown scholarship.

Sleeper: There is quite a drop from the “Big Three” in this sectional to the next wave of teams, which includes the four and five seeds — York and Morton. Those two will likely square off in a regional final with the winner getting a shot at top-seeded Curie.

While the season has been quite clunky for Oak Park, the talent and the potential to spring an upset is there. Can the Huskies, led by the junior pair of Isaiah Barnes (18 ppg) and Josh Smith (18 ppg), rise to the occasion and meet the preseason expectations?

Difference-makers: Boy, does this sectional have some difference-makers. A couple of Player of the Year frontrunners headline the sectional as Young’s D.J. Steward (22.5 ppg) and Curie’s Ramean Hinton (17 ppg) are the catalysts for two of the top teams in Illinois.

Steward, with his prodigious talent, and Hinton, who plays with an unmatched fire and intensity, are players you can lean on heavily at crunch time and against the best teams.

Storyline to follow: Can the state’s lone McDonald’s All-American, D.J. Steward, lead his team to the forefront of the high school basketball world this March? Steward and the Dolphins are probably the best team no one talks about — or has been seen.

Young has played 14 out-of-state opponents this season, didn’t play in a high-profile holiday tournament in Illinois and were bounced out of the Public League playoffs in the quarterfinals. So there are some headlines to grab locally for Steward and the Dolphins this March.

Stat to know: The top three seeds in this sectional — Curie, Simeon and Young — have played in 14 state championship games and won 10 state titles since 2006.

Sectional semifinal picks: Curie over Morton; Simeon over Young

Sectional pick: Simeon

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