March is the time of year when basketball reigns supreme — hence the moniker March Madness.
But while you are focused on your NCAA Tournament brackets, crossing your fingers and hoping you win your office pool, it’s easy to forget the origins of the words March Madness. They originated in our own back yard, a phrase the Illinois High School Association coined years ago to describe their own state basketball tournament.
If you’ve been lucky enough to visit Peoria’s Civic Center in the last 20 years, or Champaign’s State Farm Center before that, you will understand the lore of the Illinois state basketball tournament.
Here are some past greats the state of Illinois has produced in the sport of basketball, many of them playing on the state stage during high school: Isaiah Thomas (Westchester St. Joseph), Quinn Buckner (Thornridge), Maurice Cheeks (Chicago Du Sable), Terry Cummings (Chicago Carver), Nick Anderson (Chicago Simeon), Michael Finley (Proviso East), Harry Gallatin (Roxana), Tim Hardaway (Chicago Carver), Kevin Garnett (Chicago Farragut), Hersey Hawkins (Chicago Westinghouse), Jeff Hornecek (LaGrange Lyons), Juwan Howard (Chicago Vocational), George Mikan (Archbishop Quigley Prep), Andy Phillip (Granite City), Jerry Sloan (McLeansboro) and Antoine Walker (Chicago Mount Carmel).
Those are just the names of the past, that’s not mentioning the tons of NBA and college standouts right now. There are NBA standouts like Anthony Davis (Chicago Perspective Charter), Derek Rose (Chicago Simeon), Jabari Parker (Chicago Simeon), Dwayne Wade (Oak Lawn Richards), Andre Iguodala (Springfield Lanphier) and Patrick Beverly (Chicago Marshall).
In college there are current standouts like Frank Kaminsky (Benet Academy), Jahlil Okafor (Chicago Whitney Young), Fred VanVleet (Rockford Auburn), Chasson Randle (Rock Island), Tyler Ulis (Marian Catholic), Cliff Alexander (Chicago Curie) and Rayvonte Rice (Champaign Centennial).
I visited Peoria this past weekend for the Class 3A and 4A state tournament like I have been doing since 1999. I’ve missed a couple along the way, but it’s a trip I try to make more often than not. I go with a few buddies and we make a weekend out of it, checking out local restaurants and taking in some top-notch basketball.
I’ve even had the opportunity to cover the tournament a couple of times, enjoying the opportunity to see players like Parker and Okafor from the sidelines along with current Illinois phenom Jalen Brunson (Lincolnshire Stevenson), bound for Villanova next year.
I watched Brunson pour in a record 57 points from the sidelines as Stevenson fell to Okafor’s Whitney Young in the semifinals last year. That’s 57 points in 32 minutes; not too shabby.
This was finally Brunson’s year with Parker and Okafor gone, as the Patriots bested Normal Community 57-40 in the 4A finals. Brunson scored 30 in the state final, setting a new 4A title game record. Stevenson’s 4A boys’ basketball title to go with its 8A football championship from the fall completed a rare and monumental feat with both titles in the bag.
With Normal reaching the state finals, the Alton Redbirds can at least boast they ended their season losing to the state runner-up.
Overall, it was a great weekend for basketball in Peoria, like always. Chicago Morgan Park’s Marcus LoVett Jr. netted 45 in Friday’s semifinal vs. Belleville Althoff, setting a new 3A benchmark. LoVett hasn’t committed to play in college yet, but Illinois head coach John Groce was on hand watching the talented guard, so let’s cross our fingers the Fighting Illini can ink him.
Normal’s Alex Peacock hasn’t signed yet either and has SIUE on his list of possible schools. Peacock would be a wonderful addition to the Cougars.
As for those Althoff Crusaders, they have a young squad, with sophomore Jordan Goodwin making first-team all-state this season. They lost to Westchester St. Joseph 67-63 in the title tilt, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Crusaders back in Peoria over the next couple of years.
Like Alton, the Civic Memorial Eagles can say their season ended to the state’s runner-up squad, as the Eagles lost to Althoff in the 3A Carbondale Sectional semis.
Peoria will continue to be the spot for state for at least the next five years. That announcement was made on Saturday to the delight of the crowd. I was happy to see it stay in Peoria.
Just remember the next time you hear the words March Madness that the NCAA is piggybacking off our own Land of Lincoln, where basketball is still the top draw in the month of March.
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