The term “March Madness” is synonymous with college basketball, but that’s not where the phrase originated. The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) boasts credit for that.
An essay entitled “March Madness” was published in the IHSA’s magazine, Illinois Interscholastic, in 1939. It was written by Henry V. Porter, assistant executive secretary of the IHSA at the time, to commemorate what he thought was a fantastic state basketball tournament. That’s just what it remains to be today.
I first attended the Class AA boys’ basketball tournament at Peoria’s Carver Arena in 1999, long before I began covering prep sports for a living. I’ve made it almost every year since with my same group of friends.
I’ve seen a slew of outstanding basketball players, including six who are currently in the NBA. Patrick Beverley of the Houston Rockets was there with Chicago Marshall. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are both with the Golden State Warriors, but prior to that they played in Peoria with Springfield Lanphier and Peoria Central respectively.
I’ve also seen the big three of Jahlil Okafor (Philadelphia 76ers), Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks) and Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls). Okafor won a 4A state title with Chicago Whitney Young, while Rose won two AA championships with Chicago Simeon and Parker secured four 4A crowns with Simeon.
I’ve also seen now former NBA players like: Eddy Curry (South Holland Thornwood), Justin Dentmon (Carbondale), Darius Miles (East St. Louis), Leon Smith (Chicago King), Justin Williams (South Holland Thornwood) and Julian Wright (Homewood-Flossmoor).
The NCAA Tournament this year has had some standouts who cut their teeth in Peoria at the 3A/4A state tournament, too. Wichita State’s Fred Van Vleet (Rockford Auburn) and Butler’s Roosevelt Jones (O’Fallon) have already bowed out, but Villanova’s Jalen Brunson (Lincolnshire Stevenson) advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
Brunson, a freshman, is looking to be like Okafor and follow up an IHSA title with some NCAA gold. Okafor’s Whitney Young squad won the 4A title in 2014 and his Duke team won the NCAA title in ‘15. Brunson won the 4A crown with Stevenson in ‘15 after being shut down by Okafor in ‘14 in the semifinals and Parker’s Simeon team in the finals in ‘13.
The ‘16 edition of the 3A/4A state tournament didn’t disappoint either. For the first time in the city of Belleville’s history, it can boast a state basketball championship. The Althoff Crusaders corralled the 3A title, whooping Lincoln-Way West 62-37 in the finals. Althoff will now bump up to 4A competition during the ‘16-17 season due to the success factor of playing in back-to-back state title games.
It was satisfying to me because it was the first time I’d seen a team in the southern half of the state win a large school championship. Sure, I’ve seen Peoria Central with Livingston win a couple and Champaign Centennial nab one with Rayvonte Rice, who went on to star at the University of Illinois, but that’s not southern Illinois to me. After all, I’m not from the elitist state of Chicago that thinks everything south of I-80 is southern Illinois.
The last time someone south of the upper-central portion of the state won a large school crown it was the great East St. Louis Lincoln in 1989, starring LaPhonso Ellis and Cuonzo Martin under the direction of Bennie Lewis. Lincoln bested Peoria High 59-57 in three overtimes to garner that title. That capped three straight AA state titles for Lincoln.
Althoff finished second in 3A a year ago, losing to Westchester St. Joseph in the title tilt, 67-63. This season the Crusaders slipped by St. Joe’s 66-62 in the semifinals.
The head coach of St. Joe’s, Gene Pingatore, knows something about “March Madness” in Illinois. This season was his 49th at the helm of the Chargers. Pingatore was the high school coach for Isaiah Thomas when he went to St. Joe’s in the 1970s.
Althoff become the first large-school state champ to hoist its trophy at Carver Arena in Peoria, too. Lincoln won its championships at Champaign’s Assembly Hall, now the State Farm Arena.
I prefer the tournament in Peoria. Though I never attended one in Champaign (the state tournament moved to Peoria in 1996), I know the location of State Farm Arena and there is much more entertainment encompassing Carver Arena in downtown Peoria.
If you get a chance, make the trip north for the 3A/4A state title. It’s a fun weekend and even if you don’t get to see the next big college or NBA star, it’s great basketball with plenty to do to fill in the gaps in between.
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