All eyes on Curie, Bloom as loaded Class 4A IHSA state playoffs begin


March Madness is finally here.

The IHSA boys basketball state playoffs begin in Class 3A and 4A this week. The next three weeks will provide plenty of huge matchups and memorable finishes as the best time of the year is here.

Here's a look at five major storylines to follow in Class 4A. We also took a look at some storylines to follow in Class 3A on Monday.

And be sure to catch an all-new High School Lites on Friday night at 11 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago. The show will feature regional title matchups from all over the state as well as Class 3A and Class 4A girls basketball state finals coverage from Redbird Arena.

1. Can an area team capture the Class 4A title after Belleville West's dominance

E.J. Liddell and Belleville West steamrolled Class 4A the past two seasons.

But now that Liddell has graduated and moved on to Ohio State, this 4A field is a lot more wide open.

Chicago-area teams have generally dominated the Class 4A proceedings since the IHSA started this system in 2007-08. In fact, Belleville West was the first non-Chicago-area school to win the Class 4A title when they did so in 2018. 

Despite the two-year drought, this season will likely see the Class 4A title return to the Chicagoland area.

There are a couple of downstate teams like Collinsville and O'Fallon currently residing in the AP's latest statewide top-10 poll. Against Chicagoland competition this season, neither of those teams have stacked up.

Collinsville went 28-3 and are led by a strong senior guard in Ray'Sean Taylor. The Kahoks won the very tough Southwestern Conference and have played a rugged schedule against Illinois and Missouri competition. But Taylor, for as good as he's been this season, averaging 23.8 points per game, isn't nearly as daunting as the two-way force that Liddell was. Collinsville also lost its high-profile matchup against Simeon a month ago to cast some doubts about its title credibility as well.

O'Fallon had a strong season as well at 24-6. But the Panthers could run into a strong No. 3 sub-sectional seed in Edwardsville just for a regional title. The bracket also aligns where Collinsville and O'Fallon would meet in the sectional semifinals if the two won their regionals. And O'Fallon's only notable game against a Chicagoland team was a loss to Mundelein -- a team that isn't even considered among the top dozen in the area this season.

So while the Pekin Sectional will produce a worthy contender for the state title, that contender isn't nearly the same caliber that we've seen from Belleville West, or even Belleville Althoff in Class 3A, from the past five years. 

2. Will Curie close and win the 4A title after coming so close last season?

Last season ended in disappointment for Curie.

Nationally-ranked for most of the season, the Condors settled for third place in Class 4A after falling to eventual-champion Belleville West in the state semifinals.

This season, Curie surpassed everyone's expectations by vaulting back up to No. 1 in our Preps Power Rankings for most of the season. Even though the Condors started the season at No. 4 in the NBC Sports Chicago Preps Power Rankings, nobody could have seen a season like this coming after last season's national breakthrough. Particularly when first-team All-Area selection DaJuan Gordon graduated and moved on to Kansas State.

Senior Ramean Hinton leads this year's deep-and-balanced squad that features contributors from all over the lineup. Elijah Pickens and Nick Owens help orchestrate the offense while the interior features plenty of production from players like Saiveon Williams. The Condors have survived one of the toughest schedules in the state with an impressive 26-2 record, losing only to Simeon among in-state opponents.

And even in the midst of a scandal that has put head coach Mike Oliver away from the team over the last month of the season, Curie has continued to win big games -- including a massive road win over Class 3A state-title contender Notre Dame to close the regular season.

Getting back to Peoria won't be easy though. Curie has to get through the sheer brutality of the Lyons Sectional where they could face city rivals Simeon (who eliminated the Condors in the semifinals of the Public League Playoffs) or Whitney Young for a sectional title. If York's Nate Shockey, the team's best player, returns from mono for the state playoffs then the Dukes are also potentially a tough draw in the sectional semifinals.

Curie also has to (seemingly) do all of this without Oliver. Their postseason run, just like last year, will be fascinating to follow. 

3. Does No. 1 Bloom live up to the preseason hype?

All eyes will be on No. 1 Bloom as they host their own sectional and have huge expectations to reach Peoria. This is the season this group of seniors has been waiting for.

The quartet of Dante Maddox Jr., Donovan Newby, Martice Mitchell and Keshawn Williams has played a LOT of varsity minutes together over the past several seasons. The addition of Christian Shumate to the lineup this season means the Blazing Trojans are a rare public high school with five legitimate Division I prospects in the starting lineup. 

The road to reach the final four is going to be brutal though. The south suburbs are as loaded as they've been in years. The No. 2 team in our Preps Power Rankings is Thornton -- who also doubles as the No. 2 seed in the Bloom Sectional. The two Southland conference rivals split the regular-season series, playing both games in front of huge crowds to a ton of hype.

Bloom will also have to contend with a dangerous No. 3 and No. 4 seed in Homewood-Flossmoor and Marian Catholic -- respectively. The Vikings have hovered around the top ten of our Preps Power Rankings for much of this season while Ahron Ulis-led Marian Catholic has steadily been ranked in the top 15. 

And even if Bloom survives its own loaded sectional, the winner of that gauntlet has to contend with the winner of the Lyons Sectional. It means the best team from the south suburbs will potentially have to battle the best among Curie (who beat Bloom for the title at Pontiac), Simeon and Whitney Young. Two top-five teams battling for a spot in Peoria might be the best game of the state playoffs.

Bloom has more talent in its starting lineup than any team in the state this season. Can a fun and special group close a storied career with a state title? 

4. Stevenson's potential journey to Peoria after big preseason expectations

Entering the 2019-20 season, Stevenson had massive expectations following a close supersectional loss to Evanston last season.

The Patriots returned nearly everyone of importance from that team. Head coach Pat Ambrose remains one of the state's premiere coaches. Preseason, Stevenson was ranked in the top five in the Chicagoland-area by multiple publications.

Then Stevenson lost three games before 2020 and seemingly fell off the state-title radar. Struggling against the length and athleticism of OPRF, Homewood-Flossmoor and Marian Catholic, there were question marks about Stevenson's title hopes entering the new year.

Very quietly over the last two months, Stevenson has figured things out. The Patriots only have one loss since holiday tournament time -- an upset loss to Lake Forest they later avenged. Most importantly, Stevenson proved it could beat strong competition by sweeping a top-20 caliber team in Mundelein to help capture the North Suburban Conference title.

There are still questions as to how Stevenson will handle opponents with better length and athleticism -- particularly on the perimeter. But as the No. 1 seed in the Prospect Sectional, the Patriots don't have a lot of teams in that grouping who will give them serious problems. Mundelein is the No. 2 seed they've and Stevenson has already beaten them twice. Zion-Benton is a dangerous No. 5 seed for Stevenson, from a matchup perspective, but the up-and-down Zee-Bees have to reach the sectional semifinals first. 

And Stevenson has ample shooters to compete with any team in the state if they get hot from the perimeter. Matthew Ambrose remains a tough cover from three. Evan Ambrose is a steady lead guard. R.J. Holmes is one of the better athletes in the Prospect Sectional. The Patriots have a lot of talent that's been successful at the varsity level -- even if this group lacks the Division I offers of other teams.

The stars are aligning for another deep Stevenson tournament run as long as the shots continue to fall. 

5. The Lockport Sectional feels unpredictable

The Class 4A field in 2020 features a handful of sectionals that are difficult to predict.

As mentioned above, the Bloom and Lyons Sectionals have multiple top-ten teams beating up on each other. Although the Addison Trail Sectional lacks a team ranked in our area Preps Power Rankings, it could make for a bracket-busting sectional thanks to so many teams being evenly matched.

But the Lockport Sectional is particularly compelling this season. This is especially the case among the top three seeds. The No. 1 seed is Joliet West as the Tigers are one of the state's biggest surprises this season. 

Unbeaten in the Southwest Prairie during the season, Joliet West went an impressive 26-4. Even when facing injuries to multiple starters, including breakout guard Jamere Hill, the Tigers kept rattling off wins. With only one win against a top-25 team in 2020, however, Joliet West hasn't exactly played the most difficult schedule heading into the postseason. Seeing how this young team handles the pressure of big postseason games is something to monitor.

The No. 2 seed, Bolingbrook, has also been hard to get a read on this season. Some games, the Raiders show off their talent by running past ranked opponents and winning huge games -- including a notable win over conference rival H-F to close out the regular season. Other games, Bolingbrook comes out sluggish and loses to unranked teams like Lincoln-Way Central and Neuqua Valley. Senior guard Darius Burford is a force, and he has plenty of talent around him. But can Bolingbrook be consistent enough over a long stretch to make another Peoria run under Rob Brost?

And don't count out No. 3 seed Waubonsie Valley. Although junior Ben Schweiger will likely need to return from injury for the Warriors to be a sleeper contender to reach Peoria, the Warriors are playing well without him the last several weeks. And Schweiger could rejoin the team shortly if his status improves. Senior Marcus Skeete has played his way into the All-Area discussion with his stellar all-around play. When Waubonsie Valley is on, they can hang with most teams in the area, as evidenced by a surprising blowout win over Marian Catholic earlier this season. Their overall outlook could depend on getting healthy for the stretch run.

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