Here's why 2020 is the deepest year ever in the IHSA Class 3A state playoffs


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 3A. We'll also have a look at some storylines to follow in Class 4A on Tuesday.

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. This is the deepest Class 3A field in IHSA state playoff history

Let's be honest here for a second: the Class 3A field has always been an afterthought. Since the IHSA boys basketball state playoffs moved from two classes to four beginning in the 2007-08 season, Class 4A has overshadowed Class 3A by a wide margin nearly every single year.

It's not that Class 3A didn't have some truly great juggernaut teams that couldn't compete with anyone in the state. Look at what consistent Class 3A programs like Morgan Park and Bogan have accomplished over the past decade. 

This season there are legitimately numerous state-title contenders in Class 3A. Eight of the current top 25 teams in the latest NBC Sports Chicago Preps Power Rankings are in the Class 3A playoffs — the highest total in the poll's seven-year history entering the postseason. And that doesn't even include highly-touted local teams like Oak Forest and Kankakee who are just outside of our top 25.

And then there's the out-of-area competition. Peoria Notre Dame, Galesburg, Lincoln and Rock Island were all in the top 10 in the latest AP Class 3A state poll. Defending Class 3A champion East St. Louis also remains dangerous. 

So the moral of the story here is not to sleep on Class 3A this March. The overall depth and talent still isn't as good as Class 4A. But the classes are as close together as they've ever been and it should make for some wildly entertaining basketball.


2. Can defending champion East St. Louis make another run?

It was a lot of fun to see East St. Louis basketball rise up and claim the Class 3A state title last season. After making five trips to state over an eight-season span from 1999-2006, the Flyers hadn't achieved state-wide success since that dominant stretch until last season's state title.

Although the defending-champion Flyers come into this postseason at a modest 18-11, they're improving as the season rolls along. East St. Louis started the season at 3-4. Mark Chambers' group had to figure out how to play without graduated star forward Terrence Hargrove Jr.

The good news is that there is still plenty of talent around from last season's title team. Guard Jashawn Anderson has elevated in a double-figure scorer. Big man Armond Williams is one of the better post presences in the entire Class 3A field. And leading scorer LaShawn Johnson has added some additional scoring pop from the perimeter.

Unlike last season's star-driven outfit, this East St. Louis team relies on balanced scoring. Five different players average between 11.7 points and 9.2 points per game. So if East St. Louis is to make a Class 3A run like last season, one of its starters (or maybe a few) have to get hot at the right time.

But as a No. 2 sub-sectional seed in a winnable Mt. Vernon Sectional, East St. Louis is still a credible threat. Although the Flyers didn't play much Chicagoland competition this season, they tested themselves plenty with the loaded Southwestern Conference and a handful of games against the top teams in St. Louis.

Don't be surprised if East St. Louis makes another deep postseason run despite its sluggish start to the season. 

3. Are Morgan Park and Bogan on another 3A collision course?

The Class 3A state playoffs have often been measured locally by the nearly-annual slugfest between classic Red-South rivals Bogan and Morgan Park.

Five times over the past six years, these two teams have clashed in the Class 3A state playoffs. Morgan Park had the upper hand by winning the first four matchups. Last season saw a breakthrough from Bogan as the Bengals knocked out their bitter rivals on their way to a second-place finish in Peoria.


2019: 85-78 Bogan

2018: 101-71 Morgan Park

2017: DNP

2016: 73-59 Morgan Park

2015: 73-66 Morgan Park

2014: 68-67 Morgan Park


This season looks to be no different. 

Bogan is the No. 1 seed and the favorite in the Hinsdale South Sectional. Morgan Park is also a No. 1 seed and favorite in the Thornridge Sectional. That would mean these two top-ten teams could potentially meet again in Supersectional play with the matchup coming at the Sears Centre this year.

Of course, as noted above, the Class 3A field is deeper and more talented than ever before. Bogan will have to contend with ranked teams like Hinsdale South and Benet in their sectional. The Mustangs have to get past an even tougher sectional grouping that includes Hillcrest, Oak Forest and Kankakee.

But the star power, overall talent and coaching pedigree is once again in place for these two storied rivals to meet in March. The Bengals are led by Antione Bloxton as the scoring guard has put up big scoring numbers this season. Morgan Park counters with the trio of Illinois commit Adam Miller, Wake Forest commit Marcus Watson Jr. and wing Brandon Weston. 

Bogan won the conference matchup at home between these two teams during the regular season with a 71-68 win back on Dec. 3. That game was also three months ago and a lot has changed since then. It'll be fascinating to see what kind of drama unfolds if these two play each other in the postseason again. 


4. Can Notre Dame make a splash as a Class 3A newcomer?

Perhaps the favorite in Class 3A this season is Notre Dame. And, to be clear, I'm talking the local Notre Dame from Niles. Peoria Notre Dame is also a major factor down South in 3A with only one loss all season.

The Dons, however, have placed themselves firmly in the top-ten picture of our Preps Power Rankings this season behind a powerful trio of juniors. Anthony Sayles, Troy D'Amico and Louis Lesmond are one of the best three-headed monsters in all of Illinois. All three are major Division I prospects with numerous attention from mid-major and above.

That group has led Notre Dame to numerous impressive wins this season. Playing one of the state's toughest schedules, the Dons earned notable wins over Class 3A powerhouses Bogan (without Anthony Sayles) and Morgan Park during the regular season. Head coach Kevin Clancy also has an admirable supporting cast which is highlighted by senior forward Jason Bergstrom. 

The question for Notre Dame will be consistency. When the Dons are on, they can beat any team (in any class) in the state. There have also been games where Notre Dame's offense has been frustrated into bad shots and inconsistent play, as evidenced by low-scoring losses to Loyola and Benet.

Generally speaking, talent is what counts in the state tournament though. Notre Dame has plenty of talent. The Grayslake North Sectional, of which Notre Dame is No. 1 seed, is also the easiest of the 3A sectionals. Not a single other team in that draw has been ranked in our Preps Power Rankings this season. Notre Dame beat No. 2 seed and rival St. Patrick by 15 points during the regular season. 

So with a favorable draw and as much talent as any team in Class 3A, Notre Dame could capture a state title this season -- with its three best players all returning for next season.


5. Are Oak Forest and Kankakee credible threats after playing light schedules?

The two most fascinating teams in the Class 3A playoffs could be Oak Forest and Kankakee.

Both programs put up gaudy records this season and spent a good chunk of time in our Preps Power Rankings. Both programs feature credible talent, and plenty of length and athleticism to go along with solid coaching.

But the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds of the Thornridge Sectional have gone relatively untested this season. Neither program notched anywhere close to a top-25 caliber win.

Oak Forest finished 26-3 and split the South Suburban Blue conference title with Hillcrest. The Bengals feature a Division I prospect in senior Jayson Kent and one of the state's top sophomores in forward Robbie Avila. Juan Avila, Robbie's older brother, is also a proven talent at the varsity level as he rounds out a strong trio.

How good are the Bengals though? Oak Forest only had seven wins against programs with 20 or more wins this season. None of those wins came against a Class 3A or 4A school with a postseason seed above a No. 5. Oak Forest's best wins this season came against Eisenhower, Richards, Crane and Oak Lawn. 

Although Oak Forest was respectable in late-season losses to Curie and Hillcrest, the Bengals haven't beaten a team remotely resembling to a state title contender.

The regular-season profile is even worse for No. 3 seed Kankakee. The Kays finished with a 24-4 record on the season. It's notable that all four losses for Kankakee came against the top two teams in the area this season — No. 1 Bloom and No. 2 Thornton in conference play.

Incredibly, Kankakee only has one win over a program with 20 or more wins this season, and it came against St. Anne, a team eliminated in the Class 1A regional semifinals. The Kays only beat six teams above .500 all season. Only four of those above-.500 wins came from Illinois competition. 

Senior Lavell McIntosh has been one of the area's breakout players this season. Senior Deylon Johnson and juniors Rashard Harris and A.J. Storr were also Southland all-conference selections. Clearly, Kankakee, much like Oak Forest, has a lot of talent at its disposal.

But during a state tournament that requires teams to beat multiple quality opponents to make it anywhere, Oak Forest and Kankakee are the ultimate unknowns. Both teams have top-25 caliber talent with massively underwhelming regular-season profiles.

March will show us if these two teams are for real.

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