As we inch closer to the start of the Class 4A playoffs, which begin on Monday with regional semifinal play, the excitement is beginning to build for the end of the high school season and the quest for a state championship.
While we've seen a number of strong teams during a great year of Illinois high school basketball, there are four teams that are really standing out as the favorites in Class 4A.
Those four teams are Curie, Marian Catholic, Stevenson and Whitney Young.
The fantastic four also happen to sit atop the latest CSN Preps Power Rankings, but all season, these four teams have consistently showed that they are the favorites to win. Curie (2), Whitney Young (18) and Stevenson (23) are also all ranked in the USA Today's national top 25, and Marian Catholic has been nationally ranked as well at points during the season.
Here's a look at each of Class 4A's fantastic four and why they're the top teams heading into a great playoff field. CSNChicago.com will have plenty more coverage of the Class 4A playoffs, as well as the Class 3A, 2A and 1A playoffs early next week and throughout the month of March.
CSN Power Ranking: 1
Profile: 24-1 (10-0, Public League Red-Central), Pontiac Holiday Tournament champions, Public League Playoff champions
Key wins: National No. 3 Montverde (FL), Whitney Young, Simeon (twice), West Aurora, North Chicago, St. Rita, Bishop Gorman (NV)
Key losses: Muskegon (MI) — without Cliff Alexander
Key player: CSN Preps Player of the Year frontrunner Cliff Alexander is having a ridiculous season at center for the Condors as the 6-foot-8 senior is a force on both ends of the floor. The McDonald's All-American and Kansas commit is virtually unguardable at the high school level and Curie is undefeated when he plays this season.
Supporting guys to watch: Brothers Joseph and Joshua Stamps — a senior and junior, respectively — are both talented wing players with the ability to knock down shots or attack the basket. Joseph Stamps led the Condors in scoring during the city championship win over Whitney Young and can get hot in a hurry. Sophomore guard Devin Gage is also a talented starter for the Condors.
Teams that could get in the way to Peoria: King and Marist don't have the players to stop Alexander in regional play, but the Marist Sectional is ridiculously loaded as No. 4 St. Rita and No. 5 Mount Carmel could face Curie in the sectional semifinal. If Curie gets to the Marist Sectional title game, either No. 2 Whitney Young or No. 3 Simeon is the likely opponent. If Mike Oliver and company reach the Supersectional, Loyola, Maine South and Evanston are teams the Condors could potentially face.
CSN Power Ranking: 3
Profile: 23-2 (7-0, East Suburban Catholic Conference), McDipper Holiday Tournament champions, East Suburban Catholic Conference champions
Key wins: Thornwood, Benet, Thornton, St. Viator, Lake Forest
Key losses: Etiwanda (CA), Stevenson
Key player: Senior point guard Tyler Ulis is a McDonald's All-American and Kentucky commit and he's one of the better floor generals we've seen in the area in the last decade. Ulis' command of the point guard position is astounding and his basketball IQ makes everyone on the Spartans better on both ends of the floor. Besides being a tremendous passer with great vision, Ulis can also knock in shots from anywhere on the floor and is among the state's most clutch performers at the free throw line.
Supporting guys to watch: This is a senior-laden Spartans team that has 10 seniors on the roster, led by tough guard Ki-Jana Crawford, shooter Josh Cohn and forwards John Oliver and Army commit Terrone Parham. Ulis consistently puts these guys in position to make plays for themselves and Marian Catholic can really put up points in a hurry.
Teams that could get in the way to Peoria: The Spartans face minimal threats in regional play, but things get interesting in the Thornton Sectional semifinal as Bloom or Joliet Central could face Marian Catholic. Thornwood and Thornton are the two teams that are most likely to face Marian Catholic for the sectional title and if it were Thornton, they would get a homecourt edge. In supersectional play, a rematch with Edwardsville could happen as Marian Catholic fell to the downstate power in this same matchup in supersectionals last season. Edwardsville beat Marian Catholic 68-49 last season.
CSN Power Ranking: 2
Profile: 26-1 (11-1, North Suburban Lake), Proviso West Holiday Tournament champions, North Suburban Conference champions, 2013 Class 4A state runner-up.
Key wins: Morton, St. Joseph, Morgan Park, Zion-Benton, Lake Forest (twice), Marian Catholic, Benet, Simeon, North Chicago
Key losses: Zion-Benton — without Matt Johnson
Key player: Stevenson doesn't have a McDonald's All-American in the 2014 game like the other three teams on this list, but junior point guard Jalen Brunson will be a legitimate candidate to be a Burger Boy next year when he's a senior. The smooth, lefty floor leader can score and distribute and he's improved on the defensive end as well. With recent games of 56 points in a double-overtime win over Lake Forest and 39 in the NSC championship win over North Chicago, Brunson is feeling it as we get into March.
Supporting guys to watch: Two other juniors flank Brunson on the wing as Connor Cashaw and Matt Johnson are both having tremendous seasons on the perimeter. When Johnson plays, Stevenson is undefeated on the season. Matt Morrissey, a Michigan State football commit, is the Patriots' only senior to receive consistent minutes and he's a tough defender and role guy while 6-foot-5 junior Parker Nichols has had a solid season on the interior.
Teams that could get in the way to Peoria: Stevenson couldn't put Warren away until the final possession of a game back in December, and the Patriots could face the Blue Devils in the regional championship. Zion-Benton — who split with the Patriots during the regular season — or St. Viator could face Stevenson in the sectional semifinal while unbeaten Fremd and Lake Forest could be the Patriots' opponent in the Lake Zurich Sectional Championship. If Stevenson makes the supersectional at NIU, Larkin, Rockford Boylan and Rockford Auburn are the teams they could potentially face.
CSN Power Ranking: 4
Profile: 21-6 (9-0, Public League Red-West), Public League Red-West champions, Runner-up for city championship, third place City of Palms Classic
Key wins: National No. 9 Oak Hill (VA), national No. 11 Prime Prep (TX), national No. 22 Apple Valley (MN), national No. 24 Providence School (FL), Morgan Park, Orr (twice)
Key losses: National No. 1 Mater Dei (CA), national No. 4 Rainer Beach, Curie
Key player: Jahlil Okafor is considered by many to be the top basketball prospect in the country in the senior class, and the 6-foot-10 center will join Alexander and Ulis at the McDonald's All-American game. Okafor commands double teams every time he touches the ball and he's a premier rebounder thanks to his great hands. Okafor and the Dolphins would love to cement their high school legacy with a state championship.
Supporting guys to watch: Senior forward Paul White (Georgetown) and senior guard Miles Reynolds (Saint Louis) are both All-Area candidates and have a ton of varsity experience, and senior Erwin Henry has made a lot of big plays this season when the Dolphins needed someone else to step up besides its big three. Whitney Young has played a ridiculous seven teams in the USA Today's top 25 and their whole team is used to playing in big games by this point in the season.
Teams that could get in the way to Peoria: Facing De La Salle in the Whitney Young Regional title game will be no cake-walk as the Meteors just won the Catholic League Tournament title. The Marist Sectional is very deep and No. 3 Simeon looms as the potential sectional semifinal matchup while No. 1 Curie, No. 4 St. Rita and No. 5 Mount Carmel could all face Whitney Young for the sectional title. If the Dolphins reach the supersectional, Loyola, Maine South and Evanston are teams they could potentially face.