Seton Academy of South Holland won the Class 2A championship in 2009 and coach Brandon Thomas' Sting is favored again in 2012. But once-beaten Breese Central and unbeaten Byron look to be formidable threats.
Seton could be tested in the Herscher sectional by the host school. Another Chicago area school that could contend is Immaculate Conception. Other contenders are Normal University High, Teutopolis, Pinckneyville, Alton Marquette and Flora.
With four starters and 13 of 15 players returning from last year's 21-8 sectional finalist, Thomas believes his 2012 team is deeper than the state championship team. The Sting average more than 80 points per game.
Thomas concedes he doesn't have a player of superstar credentials like 2009 star D.J. Cooper but has more quickness and overall talent with junior Mark Weems (15 ppg), 6-foot-4 senior J.R. Tolliver (12 ppg), 6-foot-8 senior Russell Robinson (11 ppg, 8 rpg), junior guard Kamal Shasi (12 ppg) and senior guard Jordan Foster (9 ppg, 6 assists).
"The fact that we don't have a superstar player makes them believe more in the system rather than relying on one guy when we are in trouble," Thomas said. "Our kids are more mature this year. They believe they can win. I'm looking forward to seeing how we handle success."
Seton is battle-tested. The Sting has beaten Marist and Hope Academy but lost to Chicago Public League powers Orr and Farragut. Thomas, who once assisted Gary London at Hales Franciscan, is well aware of what can happen in a state tournament that often is unpredictable.
"I was at Hales Franciscan when we were the favorites to win it all one year," Thomas recalled. "We had JaVale McGee and Jerome Randle, two future pros, and we wound up losing to Herscher in the sectional. So it can happen."
Thomas must have a premonition of things to come. In Wednesday night's Class 2A regional semifinal, Seton barely got past Chicago University High 72-64 in double overtime. Russell Robinson had 23 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks while Mark Weems scored 16 points.
Seton (24-4) will meet tradition power Hales Franciscan in the regional final at University of Chicago's Ratner Center Gymnasium on Friday night.
Once again, Herscher awaits in the sectional. Coach Todd Schwarzkopf's 2010 team won 24 in a row before losing to Hales Franciscan in the sectional. Last year's team was 20-7 and lost to Paxton-Loda-Buckley in the regional final. But the 2012 team could be best of all.
Herscher has great size with the Ruckman twins, 6-foot-5 Jordan and Justin, and 6-foot-5 Ben Wenzelman, who averages 17 points per game. They make Herscher's 1-3-1 half-court trap defense very effective by playing on tap and on the wings. Spike Engelman is the floor leader.
Immaculate Conception, favored at the Lisle sectional, is enjoying its best season in school history. IC has never won a sectional and just won its first conference title since 1967. So coach Darren Howard has every reason to believe that this squad is capable of accomplishing even more.
The Elmhurst school is led by point guard John Cheng (15 ppg, 5 assists, 5 rpg), 6-foot-2 Brian Harvey (14 ppg, 8 rpg) and 6-foot-2 junior Demetrius Carr (16 ppg, 5 rpg), a transfer from St. Joseph. Lack of size--IC's tallest player is 6-foot-4--hasn't been a serious issue to date.
Breese Central, which is 27-1 and ranked No. 2 in the state, is in the lower bracket and could meet Seton in the semifinals in Peoria. Coach Stan Eagleson is in his 26th year. His 2010 team was 30-5 and finished fourth in the state after losing to Peoria Manual and Hales Franciscan. Last year's team was 30-3 and lost to Murphysboro in the supersectional.
Since 1996, Eagleson has been enormously successful. He has produced four teams that have won 30 or more games and eight that have won 20 or more games. How good is this year's team? "Potentially, this is the best team I have had," he said.
"We play good man-to-man defense and we feel we have the best player on the floor in 6-foot-6 senior Brandon Book," Eagleson said. "When he is on his game, he is as good as anyone the other team can put on the floor. He can post up but he also is our leading perimeter shooter."
Book, who averages 21 points and nine rebounds per game, is the leading scorer in school history. Other contributors are 6-foot sophomore point guard Jacob Timmermann (9 ppg, 4 assists), 5-foot-10 senior guard Nick Grapperhaus (9 ppg), 5-foot-10 junior guard Justin Becker and 6-foot-7 junior Kyler Scheer.
Becker is the team leader in steals and Sheer, who missed most of the season with a stress injury in his leg, has returned to give Breese Central two intimidating big men under the boards.
Breese Central's only loss was to Vianney of Kirkwood, Missouri, in January. Eagleson's team has beaten some of the best teams in his area, including Breese Mater Dei three times, Harrisburg and Flora. The Cougars likely will meet Breese Mater Dei in the regional final on Friday night.
How does Eagleson explain his success since 1996? "We've had a lot of great players since 1996, a nice run of good basketball players and good basketball players with good size, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 kids who can play," he said.
Eagleson also credits a feeder system developed in a consolidated school district and the stability of his coaching staff. Assistant Dave Thomas has been with him for 26 years. Junior varsity coach Jeremy Shubert for over 10 years and freshman coach Kurt Peters for over 15 years.
"The competition with Breese Mater Dei also makes us better, also with Carlyle, Trenton-Wesclin and Nashville," Eagleson said. "This is a strong area for high school basketball."
Byron, which competes in the South Beloit sectional in the upper bracket of the Class 2A playoff, is 27-0 and likely will have to get past Rockford Lutheran for a fourth time if it hopes to advance beyond the sectional for the first time in school history.
Byron has beaten Rockford Lutheran three times this season, the only losses the Rockford school has suffered in a 24-3 season. Byron beat Lutheran by one point on Feb. 4 on a buzzer-beating shot by Hunter Hill. Earlier, the Tigers beat Lutheran by four and 12.
In his fourth season, Byron coach Tom Schmidt has taken his program from 16-12 to 20-8 to 23-6 to 27-0. Last year's team lost to Rockford Christian in the sectional. This year's squad averages 66.4 points per game while allowing only 39.5.
Despite its success, Schmidt is looking for more. "Offensively, we still haven't played a complete game yet. We haven't put it together where everybody is making a shot," he said.
Schmidt returned six of his top eight players from last year's squad. There were high expectations and the Tigers have delivered. There is plenty of balance with five players averaging between nine and 12 points per game. They are unselfish, handle the ball well, shoot well, pass well and aren't afraid to share the ball.
"We have a few kids who can score 20 points per game but we don't have to," Schmidt said, dispelling the notion that a team must have at least one player of All-State stature to win a state championship.
Hunter Hill, a 5-foot-9 senior point guard and a three-year starter, makes the offense go. He averages 10.5 points and 5.5 assists per game. Others to watch are 6-foot-6 senior Collin Russell (12 ppg, 5 rpg), 6-foot-2 senior Ryan Hopkins (10 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Gavyn Nelson (10.5 ppg) and 6-foot-3 senior Logan Crull (9 ppg).
"Hill has been the consistent guy for us. He gets the ball where it has to be. Then one or two different guys step up," Schmidt said. "To continue to be successful, we need to continue to play the same type of defense (man-to-man and zone) we have been playing and execute on offense."
Another team to watch is Pinckneyville, which is 24-4 and has won 13 in a row but is unranked among the state's leading Class 2A teams. The Panthers are comparable to the 2006 and 2008 teams that finished fourth in the state tournament.
Coach Bob Waggoner's team, led by guards Hunter Queen and Brian Shute, will meet Trico (25-5) in the regional final at Pinckneyville on Friday night. Ironically, Trico is coached by Shane Hawkins, the greatest player in the long and distinguished history of Pinckneyville basketball.