Nearly everyone north of I-80 assumes Whitney Young or Simeon will win the Class 4A championship. Folks in southern Illinois were convinced Belleville East could challenge the favorites--until the fourth-ranked Lancers lost to 19-game loser O'Fallon.
So what about Edwardsville, a 28-game winner which has lost only twice this season--to Southwestern Conference rival Belleville East?
Coach Mike Waldo's Tigers crushed O'Fallon 59-38 in the sectional opener on Tuesday night and will face Rock Island (24-4) in the final on Friday night in Pekin. They have won 11 games in a row and 23 of their last 24. They are ranked No. 5 in Class 4A.
The winner of the Edwardsville/Rock Island game likely will face Bloom or Marian Catholic next Tuesday night in the super-sectional at Illinois State's Redbird Arena in Normal.
"There are no upsets at this time of the year," Waldo told the Edwardsville Intelligencer. "The biggest improvement we've shown in the last month is the fact that we've tried to get a good shot at the basket every trip down the floor. We're used to playing with each other now. Our guys have done a good job of trying to get better each day."
In his 30th year of coaching, the last 25 at Edwardsville, Waldo has won 603 games. He has taken three teams to the Elite Eight--in 1993, 1995 and 2006. And last year's team lost to Bloom 53-41 in the supersectional.
But, of all the good players he has produced over the years, his MVP is his wife Diane.
"I don't really care about the 600 wins," Waldo said. "What it does mean is I've got a great wife because I spend every ounce of time I want doing this. She takes care of the house, raised our boys and never laid a guilt trip on me one time. And obviously I've had a lot of good coaches and good players. The players win the game, the coach doesn't."
Whether this year's team is best of all is yet to be determined. Waldo returned four starters from last year's 24-6 squad. Could they be better than the 30-1 team that lost to Marshall in the 2006 quarterfinals? Do old-timers think they are better than Joe Lucco's 1956 team that lost to West Rockford 67-65 for the state championship?
The strength of this team is three 6-foot-5 seniors who are key factors in the Tigers' 1-3-1 zone defense and give them a dominant rebounding edge. Western Illinois-bound Garret Covington averages 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Tre Harris averages 17.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. And three-sport standout Drew Curtis averages 5.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
The other starters are 6-foot junior point guard Shawn Roundtree (9.8 ppg, 9.3 apg) and 6-foot-5 junior Armon Fletcher (9.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg). Roundtree has picked up his offensive production in the postseason, averaging more than 12 points per game.
"Roundtree is kind of an unsung hero," O'Fallon coach Rick Gibson told the Belleville News-Democrat. "He does so much for them--handling the ball and just getting their offense started. They like to run so many things and he's the one that gets it to Harris and Covington in the right spots to score. And Curtis, at any given time, can knock down a shot to hurt you."
In Tuesday night's rout of O'Fallon, which marked the third time Edwardsville has beaten the Panthers this season, Roundtree scored 16 points and Harris added 13, Covington and Fletcher 11 each. The Tigers scored 12 of the first 14 points in the third quarter to break away.
"I think we're in a great position right now," Harris told the Edwardsville Intelligencer. "We're doing some great things. The guys are real hungry. We set goals at the beginning of the season, carried them out during the season and we know what we need to do to achieve those goals."
Covington and Harris each has scored more than 1,000 points in his career, matching the achievements of Don Ohl and Bob Gregor of the 1954 team that finished fourth in the state tournament, Mannie Jackson and Govoner Vaughn of the 1956 state runner-up, and Joe Blasingim and Jason Heien in 1991.
Edwardsville is a school with great basketball tradition, from Joe Lucco to all-time leading scorer Greg Ahart to Jackson to Vaughn to Ohl to Gregor to Tom Dezort to Paul Schaefer to Jimmie Dougherty to Waldo.
However, as a member of the Southwestern Conference, the school usually played in the shadow of Vergil Fletcher and his Collinsville Kahoks.
But that was then and this is now. Edwardsville is primed to make its first trip to the Final Four since 1956.
"Everyone is that locker room is motivated to get to where we were lat year at the supersectional," Roundtree told the Edwardsville Intelligencer. "But we need to get past that. That's the motivations and it's the postseason so you can't hold anything back. All of us are upping our games because it is crucial. If we don't, then we'll have to go home with regrets and we don't want to do that."