Gibault High basketball coach Dennis Rueter said the Marquette Explorers are "out there by themselves" when it comes to sizing up teams at the Freeburg-Columbia Holiday Tournament.
The tourney kicks off at noon Wednesday at Freeburg High School.
The top-seeded Explorers (6-2) certainly look the part of a defending tourney champion with the most experienced team and best player (6-foot-6 senior Jake Coddington) at the 2013 event.
"I don't think there's too much question there's some pretty pronounced gaps between categories of teams," Rueter said. "They can get beat, but it's going to be a pretty big upset if they do."
Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom also heaped praise on the Explorers, who return nearly every starter from a 28-3 team that lost 41-36 to defending 2A state champ Central in the sectional.
"I don't think there's too much of a chance for anybody," said Sandstrom, whose team lost to Marquette in the 2011 tourney championship. "Somebody's going to have to play an awful good game and (Marquette) is going to have to be off."
Marquette coach Steve Medford doesn't believe his team will plow through this tourney field quite as easily as his coaching brethren are suggesting.
"We haven't been healthy," Medford said. "We have had maybe a handful of practices this year where we've had all of our top guys healthy. There's going to be a lot of good teams in there. This is a tournament we feel like we can win and we're the top seed, but if you don't play good basketball and play the right way, you won't win anything."
Medford expects 6-3 senior Sam Scheiter to return from an ankle injury, adding another weapon to a star-studded cast led by Coddington (17.4 points, 8.6 rebounds per game), Deion Lavender (13.9 ppg) and D'Tae McMurray (12.4 ppg, 21 3-pointers).
The Explorers only losses are 56-54 to Dickson County (Tenn.) and 62-53 to Southern Illinois Class 2A powerhouse Harrisburg.
The 6-foot-6 Coddington is a "matchup nightmare" according to Sandstrom and a definite force to be reckoned with. He's receiving Division II recruiting interest from schools like McKendree, Quincy, Maryville and Lindenwood.
"He's playing lights out right now, the kid is really playing some good basketball," Medford said. "He has developed so much from his sophomore year until now that it's been amazing."
The big difference for Marquette this season is jumping from 2A to 3A for the playoffs because of the enrollment multiplier. As a a result, the Explorers will be in the Civic Memorial Regional with East St. Louis from the Southwestern Conference.
"I've told the kids there's only two things you can control -- your attitude and your effort," Medford said. "How awesome would be if Alton Marquette knocked off East St. Louis? I'm not saying that's going to happen, but how awesome would that be?"
Gibault (9-1) drew the No. 2 seed and the Hawks' lone defeat was 58-54 to an 8-1 Roxana squad in the finals of the Metro-East Lutheran Thanksgiving Tournament.
Gibault has won five straight, including a 44-37 victory at Nashville. The Hawks' experienced lineup is led by Matt Schreder (13 ppg; 26 3-pointers), Wes Degener (11.7 ppg), Brendan McFarland (8.9 ppg) and Nick Row (8.5 ppg).
Point guard Mitch Meyer is nearing full strength after suffering an ankle injury in the season opener.
"We've still got a ways to go to be as good as we'd like to be, but I don't think we can complain about where we're at," Rueter said. "We've gotten contributions out of a lot of people."
Waterloo (5-4) is the No. 3 seed and the Bulldogs' defense has kept them in most games. They have allowed the second-fewest points of any team in the Mississippi Valley Conference, but still are looking for more offense.
The Bulldogs have won four of their last six games, including 43-41 over Mater Dei. Their top scorers are 6-7 senior center Justin Kretchmer (10.8 ppg, 15 blocks), 6-3 junior Shane Lenhardt (9.9 ppg), 6-2 senior Jared Lengacher (8.8 ppg) and junior point guard Daniel Gardner (7.4 ppg).
Fourth-seeded Murphysboro (4-5) is annually one of the most athletic teams at the tournament and always capable of making some noise. Anthony Hibbler a solid outside threat while Jacob Baird, Diamante Bradley and Nathan Hinkle add more scoring.
For a team that lost top player Hayden Landgraf to a season-ending knee injury, the Columbia Eagles are posting some impressive victories.
"Definitely the first two weeks were really, really tough," Sandstrom said. "I don't think we'll ever not miss him, but we're starting to get a bit more comfortable with our roles and people are just going to have to score more points."
The Eagles are off to a 4-0 start in the Cahokia Conference and have won five in a row overall. They beat Wesclin 72-30 just six days after losing to the same team 55-37 and are coming off a 44-40 conference win over Carlyle.
Leading the way have been senior guard Michael Hunsaker (15.9 ppg, 16 3-pointers), 6-4 junior Cole Foster (7.5 ppg), 6-7 sophomore Jacob Wessel (6.8 ppg) and seniors Connor Mallinckrodt (6.6 ppg) and Adam Babb (6.2 ppg).
Lebanon (5-4) leans heavily on junior guard Taylor Schmitt (16.2 points, 6.9 rebounds per game) and 6-5 senior Zach Schoenfeld (8.4 points, 8.7 rebounds per game).
Civic Memorial (5-5) will need big performances from Kyle Yates (12.7 ppg) and Jakob Lowrance (11.1 ppg), while Triad (2-8) has lost six straight after a 2-2 start,.
Triad's top offensive weapons are Jordan Felax (10.1 ppg), Jordan Deese (9.3 ppg) and Cole Moss (7.7 ppg).
Freeburg (2-7) has lost four of its last five, but is coming off a conference victory over Red Bud. The Midgets are led by 6-9 Division I prospect Justin Diecker (17.1 points, 8.1 rebounds per game, 19 blocks) and Dalton Crunk (10.8 ppg; 11 3-pointers).
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.