Only one non-Illinois team has won the Mater Dei Christmas Tournament in the 52-year-history of the event.
That team was 2012 champ Briarcrest Christian Academy from Tennessee, back to defend its title this season. Briarcrest is facing talented competition from top-seeded Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, No. 2 seed Edgewater from Florida and several local teams bent on restoring the name of a metro-east school on the championship hardware.
"Griffin is talented and athletic," Mater Dei coach Ronnie Schadegg said. "They're big, fast, strong and physical. With everybody coming back it was a consensus on giving them the No. 1 seed."
And as always, it's a smart thing to get to the gym early each evening beginning with Thursday's opening day.
"I would say we'll have four nights of sellout crowds this year because of the way the pairings are aligned," said Schadegg, a former Knights star whose teams played in the tournament twice while he was coaching at Timber Creek from Orlando, Fla.
"This may be the most balanced it's been since I can remember," said Central coach Jeremy Shubert, whose team lost 30-29 to Briarcrest in the tourney championship last season and owns three tourney titles since 2007. "At the seed meeting, we really struggled to figure out who the No. 1 seed was."
How tough was that seeding meeting? Okawville is 6-0 and has the No. 9 seed.
Carlyle coach Andy Palmer, whose team drew the No. 4 seed, thinks this tournament could be another instant classic.
"I think it's maybe the most balanced tournament that they've had there in a long, long time," Palmer said. "I think if you look at the seeds there's not a whole lot of difference there. It's good programs and it seems like everybody's up a little bit this year."
One of the most familiar faces to tourney fans is that of Central High senior guard Jacob Timmermann, who recently surpassed the 1,000-point mark. The four-year starter has enjoyed some of his biggest career moments at this tourney and has been first-team all-tournament the past two years.
Here's a look at the tourney teams in order of seeding:
Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin (2-3)
Ones to watch: 6-5 junior Sean McDonald (10.4 points per game), 6-6 senior Dominic Aiello (9.8 ppg), 6-4 junior Ben Sestak (8.6 ppg), 6-3 senior Malik Turner (7.7 ppg), junior guard Gabe Green
The buzz: The hyper-athletic Turner, the top basketball scorer last season for a 21-8 squad, is headed to the University of Illinois on a football scholarship after helping the Cyclones win the Class 5A state football championship...Griffin had lost three straight before a 62-40 win over Springfield on Saturday.
Edgewater Eagles (5-3)
Ones to watch: The best player in the tournament is probably 6-5 senior all-state guard Eddie Keith, who signed with Division I Towson and averages more than 20 points. Francois Lewis is another scoring threat
The buzz: Extremely athletic and led by Keith, the Eagles are definitely in the mix to win it all.
Ones to watch: 6-7 sophomore Royce Newman (19.6, 12 rebounds per game), 6-7 senior Clint Johannes (8.3 ppg), 6-1 senior Keegan Anderson (7 ppg).
The buzz: Few teams here have the heights and strength to match up with the extremely active Newman, or the rest of the Hornets' tall front line. But the Hornets --tied for first in the Class 2A state preseason rankings --are still a work in progress on the perimeter and that has hurt them in losses to state-ranked Gibault and Madison.
Ones to watch: 6-3 senior forward Matt Hilmes (17.6 points, 8.9 rebounds per game), 5-11 senior Logan Zachry (9.4 ppg) 6-2 senior John Becker (8.7 ppg); 6-1 senior Alex Voss (7.1 ppg); 5-7 senior Deven Hicks (6 ppg).
The buzz: Carlyle lost four of five games at the Mater Dei tournament last year, then finished strong at 23-8 after Hilmes returned from an injury. Carlyle's only loss was 48-45 to Cahokia Conference rival Freeburg.
"I don't think we've played well all season," Palmer said. "We're struggling to score, our defense has been OK and I think we've rebounded well. We've struggled to get into any kind of flow offensively."
Ones to watch: 6-4 senior guard Gus Gran, sophomore point guard Mark French, 6-6 sophomore Michah Thomas, 6-4 sophomore Maceo Woodard.
The buzz: Briarcrest lost Tennessee's Mr. Basketball to graduation in Austin Nichols, a starter at the University of Memphis averaging 9.4 points and 5 rebounds. The team from Eads, Tenn., was 27-2 a year ago but has lost three of its last four games after a 4-0 start.
Ones to watch: sophomore guard Austin Elledge (13 ppg), 6-2 senior Joe Duncan (12.5 points, 6.1 rebounds per game), 6-2 senior Aaron Elledge (10.6 ppg).
The buzz: Quick and athletic, the Bulldogs knocked off Mater Dei 65-53 earlier this season at the Waterloo Thanksgiving Tournament. Highland has a tough tourney opener in Edgewater.
Mater Dei (5-3)
Ones to watch: 6-4 junior Ben Lampe (13.4 points, 5.3 rebounds per game), 6-5 senior Eric Vandeloo (10.5 ppg), 6-8 junior Nolan Gerling (9 ppg).
The buzz: In Schadegg's first season, Knights have won three straight and are coming off a 72-52 road win over Quincy Notre Dame. Sophomore starting point guard Brendan Timmermann continues to grow into the position and gets better each game.
"As strong as this tournament is, we've got to put together four or five pretty solid performance to even have a chance," Schadegg said.
Ones to watch: 6-1 senior guard Jacob Timmermann (17 ppg), 6-foot sophomore guard Logan Kohrmann (15.3 ppg; 17 3-pointers), 6-5 senior Kenton Roeckenhaus (6 ppg).
The buzz: Very guard-oriented scoring led by Timmermann and Kohrmann. The Cougars, who won three straight before losing to Cahokia Conference rival Carlyle on Friday, will need to get consistent scoring and rebounding inside to have a chance.
"I'd like to think we have one of the better guards in the tournament, but at the same time when we go up against some size we've struggled," Shubert said.
Ones to watch: 6-3 freshman guard Noah Frederking (19.2 ppg; 14 3-pointers); 6-1 senior guard Jacob Brammeier (17. 3 ppg); sophomore guard Alec Wisneski (13.2 ppg).
The buzz: Okawville's closest game has been a 72-61 win over Woodlawn, but the competition is about to heat up.
Ones to watch: 6-3 junior Tim Parks (14.8 ppg), 6-2 junior M.Z. Duprey (12 ppg; 13 3-pointers), 5-10 senior Alex Oltmann (10.2 ppg).
The buzz: Mascoutah was perhaps the surprise team of the tournament a year ago, getting hot on the way to a fourth-place finish under coach Cody Reynolds despite being the No. 10 seed.