COLLINSVILLE — The Collinsville-Schnucks Holiday Classic is showing no signs of age as it turns 30.
As usual, the team that bags the esteemed tournament's title could be set up for a big second half of the season. Expectations this year rest on top-seeded Lincoln, defending champion and No. 2 seed East St. Louis, No. 3 Althoff and No. 4 Belleville East.
"It's an honor," Lincoln coach Neil Alexander said being No. 1. "We've played some pretty good teams and our kids are playing well at this time. It's a veteran group; we've got everybody back except one from last year. They play together really well."
Lincoln brings a 7-0 record into its opening-round contest against Granite City (1-7). The Railsplitters, as always, rely on solid shooting, tough defense, chemistry and a ball press.
"We think five guys playing together is better than any individuals that someone might have or we have, so we try to play together," Alexander said. "This group here is pretty special, though. It's not something, as a coach, that you have to preach. They're just really unselfish kids. Sometimes they're too unselfish."
Gavin Block, a 6-foot-6 junior, leads Lincoln in scoring at 15 points per game. He also is one of the Railsplitters' top 3-point shooters and is knotted with Cook for the team lead in assists.
"He's come into his own and is doing very well," Alexander said. "He's a little bit stronger and has grown a little bit. He's playing like a junior instead of a sophomore."
Edward Bowlby, a 6-3 senior, is Lincoln's leading second-leading scorer at 12 points per game. Max Cook, a 6-2 senior and all-tourney pick last year, runs the offense at the point and averages nine points. Joey Olden, a 6-0 senior, plays at the top of the defense. Tyler Horchem, a 5-11 senior, completes the lineup.
"If we're playing well, we're a hard team to guard because all our kids can shoot it," Alexander said. "Hopefully, we'll be playing well. On any given night, we've got five or six kids who could have big nights."
Defensively, the Railsplitters yield just 32.8 points per game, a pace that could prove challenging to maintain in Collinsville. Lincoln last won the tourney in 2009.
"We like coming down there," said Alexander, in his 23rd year at Lincoln. "That's part of it; it's a mental thing. Our guys like playing there. It's a great tournament and we know we play good teams. It makes us better; we're better when we come out of there."
The other top seeds:
EAST ST. LOUIS
The Flyers (7-2) have reeled off four consecutive wins and are in position to take their second straight championship.
East Side has a talented cast of players in 6-3 senior Darrion Beane (14.5 points), 6-5 junior Terry Beckner (8.6 rebounds), 5-9 senior Dominic Nelson and 5-7 senior Justin Smith.
The Flyers have a rare commodity in 6-9, 230-pound freshman Jeremiah Tilmon, one of the top big-man prospects in the country.
"It's a great tournament. There's some very good teams," said second-year East St. Louis coach Tony Young, whose club will play Decatur Eisenhower (3-5) in the first round at 9:30 p.m. Thursday. "Our bracket's going to be pretty tough. We've just got to continue to take one game at a time.
"Our boys came out last year and they played hard. I'm expecting them to do the same this year. If we continue to play hard and we stay disciplined, good things will happen for us. It's always great to play good games close to home ... and get challenged. It's all about getting prepared for the end of the year."
Unlike East St. Louis, Althoff (5-2) comes into the tournament on the heels of back-to-back losses to South Seven Conference foes Carbondale and Cahokia.
But Crusaders coach Greg Leib is bullish on his young squad, which is led by 6-0 senior point guard Kevin Renner, 6-2 sophomore Keenen Young, 6-5 sophomore Brendon Gooch and 6-3 freshman swingman Jordan Goodwin, a rugged defender and talented scorer.
"With the level of competition and the teams that are there, it's a great compliment to our kids to get a 3 seed," Leib said. "Every game is going to be a battle. There are no weak sisters there; they don't bring any of the Washington Generals in to play.
"It's going to be a good challenge for our kids. It will let us know where we're at. If you can be successful at Collinsville, you have an opportunity to see what you can possibly do in 3A and 4A basketball in the state of Illinois."
Althoff, which won the tournament in 2008 and got third in 2009, will play Triad (1-8) in the first round at 4 p.m. Thursday.
"Sam Drake teams are very well-coached, they play hard and they're physical," Leib said, referring to Triad's coach. "So we take nothing for granted with this Triad situation. We're just ready to get back out and play. I'm not displeased with where we're at."
Second-year coach Abel Schrader's team is 5-3 after a pair of Southwestern Conference wins over Belleville West and O'Fallon. The Lancers have placed in two of the last three years at Collinsville, winning in 2010 and finishing third in 2012.
Schrader looks forward to seeing how the Lancers measure up against the competition they will face in the Classic. East opens the tournament against University City at 9 a.m. Thursday.
"Collinsville's always a very good field," said Schrader, in his second season. "We're going to have to play well. We certainly hope to go in there and play well and see what happens. It's a fun tournament to play in."
Darreon Reddick, a 6-3 senior point guard and three-year starter, has received interest from several Division I schools and is one of the top scorers in the metro-east at 14.9 points per game.
The Lancers have quality around Reddick, too, led by 6-3 senior Austin Cox and 6-4 senior Cameron Hunter. Cox, East's best athlete, averages 10.3 points and 5.8 rebounds. Hunter averages 8.9 points and 5.6 rebounds.
"Darreon and Cameron have played for two years," Schrader said. "Other than that, we have no one that's really played steady (minutes). We're learning how to play with each other."
INDIVIDUALS TO WATCH
Springfield Southeast (4-5) features 6-9 senior Jalen Henry, who has signed with a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. ... Two St. Louis University recruits in the tournament are 6-5 senior Marcus Bartley of Decatur MacArthur (4-5) and 6-11 senior Austin Gillmann of Oakville. ... McCluer North (6-2), which became the first non-Illinois team to win the tournament in 2011, has 5-11 senior Rashad Lindsey, averaging nearly 22 points. Lindsey has received a scholarship offer from Iowa State and has drawn interest from Loyola (Chicago), Wichita State, Indiana, Missouri and St. Louis U.
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.