Despite the change to a bracket format and some shuffling of teams, the Marquette Explorers remain a solid bet to do some damage at the Columbia-Freeburg Holiday Tournament.
The two-time defending tournament champion Explorers (7-2) have the top seed again this season, plus the top player in senior scoring sensation Deion Lavender. A year ago, they knocked off Gibault 59-56 to win their second straight tourney title.
"We just thought that the bracket would change things up a little bit," said Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom, whose school is hosting the event this year. "Marquette is definitely the No. 1 seed, but there's not that big of separation between any of the top six seeded teams here.
"Marquette's very well coached and they've probably got the best player in this whole thing (Lavender). Any time you've got a kid that can score 50, you're one of the top teams in the tournament."
Lavender, a 6-foot-4 senior guard drawing Division I interest, is averaging 28.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He already has a 53-point game to his credit this season against St. Mary's.
"We beat some pretty good teams earlier this year at the Pittsfield (Thanksgiving) Tournament and kind of carried that through," Marquette coach Steve Medford said. "But this can be a tournament where anybody could knock anybody off."
Marquette's other top players are 6-1 senior guard Jordan Harris (7.8 ppg), 6-3 junior Max Goepel (5.6 ppg) and 6-4 junior Jacob Fischer (4.4 ppg).
Marquette's losses were 50-49 to Macomb and 69-59 to St. Mary's High School from St. Louis.
Marquette drew a first-round bye and will face the winner of the Dupo-Lovejoy first-round game at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
No. 2 seed Waterloo (2-4) cannot be overlooked. Three of the Bulldogs' four losses are by two points and Waterloo has plenty of experience led by 6-3 senior Zach Schaab (9.8 ppg), 6-3 senior Shane Lenhardt (9 ppg), point guard Daniel Gardner and junior guards Ryan Aycock (6.8 ppg, 9 3-pointers) and Rick Wiegand (6.5 ppg).
Lenhardt is a three-year starter who continues to return to form after battling a knee injury last season.
"We are better than our record indicates," said Waterloo coach C.J. Cruser, whose team takes on the Lebanon-Metro-East Lutheran winner at 6 p.m. Thursday. "We have been on the wrong side of a lot of close games. I think we will always give a great defensive effort but at times, like a lot of teams, we can have difficulty scoring."
Cruser thinks this tournament is as balanced as it has been in some time.
"I think this tourney is one where anyone seeded 2-10 has a chance to get to the final against Marquette," Cruser said. "They are by far the best team, but the teams seeded 2-6 are all worthy of being in the title game."
Playing without injured big man Cole Foster until late January because of a stress fracture in his leg, the No. 3 seed Columbia Eagles (3-3) continue to be a work in progress.
"We sometimes have four sophomores out there on the floor," Sandstrom said. "Some nights we'll look pretty decent and some nights we'll look like we've got a JV team on the floor."
Columbia's top player has been 6-5 sophomore Korbin Farmer, averaging 13.3 points and 11 rebounds. Guard Trey Search (10 ppg) and Foster Gundlach (5.7 ppg) add more scoring.
Freeburg (3-5) is a threat to beat anyone led by 6-9 senior and Kennesaw State recruit Justin Diecker (16 points, 10.6 rebounds per game; 14 blocked shots).
Freeburg's best win is a 48-45 Cahokia Conference victory over Carlyle on Dec. 13.
The Midgets' top scorer is 5-11 junior guard Jacob Mueller (16.1 ppg; 20 3-pointers), while senior Jack Kemper adds seven points per game.
Civic Memorial (3-5), which plays Freeburg in the first round at 2 p.m. Thursday, also has an active big man in 6-7 junior center Jakob Lowrance (15.5 points, 6.3 rebounds per game). The Eagles have additional talent in 6-5 senior forward Ben Walker (8.8 ppg) and senior guard Jansen Helmkamp (8.4 ppg).
Civic Memorial has won four tournament championships here since 2003.