A championship matchup between Belleville West and Chaminade would be a treat for metro-east fans attending the Chick-fil-A Classic at Belleville East.
West (15-1) has reeled off 12 consecutive victories and is ranked No. 3 in the Class 4A state poll. St. Louis power Chaminade (11-2), which won the tournament with a 97-94 victory over Althoff last year, is on a six-game winning streak and is ranked seventh in the Class 5 poll in Missouri.
“The tournament’s one of the best I’ve ever seen (at East),” said West coach Joe Muniz, whose club is perched atop the Southwestern Conference with a 7-0 record. “I thought last year was good. This year may top it.”
The eight-team, bracketed tournament, sponsored by Memorial Hospital, tips off Tuesday and continues through Saturday. The field also includes the host Lancers (7-9), Althoff (3-13), Columbia (10-6), Alton (10-5), Champaign Central (9-5) and St. Mary’s (13-2), another St. Louis heavyweight. West, Columbia, Chaminade and Champaign Central were in the Highland Shootout on Jan. 6.
West will play Althoff in its tourney opener at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Chaminade will face East at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. If both win their first-round games, Chaminade would meet St. Mary’s or Columbia at 6 p.m. Friday, followed by the Maroons playing Champaign Central or Alton at 7:30.
“When you’ve got teams like Champaign Central, Belleville West, Alton, Chaminade and St. Mary’s in the tournament, and then the other three teams are really good ... it’s a good tournament. You better come ready to play,” Muniz said.
Junior EJ Liddell is West’s leader and has received 13 Division I offers, most recently from Ohio State. Liddell routinely records double figures in points and rebounds and is the best shot-blocker in the metro-east.
The Maroons are so much more than Liddell this season, however, as senior Malachi Smith and juniors Keith Randolph Jr. and Lawrence Brazil III are regular contributors. West’s role players pitch in when needed, also.
Chaminade outscored Morgan Park 107-94 in the Highland Shootout when Morgan Park was ranked No. 1 in the Class 3A poll. The Red Devils’ best player is 6-7 senior Jericole Hellems, a North Carolina State recruit.
Hellems averages nearly 23 points and gets support from teammates like 6-foot-2 junior Keyyaun Batchman, 6-6 sophomore Luke Kasubke and 6-1 senior Jadis White. Kasubke had 27 points and seven 3-pointers in the triumph over Morgan Park.
East coach Jeff Creek, in his first season, called Chaminade an “unbelievable” team. The Lancers certainly will have their hands full, as will any team that faces the Red Devils.
“They’re well-rounded (and) they can shoot the ball,” Creek said. “The Hellems kid is unbelievable. And if we’re not ready to play, they might beat us by 60 points.”
Creek has seen his team lose three tight games in a row. Since falling 56-47 to Rockford East in the consolation championship of the Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic, the Lancers have dropped back-to-back one-point decisions to Collinsville (59-58) and Granite City (57-56) in SWC action.
Senior Jordan Yates has emerged as the Lancers’ top-scoring threat at 12.1 points per game, with help from senior Jaylen Lacey and juniors Kienen Waller and Isaiah May.
Like Muniz, Creek is dazzled by the talent in the tournament.
“It’s really good,” he said. “You’ve got St. Mary’s, you’ve got Champaign Central, West, Alton, us, Columbia and Althoff. I mean, Champaign Central – if they beat Alton – will play West in the second round. And West just beat them by a point to win the Centralia tournament.”
St. Mary’s has a balanced squad powered by 6-3 senior Antonio Burks, 5-11 junior Yuri Collins, 6-4 senior Dominic Mitchell, 6-7 senior Yahuza Rasas and 6-5 senior Miles Jones. All average between 10.4 points and 13.5 points, with Rasas and Burks doing the majority of the work on the glass for Dragons coach Bryan Turner.
“Obviously, we have our work cut out for us,” Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom said of playing St. Mary’s, which is ranked third in the Class 4 poll in Missouri. “We’re going to have to play awfully well just to hang around against St. Mary’s. Their speed and quickness are unbelievable. Just the overall athleticism, speed and quickness in the entire tournament is really, really good.”
Columbia still expects to be one of the best Class 3A teams in the metro-east and have showed signs lately of fulfilling that promise. Although the Eagles lost in disappointing fashion to Highland in the Highland Shootout, they have won nine of their last 11.
“(St. Mary’s) wants you to play fast,” Sandstrom said. “Obviously, we don’t want to play at the same tempo they do. If we can handle the pressure and not turn the ball over and give them runouts ... maybe we can execute some things in the half court. But that’s a big if against their speed and quickness.”
Senior guard Jordan Holmes can stress any defense. The 6-0 guard, also a football star, had 24 points in a 65-51 win over Waterloo on Jan. 9 and is averaging 17.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.9 steals. Jon Peterson, a 6-6 junior, averages 13.6 points and 6.2 rebounds.
“We got off to a very slow start, for whatever reason,” Sandstrom said. “We’ve been playing a lot better recently. This tournament is a huge challenge for us, but we like our points guard (Holmes) and we like our bigs (Peterson and 6-8 junior Cole Khoury) and our wings are starting to come along a little bit. This will help us down the road when we get into regional play and come up against East St. Louis, probably.”
Champaign Central is ranked 10th in the Class 3A poll. Central, also nicknamed the Maroons, lost to West 62-61 in the championship game of the Centralia Holiday Tournament. Grand Canyon recruit Tim Finke is the club’s leader. Khailieo Terry is a freshman making a huge impact for coach Jeff Finke.
Alton is coming off a 55-50 victory over Edwardsville on Friday that snapped a four-game losing streak. The Redbirds welcomed back senior and leading scorer Kevin Caldwell, who had missed one game and most of another because of an injury.
Donovan Clay and Malik Smith, both 6-3 juniors, also have been steady for Redbirds coach Eric Smith.
Althoff has struggled this season after being slammed by graduation losses, most significantly Jordan Goodwin. The Crusaders have lost nine of 10, but played Carbondale within five points (63-58) Thursday.
“I just keep telling the guys, ‘Let’s get better. Let’s get better,” Crusaders coach Greg Leib said. “They’re doing that. We had our chances against Carbondale the other night, and they had beaten us (60-38) at their place. That’s just a testament to our kids’ sheer determination. They’re out there working hard every day, trying to do what we ask them to do. We’re seeing the fruits of that.”
Leib called West a “five-headed monster.”
“That’s going to be a great challenge,” he said. “I don’t even know if getting a broomstick out and shooting over that will match what EJ can do. EJ does a nice job of measuring (shots) and not getting himself in a situation where he blocks a shot and clubs you in the head.”
Muniz has been at West long enough to know a city opponent always puts up a fight, and that’s what he’s expecting from Althoff in the first round.
“They are going to be fired up,” he said. “West-Althoff, anything’s possible. I know they played really well against Carbondale and they played Mahomet (-Seymour) really tough. So we better bring our ‘A’ game.
“We’re going to see some great competition. It’s going to be four great days of basketball. Somebody’s going to play really well and go 1-2. You could play really well and get beat. That’s what you want at this time of the season. You want to be challenged with these type of teams. It’s going to be a great environment.”
“I can’t remember the last time they had this many great teams in it,” Leib said. “If this tournament doesn’t get you ready for postseason play, I don’t know what can. You’re going to see a lot of different styles, you’re going to see different approaches. Each game is going to come down to a certain number of possessions to see whether you’re successful or not.
“It should be a lot of fun. The metro-east is in store for some great basketball. Mark Larsen (East’s athletics director) has done a super job of getting a tournament that was flailing eight years ago to what it’s going to be coming up this week.”
Chick-fil-A Classic at Belleville East
Tuesday, Jan. 16
Game 1: Champaign Central vs. Alton, 6 p.m.
Game 2: Belleville West vs. Althoff, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Jan. 17
Game 3: St. Mary’s vs. Columbia, 6 p.m.
Game 4: Chaminade vs. Belleville East, 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Jan. 18
Game 5: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 6 p.m.
Game 6: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 19
Game 7: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m.
Game 8: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 20
Loser Game 5 vs. Loser Game 6, noon
Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 6, 1:30 p.m.
Loser Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8, 6 p.m.
Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 8, 7:30 p.m.