The excitement that was built toward a wild finish Saturday night at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville only confirmed what Southwestern Conference basketball coaches have been preaching throughout the preseason.
Their league is loaded with talent — and this might be one of the most special conference seasons in recent memory. As many as four SWC teams could find their way into the first Associated Press Class 4A state rankings being released later this week.
In back-to-back games to close out the first “SWC at the E” event, Belleville West stunned previously unbeaten Edwardsville 59-53 and East St. Louis followed that up with a dramatic 84-77 overtime victory over previously unbeaten Belleville East.
“There’s a lot of parity in this league,” said East St. Louis coach Phillip Gilbert, whose team overcame a 14-point deficit to beat the Lancers. “From Granite City to East St. Louis and throughout, you’ve got great players, you’ve got great coaches. Any given night, anything can happen.
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“(Saturday) just happened to be our night against a great Belleville East team that’s well-coached with great players (like Javon) Pickett and Rico Sylvester. They’re great, experienced guards. We just stepped up and made plays.”
The SWC has two University of Illinois recruits in Pickett and East St. Louis’ dominant 6-foot-10 center Jeremiah Tilmon. Edwardsville guard Mark Smith has several Division I offers and just picked up another from DePaul while Belleville West star E.J. Liddell is one of the top sophomore recruits in the Midwest.
Liddell already has offers from Illinois and DePaul.
Already attracting attention is another sophomore, Terrence Hargrove from East St. Louis, while Flyers’ senior Arthur Carter and Belleville West 6-5 senior Dalton Fox is also off to a strong start.
Edwardsville Tigers’ senior guard Oliver Stephen has Division II offers and Tigers’ center A.J. Epenesa is a football All-American headed to the University of Iowa on a football scholarship. Belleville West senior center Tyler Dancy has an offer from MIssouri-St Louis and interest from Eastern Illinois and other schools while Belleville East’s Malachi Smith and Rico Sylvester also will likely have a shot at scholarships.
Alton (3-1) has two future college players in Maurice Edwards and Kevin Caldwell while O’Fallon has a deep, athletic lineup that produced a 4-1 start. Collinsville has one of the league’s more exciting guards in Ronnie Midgett along with Metro-East Lutheran transfer Kenrique Brown.
“I’ve been in the league 13 years as a head coach, as an assistant for six year and played for four others,” Belleville West coach Joe Muniz said. “As far back as I can remember, top to bottom, with the high-end talent, this is by far the best its ever been.
“I think that was on display Saturday night in pretty much every game.”
The top five teams in the conference are a combined 18-5 and two of the five losses came in conference games.
Edwardsville, O’Fallon and Belleville East are 4-1, Belleville West and Alton are 3-2 and East St. Louis is 3-2.
Edwardsville veteran coach Mike Waldo has seen a lot of basketball and picked up his 600th career win at Edwardsville earlier this season.
“It’s a competitive world and this year is the most competitive world I can ever remember for basketball in our area,” Waldo said.
The league schedule continues Tuesday with Belleville East at Edwardsville, Collinsville at East St. Louis, Granite City at Belleville West and Alton at O’Fallon.
“This year it would not surprise me if you had a team win the conference with three or four losses,” Muniz said. “Not because teams aren’t good, it’s because anybody can beat anyone on any given night. You’re going to need the win the games you need to win and sneak a few out. That’s what makes our conference great and fun to be a part of it.
“In my opinion it’s the best conference south of Chicago.”
Along with the usual Class 4A postseason conference tournament that doubles as IHSA regionals, that grouping now includes defending 3A state champ Althoff as well as Quincy.