The Edwardsville Tigers will be closer to home as they chase holiday hardware.
Top-seeded Edwardsville returns to the 33rd annual Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic for the first time since 1995.
The Tigers (7-1) are one of a handful of teams with the talent to take the top trophy, along with second-seeded Althoff (5-2), third-seeded East St. Louis (6-3) and fourth-seeded Springfield Southeast (8-1).
Lurking around the corner as championship contenders are Lincoln (8-1), Quincy (9-1), Decatur MacArthur (4-2) and Belleville East (5-3).
Edwardsville participated in the State Farm Holiday Classic in Normal the last two years after four seasons in the Carbondale Holiday Tournament and many more in the Charleston Holiday Tournament.
“We’ve been several different places over the years, and it’s always good to try something new,” 29th-year Tigers coach Mike Waldo said. “So we’re glad to be in the tournament. It’s a really good tournament. Our first-round opponent is good. They’ve got a lot of athletes, and they’ve got some big guys.”
Waldo is referring to McCluer North, Edwardsville’s first-round foe, which it will face at 1 p.m. Wednesday. But the Stars (3-3) face a daunting challenge in trying to knock off the Tigers, something only Belleville West has managed to accomplish so far this season.
Edwardsville’s seven victories have come by an average margin of 25 points. The Tigers have an arsenal of weapons led by 6-foot-5 senior A.J. Epenesa (15.8 points, 15.3 rebounds) and 6-4 seniors Mark Smith (21 points, 7.9 rebounds, 10 assists) and Oliver Stephen (13.8 points, 28 3-pointers).
Junior point guard Jack Marinko (9.9 points, 21 3-pointers) and 6-7 junior Caleb Strohmeier (7.3 points, 4.6 rebounds) complete the top five.
I like the way my guys have been practicing. They’ve been trying to get prepared for different things we’ll see. You’re never sure if what you’ve been working on is good until you play somebody. Hopefully, the things we’ve been working on will be good, and they’ll help us.
Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo on his top-seeded Tigers
“I like the way my guys have been practicing,” Waldo said. “They’ve been trying to get prepared for different things we’ll see. You’re never sure if what you’ve been working on is good until you play somebody. Hopefully, the things we’ve been working on will be good, and they’ll help us. It’s good to be able to practice in your own gym, where you play. That will be a positive of this.
“Once we start playing, that’s going to be a little different because it’s going to be hard to win. But that’s always good for your team to be in competitive situations. So far, we’ve done a good job of taking what defenses give us. We’ve got guys who want to win.”
Waldo said the No. 1 seed means little to the Tigers.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to care about that once you start playing,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any easy games in the whole tournament.”
If Edwardsville meets Lincoln, which plays Urbana in the first round at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, in the quarterfinals, the 11:30 a.m. Thursday matchup would mark the first time Waldo, who has 686 career wins, faces Railsplitters coach Neil Alexander (769 wins).
Waldo downplayed the occasion.
“I never won a game. I haven’t made a basket since 1979,” Waldo said. “I don’t really think of it that way.”
Althoff won the tournament last year en route to the Class 3A state championship. The Crusaders’ two losses this season have come by a combined four points: 81-78 to Edwardsville and 81-80 to Chicago Curie.
Senior Jordan Goodwin is Althoff’s leader. The St. Louis University recruit scored a career-best 46 points in an 86-76 win over Cahokia on Dec. 9 and is averaging 33.7 points.
Althoff, however, hasn’t played since then. Wintry weather forced its scheduled game Dec. 16 at Centralia to be postponed.
Will rust be a factor when Althoff faces Hazelwood East (2-5) in the first round of the tournament at 8 p.m. Wednesday?
“We’ve tried to make it as gamelike in practice as possible,” said Crusaders coach Greg Leib, who joked about exploring other alternatives. “We were trying to get ahold of the Washington Generals to come play, but they were booked already.”
Leib, in his 19th season, said Althoff has never had such a long layoff.
“Some other teams might be in the same boat,” he said. “They probably aren’t. Their (athletics director) probably does a better job than what ours does. He’s useless.”
Leib is also Althoff’s athletics director.
The 6-4 Goodwin was the Most Valuable Player of the tournament last year and has been impossible to contain in the first seven games of his senior season.
“He can score in a variety of ways,” Leib said. “He’s playing hard. He’s got a good sense of purpose.”
Leib said his entire team will need to adopt the same approach. The Crusaders, if the seeds hold, could face Quincy (9-1) in the second round Thursday afternoon, East St. Louis in the semifinals Thursday night and Edwardsville in the title game Friday.
We’re going to get a good feeling of what the postseason could look like, possibly, playing in a great atmosphere against some really good opponents. It should be a good test for the Crusaders. There’s a lot of parity and a lot of good basketball, a lot of good programs.
Althoff coach Greg Leib, whose team is seeded second
“We’re going to get a good feeling of what the postseason could look like, possibly, playing in a great atmosphere against some really good opponents,” Leib said. “It should be a good test for the Crusaders. There’s a lot of parity and a lot of good basketball, a lot of good programs. You’re going to have to bring your ‘A’ effort every game, or you’ll be disappointed.”
Other top contributors for Althoff have been 6-2 senior C.J. Coldon, 6-5 senior and 3-point specialist Marvin Bateman, 6-5 senior Edwyn Brown, 6-4 senior Dante Ray and 5-10 senior Bryson Strong. Coldon recently signed to play football at Wyoming.
“We’ve got the pieces,” Leib said. “If we can put it all together, we’ll see what we can do. We’ve got guys who, athletically, are right there (with last year). It’s just been redefining their roles from what they’ve been doing in the absence of Tarkus (Ferguson), Keenen (Young) and (Brenden) Gooch. They’ve handled that adjustment well.”
East St. Louis’ losses have come against Champaign Central, Chicago Curie and Tampa (Fla.) Catholic. The Flyers, led by 6-10 senior Jeremiah Tilmon (14.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 30 blocks), an Illinois recruit, are off to a 4-0 start in the Southwestern Conference.
Others have stepped up, too, for second-year coach Phillip Gilbert, mainly seniors Arthur Carter (12.9 points, 5.1 assists), Reyondous Estes (12.8 points, 4.8 assists) and Kerion Chairs (8.6 points, 13 3-pointers), junior Zachery Forest (8.7 points, 13 3-pointers) and sophomore Terrence Hargrove Jr. (10.4 points, 10.2 rebounds).
“That’s what I try to preach every day: ‘One person can’t get it done by himself,’” Gilbert said recently. “The guys have bought in to that, and the outcomes have been in our favor.”
East St. Louis will face Riverview Gardens (3-7) in the first round at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Springfield Southeast, which has won eight in a row since a season-opening loss to Bolingbrook, earned fifth place in the tournament last year. The Spartans return seniors point Trevyon Williams, Isaiah Walton and Mark Johnson, juniors Kobe Medley and Robert Hayes, and sophomores Anthony Fairlee and Jordan Stapleton.
The Spartans’ only defeat in the tournament last year was a 63-61 decision to Decatur MacArthur in the second round. MacArthur reached the championship game.
Belleville East opened the season with a championship in the Centralia Thanksgiving Tournament. The Lancers, led by seniors Javon Pickett and Rico Sylvester, and junior Malachi Smith, have lost three of their past four against a tough schedule.
Pickett, an Illinois recruit, is averaging 22.6 points and 4.8 rebounds. Sylvester (11 points) and Smith (14.8) also are in double figures.
Quincy broke out to its best start in 25 years behind the play of 6-4 seniors Parker Bland and Garrett Gadeke.
Lincoln’s only loss in its first nine games was a 48-29 setback to Danville in the Lincoln/Eaton Electrical Round Robin Tournament on Nov. 26. The Railsplitters have more championships at Collinsville (six) than any other team, most recently in 2014.
The Railsplitters are led by 6-5 junior Drew Bacon and 6-1 junior Isaiah Bowers, an all-tournament selection last season.
Identical twins Amir and Armon Brummett are Decatur MacArthur’s power pack. Both are also football stars for the Generals.