A stern test awaits the six teams participating in the Class 4A Belleville West Regional.
Second-seeded East St. Louis (17-7) and No. 3 Belleville West (18-8) are the favorites, but danger lurks in the form of No. 5 Belleville East (15-12), No. 6 Althoff (17-10), No. 8 O’Fallon (14-13) and No. 9 Collinsville (10-19).
“It’s a great regional,” said West coach Joe Muniz, whose Maroons have won seven of their last eight. “I don’t know if I can remember this many great teams in one regional — even Collinsville. They played us extremely tough — beat East and played East St. Louis tough. They’re playing their best basketball right now.
“So it’s as tough as I can remember a regional being from top to bottom.”
Competition tips off Monday with Althoff meeting O’Fallon at 6 p.m. and East playing Collinsville at 7:30. East St. Louis will face the Althoff-O’Fallon winner at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and West will oppose the East-Collinsville winner at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The championship game is 7 p.m. Friday.
East St. Louis closed the regular season Friday with a 63-56 victory at Collinsville. The Flyers, similar to West, have been hot with wins in eight of of their last nine.
“I have faith in our preparation,” East St. Louis coach Phillip Gilbert said. “We’ve got to keep preparing, keep playing hard and don’t take anyone for granted. There’s so much parity. You have to be ready. Now is the time where grit and guts will show, because it’s win or go home. At this time of year, all it’s about is who’s playing the best team basketball.”
The Flyers have split two games with Althoff. They lost 83-80 in the semifinals of the Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic on Dec. 29, then avenged that defeat with a 74-67 victory in the Highland Shootout on Jan. 7.
Althoff senior Jordan Goodwin suffered a shoulder injury in the Highland Shootout game, and underwent season-ending surgery less than a month later.
Even without Goodwin, Gilbert said the Crusaders are a dangerous team. And Gilbert insisted the Flyers won’t look past O’Fallon either, a team they defeated 72-58 and 90-53.
“O’Fallon is a scrappy, get-after-it team,” Gilbert said. “They can score points in bunches and get out and defend. Coach (Brian) Muniz has them playing getting after it.
“Althoff, the seed they got doesn’t do them any justice. They’re the (Class 3A) state champions from last year. At this time of year, they’re proud. You can never overlook them. (Marvin) Bateman can get hot and CJ Coldon is one of the strongest penetrators in this area. Those kids want to win and they’re used to winning.”
Althoff is 4-5 without Goodwin, with wins in three of its last four games.
East St. Louis is led by Illinois recruit Jeremiah Tilmon, a 6-foot-10 senior averaging 15.7 points and 11.1 rebounds. Senior Arthur Carter (13.1 points), sophomore Terrence Hargrove Jr. (13.5 points) and senior Kerion Chairs (10 points) also average in double figures.
“Our confidence is high,” Gilbert said. “We’ve just got to continue to work, continue to grind and play our brand of basketball. If we do that, we should be fine. I know we’re prepared and ready. It’s a matter of us stepping up.”
West relies on 6-7 senior Tyler Dancy (13.1 points, 7.2 rebounds), who has verbally committed to Division II Southern Indiana, and 6-6 sophomore EJ Liddell (18.5 points, 7. 4 rebounds).
The Maroons are 1-2 against East and 2-0 against O’Fallon, potential semifinal opponents. They lost twice to East Side, their possible foe in the title game.
“To win this regional, we’re going to have to play two great games,” Joe Muniz said. “Winning a regional this year, whether it’s at Granite City or Belleville East, it’s almost like winning a sectional because of the competition you’re playing. The competition is so great. (But) I like the way we’re playing and everybody is stepping up.”
East has dropped its last two games, but the Lancers will be on their home floor with seniors Javon Pickett (26.8 points, 6.8 rebounds), an Illinois recruit, and Rico Sylvester (13.7 points).
“We’re missing our 6-foot-3 guy, which hurts us a little bit depth-wise and size-wise,” Lancers coach Abel Schrader said of a season-ending knee injury to junior Jordan Yates. “This team has proven it can compete with a lot of teams. But we also can get beat by teams if we’re not ready to play. Particularly, that starts on the defensive end.
“Our main focus is Collinsville. We’ve got to play better.”
Tigers ready to roll
Edwardsville, ranked No. 1 in the Class 4A state poll and 22nd in the USA Today Super 25 poll, is the overwhelming favorite in the six-team Granite City Regional.
The top-seeded Tigers (26-1) are a state-championship contender and are on a 22-game winning streak that began Dec. 6. Their only loss is to Belleville West.
Seniors A.J. Epenesa, Mark Smith and Oliver Stephen, and juniors Jack Marinko and Caleb Strohmeier form a prolific lineup that has been too much for opponents to handle.
Edwardsville will meet No. 10 Springfield or No. 11 Chatham Glenwood in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Fourth-seeded Quincy will oppose No. 7 Alton or No. 12 Granite City in the other semifinal at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The title game will be at 7 p.m. Friday.
“The way to do good is to keep preparing for each game,” Tigers coach Mike Waldo said. “We’re either going to play Springfield or Chatham. We’re going to try to practice good for either one of those and then try to execute good on Tuesday. If you just focus on that, that’s the best thing you can do.
“I like my guys. My guys do a good job of playing together and taking what the defense gives. My guys have worked hard. My guys play hard when they get out there. ... We always want to try to do good in the postseason. We always look at it that way.”
The 6-6 Epenesa (15.5 points, 13.9 rebounds) is a brute force in the paint. Smith (21.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists) is being recruited by dozens of Division I programs, and Stephen (13.7 points, 5.2 rebounds) ranks third in the St. Louis area with 98 3-pointers.
Marinko (8.9 points, 58 3-pointers) and Strohmeier (8.2 points, 4.6 rebounds) also have proved capable of doing damage if foes concentrate on Epenesa, Smith and Oliver.
Class 4A Belleville East Regional
Top seeds: (2) East St. Louis (17-7), (3) Belleville West (18-8), (5) Belleville East (15-12), (6) Althoff (17-10)
Favorite: East St. Louis
Could challenge: Belleville West, Althoff
Analysis: East St. Louis has won eight of its last nine and have key players like Jeremiah Tilmon, Terrence Hargrove Jr., Kerion Chairs and Reyondous Estes, all of whom can make life miserable for opponents. Belleville West has two dynamic players in EJ Liddell and Tyler Dancy, and the Maroons possess the most depth of any team in the regional. Althoff is without Jordan Goodwin, the Saint Louis University recruit, but CJ Coldon, Marvin Bateman, Edwyn Brown and Dante Ray are solid players with lots of experience.
Class 4A Granite City Regional
Top seeds: (1) Edwardsville (26-1), (4) Quincy (20-5), (7) Alton (14-11)
Could challenge: No disrespect to the Quincy Blue Devils or the Alton Redbirds, but the way Edwardsville has played this season, it’s difficult to envision any team pulling an upset over the Tigers this early in the postseason.
Analysis: This regional is Edwardsville’s to lose. The Tigers have the personnel to play any kind of style they like against any kind of defense that’s thrown their way. Edwardsville’s biggest concern is foul trouble to seniors AJ Epenesa or Mark Smith. The Tigers aren’t overly deep, so they have to play smart and avoid careless fouls.