The Springfield Southeast Spartans will try to chase down an elusive goal in the 34th annual Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic this week at Fletcher Gymnasium.
Southeast (6-2) is competing in the tournament for the 27th time, but has yet to bring home the championship. The Spartans placed second to Belleville East in 2010 and Lincoln in 1985.
Coach Lawrence Thomas’ team, which placed fourth last year, seems poised to end its tournament-title drought with a deep and talented roster led by 6-foot-3 junior Anthony Fairlee, 5-11 senior Kobe Medley and 6-0 junior Terrion Murdix.
Fairlee (15.3 points, 9.3 rebounds), Medley (13.5 points, 4.2 rebounds) and Murdix (13.2 points, 15 3-pointers) are buoyed by 6-4 senior Robert Hayes, 6-7 junior Michael Tyler, 5-10 junior Stephon Sims, 6-4 sophomore Adbur Muhammad, 5-10 junior Damon Davis and 5-8 junior Deon Matthews.
“The mantle has passed to these guys,” Thomas told the State Journal-Register, referring to tri-captains Fairlee, Medley and Murdix. “That’s what you have to do. You have to pass the mantle, and hopefully the next person will take it and run with it and do what’s needed (to) keep that captaincy consistent.”
Southeast will open the tournament at 9 a.m. Thursday against Granite City (2-8).
Fairlee is long, lean and athletic, capable of consistently playing above the rim despite his height. He made 39 of his first 66 shots from the field (59 percent).
“He’s showing a lot more this year,” Thomas told the State Journal-Register. “He kind of took a backseat last year because we had a lot of seniors. This year, he’s showing great leadership along with Terrion Murdix and Kobe Medley. It’s very beneficial because those kids have led in practices and games. We want our captains to lead in every aspect, on and off the floor.”
Two other Southwestern Conference teams, Edwardsville and East St. Louis, return to the 16-team field and are optimistic about what they can do in the tournament.
Edwardsville, the defending champion, will meet Althoff (2-7) in the first round at 8 p.m. Thursday in a rematch of the title game last year, won by the Tigers 83-75.
The Tigers (7-1) have received huge contributions from 6-0 senior Jack Marinko, averaging 28.9 points, and 6-7 senior Caleb Strohmeier, averaging 15.5 points and 12 rebounds.
Senior RJ Wilson only averages 4.7 points, but is a monster on the boards, averaging 9.2 rebounds. He snagged 15 rebounds in the Tigers’ 57-52 win over East St. Louis last Wednesday.
“It’s going to be very competitive,” Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo said of the tournament. “There’s a lot of good teams in it. Althoff plays a hard schedule and they’re a good team, so we’ll have to play well to play with them. Coach (Greg) Leib does a good job.”
Marinko, who can score from beyond the arc, stop and pop from mid-range or drive to the hoop, had 37 points in the victory over the Flyers and had 41 points in a game earlier this season. He has become the Tigers’ go-to guy after the graduation of players like Mark Smith, now a starter at the University of Illinois, AJ Epenesa and Oliver Stephen.
“Jack and Jaylon (Tuggle) have new roles this year and both of those guys have adjusted well to that,” Waldo said. “And Reggie (RJ) Wilson has played great for us. He’s good defensively, a good leader.”
Strohmeier, also much improved, chipped in with 17 points against East St. Louis and stepped back to connect for three 3-pointers.
“Caleb does a lot of things well,” Waldo said. “He’s really good on defense. He’s a good rebounder, a good passer, a good screener and he’s a good scorer now.
Edwardsville and East Side will meet again in the semifinals if both win their first two tournament games.
The Flyers (5-4) are led by first-year coach Fernando Stevenson, a former East Side star who has been an assistant at his alma mater and also at McKendree University under Harry Statham. Stevenson also played for Statham in the 1990s.
East Side will meet Urbana in the opening round at 4 p.m. Thursday.
“There always are some good teams in this tournament,” Stevenson said. “We like where we are in terms of our chances to really compete in the tournament. But again, there are some good teams there, a lot of good coaches. There are no give-me’s at all. We’ll get everybody’s best (effort).
“When you have the ‘East St. Louis’ name across the front of your jersey, teams are going to come after you. I think our kids have learned that pretty quickly.”
Junior Terrence Hargrove Jr. is a Division I prospect who has offers from Missouri, Saint Louis University, New Mexico, Illinois State and Cleveland State. The 6-7 Hargrove is averaging 19.9 points and 8.2 rebounds. Senior Joe Reece, a 6-8 transfer from Vashon High in St. Louis, has signed with Old Dominion and is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds.
Junior Traeveion Jones is the Flyers’ third-leading scorer at 8.8 points a game and beat Collinsville 65-64 earlier this season with a late 3-pointer. East Side and Collinsville (5-5) could meet in the second round if both win their tournament openers.
To win the tournament, Stevenson said his team has to “play Flyers basketball.”
“That’s intense defense and an up-tempo style,” he said. “We have to get Joe Reece and TJ Hargrove going early and often, because our team feeds off those two guys. They’re our leaders, and if those guys get going, we tend to be in pretty good shape.”
Decatur MacArthur (3-4), Quincy (8-2) and Lincoln (8-2) also could contend for the championship.
MacArthur, placed seventh in the Classic last year and returns electrifying 6-4 twin guards Armon and Amir Brummett. Amir has verbally committed to play football at Northern Illinois University; Armon, also a football player, could wind up at Northern.
Seniors Keenan Ingram, Zach Briggs and Ray Neal, junior Jakien Mathews and sophomores Deyon Jackson and AJ Lawson also return for coach Ron Ingram.
Quincy earned its 2,000th victory in program history when it defeated Springfield 61-39 on Dec. 9. The Blue Devils became just the third team in Illinois and the sixth nationally to reach that plateau.
The Andy Douglas-coached Blue Devils are undersized and depend on their athletic backcourt of senior Aaron Shoot and juniors Jirehl Brock and Jaeden Smith.
The 5-11 Shoot is receiving interest from a handful of Division II programs, while the 6-0 Brock is a four-star football prospect at running back who has received offers from Illinois, Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Missouri and Cincinnati. Smith, also an all-state soccer player, stands 5-10 and is Quincy’s most dangerous 3-point shooter.
Senior Ben Amos is the only post presence in the Quincy lineup at 6-5.
Lincoln won the Classic in 2013 and 2014, then placed third in 2015 under highly-decorated coach Neil Alexander, who is in his 42nd year as a coach and his 28th with the Railsplitters.
Led by 6-2 senior Isaiah Bowers, 5-11 senior Titus Cannon and 6-5 senior Drew Bacon, the Railsplitters are in their first season in the Apollo Conference; they previously were in the Central State Eight. Lincoln owns six Classic championships, more than any team.
The defensive-minded Belleville East Lancers (5-5), under the tutelage of first-year coach Jeff Creek, and the host Kahoks are two other teams to watch.
East lacks star power after the transfer of 6-3 Malachi Smith, a Wright State recruit, to Belleville West. But the Lancers are quick and athletic. Creek, a 2001 graduate of East who spent 11 seasons on the bench as an assistant, relies on seniors Jordan Yates and Jaylen Lacey, and juniors Kienen Waller, Jared Adams and Isaiah May.
Collinsville, coached by Darin Lee, is young and could be a factor in February and March.
Sophomore Ray’Sean Taylor (18.3 points, 4.5 assists) and much-improved junior Marshall Harrison (13.6 points, 6.4 rebounds) are the Kahoks’ best players.