Boys Basketball

Maroons aiming big as postseason tips off

Belleville West’s Malachi Smith drives to the hoop past Poplar Bluff’s Tyler Cline during the Highland Shootout.
Belleville West’s Malachi Smith drives to the hoop past Poplar Bluff’s Tyler Cline during the Highland Shootout. For the News-Democrat

A legend could stand in the way of Belleville West's postseason aspirations.

The Maroons (25-2) are seeded No. 1 in the Class 4A O'Fallon Regional. The next-highest seed in the six-team field is No. 4 Edwardsville (17-8), whose coach, Mike Waldo, is closing a 30-year run with the Tigers.

The regional begins Monday with two games: No. 8 Belleville East (11-16) vs. No. 9 Granite City (9-18) at 6 p.m. and No. 7 O'Fallon (10-17) vs. No. 11 Althoff (4-22) at 7:30.

If the seeds hold, West will play Edwardsville in the title game at 7 p.m. Friday.

"Every game could be his last," West coach Joe Muniz said of Waldo. "But the one thing I'm proud of our kids (about) is we're just worried about the next game. We've been in that mode all season long, so we're not thinking about Edwardsville right now. We're focused on making sure we win our first-round game against either Belleville East or Granite City, because one hiccup and the season's over."

Belleville West junior EJ Liddell talks about Maroons’ SWC title and crowd-pleasing dunk in win over Collinsville.

The Maroons, ranked second in the Class 4A state poll, will meet the Lancers or the Warriors at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Edwardsville will play the O'Fallon-Althoff winner at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

West finished a 14-0 season in the Southwestern Conference on Friday by overwhelming visiting Granite City 100-44. It was the Maroons' highest point total since March 6, 2009, when they fell to East 126-115 in four overtimes in the title game of the East Regional.

Muniz said the Maroons will have to be prepared for some different tactics by postseason opponents. After all, it couldn't hurt, given the punishment West handed out thus far.

"Teams are going to come with a different game plan than what they've done lately just because the postseason is coming around," Muniz said. "But I think what we've got to do is worry about ourselves and make sure we keep doing what we're doing.

"The biggest thing we're doing is guarding. We're guarding people, we're playing hard and we're playing right. No matter what other teams do, if you guard and rebound, you've got a shot at winning some games."

Junior EJ Liddell, one of the top prospects in the country with 13 Division I offers, leads the Maroons in scoring (20.6) and rebounding (eight). The 6-foot-7 Liddell also has 159 blocks.

The Maroons, however, are so much more. Senior Malachi Smith (16.5 points, six rebounds, 3.4 assists) and juniors Keith Randolph Jr. (10 points, 6.3 rebounds) and Lawrence Brazil III (9.7 points, team-high 43 3-pointers) also create havoc.

Senior Curtis Williams improved noticeably in the final three weeks of the regular season, while junior Jaylin Mosby has provided offensive spark off the bench.

"On a lot of teams, individuals are worried about how many points they get," Muniz said. "Our guys just care about winning. We're a tough team to guard because you have to guard everybody. The thing I'm most proud of is how we're sharing the basketball."

If there was a close second, however, it was completing the unblemished SWC season.

"We set the goal of winning the conference," Muniz said. "Then we got down to where we hadn't lost a game and we were like, 'Hey, let's keep it going.' Finishing 14-0 doesn't happen very often. If you look over the course of 20 years, it's probably only happened five or six times. It's a great feat.

"But now it doesn't really matter because everybody is on an even slate. Everybody is 0-0, and this is where memories are made."

Muniz has no shortage of memories when it comes to Waldo. Muniz, a 1993 graduate of Collinsville High, has known Waldo since the early-1990s.

"I've got so many stories about Mike," Muniz said. "It goes back to when I was a player. "We played them in the championship game of the Collinsville Tournament when they had Andrew Thompson and we Cory Garcia and myself," Muniz said. "We were up 10, 12, 14 points in the championship game, and I developed cramps all over my body during the game. I missed a good portion of the second half, and Edwardsville came back and won.

"Mike came into our locker room after the game just to personally see me, because I tried to play three or four times with my body cramping up. That meant a lot to me as an opposing player. I don't think people realize what a quality human being he is. And he's a great coach ... He's meant a lot to me. When times were tough, he was always the guy who would call you to brighten your spirits. My phone would ring when I needed that phone call."

Edwardsville honored Waldo and its seniors Friday, before the Tigers slipped past East 57-54. Waldo doesn't want to discuss his future, but has said he wants to continue as a coach.

"Senior Night was an emotional thing for them because they love their parents and they love being here," Waldo said. "But I think once the ball got thrown up, you just do what you do in practice. I'm really not thinking about (leaving) right now. ... I just want to play."

Waldo, 60, is 645-214 (.751) at Edwardsville and 726-265 (.733) in 35 seasons overall, including five at Alton Marquette. He needs to work two more years to receive full retirement benefits.

Edwardsville has a dangerous player in senior Jack Marinko, who averages 25.7 points and has 78 3-pointers. Senior Caleb Strohmeier averages 15.4 points and 11.3 rebounds.

East coach Jeff Creek would love to earn a victory over Granite City to get one final shot at West. The Lancers lost twice to Granite City in the regular season: 57-56 in Belleville and 48-46 in Granite City. West, meanwhile, has defeated East 64-37 and 82-54.

"We've got to focus on that (Granite City) game," Creek said. "We have to avoid the long lulls. We have some lulls in scoring, and then we let it affect our defense and our effort."

Quincy Regional

In the five-team Quincy Regional, Alton (15-11) is seeded third and will play fifth-seeded Chatham Glenwood (19-11) in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Collinsville (16-13) received the No. 6 seed and will play 10th-seeded Springfield (10-17) in the first round at 7 p.m. Monday. The Collinsville-Springfield winner will play No. 2 Quincy (21-4) at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The championship game will be at 7 p.m. Friday.

The champions of the regionals at O'Fallon, Quincy, Danville and Rock Island will advance to the Pekin Sectional, which begins March 6.