The defending Class 4A state champion Belleville West Maroons still have two full weeks before opening their season at the Tournament of Champions in Washington, Illinois.
But the Maroons have already attracted a large dose of national recognition.
Returning four key players including the reigning Illinois Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year in senior EJ Liddell, the Maroons are ranked 18th in the MaxPreps preseason national boys basketball poll and 32nd in the Prep Circuit.com poll.
“It’s a tremendous honor for our kids, our school and the Belleville community,’’ Maroons coach Joe Muniz said last week. “But I really don’t pay much attention to preseason rankings. A lot of it is based upon what we did last year and the fact that we have some kids coming back from last year’s team.
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“But it’s like I told the kids this summer, last year is last year and we have to move forward.’’
The Maroons joined the rest of the teams in the state which held their first official practice sessions on Monday. West, which finished last season ranked 16th in the final MaxPreps poll, was 32-2 and defeated Chicago Whitney Young 60-56 to win its first state basketball championship last March.
In addition to Liddell, who earlier this fall gave a verbal commitment to attend Ohio State University, West returns point guard Lawrence Brazil III, highly-touted forward Keith Randolph, guard-forward Marcellus Romious and guard Jaylin Mosby from a year ago.
While national recognition is a nice perk of being state championships, it also will enlarge the target on the Maroons’ back during the 2018-19 season.
“That’s to be expected,’’ Muniz said. “I think when we played this summer we got everybody’s best game. I think we’ll get everybody’s best games this year.
“What we need to do is make sure that we’re prepared every night and keep the same approach that we had last year. What we have to do make sure not to allow what has happened in the past have an effect on what happens in the future. To be ranked nationally is a great honor, but we need to remain grounded and humble and realize that we have a lot of work to do.’’
West will open its season on Nov. 20 against Urbana High School beginning at 8:45 p.m. at the Washington Tournament of Champions. The Maroons will compete in the National Classic as part of the Washington Tournament of Champions at Washington High School.
West will then take on Lakewood (S.C.) on Nov. 21 at 12:45 p.m. and Mobile, Ala. LeFlore High School on Nov. 23 at 6:15 p.m. The tournament concludes on Nov. 24.