Boys Basketball

Belleville West among three state champions at Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions

Belleville West EJ Liddell drives against Vashon Cam’Ron Fletcher during last week’s Highland Basketball Shootout.
Belleville West EJ Liddell drives against Vashon Cam’Ron Fletcher during last week’s Highland Basketball Shootout.

The Belleville West Maroons have defended the basketball reputation of Illinois well this season with wins over top programs from Missouri, Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina and Alabama in rolling to a 17-0 record.

During the next three days, the Maroons will attempt to add the best from Arizona and perhaps Georgia and Tennessee to that list.

The defending Class 4A state champions begin play Thursday at the 35th annual Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions at JQH Arena on the campus of Missouri State University in Springfield. Belleville West will take on the Shadow Mountain Matadors of Phoenix, Arizona in the final first round game beginning at 9 p.m.

While Belleville West is making its first appearance in the event, it will be the second time coach Joe Muniz has been a part of the Bass Pro Shop Tournament of Champions. Muniz was a player on the Collinsville Kahoks 1991-92 team which competed in the 1992 event.

“We finished 1-2 and lost on a half court shot at the buzzer against Cardinal Gibbons High School out of Washington DC ,’’ Muniz recalled. “The environment was awesome as well because the people of Springfield came out and really supported the tournament. You just felt like you were on a big stage all weekend long. It was very similar to a State Tournament atmosphere.’’

Competing against the teams and players they will face this weekend, Muniz is hoping the Maroons’ big game experiences of the last two years will pay off.

Coached by former NBA star and Shadow Mountain graduate Mike Bibby, the Matadors are 15-1 and ranked 12th in the MaxPreps poll. They have three NCAA Division I prospects including Arizona State University recruit Jaelen House. Shadow Mountain is the defending Class 4A Arizona state champions.

Led by seniors EJ Liddell, Keith Randolph and Lawrence Brazil III, the Maroons have had time to prepare for the challenge this week. Idle for the past 12 days, The Maroons last game was on Feb. 5 when it edged Vashon 79-72 at the Highland Shootout.

“We are looking forward to playing Shadow Mountain in our first game,’’ Muniz said. “They are a National Program and their head coach, Mike Bibby was a former NBA player. We know this will be a tough test for our kids, but I really like our team and I know we are going to go down there and compete hard.”

One of the top regular season high school basketball events in the nation each year, the 2019 edition is no different. The field includes three state champions and five teams which are either undefeated of have just one loss. The eight competing tams have a combined 102-14 record.

The Tournament of Champions begins at 4:30 p.m. Thursday when Memphis East — which is led by ESPN’S top-ranked high school player in the nation in 7-foot, 230-pound senior James Wiseman — leads the Mustangs (10-4) against Springfield, Mo. Parkview (9-6). Wiseman is one of three Mustangs standouts who will stay home to play at Memphis University beginning in the 2019-2020 season.

The Rainer Beach Vikings (9-1) from Seattle, ranked 23rd by Max Preps and led by heavily-recruited Kenny Curtis and Jamon Kemp, will take on Sunrise Christian Academy (12-2) from Bel Aire, Kansas at 6 p.m. The Buffaloes, ranked 15th by MaxPreps, are led by N’Faly Dante who has offers from Kentucky and Kansas, among others, in addition UCLA recruit Grant Sheffield.

McEachern (14-0), which won the City of Palms Classic in December and is ranked second nationally by both ESPN/USA Today and MaxPreps, has four Division I recruits in its starting five. The Indians’ top players are Auburn recruit Isaac Okoro and Jared Coleman-Jones who is headed to Northwestern. McEachern will take on Springfield, Mo. Catholic which is 16-0 is ranked second in Missouri Class 3.

The McEachern-Springfield Catholic game is set for 7:30 p.m. and will be followed by the Belleville West-Shadow Mountain game at 9 p.m.

Muniz said the Tournament of Champions can only help the Maroons in their quest to repeat as Illinois champions.

“This will be a great opportunity for our kids to play against some of the best teams and best players in the country. Hopefully, this great competition we will be playing will help us down the road in March,’’ Muniz said.

Games continue on Friday and Saturday at the JQH Arena with the title game set for 9 p.m. on Saturday.