Columbia boys basketball coach Mark Sandstrom is eager to see how his Eagles compare with some of the best competition in the metro-east.
The Eagles (13-1), whose only loss is to Central, are part of the annual Chick-fil-A Classic at Belleville East, which begins Tuesday and continues Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Columbia will be joined in the round-robin tournament by Althoff (14-2), Belleville East (12-4), Belleville West (5-9), St. Louis U. High (9-5) and McCluer (5-7).
“Our team is looking forward to the challenges the upcoming week presents,” Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom said. “We have our work cut out for us, but our kids are big-time competitors and play hard. They expect to do well and know this week will only pay dividends for us when the postseason rolls around.”
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West (5-9) and McCluer (5-7) will tip off the tournament at 6 p.m. Tuesday, followed by Columbia vs. East (12-4) at 7:30. The host Lancers have won six in a row.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to play some teams we don’t play all the time,” Lancers coach Abel Schrader said. “I like the format and how it is. I feel like we’re playing three good teams, three quality opponents. We feel like we’re going to have to play really well in order to win.”
The schedule Thursday is: Columbia vs. Althoff (14-2) at 6 p.m. and West vs. SLUH at 7:30. On Friday, it will be Althoff vs. McCluer at 6 p.m. and SLUH vs. East at 7:30. Three games will close the tournament Saturday: West vs. Columbia at 5 p.m., McCluer vs. East at 6:30 and Althoff vs. SLUH at 8.
“It’s a little role reversal for our guys this week,” Sandstrom said. “We have went from being the favorite in most or all of our games to (being) the underdog.”
Columbia has four players averaging in double figures: seniors Jonathan Holmes (13.2), Korbin Farmer (12.4), Drew Huebner (10.9) and Ryan Gudeman (10.1). The 6-7 Farmer leads the Eagles in rebounding at 8.4 per game, while the 6-4 Huebner averages 6.7.
“We have great balance with all of our starting five averaging or very near double figures,” Sandstrom said. “All five have gone for 20 points or more in a game in their career. It’s the most balanced and unselfish team I have coached in my 15-year head-coaching career.
“All four senior starters have played varsity ball since they were sophomores, so we have a veteran group who have been through the battles. We won’t be intimidated. This is a week our kids have had circled on their calendar all year.”
Althoff has everything it needs to win another tournament title. The Crusaders won the Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic on Dec. 30 and have won two in a row since falling to St. Louis power Chaminade in the Highland Shootout on Jan. 10.
Junior Jordan Goodwin averages 17.9 points and 7.9 points to lead the Crusaders. Seniors Tarkus Ferguson (13.5 points), an Illinois-Chicago recruit, and Southern Illinois University Carbondale recruit Brendon Gooch averages 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. Other stars are senior Keenen Young and juniors Marvin Bateman and C.J. Coldon.
“This is going to keep the guys focused,” Althoff coach Greg Leib said, noting that the season has reached its dog days. “Your legs are a little sore, you’ve been doing the same drill over and over. Now is the time of year you do need some games. Let them take out some of their energy on the other team instead of on each other in practice.”
Leib said the Crusaders will be challenged.
“It’s a fun time, especially when you’re going to see the caliber of teams we’re going to see in the Chick-fil-A,” he said. “Columbia’s having a great year. They’ve got a lot of kids playing well. They will be a good challenge. McCluer was young last year. They’re a little bit more seasoned this year, and they’re well-coached by Coach (Brett) Rueter. SLU High, Coach (Erwin) Claggett does a great job with those guys.
“I’m just glad the loser doesn’t have to wear a cow suit. That’s the big thing. That’s motivation for me because it might fit tight right now.”
Claggett is a graduate of Venice High who played at St. Louis University.
East has been on a tear of late, winning its last three games in the Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic before taking down Southwestern Conference opponents Alton, Collinsville and Granite City.
Junior Javon Pickett, who verbally committed to Illinois over the weekend, averages 23.4 points and 6.8 rebounds. Junior Rico Sylvester has been coming on in recent weeks and has given the Lancers a solid scorer and playmaker. The three-year varsity performer is averaging 12 points and has made 28 3-pointers.
The Lancers also get leadership and on-court contributions from seniors Drew Millas, Isaiah King and Jalen Jones, and sophomore Malachi Smith and Jordan Yates.
“We have been playing better,” Schrader said. “We’ve still got to keep pushing. There’s a long road ahead of us. But we’ve done some good things. We’ve just got to stay at it.
“Our team is solely not Javon. We have some other components, guys who can score the basketball, guys who guard well for us and do things that don’t always reach the paper or make people talk about a lot. That’s another reason why we’ve been on a little run as well. The chemistry on this team is good.”
West has started to put things together lately, winning four of six. Freshman E.J. Liddell (17.2 points, 6.4 rebounds) and junior Tyler Dancy (15.2 points, 7.4 rebounds) are solid presences in the post and play well off each other.
Junior Elijah Powell averages 7.2 points.
“Since that week of Christmas, we’ve had an opportunity to re-evaluate and get a lot of practice in,” Maroons coach Joe Muniz said. “We really played a complete game (Friday) against Collinsville (a 64-46 win). We’re like anybody else. We’re trying to build and continue to get better and hopefully be peaking toward the end of the season when the regional starts.
“We’re playing a very athletic McCluer team. St. Louis U. High brought everybody back except one player from last year’s team that went to the Final Four in Missouri. And Columbia is a solid team. We don’t know much about them because we haven’t played them before. Their record speaks for itself. They’re going to compete very well and they’re well-coached.”
Junior Brandon McKissic (15.6 points), sophomore Michael Sanders (13) and senior Matt Nester (12.4) are SLUH’s leading scorers. Junior Ryan Warren-Hogue is McCluer’s top offensive threat at 15.1 points per game.
Sitting on top
Althoff and Central maintained firm grips on the top spots in the Belleville News-Democrat Boys Basketball Rankings this week.
Althoff captured all seven first-place votes to hold on to the No. 1 spot in the Large-School poll, while Central (15-2) received six of seven first-place votes in the Small-School rankings. Okawville (15-3) got the other first-place vote from area small-school coaches.
Five of the top nine 3-point shooters in the entire St. Louis region play for metro-east teams.
Edwardsville junior Oliver Stephen (56 3-pointers; averaging 3.5 per game) and Roxana senior Trace Gentry (63 3-pointers, 3.5 average) top the list at No. 1 and 2. Metro-East Lutheran senior Teddy Fifer (40 3-pointers, 3.3 average) is fourth, followed by Althoff junior Marvin Bateman (43 3-pointers, 3.3 average) at No. 5 and Marissa junior Kyle Smith (50 3-pointers, 3.1 average) at No. 9.
Bateman, who tossed in six 3-pointers Friday in a road win over Mount Vernon, is the top 3-point shooter by percentage. He’s hit 43 of his 67 attempts (64.2 percent) from beyond the arc, while Stephen (56-of-94, 59.6 percent) is second and Smith (50-of-113, 44.2 percent) is third.
Gentry has the most 3s with 63, followed by Stephen (56) and Smith (50).
Belleville News-Democrat Boys Basketball Rankings
Rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses; records through Sunday:
Large school rankings (Class 3A-4A)
East St. Louis
Also receiving votes: Columbia (13-1), Belleville West (5-9), Granite City (8-8), Mater Dei (11-3), Highland (9-8), Civic Memorial (12-4), Cahokia (5-10), Collinsville (6-9)
Small school rankings (Class 1A-2A)
Also receiving votes: Wesclin (6-10), Carlyle (7-9), Roxana (12-6), Madison (4-9)