Preps Talk

Belleville West, E.J. Liddell, leave historic mark on Illinois by going back-to-back in Class 4A

Belleville West, E.J. Liddell, leave historic mark on Illinois by going back-to-back in Class 4A

 

PEORIA -- E.J. Liddell's eyes grew wide and a smile crept across his face.

Typically reserved away from the floor and completely unflappable on it, the reigning Mr. Basketball of Illinois had just been informed of the elite company that he and his Belleville West teammates joined on Saturday night.

Derrick Rose. Jabari Parker. Shaun Livingston.

All Mr. Basketball winners this century who led their programs to back-to-back IHSA state championships to close out storied IHSA careers.

Liddell and the Maroons joined the who's who of Illinois high school basketball on Saturday night as they rallied from a double-digit first-half deficit to knock off Evanston, 71-59, to claim the IHSA Class 4A state title for the second consecutive season.

Battling foul trouble and a hot start from the smaller and quicker Wildkits, Liddell and his teammates roared back to put an exclamation point on a magnificent two-year stretch. Liddell, an Ohio State commit, finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks on 10-for-12 shooting on Saturday, completely taking over the game on both ends during the second half. 

Belleville West becomes the first IHSA Class 4A team to go back-to-back since Simeon and Parker ran off four straight titles (2010-13) to begin the decade. 

"It's unbelievable. You name all those guys and all of those guys are in the NBA and left a great legacy on the state of Illinois. Everybody remembers their names. And I'm happy I came to Illinois and just left my name, made a mark," Liddell said.

"I'm happy and very sad at the same time. Because it's my last time in a West jersey and being coached by Coach Muniz. Back-to-back? It's unbelievable. Being in that category, leaving a mark on Belleville West. We'll have two posters in our gym that say, 'State Champions' on them and it's great. I'm ready to get my second ring."

The Maroons (34-4) earned that second ring by running through Illinois as the the clear best team in Class 4A this season. Although Belleville West experienced some regular-season slip-ups that made some question whether they could make another title run, the Maroons squashed those concerns with their play in Peoria over the weekend.

Playing with a chip on their shoulder because of Curie's status as the nationally-ranked team who was unbeaten against Illinois competition, Belleville West felt it had something to prove despite being defending champs. Running through the Condors in Friday's state semifinals with a notable double-digit win, Belleville West proved it had more on the roster than just its frontcourt superstar.

Against Evanston, senior forward Will Shumpert elevated his play -- literally and figuratively. With 21 points on Saturday night, Shumpert finished numerous dunks well above the rim as the recipient of Liddell's passes once the Evanston defense collapsed and double-teamed him. Senior guard Jaylin Mosby (15 points) also knocked down a critical three-pointer that hit the rim four times before dropping to push the Maroons' lead to 55-50 late in the game to help begin the final Belleville West push.

Seniors Lawrence Brazil III and Keith Randolph Jr., an Illinois football commit who also does significant damage in the post alongside Liddell, were also huge parts of both state title runs. With this weekend's performance, Belleville West cemented its status as one of the state's great teams of the last 25 years.

"We felt all along that the Southwestern Conference is one of the best conferences in the state of Illinois. And I think people saw that today with us and East St. Louis winning [3A]," Belleville West coach Joe Muniz said. "We play good basketball down here. And I don't think we get the respect, personally, from the people in Chicago. It's just my personal opinion. They don't ever see us play. We beat Simeon. [E.J.'s] playing on one leg and people were kind of questioning how good he is. Today answers anything."

Evanston (32-5) took it to Belleville West early behind a spaced-out, perimeter-oriented attack that saw the undersized Wildkits use their quickness. Senior Jaheim Holden took a hard foul in the game's opening minute thanks to a Liddell foul at the rim, but shook it off to finish with a team-high 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting. The Wildkits jumped out to a 35-25 lead with 1:36 left in the first half before Belleville West began its comeback.

Senior guard Lance Jones, a Southern Illinois commit, did most of his damage by going downhill towards the rim in the second half as he finished with 15 points for Evanston. Coming off the bench, sophomore forward Louis Lesmond did an admirable job against Liddell, while showing his vast potential for the next two seasons, as he finished with an 12 points and five rebounds. But the hot start slowed down for Evanston as its offense stalled after scoring 35 points the first 15 minutes of the game. Scoring only 24 points the final 17 minutes, Evanston finished the game shooting 4-for-24 from three-point range.

Although the Wildkits also earned state hardware for a second straight year after last season's surprising Class 4A third-place finish, the defeat to Belleville West made for an emotional send-off for the senior perimeter trio of Holden, Jones and Ryan Bost.

"You're talking about three seniors that, going into their junior year and Nojel [Eastern] leaves and we fall in supersectionals to the state champs Whitney Young, the following season they're predicted to finish fourth place out of a six-team conference," Evanston coach Mike Ellis said. "And here we are that same season finishing third in state and following that up senior year with second in state. They've gone from the coattails of Nojel to those guys doing it with the way it's supposed to be done. You've gotta respect those guys for the growth and maturation the past two seasons."

Belleville West's second straight title is an important status-symbol for St. Louis-metro area hoops in the state of Illinois. Entering the Class 3A/4A weekend, the prevailing narrative around the Chicagoland area focused on the possibility that four teams from Chicago could earn state titles after Providence-St. Mel (1A) and Orr (2A) swept the previous weekend.

The St. Louis-area teams stepped up and had something to say about that narrative with their play this weekend.

Last season, the Maroons became the first non-Chicagoland team to win a Class 4A state title. Now, with East St. Louis also grabbing the hardware in Class 3A, the 6-1-8 is becoming an increasingly potent basketball hotbed that is developing a strong reputation in both Illinois and Missouri.

Perhaps the greatest impact Belleville West and Liddell leave on Illinois is making Chicago-area basketball fans respect an area that has been overlooked for far too long.  

"That shows down-south basketball is pretty good too," Liddell said. "The Chicago Public League has been great for a long time but the Southwestern Conference this year is probably the best conference in the state -- hands down."    

New No. 1 in NBC Sports Chicago Preps Power Rankings

New No. 1 in NBC Sports Chicago Preps Power Rankings

The NBC Sports Chicago Preps Power Rankings have some massive changes this week. The Public League Playoffs and plenty of conference drama saw a lot of shakeups thanks to clashes between top-25 teams.

In the end, Bloom is back in the No. 1 spot while Public League Playoff champion Simeon climbs to the No. 3 spot after winning another city title under Rob Smith.

With the Class 3A and 4A IHSA State Playoffs closing in, we should start to get a feel for the postseason soon. 

1. Bloom (23-5, 12-1) (4) -- The Blazing Trojans ran past Crete-Monee for a big Southland win. Two games for Bloom this week in conference play when they play Rich East and Rich Central. With a deep starting rotation, Bloom has the most balance and consistent firepower of any team in the state.
2. Thornton (26-1, 13-1) (5) -- A light week for the Wildcats with a win over Rich East to keep pace with Bloom. Thornton faces Thornridge during the week in Southland play. Thornton has still only lost to No. 1 Bloom this season. 
3. Simeon (22-8, 7-2) (9) -- Impressive climb for the Wolverines who claim a city championship with wins over Kenwood, Curie and Morgan Park. Jeremiah Williams is staking a serious All-Area claim while junior Ahamad Bynum is a lethal scorer capable of taking over a game. Suddenly, Simeon is peaking at the right time entering the Class 4A playoffs.
4. Curie (24-2, 8-0) (1) -- The Condors lost to Simeon in the semifinals in their quest to repeat as city champions. It was Curie's first loss to an Illinois opponent this season. The Condors have an intriguing matchup against a ranked Oak Forest team on the schedule for next week. 
5. Morgan Park (19-9, 6-2) (12) -- Falling to rival Simeon in the Public League Playoff finals, the Mustangs ended a strong run that included a road win at Whitney Young and a win over Bogan this week. Adam Miller, Marcus Watson and Brandon Weston are a dangerous trio to contend with as they're starting to gel over the past few weeks.
6. Bogan (23-3, 8-1) (2) -- The Bengals lost to old Red-South rival Morgan Park in the Public League Playoff semifinals as they don't have a game on the schedule for this week. Bogan will still be a very tough out in Class 3A in a few weeks.
7. Evanston (24-3, 8-1) (7) -- Keeping pace with Glenbrook South with a win over Niles West, the Wildkits get their rematch hosting the Titans this week. Evanston's rematch with Glenbrook South will have major CSL South implications. The Wildkits will also play Kenwood during the week. 
8. Homewood-Flossmoor (22-3, 6-0) (8) -- Two Southwest Suburban Blue wins for the Vikings as they held off Lockport and Lincoln-Way East. It's a light week for Homewood-Flossmoor when they play at Sandburg in conference play.
9. Whitney Young (18-9, 8-1) (3) -- Losing to Morgan Park for the second time this season, Whitney Young fell in the Public League Playoff quarterfinals. But the Dolphins have won state titles in the past after losing in the city playoffs as the focus turns to Class 4A. Whitney Young has this week off from games.
10. Notre Dame (25-4, 7-1) (6) -- The Dons fell to Benet in ESCC play with a surprising road loss. Notre Dame will attempt to close out conference play with a win when they host Carmel next week. 
11. Marian Catholic (21-7, 7-1) (11) -- Marian Catholic stayed in the ESCC race with a quality win over St. Viator. The Spartans have a final conference game against Joliet Catholic this week. 
12. Stevenson (21-4, 10-1) (14) -- Stevenson claimed a season sweep with another tight win over Mundelein as they have control of the North Suburban. The Patriots also defeated Prospect and Lake Zurich during the week. Stevenson stays active this week with matchups against Waukegan, Warren and Benet. 
13. Glenbrook South (25-3, 9-0) (13) -- The Titans claimed two more wins thanks to a CSL South win over Maine South and a win over Highland Park. The conference is up for grabs when Glenbrook South travels to Evanston next week in a huge rematch. 
14. DePaul Prep (21-4, 11-2) (10) -- The Rams dropped a Catholic League Blue home game to Fenwick as they fall a few spots. DePaul Prep has another big week of conference play with Loyola and St. Ignatius on the schedule. 
15. Bolingbrook (23-5, 4-1) (17) -- Picking up two wins over Lincoln-Way East and Leo, the Raiders kept pace with H-F in conference play. Bolingbrook faces Lockport and Sandburg this week.
16.  Oak Forest (24-1, 12-0) (18) -- The Bengals had a close call on the road during the week with an overtime win at Lemont. Oak Forest has home games against Manteno and a major test against Curie next weekend. The game against the Condors will be Oak Forest's first game against a ranked team all season.  
17. Joliet West (23-4, 14-0) (20) -- Earning a double-digit win over rival Joliet Central, the Tigers are still undefeated in Southwest Prairie league play. Joliet West takes the road to face Plainfield South during the week.
18. Mundelein (23-4, 9-2) (15) -- Losing a close North Suburban game to Stevenson, the Mustangs got swept by the Patriots in the season series. Mundelein bounced back with a blowout win over Elgin and also beat Zion-Benton during the week. Mundelein will host Libertyville and Lake Zurich this week.
19. Fenwick (22-6, 11-2) (19) -- The Friars dropped a Catholic League Blue game to St. Ignatius but bounced back with a strong road win at DePaul Prep and win over Yorkville Christian. Fenwick is more balanced than given credit for and is much-improved defensively since the start of the season. The Friars battle St. Joseph and Loyola during a busy week.
20. Loyola (24-4, 12-1) (16) -- Dropping a Catholic League game for the first time this season against Brother Rice, the Ramblers fall a few spots. Loyola shut down Providence the next game to stay atop the league standings. Huge week ahead for the Ramblers with games against DePaul Prep and Fenwick.
21. Orr (17-7, 7-2) (NR) -- The Spartans lost by a point to Curie in the Public League Playoff quarterfinals. Orr has this week off from games as they remain a Class 2A favorite when the IHSA Playoffs tip.
22. York (25-3, 9-1) (23) -- Solid week for the Dukes with West Suburban Silver wins over Downers North and OPRF. York plays two more conference games this week when they face Proviso West and Hinsdale Central. 
23. Niles North (24-4, 9-0) (24) -- Three double-digit wins for the Vikings as they stayed undefeated in the CSL North with a good win over Highland Park. Niles North heads to Maine East for a game this week.
24. Cary-Grove (25-3, 15-1) (25) -- The Trojans won two in the Fox Valley with a blowout win over McHenry and solid win over Hampshire. This will prove to be an interesting week for Cary-Grove when they face Schaumburg. 
25. Benet (20-8, 6-2) (NR) -- Back in the Power Rankings for the first time since December, Benet is back in following a win over Notre Dame and strong loss to nationally-ranked La Lumiere. Senior Colin Crothers is one of the area's most productive centers and the high-IQ perimeter of the Redwings gives them a chance against anybody.

High School Lites basketball roundup: Week 11

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NBC Sports Chicago

High School Lites basketball roundup: Week 11

Check out our high school hoops highlights from some of the best games around the state, and be sure to follow @NBCSPREPS for all of the latest scores, highlights, and analysis

Athlete of the Week: Niles North's Aquan Smart

Team of the Week: Lincoln-Way East cheerleading

Highlights: No. 9 Simeon 79, No. 1 Curie 69

Highlights: No. 12 Morgan Park 74, No. 2 Bogan 60

Highlights: No. 19 Fenwick 51, No. 10 DePaul Prep 48

Highlights: DePaul Prep 61, Orr 27 (girls)

Highlights: Maine West 50, Evanston 45 (girls)

Highlights: Chicago Christian 70, Aurora Christian 60

Highlights: Oswego East 67, Oswego 49

Highlights: Waubonise Valley 61, DeKalb 44

Midweek Mixtape: No. 12 Morgan Park 78, No. 21 Orr 75 (OT)

Windy City Legends: Ronnie Fields