Proviso West gave us a holiday tournament appetizer Saturday thanks to its expansion to 32 teams.
The games weren't good, but the teams that weren't quite ready for that caliber of competition have been weeded out.
The best week of the season begins in earnest Wednesday, and with talent spread out evenly after the top three teams in the rankings, there are few clear favorites entering the week.
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Proviso West High School, 4701 Harrison Street, Hillside, IL 60162, USA
Pontiac Township High School, 1100 East Indiana Avenue, Pontiac, IL 61764, USA
Here's a look at where the action's at.
Best first-round game: Maine South (9-1) and Hillcrest (7-3) both have been in the Tribune Top 20 in recent weeks, and their contrast in styles should make for an interesting matchup that few are likely to see at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Hillcrest scored over 70 points five times and at least 60 in nine of 10 games, while Maine South yields just 35 a game.
Potential second-round matchup: If St. Charles East beats Von Steuben and Stevenson gets past Hinsdale Central in the first-round Wednesday, their 3:45 meeting Thursday will include two of the state's top prospects regardless of class. Purdue-bound senior Kendall Stephens has been lighting up while playing through a torn labrum for St. Charles East (7-2). Led by sophomore guard Jalen Brunson, Stevenson also is 7-2.
Bracket outlook: Saturday's lopsided first-round games notwithstanding, the expansion to 32 teams will provide all kinds of juicy matchups. No. 3 Morgan Park will have to beat either St. Joseph, Crespi Carmelite (Calif.) or Bogan to reach the semifinals, and who they would meet there from a group that includes Hillcrest, Maine South, St. Charles East, Stevenson, Glenbard East and Glenbrook North is anyone's guess. The top half of the bracket is set up for defending champion Proviso East and 2010 champion Benet to meet in one quarterfinal and Homewood-Flossmoor to face either Oswego or New Trier in the other.
Prediction: Benet upsets Proviso West in the quarterfinals and hands H-F its first loss in the semis before falling to Morgan Park 67-62 in the New Year's Eve final.
Best first-round game: Jordan Johnson's runner with 7 seconds left capped an 8-0 Waukegan run in the final 90 seconds of its 51-50 victory over St. Charles North in the final of the Ridgewood Shootout on Dec. 9. Waukegan (7-5) has been maddeningly inconsistent since, while St. Charles North (6-4) and Loyola-bound guard Quentin Payne have struggled against the better teams on their schedule.
Potential second-round matchup: Curie and 6-9 junior Cliff Alexander are seeded fourth and set up to meet Simeon in a semifinal, but the Condors might have a tough time getting past Joliet West (8-2) first. Joliet's two losses came by a total of eight points to teams with a combined record of 17-1 – Homewood-Flossmoor and Marian Catholic.
Bracket outlook: Peoria Manual and West Aurora are seeded second and third, respectively, and should be able to fend off challenges to meet in Saturday afternoon's semifinals. Simeon should roll into the other semifinal against either Joliet West or Curie.
Prediction: Peoria Manual gave Simeon a better game than any Illinois team did all season in last year's semifinals, a 48-47 Simeon victory. The better game this year could be West Aurora-Manual in the semifinals. Neither appears equipped to handle Simeon.
Best first-round game: There's never a bad time to watch 5-foot-8 Marian Catholic wizard Tyler Ulis, who will be in action against Rich Central at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Rich South. Central (4-6) will have to be at its best to challenge No. 7 Marian (8-1), but it won't be intimidated after nearly upsetting No. 13 Orr earlier this month.
Potential second-round matchup: Led by SMU recruit Ben Moore and promising sophomore Prentiss Nixon, Bolingbrook (7-2) has won three straight by an average of 18 points. Crete-Monee has flown under the radar despite a 9-1 start. The winner of their probable 4 p.m. Thursday meeting would likely face defending champion Bloom in Friday's semifinals.
Bracket outlook: Marian has been among Chicagoland's most impressive teams this season, and it's hard to see Ulis and Co. slipping up before the semifinals, where, if form holds, they would take on Seton. Bolingbrook, Crete and Bloom are all strong contenders to emerge from the other side of the bracket.
Prediction: Ulis' burgeoning reputation continues to grow as he leads Marian past Seton in the semifinals and past Bloom 58-51 in the title game.
Best first-round game: This is a good tournament, but not until the second round. Go elsewhere Wednesday.
Potential second-round matchup: Defending champion Naperville Central is one of several teams that appears to have a legitimate chance to take home the trophy, but first the Redhawks will need to snap what would be a seven-game Prospect winning streak at 7:15 p.m. Thursday.
Bracket outlook: St. Viator (7-1) and Niles North (7-2) should meet at 7:15 p.m. Friday in a game that featuring three potential Division I guards — Viator's Ore Arogundade and Niles North's Malachi Nix and Lorenzo Dillard. On the other side of the bracket, a pair of battle-tested teams, No. 4 Notre Dame (9-1) and Naperville Central are favored to meet up in the 8:45 semifinal.
Prediction: Viator, Niles North and Naperville Central are all Top 20 candidates who will bear watching come March. Notre Dame is a bit better, and while the Dons could struggle with Naperville Central's size, they'll slip past Central and beat East Suburban Catholic Conference rival St. Viator 64-59 for the title.