Johnson: Fast start, abrupt halt to local winter hoops season
Much like March is supposed to (but probably won’t this year), the local prep basketball season came in like a lion and went out like a lamb.
Coal City started the winter off with a bang when its boys and girls won Thanksgiving tournaments. Every school joined the party, to some extent, as 10 of the 12 varsity programs we cover had winning seasons, including every boys team.
Then the postseason started. Four local teams earned the top seed at their respective regional.
One, the Seneca boys, delivered a regional championship. There were also four No. 2 regional seeds from the area.
Only two, the Minooka girls and the Newark boys, advanced to their championship games; neither prevailed.
Our area teams were a combined 214-116 overall this season – 109-53 on the girls side and 105-63 on the boys. In the postseason, area teams went 10-12.
Why? How could our teams do so well for over three months and do so little during the week that mattered most?
Here are a few reasons I’d offer, in order from least relevant to most.
In a literal sense, playing a River Valley Conference schedule did help Gardner-South Wilmington prepare for the playoffs; both of its teams met RVC opponents at their regionals.
But I wouldn’t say that playing some of the also-rans in a weak conference was very productive in terms of making the Panthers better as the season went along.
It wasn’t just the RVC.
The Interstate Eight Conference, particularly beyond the top three or four teams on the girls side, wasn’t as strong as it has been in the past.
The Southwest Prairie Conference produced only one regional champion, the Oswego girls, between the two genders, so it’s hard to claim Minooka faced elite competition throughout the bulk of its seasons.
Some teams’ nonconference schedules – the Coal City and Morris girls both fall here – included a number of teams from smaller classes.
Whether playing big schools all the time would’ve really made a difference for either team in a loaded Morris Regional is debatable, but it’s fair to say the level of competition there was a step or two higher than those teams were used to.
The Coal City and Morris girls definitely fall here as well.
They were assigned a regional that included eventual 3A runner-up Joliet Catholic, a good Providence team and a decent Lincoln-Way West team.
Had Coal City been sent another direction, there’s a good chance its season would have extended into the following week, if not further. Not with it going to Morris, though.
The Seneca girls were a bit unlucky to have to run into a tough private team in Aurora Christian at the 2A Marquette Regional. The GSW boys played well enough down the stretch to warrant better than a regional semifinal match-up with St. Anne.
Minooka’s boys got a tough regional semi draw in Oak Forest and would’ve gotten a tougher regional final draw in Thornwood had they made it a round deeper.
And nobody had an easy path to the next round. I think that’s true even at Prairie Central, where Coal City and Morris both succumbed to a Pontiac boys team that entered the potseason with six wins.
Pontiac, a testament to what an extremely difficult schedule can do to someone’s record, is not a bad team.
Variance and bad luck
Some of our teams lost to opponents that were simply better. Happens every year.
But I’m certainly not convinced that the Pontiac boys are definitively better than Morris, which they beat by just three points, or even Coal City, which they beat by 12.
Likewise, I’d be interested to see what would happen if the Coal City girls got another crack at Providence, and the Seneca girls another at Aurora Christian.
Both Newark teams could use regional-title do-overs. The girls didn’t seem to be 13 points worse than Serena when the teams split during the regular season.
The boys were supposed to lose big to Mooseheart, but they played it to a 25-22 decision; who knows if they could do even better?
That’s my big takeaway from the postseason that was.
Our teams’ records coming in were a bit inflated by the strength of their schedules, and they ran into some tough draws. But had a few bounces gone our teams’ way, it could easily have been a successful postseason instead of a quickly-over one.