As Illinois High School Association classification numbers have declined in recent years, the number of Class 3A basketball schools in the region has increased.
This year nine teams in the Deep South — Carbondale, Marion, Massac County, Carterville, Benton, Herrin, Murphysboro, Mount Vernon and Centralia — will compete at the 3A level. Those teams represent the South Seven, SIRR Ohio and SIRR Mississippi conferences.
Carbondale coach Jim Miller said parity is a key word in the South Seven this year.
“Cahokia is very good this year,” he said. “They’re young, but also have some experience. They are long and athletic. Marion has a chance to be special. They have a new coach (Gus Gillespie) that has tremendous experience. They have about everything a team needs to be successful. They have size, quickness and they play hard at both ends.”
Centralia and Belleville Althoff have been in competition for the South Seven title the past few years, and Carbondale will get an early test, facing Althoff in the first week of December.
In the meantime, Miller has a solid roster himself. Two Terriers, Darius Beane and Kani Acree, have already signed with Division 1 programs. Beane will be attending Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and Acree is headed for Ball State.
“Expectations are always high,” Miller said. “That’s my expectation. Most people think it is a luxury. You’d rather have that kind of talent every year. There are also pressures that come along with that. We’re feeling that. That’s a good thing. You want those high expectations. That brings out the best in everybody.”
“I really think, it’s probably the hardest part every year, it’s about chemistry. You have to have kids playing for the right reasons and not worry about ‘I got to get mine.’ Chemistry is the number one issue for us and it is every year.”
Carbondale, Centralia, Marion and Mount Vernon are no strangers to Class 3A play. The South Seven schools have been classified 3A since four-class expansion. The addition of Herrin, Benton, Massac County and Murphysboro could make travel less of a factor in the postseason.
“If you take care of business on your end, it should make traveling a lot better,” Miller said. “You still have to play them all. We don’t mind playing River to River schools. We still play Murphysboro. Ron (Winemiller) does a great job at Benton.”
The experience has been different at the River-to-River schools. Several are relatively new to Class 3A. Benton went to the sectional finals last year before losing to Centralia in the Rangers' second year of 3A play.
“I think the big difference is when you have some aspirations of making a postseason run, game one, it gets intense,” Winemiller said. “There is no dipping your toe in the water. You better be ready to go.
“I think it has its challenges and it has its rewards. When you go to the sectional championship like we did last year, people see it as a brighter star. It helps when you can do something like that. The year before we won 25 games and got beat in the first round of the regional.”
The Rangers finished 31-3 last year and return four of their top seven in Parker Williams, Hamilton Page, Gehrig Wynn and Cade Thomas.
Despite that capable cast, Winemiller said the Ohio Division will again be competitive.
“It is as balanced from one to six as it has been in my nine years at Benton,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is going to go 10-0 this year and win the conference.”
Like Winemiller, Carterville coach Shane Hawkins said being a 3A school necessitated some changes.
“As I got here, I knew that was something that was likely to happen because of the growth in our town and school,” he said. “One of the things I was working on was getting us in the Pyramid to play Collinsville, Herrin, Mount Vernon and Marion. We’re going to have to play some teams at that level, so when you get to the postseason, you don’t freak out.
“If we can compete with the 3A teams that puts us in a pretty good position to win a conference. To me it’s not about how many wins and losses you have at the end of the season, it’s about did your team get better.”
The Lions are the only team in the SIRR Mississippi that has been bumped up to 3A.
Hawkins returns two starters, Luke Ford and Justin Johnson, from last year’s 17-14 team. He said Pinckneyville is the favorite to win the Mississippi Division.