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Boys basketball: It’s time to embrace the madness

Dundee-Crown students watch suspense during game earlier this season. Basketball fans can expect plenty excitement as Class 4A 3A playoffs

Dundee-Crown students watch in suspense during a game earlier this season. Basketball fans can expect plenty of excitement as the Class 4A and 3A playoffs begin this week. | Erik Anderson~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 24, 2013 3:48PM

For three months, the high school basketball season builds like a steady crescendo. Then the postseason arrives and the intensity level goes on full blast.

Words can hardly describe the change in atmosphere as teams go from playing run-of-the-mill regular season games to single-elimination playoff contests. It’s no wonder they call it March madness.

The madness begins in the last week of February this year for Class 4A and 3A boys basketball teams throughout Illinois. Months and years of preparation come to a climax at state tournament time, but perhaps no week of the season carries as much drama as regional week.

Over the next six days the majority of teams in the state will be eliminated. For senior stars like Elgin’s Arie Williams, Bartlett’s Lance Whitaker, Hampshire’s Tyler Crater and St. Charles North’s Quinten Payne, the goal is to hoist a championship plaque Friday night, but one loss means their long and prosperous varsity careers are over.

There is also plenty on the line for Jacobs coach Jim Hinkle and Streamwood coach Tim Jones, who are both retiring after the season. Both men have spent decades on local sidelines, but now they’ll give every pregame speech wondering if it will be their last.

Pressure on for Larkin, Hampshire

While there are plenty of individual story lines to follow in the coming days, the greatest pressure at tournament time rests on the best teams. In the Elgin area, that means Larkin and Hampshire will particularly be feeling the heat.

The Royals are the No. 1 seed at the Class 4A South Elgin Regional and the Whip-Purs are the top seed in the Class 3A Burlington Central Regional. A deep run in the tournament seems like a distinct possibility for both teams, but nothing can be taken for granted by a pair of programs that haven’t tasted much postseason success in recent years.

“You like to say it’s business as usual, but the guys understand the magnitude of every game has changed,” Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. “We’ve had one of the better regular seasons in Larkin history, but the regular season is over. We’re trying to put a little exclamation point on the 2012-13 season, so hopefully we can get it done.”

Larkin (21-5) fully arrived as a juggernaut this year, winning the Upstate Eight River title and spending most of the season ranked in the Sun-Times Super 25. The deep and talented Royals count only two seniors among their top seven scorers, so more success should be on the way in the future. With that said, failing to secure the program’s first regional championship since 2006 this week would no doubt be a disappointment.

Hampshire (22-5) enters the playoffs fresh off a regular season that yielded a share of the Fox Valley Fox title and the program’s highest win total in coach Bob Barnett’s 11 seasons at the helm. For all their accomplishments, the veteran Whip-Purs face a moment of truth this week.

Hampshire finished with at least 17 wins each of the past two years but was ousted in the first round of the tournament both those seasons. The Whip-Purs haven’t won a regional championship since 2005, and that was their only postseason title in the past 39 years.

“I’ve never won a basketball postseason game, so we have to go into this full steam and take absolutely nothing for granted,” said Crater, a three-year varsity standout at Hampshire.

Last hurrah for senior stars, longtime coaches

Crater’s tremendous play has been a huge factor in Hampshire’s success this season as he is averaging 18 points per game. That puts him in a small group of local players who have taken their games to unprecedented heights this year.

Bartlett senior Lance Whitaker is also part of that group. The Illinois-Chicago recruit missed his entire junior campaign while recovering from knee surgery, but he has lived up to the promise he showed as a freshman and sophomore on the varsity level by scoring 18.4 points for the Hawks this year.

St. Charles North’s Quinten Payne is another longtime local standout who is wrapping up his varsity career on a high note. The Loyola recruit is averaging 17.1 points for a dangerous North Stars team.

Last but not least, Elgin senior Arie Williams has capped his four-year varsity career with a phenomenal senior season. The 5-foot-9 point guard is averaging an area-best 22.8 points, and his career total of 1,293 points puts him fourth on Elgin’s list of all-time leading scorers behind only Sean Harrington (2,119 points), older brother Armani Williams (1,744) and Mark Baugh (1,536).

But as is the case with Crater, Whitaker and Payne, Williams would gladly trade any individual glory for a taste of team success.

“I remember my freshman year when I had my braids and everything and the first time I walked on the regional floor against St. Charles East,” Williams said. “It was exciting, and at that time I didn’t have that now-or-never feeling because I knew I had another day. To walk out there Monday knowing it could be my last game, I’ve just got to play my hardest.”

When it comes to nostalgia, forgive Jacobs’ Hinkle and Streamwood’s Jones if they spend a little extra time soaking up the postseason atmosphere this week.

Hinkle, 70, has spent the past 17 years guiding the Golden Eagles. His head coaching career began in 1969, and he has compiled a 540-535 record during a hall of fame career that included stops at five high schools and one college.

Jones hasn’t been coaching quite as long, but the 1973 Elgin High grad does have deep roots in the local basketball community. He has a 53-102 record in six seasons guiding the Sabres, prior to which he spent close to 30 years as an assistant coach at Larkin and Lake Park.

“I’m doing the same things I’ve always done because you always want to gear up for the state tournament,” Jones said. “Our team is starting to come on, so I’m optimistic.”

Local rivalries could take center stage

As if the drama of postseason basketball isn’t enough, playoff games between longtime rivals can add an extra element to the equation.

There is a chance four of the area’s fiercest rivalries will all take place in regional semifinal games Tuesday night.

Barring upsets in Monday’s quarterfinals, Elgin will play Larkin and St. Charles East will play St. Charles North at the South Elgin Regional, Dundee-Crown will play Jacobs at the Jacobs Regional and Hampshire will play Burlington Central at the Burlington Central Regional.

The possibility of so many super-charged postseason games on one night is enough to make a local basketball junkie wish he could be in three places at once. But in the end, this is state tournament time, and as a spectator you simply can’t go wrong by making your way to any gym to revel in the madness.

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