Illinois, Indiana schools to battle
: Midwestern powers Illinois and Indiana are living up to their reputations, writes Mindi Rice.
The trend emerging this season isn't new. To many, it doesn't come as a shock. Indiana and Illinois are just that good.
Half of the current FAB 50's top 10 hails from one of the two states, with Indiana getting the nod on top-tier depth, 3-2.
But it's a hotly-contested battle each time programs from the two states face each other, and that bodes well for this weekend's Chicagoland Classic. Each of the tournament's eight games feature an Indiana team against an Illinois team, with Saturday's battle between No. 1 South Bend Washington (South Bend, Ind.) and No. 10 Bolingbrook (Ill.) taking top billing.
The states' depth goes beyond the top five, with Hamiton Southeastern (Fishers, Ind.) checking into the Fab 50 at No. 49, and four other programs -- Loyola (Wilmette, Ill.), Wheeling (Ill.) and Driscoll Catholic (Addison, Ill.), as well as Fishers (Ind.) -- joining in on the regional rankings.
Basketball success isn't new for either state, both known as hotbeds for talented players and teams. In Indiana especially, where basketball isn't just a high school sport, it's a way of life. The state boasts nine of the nation's 10 largest high school gymnasiums, including The Fieldhouse in New Castle (Ind.), where seated capacity is 9,325 fans.
Right behind the super-speedy team that features Diggins at the point is a 4A rival, No. 2 Ben Davis (Indianapolis). The small schools check in at No. 5, with 2A Heritage Christian, another Indianapolis team, making the list.
"Indiana is definitely a hotbed of basketball, especially girls basketball," Washington coach Mo Scott said. "We definitely have, not just players, but teams here that can play this game. ... We have some really outstanding teams, not only us, but Ben Davis and Heritage Christian. It's some just outstanding teams here."
Ben Davis features a list of players on the Division I radar -- Penn State signee Alex Bentley; junior DeeDee Williams, a Purdue commit; Western Michigan signee DeAirra Goss, and at least four underclassmen getting looks from coaches ĘC and has a suffocating defense that few can match.
On the flip side, Heritage Christian may be able to compete with both 4A programs, but none of the coaches or athletic directors were able to get schedules to mesh this season. The three-time 2A champion Eagles have the uber-skilled Kelly Faris leading classmates Claire Freeman (Butler) and Emily Anderson (Division II Hillsdale) through an independent schedule chock full of 4A and 3A schools, as well as the occasional Illinois school.
Enter Bolingbrook, on the schedule of all three Indiana teams, and No. 9 Whitney Young (Chicago), which has a lightly blemished 18-1 record thanks to an overtime loss to Heritage Christian in early December. This year, the Indiana teams can give a little thanks to both schools for the national recognition, as both Illinois schools did what the Indiana schools cannot -- travel to the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona. Young won the top bracket in the second session and Bolingbrook lost to an impressive Cardinal O'Hara (Springfield, Pa.) squad in the first session's Joe Smith bracket championship.
But Illinois, primarily Chicago, has made its own history of basketball success. A host of talented players from the area have gone on to find college success, while programs like Bolingbrook and Young tend to hang around the national radar.
"I believe that Illinois basketball has always been up there, from back to when Devereaux Peters was at Fenwick and Bolingbrook back then, they've always been tough," said Diggins, whose Panthers lost to Buffalo Grove (Ill.) and the Mocchi twins last season.
Young and Bolingbrook battled for the 4A Illinois title last March, with Young taking the nine-point game, but have avoided crossing paths this season, perhaps due to a state-finals destiny down the road.
"They got out of our tournament so we wouldn't play, so we won't play them until the state tournament," Whitney Young coach Corry Irvin said. "(But) we'll play them in the state tournament."
While Bolingbrook and Young are the cream of the crop in Illinois, they have a long-distance fight for regional dominance with Indiana's top schools this season, a trend that may be here for a while.
Chris Hansen contributed to this report.
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Mindi Rice is a staff writer for ESPN HoopGurlz. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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