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Column: It’s hard to beat a trip downstate in the tournament that coined the term ‘March Madness’

Vincent D. Johnson/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Woke up early on a rainy Friday morning to begin a day immersed in what’s billed as “America’s Original March Madness” — the semifinals of Illinois’ Class 3A and 4A boys basketball tournament.

Being there in Champaign is always the preferred option, but the next best thing is watching the games on the “U,” the home to classic reruns and high school playoff games.

Friday’s group of semifinalists at the State Farm Center had a familiar feel. It included Tom Kleinschmidt, a player I covered 34 years ago at what was then called Assembly Hall, coaching the team he once led downstate as a junior. And one of the other teams happened to be my alma mater, Homewood-Flossmoor, which was looking for its first title.

Kleinschmidt’s DePaul Prep, which won the 2A title last year, outlasted Peoria Richwoods 52-41 to advance to Saturday’s 3A title game against Mt. Carmel, the perennial football power that trounced Mt. Zion 65-49 in pursuit of its first basketball title since 1985.

DePaul-Mt. Carmel will be the first all-Catholic League title game in tournament history, as well as a battle between North and South side powers. In the 4A semis, Normal Community beat Palatine 58-38 to advance to Saturday’s title game, while H-F eked out a 40-35 win over New Trier in a low-scoring affair that was something less than a classic.

My relationship with the state tournament dates to days of black-and-white TV, when we got special dispensation to stay up late on a Saturday night to watch the title game. I grew up in the south suburbs following the legendary Thornridge teams that captured back-to-back titles in 1971 and ‘72, winning 54 straight over that span. The ‘71-72 team that went 33-0 behind Quinn Buckner, Boyd Batts, Mike Bonczyk, Greg Rose and Ernie Dunn, including a 104-69 title game romp over Quincy that ran the streak to 54, is still considered by many as the greatest team in Illinois history.

Many years later I joined the Tribune when high school sports merited its own standalone section, Preps Plus, and learning how to cover a beat was the main objective of any young sports writer.

Back in the day, covering the state tournament was one of the more enviable assignments at the newspaper because of its long history, the state’s reputation as a basketball mecca and popularity of high school hoops in Chicagoland. We would send two or three reporters and a photographer to the state tournament, while the rival Sun-Times frequently sent eight or nine reporters.

In my earliest tournaments in the late 1980s, veteran Tribune preps columnist Jerry Shnay and I would get to Assembly Hall early for the first of the four quarterfinals games so I could trash talk Sun-Times columnist Taylor Bell, the dean of prep sports in Chicago. Shnay did not participate, other than grinning. It was a tradition like no other and a reminder of how competitive the two downtown papers were when it came to the high school basketball scene.

One of the more memorable tournaents took place in 1990, when the mighty Chicago Public League was considered the toughest in the nation and was represented by King, whose coach, Landon “Sonny” Cox, was a nationally known figure who attracted many of the great city players by any means necessary. Stars from Marcus Liberty to Rashard Griffith and Jamie Brandon kept the pipeline going for years, making King synonymous with basketball in Illinois.

Kleinschmidt, the current DePaul Prep coach, was the star of what was then known as Gordon Tech. As a junior in 1990 he led the Rams to the Class AA title game against top-ranked King, scoring 16 of his game-high 38 points in the fourth quarter of a semifinal win against Quincy.

Like the DePaul-Mt. Carmel title game Saturday, the King-Gordon Tech matchup would historic — the first all-Chicago title game in the tournament’s 83-year history. Gordon Tech coach Steve Pappas joked that the team brought a rack with them to Champaign to stretch out two of his players to see if they could match up in size against Griffith, King’s ubertalented 6-foot-11 freshman.

“It’s two great teams from Chicago playing in the finals,” the young, crew-cut coiffed Kleinschmidt said after the Rams’ semifinal victory. “We were hoping that King would win because the best basketball is played here. We want to show the rest of the state what Chicago basketball is all about.”

But King, which was ranked No. 1 nationally behind Griffith, Brandon and Johnny Selvie, beat Kleinschmidt’s Rams 65-55 to cap a 32-0 season, becoming the first unbeaten AA champ since Quincy in 1981. Cox’s Jaguars, like the 1972 Thornridge team, also could claim they were the state’s greatest team ever. The debate never ends because it’s impossible to compare eras.

“I told the kids this year that winning the city doesn’t mean anything,” Cox said afterward. “But if we win state, we`ll be in the history books. You’ll write about it in the papers and it will be there forever.”

Forever is a long time, and waiting forever to see your school win can be a lesson in frustration. As a long-suffering H-F grad, I’ve been following my high school teams since Don Laketa was the coach in the early 1970s. H-F was distinctive for its candy-striped shorts and for never winning the big one despite having highly ranked teams.

Our school is renowned for cranking out writers and broadcasters, and the “H-F mafia” of local media members includes WSCR-AM 670 personality Laurence Holmes, MLB.com’s Scott Merkin, NBC Sports Chicago’s Chuck Garfien, WGN-Ch. 9’s Ben Bradley, Tribune director of content for sports and audience Amanda Kaschube and former White Sox broadcaster Jason Benetti. Former Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild also was an alumnus, as was the late rapper Juice Wrld.

This year’s team, led by guard Gianni Cobb, a Columbia commit, and Bryce Heard, finally could be the one to break the drought, though the Vikings face a tall task in Normal, which was too big and talented on Friday for a scrappy Palatine team.

The Illinois state tournament is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most schools, and just getting there takes a bit of luck. If you’ve never been to one I highly recommend going, particularly if you have good memories of your high school years. Before the 3A and 4A finals, Meridian takes on West Central in 1A, followed by Phillips, the last Public League survivor, against Benton in the 2A final.

In the state that invented March Madness, the boys basketball tournament remains one of our greatest contributions to Americana. It’s where we show the rest of the country what Illinois basketball is all about.