Chicago Sun-Times

Rams tough when it counted

- BY JOE HENRICKSEN | @joehoopsre­port Contributi­ng: Michael O’Brien

There is no team that left Champaign with a bigger upside going into next season than Class 2A state champion DePaul Prep.

Coach Tom Kleinschmi­dt’s team dominated the field, beating Teutopolis 45-17 and then burying Bloomingto­n Central Catholic 65-41.

Yes, leading scorer Maurice Thomas, who has been an unheralded guard this season, departs. But of the top seven players in DePaul’s rotation, six will be back.

However, the Rams will move up to Class 3A next season. That will make a difference. But DePaul will remain a state-title contender.

In addition to the experience and talent returning — including 6-7 Jaylan McElroy, 6-7 Payton Kamin, 6-6 Jonas Johnson and guards PJ Chambers and Makai Kvamme — this is a program that has figured it out under Kleinschmi­dt.

Even while playing in the tough Catholic League, the Rams have scheduled like a Class 4A team. Their schedule always has prepared them, even this year, when a young and injury-plagued team wasn’t quite ready for the regular-season grind and schedule it would face.

With one of the coaching stars in the area at the helm, the program has become accustomed to winning and developed a mentality, culture and style that has led to postseason success.

Attendance win

The Illinois High School Associatio­n boys basketball state finals moved from Peoria to Champaign last year. The venue change coincided with a format change. Instead of two weekends of two days each (one for Class 4A and 3A, and one for Class 2A and 1A), all four classes play over three days.

Attendance was falling every year in Peoria. The last few years before the two-year COVID hiatus were particular­ly bleak, but the IHSA’s premier event is on the rebound.

According to the IHSA, 40,635 fans attended the three-day event last weekend at State Farm Center in Champaign. That’s a significan­t increase from 2022, when 34,449 fans attended — nearly 18%.

The 4A field was loaded with big schools that brought big crowds: Moline, New Trier, Benet and Downers Grove North. Metamora, which won Class 3A, might have brought the largest crowd of all the schools.

The IHSA expects to receive a session breakdown from State Farm Center soon. The arena seats about 15,500 fans. Carver Arena in Peoria, which held the tournament from 1996 through 2019, holds about 11,000.

Geographic­al spread

There’s no question this year’s state finals provided a completely different taste and feel for fans, both in attendance and for those following on TV across the state.

The geographic­al representa­tion in Class 3A and 4A was appealing. There was a team from southern Illinois (East St. Louis), central Illinois (Metamora) and the western part of the state in the Quad Cities (Moline). Add a north suburban team, western suburban teams and Public League and Catholic League teams, and it’s what a state tournament is supposed to look like.

The fact that six of the eight schools in the 3A and 4A fields had never won a state title before — and one knocked off seven-time champ Simeon — eliminated the perceived notion that “the same teams win every year.” Those fresh faces added to the unique feel. ✶

 ?? ALLEN CUNNINGHAM/SUN-TIMES ?? DePaul Prep coach Tom Kleinschmi­dt (congratula­ting Jaylan McElroy) graduates just one player in the top seven from this year’s Class 2A champs.
ALLEN CUNNINGHAM/SUN-TIMES DePaul Prep coach Tom Kleinschmi­dt (congratula­ting Jaylan McElroy) graduates just one player in the top seven from this year’s Class 2A champs.
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