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  • Writer's pictureAaron Ferguson

Double state titles brings Southwestern Conference the respect it has long deserved

East St. Louis celebrates its state championship, one of two won by the Southwestern Conference on Saturday at the Peoria Civic Center. (Photo credit: Jimmy J. Simmons)

Editors note: This was a special column written for the Belleville News Democrat several days after East St. Louis and Belleville West won the two large-school state basketball championships.

The Southwestern Conference is finally getting the respect it deserves, becoming the first conference other than the Chicago Public League to win three state championship in two years.

East St. Louis and Belleville West won the Class 3A and 4A titles, respectively, at Carver Arena on Saturday. The league has had five state finalists since 2013, including third place finishes by Edwardsville in 2013 and fourth in 2014.

“We felt all along that the Southwestern Conference is one of the best conferences in the state of Illinois and I think people saw that with East St. Louis and us winning,” Belleville West coach Joe Muniz said. “We play good basketball down here and I don’t think we get the respect, personally, from the people in Chicago. They don’t ever see us play, so that’s part of the reason, but even when we do play; we beat Simeon and (Liddell’s) playing on one leg and people are questioning how good he really is. I think today answers everything.”

Getting to state in the first place was no cake walk.

Both the Flyers and Maroons played eight single-digit games against Southwestern Conference teams. Collinsville beat both state champions, the Flyers and Maroons split their meetings and Alton topped Belleville West.

After the Maroons defeated Simeon with a last-second basket at the O’Fallon Shootout on Feb. 2, assistant coach Roger Mueller told Muniz “we’re the No. 1 team in the state and I’m not sure we’re the fourth-best team in our conference.”

Alton, East St. Louis and Collinsville (27-6) would beat the eventual back-to-back champs to give them three losses in a six-game stretch entering the postseason.

Alton’s 23-10-1 record was distorted by the forfeits and player suspensions related to the team’s brawl with Riverview Gardens back in November. The Redbirds posed a legitimate sectional tournament threat to the Maroons’ title defense.

“If Alton didn’t have all that stuff going on at the beginning of their season, they probably would’ve (only) lost four or five games,” Mr. Basketball EJ Liddell said. “They’re a really good team and had an all-stater Donovan Clay. I loved playing against him. He made me worked harder and made me earned all my points.”

The talent is something that stood out to Evanston coach Mike Ellis, whose Wildkits program is 87-15 with a third-place and runner-up finish over the last three years. Alton and Belleville West defeated Evanston by 12 points each this season.

“They’re talented,” Ellis said. “Someone said Clay’s best game was against us all season so when you play a guy like that, the talent stands out. Then you play Belleville West and the talent stands out. Not that there’s not talented players around our area but both teams had some size advantages on us that we didn’t handle and, to me, that was the difference.”

Will Shumpert, left, and Keith Randolph Jr., right, celebrate Belleville West's second straight IHSA Class 4A state championship, beating Evanston 71-59 on Saturday. (Photo credit: Jimmy J. Simmons)

Because of the competition they already see in their own league, there’s no intimidation from Southwestern Conference teams when they face the likes of Evanston.

“Especially this year, for us, we weren’t state-ranked but Belleville West, East St. Louis and Collinsville were all ranked,” Alton coach Eric Smith said. “When you’re going to play against quality teams, I don’t think our kids are too shocked or too intimidated to play somebody that is a good team.”

Clay, Liddell and Terrence Hargrove Jr. were all first team All-State selections by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association. West’s Lawrence Brazil III and Collinsville’s Ray’Sean Taylor were third-team selections. Talent brings a competitiveness to the league.

An interesting aspect is the Tuesday/Friday conference schedule, coupled with the competitiveness, prepares Southwestern Conference teams for the postseason schedule.

“It speaks a lot about 618 basketball and, our conference alone is awesome,” East St. Louis coach Mark Chambers said. “It gets you prepared for (state tournament) games. It kind of makes you understand why everything happens. All the tough games and different situations and different scenarios that you see throughout conference play, it really gets you prepared for this.”

Chicago Sun-Times writer Michael O’Brien proposed regular season bouts between the Public League and Southwestern Conference. The state would be watching.

Over the last two years, Belleville West and East St. Louis are 5-1 against Public League teams. Belleville West has beaten Whitney Young (2018 title game), Curie (2019 semifinal) and Simeon (2019 regular season). East St. Louis defeated three-time 2A champ Orr and then Bogan for the title. The Flyers lost in overtime to Curie.

The Southwestern Conference resumes are impressive.

Chambers says he wants the Flyers to become nationally relevant in basketball. Collinsville returns a strong squad. Metro East talent is cyclical and this would give them an opportunity to earn their respect and draw state-wide attention.

Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter is ready for the challenge, telling O’Brien “let the Southwestern Conference know they can get their top four teams and we will get our top four teams and we will play them yearly. The first year we will come to them. That way all the talk can be made a reality. Thanks for the challenge.”

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