The News-Gazette’s boys’ basketball Top 10: Unity, SJ-O set for showdown

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Before postseason pairings come out Friday and before the final week of the regular season tips off next week, Sports Editor MATT DANIELS breaks down the best of the best on the area boys’ basketball scene:

1. Unity

➜ Record: 23-2

➜ Previous ranking: No. 1

➜ What’s working: A multi-faceted, balanced offense that is averaging 73.3 points during the Rockets’ current four-game win streak. It’s why Unity is still in the running for an Illini Prairie Conference title, although Andrew Thomas and his teammates will need to win Friday night against rival St. Joseph-Ogden in order to keep those chances intact entering the final week of the regular season. After the showdown with SJ-O at the Rocket Center in Tolono, Unity hits the road to play at Monticello next Tuesday night before wrapping up the regular season on Feb. 16 with a home game against St. Thomas More.

2. Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin

➜ Record: 25-3

➜ Previous ranking: No. 2

➜ What’s working: Pretty much everything. The Blue Devils are playing superb defense and delivering high-octane offense. It’s all added up to a 15-game win streak for Micah Stanford and Co. before an intriguing Vermilion Valley Conference game awaits on Friday night. BHRA will make the trip to Catlin to play a red-hot Salt Fork team that is 16-9 and has rattled off six straight wins, including quality ones against the likes of Westville, Watseka and Oakwood. After Friday night, the Blue Devils are set to conclude the regular season next Tuesday night with a home game against Schlarman.

3. St. Joseph-Ogden

➜ Record: 22-6

➜ Previous ranking: No. 3

➜ What’s working: Luke Landrus probably hopes he can put off St. Joseph-Ogden baseball practices until mid-March. The Illinois baseball signee is a key cog on the basketball court for the Spartans, who bring a four-game win streak to Unity on Friday night. Last Friday night’s win against Pontiac ensured SJ-O would win at least 20 games for the third straight season, and the Spartans control their destiny when it comes to the Illini Prairie Conference title chase. SJ-O is 7-0 in Illini Prairie games and can complete a perfect league slate if it beats Unity and wins next Tuesday at Paxton-Buckley-Loda.

4. Tuscola

➜ Record: 21-5

➜ Previous ranking: No. 5

➜ What’s working: Two wins against a quality program in Clinton should serve the Warriors well ahead of the Class 1A postseason. Jackson Barrett and pals picked up their second victory against the Maroons last Friday night in a close Central Illinois Conference Tournament third-place game on Clinton’s home court. The Warriors followed up that victory with a 21-point win against Meridian on Tuesday night. Tuscola will try to keep the good times rolling into the weekend when it hosts St. Teresa on Friday night before a showdown with Altamont at 8:30 p.m. Saturday as part of the CIC/NTC Shootout in Warrensburg.

5. Clinton

➜ Record: 24-4

➜ Previous ranking: No. 4

➜ What’s working: The Maroons made up for a close loss in late January to Warrensburg-Latham during the Central Illinois Conference Tournament with a thrilling 66-62 double-overtime win on Tuesday night in Warrensburg. After placing fourth at the CIC Tournament, Mason Walker and his teammates can wrap up the regular-season CIC title if they win on Friday night at home against Central A&M. Two more regular-season games — home against Tremont next Tuesday and at Argenta-Oreana next Thursday — are still on tap for coach Vic Binkley’s program before the Class 2A postseason arrives.

6. Centennial

➜ Record: 18-9

➜ Previous ranking: No. 8

➜ What’s working: An opportunity for a 20-win season before the Class 3A postseason tips off is there for the taking for the Chargers. A four-game win streak, bolstered by close home wins since Saturday at Coleman Carrodine Gymnasium against Chatham Glenwood and rival Champaign Central, have Kayden Peat and his teammates feeling confident going into Friday night’s Big 12 Conference game at Peoria. Veteran coach Tim Lavin, who secured his 400th win at Centennial last Friday night against Peoria Notre Dame, and his team will play its final home game of the season next Tuesday when it hosts rival Urbana.

7. Arcola

➜ Record: 20-6

➜ Previous ranking: No. 7

➜ What’s working: Two more Lincoln Prairie Conference games await for the front-runners for a league title. If the Purple Riders can win at Villa Grove on Friday night and beat Okaw Valley next Tuesday night in a home game at Nancy Stiff Gymnasium, Braden Phillips and Co. will have wrapped up an 11-0 record in Lincoln Prairie games. It’s turned into an impressive season for coach Greg Gisinger’s program, especially considering they were only sitting at 6-4 on the season after a lopsided home loss to Tuscola on Dec. 19. Since then, Arcola has gone 14-2 with both of its losses by a combined eight points.

8. Oakwood

➜ Record: 22-7

➜ Previous ranking: No. 6

➜ What’s working: A tough 43-39 home loss to Salt Fork on Tuesday night has Alec Harrison and the Comets wanting to avoid a two-game losing streak when they make the trip Friday to Danville and face Schlarman at Shebby Gymnasium. The loss to the Storm snapped a five-game win streak for Oakwood, but the Comets have gone 11-2 in 2024 after ending 2023 by placing fourth at the Monticello Holiday Hoopla. Once Friday night ends, Oakwood is scheduled for one final home game when it hosts La Salette next Tuesday before a loaded Class 2A postseason field awaits.

9. Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley

➜ Record: 18-9

➜ Previous ranking: No. 9

➜ What’s working: The past week has featured more games than practices for the Falcons, but they’ve rewarded coach Ryan Tompkins and their fans with three straight wins. All at home, too, with victories against Cissna Park, LeROy and Ridgeview. Brayden Elliott and the rest of his GCMS teammates will make the trip to Downs on Friday night for a Heart of Illinois Conference matchup against a good Tri-Valley team. That should prep the Falcons well for the upcoming Class 1A postseason, along with remaining HOIC home games against Heyworth next Tuesday and Tremont next Thursday.

10. St. Thomas More

Record: 19-8

Previous ranking: Not ranked

What’s working: No Class 1A team probably wants to see the Sabers in the postseason. Seven of the eight losses STM has sustained are against Class 2A programs, with the lone exception happening Dec. 22 at Heyworth in the championship game of the Heyworth Holiday Tournament. Andrew Tay and the rest of the Sabers bring a four-game win streak into Friday night’s Illini Prairie Conference game at Monticello. If STM doesn’t reach 20 wins for the second straight season against the Sages, a home game with Pontiac next Tuesday and a trip to play at Unity on Feb. 16 are still on the regular-season schedule.

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