BLOOMINGTON - A recent basketball practice attracted some former players to Thornwood High School. The timing was ideal for Thunderbirds' coach Bob Curran.
With his team preparing for this week's State Farm Holiday Classic, Curran didn't have to talk at length about restoring Thornwood's dominance in the Class AA portion of the tournament. The message was delivered by the ex-players, some of whom helped the Thunderbirds win four straight Classic titles from 1999 through 2002.
"I think they (the current players) got that feeling they want to start the tradition again down there," Curran said. "Hopefully, they'll come down there with the attitude they want to bring back the hardware."
Thornwood (6-1) is seeded first in the 16-team Class AA bracket, followed by Rockton Hononegah (7-2), defending champion Mount Zion (6-2) and Tinley Park Andrew (5-4). The lone Pantagraph area hopeful, Normal Community (2-4), is seeded 10th after placing second last year, third in 2003 and second in '02.
Games will run today through Friday at Illinois Wesleyan's Shirk Center and Illinois State's Horton Field House.
Thornwood is led by junior guards Trey Blue and Reggie Hamilton. Both average 15 points per game on a team Curran called "a pleasant surprise."
"We had some kids who had to miss the summer - an injury with one and a freshman who came in and made a big difference," said Curran, in his fourth year as head coach after serving as Thornwood's sophomore coach. "I wasn't sure how we'd be."
The freshman is 6-foot-5, 300-pound Steve Walker, who because of his bulk and size 17 shoes has drawn comparisons to former Thornwood star and current NBA player Eddy Curry.
Walker is among the first players off the bench, averaging six points and five rebounds.
"He has some of the same things as Eddy - a soft touch and he's good around the basket," Curran said. "Eddy was about 6-9½ (as a freshman) and this young man is 6-5.
"He's a gifted scorer. Our main concern was whether or not he could defend. He still has a long way to go, but you can trust him a little bit."
Thornwood struggled offensively last year, finishing 11-15 despite holding opponents to 38 points per game. This year's team is scoring 60 points per contest, while Curran said the Thunderbirds "are still developing" on the defensive end.
"We were in every game last year. We just didn't finish games well," he said. "This team is doing a better job of that."
Rockton Hononegah went 10-19 a year ago, and while Coach Mike Miller was encouraged by the play of a talented sophomore team, he said this season's 7-2 start "has been exciting for us."
Miller has three sophomores and four juniors in his 10-man rotation. The Indians' balanced attack is led by 6-0 senior guards Zac Johnson (9.3 points per game) and Richard Brown (7.6) and 6-2 senior forward Eric Miller (7.0).
"Our whole team is around 6-1 or 6-2," said Mike Miller, former coach at Galesburg. "If people enjoyed watching Lincoln's team, we're very similar in that we have a lot of guys who are the same size and we'll shoot 3s and run backdoor cuts on you. I think we're pretty entertaining to watch."
Miller considers the AA field to be "more balanced than ever before," adding, "Thornwood is obviously No. 1, but I think you could make a case for 2 through 11 being pretty close - 2 through 16, really."
Mount Zion returns first-team all-tournament selection Zach Lewis, a senior guard averaging 18 points and six rebounds. Six-five senior Chris Day adds 12 points per game and point guard Steve Agee is at 11 points and five assists.
"We're similar (to last year)," Coach Jay Driscoll said. "We play really good defense and we look to take care of the ball. But I think we're more explosive offensively. We're running a little more and I have more scorers than last year.
"Our kids like playing at Shirk Center. Being there before and having success up there helps."
Fourth-seeded Tinley Park Andrew was 5-2 before recent losses to Lockport and 8-1 Burbank Reavis. It has been a positive start after losing eight seniors off of last year's 18-8 team.
The only returning players with significant playing time were seniors Wes Klockowski and Don Malic. The 6-5 Klockowski has a team-leading 13.4 scoring average and the 5-9 Malic adds 10.
"We try to push the ball, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way," Coach Mike O'Halloran said. "For the most part, we're a man-to-man team and we like to run."
Normal Community started 0-4, largely because eight players were on the Class 6A state runner-up football team. A Decatur teachers strike also wiped out one game, but NCHS has rebounded with wins over Mattoon (55-40) and No. 11 state-ranked Washington (49-45).
The Ironmen open against seventh-seeded Galesburg at 9 p.m. today at Shirk.
"We're excited to get four games in a row and be able to evaluate what we need to work on for the rest of the season," NCHS coach Dave Witzig said.
"These sophomores and juniors have come to the games in the past and seen us be successful in this tournament. We feel like we're the hometown team. We're playing on the Shirk Center and Horton Field House floors, places we've had a lot of experience."
The only out-of-state team in the AA bracket is Gainesville, Fla., which is seeded 12th. The youthful Hurricanes have two seniors, one junior, nine sophomores and two freshmen.