PEKIN - Two years ago the Normal Community West High School basketball team drew eventual runner-up Colleyville (Texas) in the first round of the Pekin Holiday Tournament.
Last season the Wildcats opened against Chicago Westinghouse, which went on to win its second straight title.
Today's 9 a.m. first-round opponent for the 4-3 Wildcats will be Mid-Illini Conference member Morton (4-7), and Wildcats coach Brian Cupples likes his team's chances to move into the winner's bracket of the venerable three-day, 16-team event at Pekin High School.
"After the past two years, we feel like we have a definite chance of winning that first game and that's not taking anything away from Morton," Cupples said. "We have to play well, but we feel like we can win. One of my goals is to get in that winner's bracket and play really good people and see where we're at."
Freeport (7-1), led by 6-foot-3 Butler recruit Willie Veasley, is the top seed followed by No. 2 Rockford Boylan (7-1), No. 3 Washington (6-2) and No. 4 Moline (7-1). Only the top four teams are seeded in the tournament, which culminates with Thursday's 6:30 p.m. championship game.
"I know Freeport is really well coached and the Beasley kid is pretty good, and Boylan is pretty good," Cupples said. "It might be a little more spread out this year compared to last year when there were two or three dominant teams. It might be a little bit more of an even playing field."
West is hoping to build off its last game, a 59-43 victory over Peoria Central Dec. 17 at Normal. The Wildcats ended the first half with a 13-0 run to break away form a 19-19 tie and shot 52 percent from the field overall.
"You're only as good as your last game, and I like the way we played against Peoria Central," Cupples said. "I liked our defense, rebounding, ballhandling and our team play. Now we have to do that every night. We'll see."
The Wildcats are led by the interior trio of Cody White, Luke Stewart and Matt Paska. White, a 6-6 junior, averages a team-high 14 points and seven rebounds. Stewart, a 6-6 Georgia baseball recruit, adds 10 points and five rebounds while Paska, a 6-5 sophomore, adds nine points and four rebounds.
If West beats Morton it could face No. 11-ranked Washington in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
"I don't think we've come close to playing to our capabilities, individually or as a team," Cupples said. "We've told the kids let's start cranking it up and build some momentum going into January. It would be nice to play Washington in the second round and compete against one of the better teams in the state and see how we match up."
Washington, still stinging from last week's 49-45 home loss to Normal Community, will open against Burlington Central at 10:30 a.m. today. The Panthers are led by 6-2 sophomore standout Matt Roth (13 ppg) and 6-7 senior Tyler Wallenfang.
"We just didn't come out with the energy we needed to (against NCHS)," said Washington coach Kevin Brown, the former Central Catholic coach. "They slowed that game down and it put us in a little bit of a daze and we weren't able to respond when we needed to. We have to pick up our defense. We've had trouble getting that defensive stop when we need it."
Veasley averages 24.1 points for Freeport, which is coming off a 46-44 loss to Rockton Hononegah. Veasley is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, including 6-6 senior Gavin Taylor and 6-5 junior Matt Weik.
Rockford Boylan and 26-year veteran coach Steve Goers feature a balanced attack led by 6-1 senior guard Andrew Weber (16 ppg), 6-4 junior forward Tori Boyd (13.6 ppg) and 6-5 senior center Vernon Sims (12.5).
"It's a solid field," Brown said. "I think it's a little bit more balanced than last year."
Another player to watch is Peoria Richwoods' junior Billy Cole, who has orally committed to Illinois.