Column: Move over, football. Catholic League Blue emerges as ‘best conference in the state’ for basketball.

The Catholic League Blue is wrapping up one of the most successful basketball regular seasons in the history of the storied conference.

Entering Monday, Brother Rice (26-3) and Mount Carmel (26-4) have flexed their muscles both in and out of league play, picking up tremendous wins along the way. As has DePaul Prep (26-2).

While outsiders have bemoaned the Catholic League’s football dominance over the years, the conference has sneakily ascended toward the top of the boys basketball landscape.

And now? Well, let’s hear from Brother Rice’s Marcos Gonzales.

“I think it’s the best conference in the state,” Gonzales said.

I’m with you, Marcos. The Catholic League Blue has clearly been the best in the state this winter.

It helps that the Chicago Public League is a bit down, but the CCL Blue has set itself apart.

Aside from the trio at the top of the standings, Loyola (24-6), De La Salle (18-11) and Fenwick (16-10) have had strong seasons and are positioned to make strong postseason runs.

Marcos Gonzales

Troy Stolt/Daily Southtown

Brother Rice’s Marcos Gonzales (3) steals the ball from Providence’s Zach Ford (4) during a Catholic League crossover game in New Lenox on Tuesday Jan. 9, 2024.

St. Ignatius (15-13) finished fourth last season in Class 3A and brought back some key pieces from that team, but the Wolfpack went just 2-5 in the CCL Blue. No other conference has a seventh-place team remotely as talented.

“There’s toughness all around,” Gonzales said. “Us, Mount Carmel, Loyola, De La Salle and a bunch of other teams.

“It’s always fun, especially with some of those teams being rivals. It’s always good to beat them. I’m just having fun and playing with a smile on my face.”

Coaches have had to endure the grind of constantly preparing for a tough opponent.

“This is my 27th year coaching in the Catholic League, and this has to be one of the top years in the league,” Mount Carmel coach Phil Segroves said. “There are obviously great players, but there are really good coaches.

Tom Kleinschmidt at DePaul, Tom Livatino at Loyola, Conte Stamas at Brother Rice. We’ve got guys who coach their kids hard and teach them good, and we’ve got good players on top of it.”

Mount Carmel's Angelo Ciaravino (33) breaks through the defense against Providence during a Catholic League crossover in New Lenox on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.
Mount Carmel’s Angelo Ciaravino (33) breaks through the defense against Providence during a Catholic League crossover game in New Lenox on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

Here’s what has impressed me most. The Catholic League Blue lost an all-star team’s worth of talent from last season.

Mount Carmel’s DeAndre Craig, Brother Rice’s Ahmad Henderson, De La Salle’s Evan Jackson and St. Ignatius’ Richard Barron were all-state players who graduated.

In the offseason, the league also lost its three most high-profile players when Illinois recruit Morez Johnson, North Carolina commit James Brown and Iowa State recruit Nojus Indrusaitis all left St. Rita.

Somehow, with that star power gone, the league has gotten better.

“Basketball is a team game,” Segroves said. “When you have coaches who can help 17 and 18-year-old kids buy into a team concept, amazing things can happen.

“Although there might not be a kid going to Duke or North Carolina or Michigan State, there are some really good basketball players throughout the league.”

Cale Cosme

Brother Rice's Cale Cosme (10) steals the ball from De La Salle's Richard Lindsey (21) during a Catholic League Blue game in Chicago on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

Troy Stolt/Daily Southtown

Brother Rice’s Cale Cosme (10) steals the ball from De La Salle’s Richard Lindsey (21) during a Catholic League Blue game in Chicago on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

When it comes to the state playoffs, the Catholic League has had plenty of small-school success over the years, but championships in the higher classes have been few and far between.

St. Joseph’s Class 3A title in 2014-15 is the league’s only championship in either of the top two classes since the expansion to the four-class system began in 2007-08.

This season, the top five teams in the league are all seeded first or second in their respective sectionals.

The 3A bracket is set up so Mount Carmel, the top seed in the Hinsdale South Sectional, DePaul Prep, the top seed in the St. Viator Sectional, and Brother Rice, the second seed behind the host Wildcats in the Thornton Sectional, could all make it to state before running into each other.

This is the chance for the conference to prove it’s truly ascended to the top and bring home some hardware from Champaign.

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