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Rantoul Eagles (18-6) vs. Thornton Fractional North Meteors (19-3)
Date: Saturday, 7 p.m.
The Eagles are on fire, having won 11 of their last 12, including Friday night’s slim 64-62 road win over St. Joseph-Ogden which secured them a second consecutive Okaw Valley Conference title — in the last year of the Okaw’s existence before moving to the Illini Prairie Conference next year.
An entirely different animal comes to town on Saturday, though. Following Tuesday’s Senior Night against Unity and Friday’s battle against St. Thomas More in Knightstown, Ind., at “Hoosier Gym,” Rantoul on Saturday faces a big and athletic T.F. North team that is one of the state’s hottest teams.
This type of opponent will be the perfect test for the Eagles heading into the postseason. If their goal is to win a regional championship and advance even further in the Class 3A postseason, the Eagles will learn plenty about their strengths and weaknesses going up against the 4A Meteors before ending the year against 4A Danville.
While Rantoul is enjoying a hot run right now, T.F. North has been just as impressive. Similar to the Eagles’ disappointing fifth-place run at the Taylorville Holiday Tournament in late December, the Meteors took fifth place at the Centralia Holiday Tournament post-Christmas and have been on a roll ever since.
The Meteors have won nine straight, using their height and athleticism to their advantage with a pressure-packed full-court press to boot. They are led by head coach Tim Bankston, who was named to the Chicago Tribune’s 1980s all-decade team as a player for Chicago Simeon.
Bankston was also a teammate and great friend of Ben Wilson, the former Simeon great who was once considered the No. 1 high school player in the nation and was dubbed “Magic Johnson with a jump shot” by his coach Bob Hambric. Wilson, the subject of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Benji” in which Bankston was featured, was murdered prior to his senior season at Simeon.
Secondary ball handlers must shine
Rantoul starting point guard Duck Gibson has struggled at times with turnovers, but he has mostly been efficient during the past few weeks. T.F North runs a full-court press, feeding off traps in the back court, similar to what the Eagles would like to do. Other ball handlers like Meech Hudson, Deshante Ingram, Eric Cole and Erick Johnson will have to step up and show poise while getting mugged by a multitude of defenders, including six Meteor players who are 6-foot-4 or taller.
Keep the foot on the accelerator
One of the negative points made about T.F. North is that it often finds itself with big leads, but it doesn’t go in for the kill and often let off the gas pedal. If the Meteors create havoc with turnovers, things could get out of hand — but only if they stay aggressive.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The senior forward has been on an absolute tear the past few weeks, averaging 27.3 points per game in the last four. If his brother Kevonte, out since Dec. 28 with a broken left hand, is still not cleared to play, the 6-6, 225-pound Kevin Williams will be the only one who can match up with the Meteors’ clear height advantage. Williams’ last four scoring performances: 29 points, career-high 35, 23, and 22 (all in the second half). One of those games he was three assists shy of a triple-double.
The 6-foot-1 senior guard is averaging 21 points and three steals per game. The Meteors also feature a trio of 6-5 players, and 6-foot-6 Michael Williams Jr. can be a game-changer with his 13 ppg and six rebounds per game. Joel Deere averages 13 ppg and six assists from his guard spot.
Sports editor's Week 12 area basketball picks (Overall record: 63-17)
All games are boys' games
Unity vs. Maroa-Forsyth, Feb. 18 (Pick: Unity)
St. Joseph-Ogden vs. Monticello, Feb. 17 (Pick: Monticello)
Armstrong-Potomac at Bismarck-Henning, Feb. 17 (Pick: B-H)
Fisher at Fieldcrest, Feb. 17 (Pick: Fisher)
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley at Lexington, Feb. 17 (Pick: GCMS)
Paxton-Buckley-Loda vs. Cissna Park, Feb. 17 (Pick: PBL)
Rantoul vs. St. Thomas More, Feb. 17 (Pick: Rantoul)
Rantoul vs. Thornton Fractional North, Feb. 18 (Pick: TFN)
Arcola at Okaw Valley, Feb. 17 (Pick: Okaw Valley)
Centennial vs. Peoria, Feb. 17 (Pick: Peoria)