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St. Charles East guard and Purdue recruit Kendall Stephens (21) will make his debut in the Proviso West Tournament on Dec. 26. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media

Pat McInerney started on Benet’s Proviso West tournament champion team two years ago. “This is the coolest tournament I’ve ever played in,” he said. “The crowd, the atmosphere, knowing that you’re playing the best teams in Illinois, and especially now with 16 extra teams, it’s like an NCAA tournament.”

The holiday tournament landscape has been dominated by Proviso West and Pontiac through their strangeholds on elite programs and individual stars. In the late 1970s, Proviso West seized the spotlight with all-time greats like Mark Aguirre (Westinghouse), Isiah Thomas (St. Joseph) and Glenn Rivers (Proviso East).

Pontiac responded with great teams, the Quincy dynasty in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Peoria Manual’s four-time state champions and Simeon’s great run of state titles and superstars such as Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker.

Now Proviso West has upped the ante by expanding the field to 32. Proviso East coach Donnie Boyce has a unique perspective who holds the rare distinction of winning the tournament as a player in 1990 and being the defending tournament champion. “It’s long overdue,” he said of the tournament expansion. “More great teams and great players and they get a chance to see and experience this tournament,” he said.

The first round of the upper bracket unfolded on Saturday with some lopsided games, but the excitement and interest was palpable for the 52nd edition that resumes play on Wednesday for the lower-bracket teams.

The name, recognition and expansion has drawn some enticing programs and players of note: Glenbard East, St. Charles East and once-beaten programs Stevenson and Maine South key the new list of entrants. The spotlight cuts both ways. Teams and players operate under the cachet of the tournament, and Proviso West culls established and rising stars from other tournaments, like Purdue recruit Kendall Stephens of St. Charles East and 6-2 Stevenson sopohomore star Jalen Brunson.

They both make their Proviso West debuts Wednesday.

The field is toploaded with three teams (Morgan Park, Homewood-Flossmoor and Proviso East) in the top five of the Chicago Sun-Times’ rankings. A fourth team, Oswego, is ranked No. 9. (By contrast, Pontiac only has two top ten ranked teams, Simeon and West Aurora.)

Proviso West has always been as much spectacle as tournament, a sense heightened this year by increased corporate sponsorship and the presence of Jordan Brand, the division of Nike. The second gym in the fieldhouse has a beautiful hardwood court marked with the Jordan Brand logo. There are also special players’ and fans’ lounges, with a barbershop and high-definition televisions.

“It’s still the Proviso West tournament,” said Morton coach Tony Martinucci, whose team won the tournament in 2008. “It could be eight teams or 64 teams, and it’s still the tournament I started coming here 30 years ago to see great teams.”

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