March Madness is a term that’s become synonymous with Peoria in Illinois. That’s because this is the 25th year that the Illinois High School Association (IHSA Boys Basketball) tournament will be held at the Peoria Civic Center.
The Class 1A and 2A championship games will be played March 12-14 while Class 3A and 4A (the bigger schools) will square off on March 19-21.
“It’s become more than just a basketball event,” said Kurt Gibson, the IHSA’s associate executive director.
“We’ve been able to do a lot of things in Peoria—from youth clinics to wheelchair events. The March Madness Experience opened up new opportunities for the fans and the competing schools,” he said.
The March Madness Experience, a veritable basketball funhouse that operates in the Civic Center Exhibit Hall while games are played in Carver Arena next door, allows kids of all ages to take part in hands-on activities such as bungee basketball, Pop-a-Shot and Sky Ball. It also gives boys and girls the opportunity to try their hand at free throws or three-point shots. Gibson credited area volunteers and sponsors for making the Experience a popular attraction at each year’s tournament.
Royal Duncan, president of Royal Publishing, a Peoria-based company that publishes sports programs throughout the Midwest, is one of those that has followed IHSA Boys Basketball tournament games closely since the championships came to Peoria in 1996.
“I had an attendance streak of 332 straight tournament games (in Peoria) until I got the flu two years ago,” said Duncan. “I love high-school sports, especially basketball. I’ve had the opportunity to see great players compete here in Peoria such as Derrick Rose, Jon Scheyer and Jabari Parker,” he said.
But just as competition is a way of life on the basketball court, the same is true when it comes to deciding where to hold the tournament. The IHSA plans to announce the site for both the boys and girls tournaments for the next three years when association board members meet in April, said Gibson.
While Peoria and Champaign both put in bids for the boys tournament, Peoria is also battling Bloomington for the girls tourney that’s been held at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena since 1992.
J.D. Dalfonso, CEO of the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, believes Peoria has a chance to host both tournaments. “With the new format coming for the IHSA basketball tournaments, we felt this is a great opportunity to put a strong bid in for the girls, as well,” he said, pointing to the fact that next year, the IHSA will have all four classes decide a champion team over one weekend instead of two.
Meanwhile, Dalfonso’s opposite number, the head of the Champaign County visitors bureau, believes that renovations made to State Farm Center, the arena old-timers knew as the Assembly Hall, gives that venue a chance to host the tournament held on the U of I campus from 1919 to 1995.
The IHSA is looking to stem a decline in attendance at tournament games in recent years, said Gibson, admitting that one of the reasons he’s heard is the change from a two-class tournament to four classes.
“There are a lot of dynamics at play. There are also more entertainment opportunities for individuals now than there were just 10 years ago,” he said.
It’s not just IHSA Boys Basketball tournament games that have been impacted, said Gibson, citing attendance declines at regular-season games throughout the state.
While coaches and school officials work out plans to put more fans in the seats, one thing is certain: the excitement is building as March Madness arrives again in Peoria. Find details for the IHSA Boys Basketball games on the ExplorePeoria.com events calendar.