It feels like this has to be Stevenson’s year.
The Patriots ran into Young and Jahlil Okafor last season in the Class 4A state semifinals. In 2013 it was Simeon and Jabari Parker that did the damage, beating Stevenson in the state title game.
The good news for the Patriots is that a future top NBA draft pick doesn’t loom in the state finals this season. The bad news is the Patriots start the season with the target on their backs, the top-ranked team in the Sun-Times preseason Super 25.
“With all the hoopla we’ve been receiving it’s going to be a hard season,” said senior guard Jalen Brunson. “Teams are going to come out playing with nothing to lose and we will have a lot of pressure on our shoulders. I think we can handle it really well, just because of how our coaching staff prepares us.”
Brunson, who will play for Villanova next year, is the state’s top player and Stevenson returns three other starters from last year’s team: Connor Cashaw, Parker Nichols and Matt Johnson. Big things are expected of 6-5 sophomore Justin Smith, who was impressive in spurts last season.
“That bad feeling we had after losing to Young stayed with us the whole offseason,” said Cashaw, a Rice recruit. “We worked hard to push ourselves. Everyone is going to be after us, we have to play every game like it’s our last.”
The offseason hard work and the chemistry the core of Stevenson’s team has shown the past two seasons is the primary reason Simeon starts the season at No. 2 instead of No. 1. The Wolverines are bigger, deeper and more talented than the Patriots.
That didn’t matter last season though, as Stevenson beat Simeon fairly easily in late February. The squads have developed an intense rivalry. Johnson is curt and to the point when asked what will happen when the teams meet up in the City/Suburban Showdown this season: “the same thing.”
The Patriots will start the season without two key pieces: Cameron Green and Jeremy Webb. They are currently starring for Stevenson’s football team, also ranked No. 1 in the area.
“That shouldn’t be a big problem, they know when they get back what’s at stake and what’s expected of them,” said Brunson.
Brunson’s tone has changed. He’s not the soft-spoken sophomore of a few years back. He’s a full-fledged leader now, the alpha dog on a team with incredibly high expectations.
Stevenson is traveling out of state to a few high-profile national shootouts this season, something they haven’t done before. Brunson says not to worry about the extra travel sending the season off track.
“It’s going to be fun, a great bonding experience for the team,” said Brunson. “They aren’t vacations though, they are business trips. I’ve been stressing that and I’ll keep stressing it as we get closer to it.”
Brunson is the leader and the big talent on the team, but coach Pat Ambrose is the key. He somehow managed to keep Stevenson on the winning track for several years without much talent and the past few years he’s shown what he can do when the pieces are in place.
“(Ambrose) always has us prepared, always gets us loose, he’s a personable guy,” said Johnson. “You can talk to him about anything. If you feel comfortable with him, you feel comfortable going to battle with him.”
Michael O’Brien’s Super 25 boys basketball rankings
3. Morgan Park
5. St. Rita
6. St. Joseph
9. Lake Forest
13. De La Salle
14. Hinsdale Central
16. Plainfield East
19. West Aurora
21. Hyde Park
24. Maine South