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Henricksen: Are these 10 contenders or pretenders?

While the usual suspects are at the top grabbing headlines (Stevenson, Simeon, Morgan Park and St. Joseph) and new arrivals are living up to the hype (St. Rita, Kenwood and Lake Forest), there have been plenty of early-season surprises.

Maybe “surprises” isn’t the right way to describe all of these teams, with several welcoming back the nucleus from last year’s team. But they didn’t get the preseason love, rankings or hype. Just because they were outside the Top 25 when the season began didn’t mean the expectations were non-existent; several of the listed teams here were among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s sleepers list in the preseason.

We are a full month into the season. And early-season basketball can often bring overly optimistic forecasts. Don’t be fooled by the small sample size.

But the following questions now surround these teams who have jumped out of the gate so quickly: Will the fast start of these teams continue? Are they equipped to handle the challenges of a conference grind? And which fast-starting teams have a legit shot of competing for conference championships and be a major factor this March?

We begin to sort out the contenders from the pretenders.

HALES FRANCISCAN (9-1)

Arguably the biggest surprise of the season thus far. The Spartans ran through the south suburbs in November, beating Hillcrest, Bloom and Thornwood. Then Hales knocked off Fenwick. The lone loss came to St. Joseph by just four points.

It’s been noted over and over again this team doesn’t have a star, which this program has been so noted for over the years (Nate Minnoy, JaVale McGee, Jerome Randle, the Armstead brothers and Patrick Miller among others). But there is no offensive pecking order for opponents to scout and game plan for as it’s a balanced and cohesive group.

The realist: Yes, you better believe Hales is a contender –– a contender to win this week’s McDipper, a contender in the Catholic League, as a bonafide Top 25 team to stay and as a state title contender in Class 2A this March. Want a crystal ball? How about a Hales-Uplift Class 2A super-sectional at Joliet Central?

MARIST (11-2)

Off to the races with 11 wins in the first four-plus weeks of the season, coach Gene Nolan’s club, led by senior guard Jeremiah Ferguson, has been a surprise. Plus, there is an influx of young talent, including junior guard Chamar Hawkins and sophomore guard Malik Parker. The lone notable win came over St. Patrick, with losses to both DePaul College Prep and T.F. South.

The realist: A lot will be learned with a trip south to Centralia this week, but the realist says piling up wins at the rate Marist has will be awfully difficult going forward. The ceiling here is likely a top four finish in the East Suburban Catholic and playing for a regional championship in a good but not great Eisenhower Sectional two months from now.

ADDISON TRAIL (9-1)

The Blazers haven’t received a single headline. But the fact AT heads to Centralia this holiday break with a 9-1 record should be a big story. This is groundbreaking, folks. When coach Brendan Lyons took over the program in 2007, it was as downtrodden of a program as one could find –– the Blazers were 10-88 the previous four years.

While Lyons has yet to have a winning record at Addison Trail, he’s slowly made the Blazers more competitive, building to 11 wins a year ago. And now? The season’s impressive start already includes wins over Naperville Central and Lake Park.

The realist: This winning stuff is all new territory. Enjoy it, Blazers! The bottom line is it’s a much more competitive Addison Trail team, but it’s still more pretender than contender when looking at that glitzy record. This probably isn’t a team ready to challenge the top two dogs in the West Suburban Gold –– Proviso East and Morton. But it would be great for this program to put together enough wins for a decent sectional seed and to be playing for something (a regional championship, perhaps?) late in the season.

RIVERSIDE-BROOKFIELD (9-0)

Some day Riverside-Brookfield is going to have been called underrated so often it’s eventually going to be overrated, right? Winning is nothing new to the Bulldogs, who are on pace to win 20-plus games for the seventh consecutive year. But getting there wasn’t supposed to be so easy this year with a young nucleus. But senior Sam Johnson has blossomed and the young players in the program are producing in a big way. You have to love a balanced team with a plethora of scoring options, which the Bulldogs possess.

You can’t fault R-B for playing in the weak Metro Suburban. It is what it is. The Bulldogs annually upgrade the non-conference schedule. They’ve beaten Lyons Twp. already, head to the York Holiday Tournament and have dates with Evanston, St. Charles East and St. Ignatius in the second half of the season.

The realist: Although Lake Forest is the favorite at the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament at York this week, Riverside-Brookfield is very capable of putting together a five-game streak and winning it. Chalk up another conference title for the Bulldogs while you’re at it. They will also be poised to win the program’s first regional title since 2011.

PLAINFIELD NORTH (7-1)

The lone loss so far was a last-second defeat to Plainfield East and Aaron Jordan. The 2008-2009 team won a school record 26 games and a regional championship; that’s a lofty goal but attainable for high-scoring guard Trevor Stumpe and the Tigers.

The realist: We would all love to see this team square off with a Curie or Simeon at Pontiac for the perfect measuring stick. While we will learn a lot about the Tigers over the holidays, this is a conference and regional championship contender, regardless. Take a look at that Bolingbrook Sectional field … And start dreaming Plainfield North!

ST. CHARLES EAST (9-1)

Although a surprise to many, this was a team just lying in the weeds when the season began and was a City/Suburban Hoops Report sleeper in the preseason. Plus, when you trot out a talented and winning point guard like Cole Gentry, who makes everyone around him better while also capable of carrying a team, success will quickly follow.

The realist: After one full month of basketball, St. Charles East is a legit contender. The Saints are poised to win a holiday tournament (at DeKalb) and are a front-runner in a very competitive conference (Upstate Eight River). Most importantly, STC East looks to be a bonafide threat in March, though the Saints will have to win a regional at Geneva.

NILES NOTRE DAME (9-1)

The Dons had all the makings of being a sleeper entering the season and were certainly on a short list of contenders for “most improved team” after last season’s 13-16 mark. With a solid and improving young core being pulled along nicely by underrated senior guard Joe Mooney, coach Tom Les has a team ready to compete at a high level.

The realist: Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a contender here! Notre Dame has a shot at winning the Wheeling Holiday Tournament (the Dons are in the semifinals Dec. 26 vs. Lake Park) and, while many had St. Viator as a slight favorite in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, it’s easy to say Notre Dame is now the favorite heading into January. And you could argue, right now –– on Dec. 26 –– Notre Dame would be the No. 2 seed behind Stevenson in the Waukegan Sectional.

LINCOLN-WAY WEST (7-0)

What we do know is Lincoln-Way West is on top of the Lincoln-Way leader board as five of its seven wins have come against Lincoln-Way schools. The other two wins came against Thornridge and T.F. North by a combined seven points. That’s a pretty small sample size, however, when trying to figure out if this is a pretender or contender.

With a young, promising team last year, a rise in Lincoln-Way West basketball was somewhat expected. Now, just how far and quickly can the program rise? Remember, there has only been five years of Lincoln-Way West basketball and high water mark for wins has been 12.

The realist: The schedule has been soft and a trip to the Romeoville Holiday Tournament this week probably won’t provide an answer, either, to the contender vs. pretender question. And with Bradley-Bourbonnais, Thornwood and Thornton in its way in the Southwest Suburban Red, the role of spoiler will have to do. But the program is coming along, with better days to come regardless of what transpires over the next couple of months as the top two players, 6-7 junior Jon Marotta (15 ppg, 5 rpg) and sophomore point guard Marco Pettinato (12 ppg, 5.6 apg), both return next year.

ST. IGNATIUS (7-1)

There were seven players returning who either started or played extensive minutes on last year’s 13-16 team. Senior Riley Doody is a rock solid veteran at point guard, while 6-6 junior Danny Ogele is one of the better secrets in the Class of 2016. The only loss came to unbeaten Lake Forest, 48-46, at Thanksgiving.

The realist: While the Wolfpack may not have a signature win just yet, there are many reasons to believe in Ignatius. Experienced team, solid point guard play, an emerging big man inside, just enough perimeter shooting and Rich Kehoe as coach? Those are some nice ingredients in moving your way into contender status. But it won’t be easy in a top-heavy Catholic League and a very deep Morton Sectional field.

LAKE PARK (12-2)

After winning 16 games a year ago and returning the bulk of last year’s team, including four returning starters, Lake Park had visions of pushing towards a 20-win season. The Lancers are right on pace. The perimeter-oriented Lancers, led by point guard Marcus McDaniel, may not have much size but they shoot the three very well with McDaniel, Cam Van Aswegen, Connor Vance, Tim Weiss and Stefan Meccia.

The realist: Maybe it is for the wrong reasons –– playing in a weak conference and a soft sectional –– but we’re talking about a contender rather than a pretender here. With experience and guard play, Lake Park has emerged as the DVC favorite, while it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Barrington Sectional tipped off in a couple of months without a single ranked team. What that means is Lake Park could very well be in position for a run this March.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport