Marian Catholic is the best in the Southland

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I could attempt to appease more readers and claim there were as many as a half-dozen teams in the running for the No. 1 spot in the SouthtownStar’s Boys Basketball Preseason Top 10.

That would be stretching the truth.

It was a three-team race, and each, in its own way, had the means to earn top honors.

It came down to defending Class 3A state champion Morgan Park, reigning Catholic League South champion St. Rita and Marian Catholic, fresh off a record-setting season in 2012-13.

So why Morgan Park? The Mustangs boast a pair of 6-foot-7 forwards in Josh Cunningham and Lamont Walker and a dynamic, young point guard in sophomore Charlie Moore.

Why St. Rita? Well, there’s Vic Law, a 6-7 Northwestern recruit, junior Charles Matthews, regarded as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2015, and senior Dominique Matthews, who averaged 16 points per game a year ago.

Why Marian? Well, the Spartans return their entire starting lineup from a team that won a school-record 29 games and advanced to its first Elite Eight, led by all-world point guard Tyler Ulis, a Kentucky recruit.

Selecting the best among the three was like judging a beauty pageant between the Victoria Secret Angels.

While I believe St. Rita, from top to bottom, with three bona fide Division I players, is the most talented squad in the Southland, talent alone doesn’t guarantee success.

That’s why Marian Catholic will begin the season as No. 1. Of course, the Spartans are talented. Ulis is the best player in the area, and I believe the seasoned, experienced supporting cast of Ki-jana Crawford, Josh Cohn, Terrone Parham and John Oliver will be even better this season.

Here’s what sets Marian apart: The Spartans realize Ulis is the star of the show and are willing to play Robin to his Batman. Ulis, in turn, is just as pleased to register the assist on a game-winning shot as he is burying a buzzer-beater.

In other words, egos are checked at the door. That’s as much a compliment to the players as it is to coach Mike Taylor and his staff.

Beginning his 11th season, Taylor has taken the program from the outhouse to the penthouse.

“We’re very proud to be No. 1,” Taylor said. “We have a great appreciation for south suburban basketball. We were never mentioned in the same sentence before with Bloom, Homewood-Flossmoor, Hillcrest, Thornton and Thornwood. Now, we are.”

Marian was able to fly under the radar for most of the first-half of last season. That won’t be the case beginning Monday vs. T.F. South. The Spartans better have a solid jaw, because every opponent is going to give them their best shot.

“I think the kids think they’re ready for it,” Taylor said. “I don’t think they realize how hard everyone is going to come at them. Our whole group is going to have to stand up.”

The one area concern for the Spartans is a lack of size. Parham, at 6-7, is their tallest player.

“We’re not much different than last year; we’re better in a lot of ways,” Taylor said. “But we haven’t gotten any bigger.”

Ulis has gotten noticeably stronger, according to Taylor, and that should scare the daylights out of opponents. Taylor also said Oliver and Cohn have improved their games big time.

Now it’s time to go out and live up to expectations.

“It’s going to be a battle every night,” Taylor said. “I’ve told them, ‘I don’t want your season to be defined by one game. Celebrate this year, celebrate each other, celebrate what you’ve accomplished.’

“It’s a special group of guys. It will be satisfying no matter what happens.”

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