Luther North faces some tall odds, in every sense of the word, on Friday night.
The Wildcats will host Mooseheart — a team with an NBA-sized front line — at 7 p.m. in a game that is the de facto Northeastern Athletic Conference championship game.
Both teams are unbeaten in league play and have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. Mooseheart, in fact, has emerged as one of the favorites in Class 1A, thanks to the play of 6-10 Makur Puou, who is averaging 22.7 points and 13.1 rebounds a game. The Red Ramblers are a difficult if not impossible matchup for most teams with him, 7-1 Akim Nyang and 6-7 Mangisto Deng.
But Jason Tucker, Luther North’s 29-year-old coach, dares to dream.
He remembers last season, when the Wildcats started two freshmen and two sophomores, and were within four points of the Red Ramblers at halftime before losing by 14.
It was not the most exciting basketball — Luther North refused to shoot for long stretches — but it was effective.
“We’re a very disciplined team,” Tucker said. “These guys are capable of holding the ball two-and-a-half, three minutes.”
The Wildcats also are also capable of playing a more conventional style. Chris Jenkins, a 6-2 junior guard, averages 18.7 points and 7.3 assists, both team bests, and is one of two Luther North players shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range (senior Nate Kurtz, who averages 14.2 ppg, is the other).
Sophomore Steven Zanders (10.1 ppg) is the team’s defensive stopper, while 6-4, 220-pound sophomore Allan Obazee, who wears a size 16 1/2 shoe, provides an inside presence and junior Stevon King runs the point.
Together, they are trying to make basketball relevant again at Luther North, which last had a winning season in 2003-04, last won a regional in 2002 and last won a conference title in 1969.
“We’re just trying to continue to build,” Tucker said. “Why can’t Luther North be a good program on the North Side of Chicago? I want to put this school on the map.”
Jenkins has bought into what Tucker’s selling: “He cares about us so much. Basketball never stops. He’s working in the summer, he’s working every day.”
Tucker, who played college ball at William Penn and Concordia Chicago, came along at a good time for Luther North. After serving as an assistant at Montini, the Northwest Side resident was looking to coach closer to home. He landed with the Wildcats as an assistant and was named head coach one year later in 2010.
It was a time of uncertainty for the school, which had fallen on hard times financially and was in danger of closing. Like a lot of private schools, Luther North was hit by the double whammy of the recession and the surge in charter school expansion.
To remain relevant, the school reinvented and rebranded itself, putting “College Prep” in its name and starting academies for business, health sciences and fine arts.
“The competition for kids is pretty tough,” said longtime athletic director Dave Grim. “I think if we could get to 200” — the enrollment has been around 170 for the past three years — “we could be real sustainable.”
Tucker is determined to see that happen. He started an annual alumni game and hosts summer camps, trying to get former and prospective students involved in the program. He’d also like to see the Luther North Christmas tournament, which has been downsized, return to a 16-team field.
He credits his staff — current assistants Will Price and Tom Allen and former aide Rich Huey — with helping restore the Wildcats’ roar.
And Tucker says he wants to stay right where he is for a long time: “I want to be the Gene Pingatore of Luther North.”
Pingatore, of course, is the state’s winningest coach with more than 900 victories in his 45th season. But even he started out with two losing seasons and didn’t get his overall record over .500 for good until a 31-2, state runner-up campaign in his ninth year.
So don’t laugh at Jason Tucker’s dream just yet.