Expectations for the Elmhurst men’s basketball team may seem modest, but playing in the CCIW will add a note of caution to any forecast.
“I think from a talent perspective, we have a team that can be in the top half of the league,” said coach John Baines, whose Bluejays (14-3, 4-2 after a 75-50 home victory against North Park on Wednesday night) are ranked No. 22 in NCAA Division III at D3Hoops.com. “People say that’s not really a lofty goal, but we’ve had five of our eight [CCIW] teams in the top 25 this year. So if you finish in the top half, you’re probably going to be one of the top 25 teams in the nation, and that puts us in the conference tournament and in the position to make the NCAA tournament.”
The Bluejays pulled off one of the league’s toughest feats on Saturday, winning 66-57 at North Central, which fell from No. 9 to No. 17 after the loss. Kyle Wuest, a 6-1 junior guard, had a rugged shooting night, going 3-for-14, but made 16 of 17 free throws to lead the Bluejays with 23 points. For the season, Wuest leads the team with 15.8 points per game, while 6-7 junior center-forward Will Nixon leads with 100 rebounds and 25 blocked shots.
“Kyle Wuest is a completely different player from a year ago,” Baines said. “He really worked over the summer. He doesn’t do anything unbelievably well, but he shoots the three pretty well, he drives it hard pretty well, he shoots well from the line, he rebounds well as a guard. Will Nixon transfered to us last year [from Wayne State]. He’s a really good defensive player and really hits the glass hard.
“We’ve played 16 games, we’ve had six guys lead us in scoring, five guys lead us in rebounding, and six guys lead us in assists. We’ve got a lot of good players that can step up a little bit.”
Baines took over after Elmhurst went 6-19, 2-12 two years ago. The Bluejays improved to 14-11, 6-8 in Baines’ first year. He’d spent the previous four seasons coaching St. Francis in Joliet after nine years as an Elmhurst assistant.
“From ’07-’09 we were a top 10 team in the nation, and I think we had a good foundation then,” he said. “I knew the landscape and I knew it could be done here.”
With four victories in a row and 10 in its last 12 games, St. Francis of Joliet (16-5, 10-0 CCAC after a 84-75 victory against visiting Judson on Wednesday night) has cracked the top 25 in the NAIA Division II poll. The Saints moved into the No. 24 spot after an 81-74 victory Saturday at Trinity Christian in Palos Heights.
Ilya Ilyayev, a 6-5 junior forward, has led the Saints with 17.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Also scoring in double figures are 6-2 junior guard Edvinas Presniakovas (14.7 points per game) and 6-8 junior center-forward Jens Kennedy (13.3).