Every program gets knocked backward at some point. Whether it’s inexperience, chemistry issues, poor senior play or some old fashioned misfortune, there are a number of ingredients that can go bad and sour a season.
There were moments last year when the following programs had their struggles. But the 2014-2015 is in the rearview mirror and every one of these teams should be feeling good about their chances –– their much-improved chances –– when this season tips off next week.
Here is a list of arguably the most improved teams from a year ago, a group of teams that struggled last year and were below the .500 mark. But they’re ready to roll in 2015-2016.
■ DOWNERS GROVE SOUTH
Last year: The Mustangs finished last in the West Suburban Gold with a 2-10 mark a year ago and wrapped up the regular season with a 5-23 mark.
Why they’re improved: Senior Donovan Ferguson, a 6-8 athletic big, has made significant strides, while 6-6 T.J. Clifford and 6-2 guard Denis Alibegovic have emerged as Division I prospects in the junior class.
How improved are they? After finishing with just five wins a year ago, this is a team that will vault into the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s preseason top 25 and at least triple their win total from a year ago.
■ JOLIET WEST
Last year: Coach Nick DiForti’s teams have been young and inexperienced since he took over this program two years ago. The youth has led to 9-16 and 11-16 seasons.
Why they’re improved: While the bulk of the talent in the program are still just juniors, they are now playing with varsity experience under their belt. Trevian Bell, a 6-4 wing who averaged 10 points a game last year, is among the top 20 prospects in the junior class. With Bell and junior guard Teyvion Kirk making big jumps this season, the fortunes of the Tigers will be changing.
How improved are they? With both H-F and Bolingbrook coming back to the pack, it’s a chance for Joliet West, in its final year of playing in the Southwest Suburban Blue before moving to the Southwest Prairie, to make a surprise run at a conference title.
■ MARIAN CATHOLIC
Last year: The Spartans were very young and took a big hit with the loss of 6-6 T.J. Smith (knee injury) before the season even started. As a result, coach Mike Taylor’s team, while still competitive, finished 14-16 and just 2-7 in the East Suburban Catholic Conference.
Why they’re improved: There are an abundance of players on this team, young and seasoned, who now have varsity experience. Having a healthy Smith, a Division I prospect in the junior class who missed all of last season, is reason enough for significant improvement. But sophomore guards Brandon Hurt and Chase Adams, along with 6-8 junior TeeAaron Powell and 6-8 senior Myles Howard, will all make jumps in consistency and productivity.
How improved are they? The sky is the limit for this team. We’re talking a potential top 10 team in the Chicago area and one of the favorites in the ESCC.
■ MT. CARMEL
Last year: While the Caravan always play a competitive schedule, coach Mike Flaherty’s team struggled, nonetheless, finishing 10-20.
Why they’re improved: There is some real talent in place, including the return of four of its top six players from last season. The most talented player, 6-5 Christian Peevy, missed the last six weeks of last year with a shattered cheekbone. The versatile Peevy continues to blossom, while Jake Rhode (16 ppg) and Nick Chambers (13 ppg) are two other returning starters.
How improved are they? This is a real sleeper in the Catholic League and will be one of the biggest turnaround teams in the Chicago area. There is enough talent in place for the Caravan to flip their record around from a year ago.
■ GLENBARD WEST
Last year: The Hilltoppers finished 12-16 overall and went just 4-8 in conference play.
Why they’re improved: Senior star Justin Pierce is better than ever. Pierce, a 6-5 wing headed to William & Mary, had a big junior year (16.6 ppg), but his game and confidence have taken big steps forward since last year. With Pierce and senior guards Alex Passi (11.6 ppg) and Brian Cochrane, coach Tim Hoder has a trio of three-year starters. Depth and balance, however, remain a big concern.
How improved are they? Well, going from a below .500 team to likely being the best Glenbard West team since the John Shurna days is saying something. It’s not out of the question that Glenbard West could make a run at a West Suburban Silver title. But reversing last year’s record is probably more realistic.
■ GLENBARD EAST
Last year: For a program that averaged 21 wins a year from 2005-2013, the past two seasons have certainly been uncharacteristic. The Rams finished 13-16 overall and 6-8 last year in its move to the Upstate Eight Valley.
Why they’re improved: Experience. The Rams return four starters and four players who will have three years of varsity experience, including guard Terrance Lakes, Zach Walsh (10 ppg) junior Mike Finley (10 ppg) and 6-5 Peter Peterkin (12 ppg, 7 rpg)
How improved are they? The page has been flipped as this team could push towards the 20-win mark and a possible league title.
■ HOFFMAN ESTATES
Last year: It was very forgettable as the Hawks were winless in the Mid-Suburban League West and lost 20 games overall.
Why they’re improved: There are four starters returning, including a catalyst in Jorden Thornton. In Thornton, the Hawks have a veteran senior guard capable of taking over at crunch time after averaging 15.7 points a game as a junior. Lamont McIntosh is returning at point guard, while 6-6 Brandon Hall (10.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) could be one of the more improved players in the Chicago area this year.
How improved are they? Worst to first in the MSL West isn’t out of the question. This could be coach Luke Yanule’s best team since taking over the program in 2011, better than his 18-win team in 2013-2014.
Last year: After winning 25 games and a regional championship the year before, last season was a struggle as Carmel went just 1-8 in East Suburban Catholic Conference play and lost 20 games for the first time since the 2008-2009 season.
Why they’re improved: How can you not be with five players who have started at some point, including a veteran backcourt of point guard Shareif Bailey (13 ppg, 4 apg) and Western Illinois recruit Chris Duff (21 ppg)? While there is still zero size on this team, maybe promising freshman Johnny Roeser can provide a lift.
How improved are they? No, they’re not going to contend for the top spot in the ESCC. That’s reserved for Marian Catholic and Niles Notre Dame. But the Corsairs can certainly make the jump from a one-win league team to an upper-half division team. And, when it comes to March and Class 3A in the northern suburbs? With experienced, talented guards and a competitive schedule to prepare them, Carmel could emerge as one to watch in sectional play.
■ GLENBROOK SOUTH
Last year: After a quick start last year, Glenbrook South limped home in the final two months of the regular season with a 1-13 mark to finish 10-18 overall.
Why they’re improved: Jimmy Martinelli, a 6-6 workhorse, is the type of senior to lean on after averaging 14 points and 5 rebounds a game as a junior. He’s one of three returning starters and among a handful of players who saw varsity minutes.
How improved are they? Evanston should rule the Central Suburban League South, but Glenbrook South could be in the mix this year with Maine South, New Trier and Niles West for that No. 2 spot. More importantly, this team has a chance to be above the .500 mark for the first time since 2008-2009.
Last year: With a 8-17 record, it was the first single-digit win total at Bloom in 20 years. In addition, the Blazing Trojans finished one game out of the Southland Conference basement just one year after winning a league title.
Why they’re improved: A change at the top doesn’t always guarantee improvement. But first-year head coach Dante Maddox will provide a different look and feel, which is a plus when coming off a losing season. It’s expected that underrated senior Jamal Parks continues his progression. With Parks, high-energy forward Maxwell Brown and guard Rodney Hayes, Maddox does have some building blocks.
How improved are they? That’s a tough call as it remains to be seen how this team comes together under Maddox. But it should be far removed from the 8-win team of a year ago and, if things fall into place, Bloom should battle Crete-Monee for Southland Conference supremacy.
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