With the season now just days away, the City/Suburban Hoops Report begins its breakdown of the Chicago area’s top 25 teams, beginning with No. 16 through No. 25 today, followed by No. 6 through No. 15 on Sunday and the top five on Monday.
16. DOWNERS GROVE SOUTH
The good: Is this ranking premature? Maybe. But there is nothing like seeing significant improvement. And that’s what you will see in all of Downers South’s top four players: 6-8 senior Donovan Ferguson and the junior trio of 6-6 T.J. Clifford, 6-2 Denis Alibegovic and 6-3 Dylan Kaczmarek. Ferguson is a rangy, bouncy inside threat who plays above the rim and showed flashes of moving from potential to production this past offseason. It’s hard not to root for Clifford, a blue-collar workhorse with more skill and athleticism than people realize. And Alibegovic is one of the top perimeter shooters in the junior class and can spread the floor with the best of them. Senior point guard Sam Ebersold has plenty of weapons surrounding him.
The bad: These preseason expectations for a team that finished 5-23 last year may be a bit much, especially for a team relying so heavily on juniors. The earlier this team has success, the better for its confidence going forward.
What to expect: There may not be a team in the Chicago area who increases their win total more than the Mustangs, who could push towards 20 wins after just five victories a year ago. Challenging for a West Suburban Silver championship should be in their sights, along with a deep playoff push if confidence emerges when this team finally wins.
17. LINCOLN-WAY WEST
The good: After winning 21 games and reaching a sectional final last year, there is some real positive mojo right now in coach Brian Flaherty’s program. Jon Marotta (13 ppg, 6 rpg), a versatile 6-6 senior forward, and physical, hard-nosed 6-2 junior guard Marco Pettinato (12.5 ppg, 6 rpg, 5.5 apg) are a pair of standouts. Pettinato and Marotta form a highly-functional tag team as they both can do so many different things for their team. Look for 6-2 Cam Gavin, who came on at the end of last season, to continue to make strides.
The bad: This team was able to sneak up on some people a year ago. That won’t be the case this season. And will there be enough balance, depth, athleticism and physicality to get over the hump in the loaded Southwest Suburban Red? Depth last year was a major concern.
What to expect: We’ll learn a lot about the Warriors with a four-game stretch in December that includes Thornton, Thornwood, Bradley and Crete-Monee. But this team will be plenty ready for a run in Class 3A in March.
The good: A lot of these players have now been around a program that’s become all about winning –– 20 victories last year, 23 wins and a conference championship the year before, and 23 wins and a regional title three years ago. Christian Negron, a 6-6 junior and three-year varsity performer, is a potential game-changer with his size, length and athleticism. Now, as a junior, comes expectations of high-level production and leadership. In addition, the Royals have a backcourt that should provide a lot of assistance and balance with competitive Keyvon Kyles and Trell Mardis both returning.
The bad: Will there be enough support for Negron so he doesn’t have to shoulder so much of the load on the glass and around the basket? That’s where 6-8 sophomore Jalen Shaw comes into play. If the raw but improving Shaw can be a rebounding and shot blocking presence with his length, he and Negron will form one heck of a 1-2 defensive punch around the rim.
What to expect: If the fast-paced, fullcourt attack the Royals play with can also execute and play with patience when needed –– think the 2013-2014 Larkin team that could combine both –– this team could be better than even its ranking. Coach Deryn Carter’s group is capable of matching those recent 23-win teams.
19. ST. IGNATIUS
The good: Coach Rich Kehoe has never really needed stars to win. Kehoe is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the “best coaches” discussion, but he’s one of the best in the business. Even if the veteran coach still doesn’t have “stars,” he sure has quality. Ignatius will remain sound defensively, patient and disciplined –– and enough of it all to continue to frustrate the foes it plays. But Kehoe has size inside that is going to be difficult to deal with in 6-6 Daniel Ogele and 6-8 Robbie Lindland, along with 6-4 Will Fleming on the perimeter and Kailan Lee at guard.
The bad: Although Riley Doody didn’t put up big numbers last year, he was a pure, pass-first point guard who brought toughness and strength. Though he wasn’t a dominating player, Doody provided a dominating presence. that’s going to be difficult to replace.
What to expect: If the guard play, particularly the play of Lee, can establish itself early enough and be a constant and consistent, the Wolfpack are going to be a major threat in the Catholic League and a tough out in March.
20. JOLIET WEST
The good: There should be a comfort level with coach Nick DiForti, who begins his third season heading the program. That’s a big plus right there, especially for a younger team who now have familiarity and comfort with their coach. The top two players, 6-4 junior Trevian Bell and 6-2 junior Teyvion Kirk, have varsity experience, along with sophomore guard Michael Smith, who has progressed quickly. Bell, in particular, is ready to take off after averaging 10 points and 7.4 rebounds a game last year as a sophomore. There is more young talent and blooming potential in place in Elijah Ward, a highly versatile 6-4 junior.
The bad: When rebuilding and piecing together what you hope will be a big winner, it’s tough to do when there aren’t seniors to lean on. Talent rules, but veteran experience always helps.
What to expect: While this team is likely a year away from being a potential power, DiForti has a team that could surprise if the young players prosper and grow up quickly. There is enough pure talent to challenge for a conference championship and a 20-win season.
The good: There are developed, proven talents on the perimeter with rising junior Dwayne Rose, a 6-2 guard who opened eyes last season, and senior Jeremiah Matthews. The Warriors will go as far as that tandem takes them. Matthews averaged 15 points a game while knocking down 45 three-pointers. But 6-6 senior Victory Curry (11 ppg, 8 rpg), who provides some size and length, showed flashes a year ago and is a year older.
The bad: Will there be enough scoring punch to support Rose and Matthews? Last year there were plenty of scoring options with Tyler Williams and Mike Nelson. Can Curry, Hasshim Keys or Malik Matthews provide some added offensive punch?
What to expect: Last year the Warriors surprised, claiming a share of the Southland Conference title and winning 17 games. That should be the floor of what this team is capable of this season. A monster season could even get veteran coach Tom Cappel to 600 career wins as he begins his 28th year with an impressive career mark of 574-176.
The good: A typically talented crew of relative unknown names has the potential to lead the Thunderbirds to another 20-plus win season. With little fanfare before or during their past two seasons, the Thunderbirds are an impressive 47-11 over the past two years. There are perimeter threats to get back to that 20-win marker in versatile 6-4 Drew Evans, who had a terrific offseason, and guard Marcus Hussey, who scored 19 points in the sectional semifinal loss to St. Rita. Both Evans and Hussey are a bit unsung. Keep an eye on juniors James Pennington and Travis Earsey, along with Rich Central transfer Prince Walker.
The bad: Every player mentioned and noted so far play on the perimeter. There is no size, which is why rebounding and interior defense could be an issue. The only other bad thing is if rival Thornton wasn’t tough enough, the teams in pursuit of the Southwest Suburban Red title –– Bradley-Bourbonnais and Lincoln-Way West –– are tougher and more motivated than ever.
What to expect: Underestimating Thornwood is getting old. Over the past two years, no matter the personnel, Thornwood’s calling card has been consistency. The Thunderbirds have surpassed expectations and could do so again this season.
The good: After a few past March setbacks, the Raiders have something to crow about after reaching Peoria and finishing fourth in the state in Class 4A last year. There aren’t any stars returning from that team, but the likes of Devon Sams and Darick Anderson in the backcourt, along with 6-5 bulldozer Zach Grady, all return after playing various roles on a team that won 25 games and the program’s first sectional championship in 30 years. While that senior trio will be leaned on heavily, it’s the talented youth in the program are reasons for excitement. Nana Akenton, a highly athletic 6-5 junior wing, emerged as a Division I prospect over the summer, while 5-10 freshman point guard Joseph Yesufu is a super talent.
The bad: Potential is often a dangerous word. Having to rely on a whole bunch of players who haven’t been through the varsity wars yet is a bit cumbersome for any coach. Expect some inconsistency from the Raiders in the first half of the season as it might take some time for on-court cohesion.
What to expect: Too high? Maybe it is for a team that lost so much –– the Raiders graduated 48 points a game from their top four scorers. But there is enough talent in place to call this a reload rather than a rebuild, which means conference and regional championship goals
24. ST. CHARLES EAST
The good: The returning players have momentum after winning 24 games last season, one short of the school record 25 wins. And the Saints still have that bad taste in their mouth from losing to Geneva in the regional final. Coach Pat Woods will also still have quality guard play and his team will still be able to knock down a lot of shots from the perimeter, thanks to the senior guard tandem of Evan DiLeonardi and James McQuillan. This is a versatile backcourt with great size. Plus, there is quality youth in the program, starting with 6-5 sophomore Justin Hardy. Woods believes this team will be better defensively than a year ago.
The bad: Replacing all-state point guard Cole Gentry and all that he did for this team will be an absolute chore. The core of this team still has plenty of proving to do at the varsity level.
What to expect: It’s going to be tough matching last year’s team, especially in the early going with some youth and unproven players. But by the end of the season the Saints could be right in the thick of a conference title chase and in a winnable sectional.
25. PROVISO EAST
The good: This is Proviso East, so there is still talent, there are still athletes, there are still expectations. That athletic talent begins with up-and-coming 6-3 junior Tyler Chisom and ultra-explosive guard Antonio Williams. Chisom is a long, active, wiry guard who can be very disruptive. Both Chisom and Williams attack the basket with a vengeance. Willie Greenwood, a 6-5 senior, provides size, while 6-3 Tyjuan Johnson could evolve into a capable scorer in a support role.
The bad: The turbulent and unorganized mess of an offseason certainly didn’t help –– the Pirates officially named their head coach, Cedric McCullough, just two days after practice began. The coaching staff is shorthanded and the talent isn’t quite up to normal Proviso East standards.
What to expect: That’s a loaded question, because there aren’t many people who know what to expect from this team. But the Pirates, after finishing an uncharacteristic 13-16 and an unheard of fourth place in the West Suburban Gold, should contend for conference and regional championships.
And the next 45 …
The City/Suburban Hoops Report didn’t stop at just ranking the top 25. Here is a look at No. 26 through No. 65.