Henricksen: Hoops Report’s preseason rankings, from 6 to 65

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The City/Suburban Hoops Report breaks down the good, the bad and the expectations of its ranked teams –– No. 6 through No. 25 –– with the top five being released on Monday.

6. YOUNG

The good: There is an unbridled optimism within this program heading into the season. Brimming with young talent, coach Tyrone Slaughter has an outstanding foundation of youth that is ready to shine and surprise. That starts with 5-11 sophomore Xavier Castenada, one of the top point guards in the state. For such a young player, Castenada is poised and heady as a true lead guard while being able to knock down shots. Sophomore shooter Justin Boyd, improving 6-4 junior Lucas Williamson and 6-4 junior Malcolm Townsel will be needed to step up now that they will have more minutes and bigger opportunities.

But the Dolphins also welcome three transfers who were impact players with their previous teams: Craig Beaudion, a 6-3 guard who averaged 19 points a game last year at Foreman; Jake Kosakowski, a 6-5 sophomore who is rugged, can shoot and was highly productive as a freshman at Brother Rice; and 6-6 junior Justin Stovall, a transfer from Grayslake North, has a chance to be an athletic post presence.

The bad: There isn’t a go-to senior on this team, a veteran who has been through the wars and can guarantee you a bucket or big play when you need it. But there is senior guard Derrick Freeman. While he’s not a star, Freeman will provide much-needed leadership and toughness.

What to expect: The favorites in the Red-West will once again play a daunting schedule, which will only season and ready this young team for a potential March run.

7. EVANSTON

The good:When you start with the potential impact of Nojel Eastern, that’s beyond good. When healthy, coach Mike Ellis has a dynamic talent in the 6-5 junior guard who is capable of raising the level of those around him. Eastern, though, may take some time to round into star form after missing six months of competitive action with an injury. This is a guard-heavy team with the return of juniors Malik Jenkins, 6-3 Chris Hamil and senior Micquel Roseman, who all have a lot of varsity experience. The wild card might be Elyjah Williams, a versatile and strong 6-5 junior who will need to be a major factor on the glass. He has the potential to be a tough matchup for opposing teams.

The bad: Outside of Williams and senior Dylan Mulvihill, who are all 6-5, there isn’t much size inside. But it’s enough, especially with a 6-5 guard in Eastern and if the group of quick, athletic guards can play well together and dictate things defensively.

What to expect: The defending Central Suburban League South champs are a heavy favorite to repeat, but the Wildkits are capable of more. Coach Mike Ellis guided Evanston to a super-sectional berth in his first season in 2012. This team is deeper and more talented.

8. NILES NOTRE DAME

The good: There are four starters back from a team that did this: went unbeaten in the East Suburban Catholic, finished with a 26-5 record, won a regional title and gave Stevenson, the ultimate state champ, its biggest scare last March. That’s an impressive returning résumé for this group.

Notre Dame has never had this much size, both inside and on the perimeter. Ammar Becar, a 6-5 productive throwback who is a three-year starter, provides bulk and experience. Becar does things you don’t think he can do. Anthony D’Avanzo is another three-year starter who made major strides over the course of last season. The 6-7 senior’s improvement and assertiveness continued this offseason. The backcourt of 6-4 point guard Lucas Simon and 6-5 junior Jeameril Wilson, an ultra-versatile and eye-popping prospect, brings so much size and length on the perimeter. Don’t forget about juniors Matt Stritzel and Elvin Husejnovic, two guards who played last year as sophomores and have made strides since.

The bad: With size, length, versatility, a ton of experience, just enough of a hint of athleticism and a quality coach, there is a wealth of everything. There just isn’t a whole lot of bad to talk about here. But lets nitpick. Do the Dons have that ideal take-over-a-game when it matters most difference-maker? Most great teams do. Wilson has that potential, but he’s just a junior.

What to expect: This might be the best team out there people aren’t talking enough about. Coach Tom Les, who has done a terrific job of making this program extremely relevant over the past decade, is searching for his first sectional title at Notre Dame. The Dons have muscled their way into the top 10 and have a great chance to stay there all year in what could be a pretty special year.

9. RIVERSIDE-BROOKFIELD

The good: Take a moment to appreciate this, Bulldogs fans, because seriously … it’s pretty awesome. Fresh off the best season in school history, which included a sectional title and 28 wins, there are raised internal expectations for this team. And that’s a good thing. R-B has arrived as a legitimate threat to the elite, thanks to a backcourt and roster that will continue to score points at a high rate. Senior Daniko Jackson (9 ppg, 5.3 apg) and junior Jalen Clanton (13 ppg) are about as good as it gets as a guard tandem. Junior guard Henry Trelenberg (8.3 ppg), Whitney Young transfer Skyler Nash and 6-3 sophomore Ryan Cicenas provide more offensive ammunition on the perimeter.

The bad: With so much returning, it’s easy to forget the Bulldogs will really miss Sam Johnson, who graduated after providing much-needed size and leading the team in scoring and rebounding last year. That’s a lot of production to replace. Aside from 6-7 senior Mark Smith (10.5 ppg), there isn’t much inside. Also, when push comes to shove, will this team be able to defend at a higher level against the cream of the crop? The Bulldogs are going to have to harness a championship level defense and find a way to survive on the glass.

What to expect: Conference champions? Check. Another 20-win season? Check. Regional and sectional titles? Check. The program has done it all now, except get to Peoria. This will be R-B’s best chance, though playing with a bulls-eye now on its back will be different.

10. MARIAN CATHOLIC

The good: There is so much to like with this Spartans team, so where do we begin? There is quality depth (there are eight players back with varsity experience) with terrific size (6-7 T.J. Smith, 6-7 Myles Howard and 6-8 TeeAaron Powell) and what should be young but strong guard play (sophomores Chase Adams and Brandon Hurt). The really good news is the return of Smith, one of the top 15 prospects in the junior class, who missed all of last season with an injury. Smith is versatile enough where coach Mike Taylor can go really big and long. Both Howard and Powell have made significant improvement and are being watched by Division I schools, while Adams and Hurt are talented young guards. This doesn’t even include the junior trio of 6-4 Austin Richie, 6-5 Warren Allen and 6-3 Sean Taylor.

The bad: They are now two years removed from the greatness of Tyler Ulis, who is currently starring at Kentucky, and there is not another Tyler Ulis walking through those doors. But not having a transcendent star isn’t the problem. The bad will be if Taylor can’t get all these strong pieces together on the same page with one goal in mind while juggling minutes and opportunities.

What to expect: A big improvement over last year’s 14-16 record is a guarantee. The Spartans are experienced enough to know what they must do to continue to get better. They are also young enough that complacency is hardly a concern for coach Mike Taylor. That should lead to some big things.

11. BOGAN

The good: This program never goes away since becoming a major city and Class 3A threat just six years ago. Coach Arthur Goodwin’s team looked the part this past summer while winning the always tough Riverside-Brookfield Shootout. Though offseason titles don’t mean a thing, there is talent in place to do some damage this winter, starting with the senior tandem of unheralded point guard Bryce Barnes and Buffalo recruit James Jones. Look for the latter, who is a 6-3 guard with athleticism and shooting range, to have a breakout season, while the former is the heart and soul of this team. The Bengals need talented Marcus Cole, a 6-3 athletic guard, to reach his potential and play with consistency. There are two transfers who Goodwin feels can help: Simeon sophomore Kobe Mapp and David Walls, a tough, athletic 6-2 guard who transferred back to Bogan after moving to Indiana.

The bad: Talent won’t be an issue with this team. But replacing a player the magnitude of Luwane Pipkins won’t be without its difficulties. Pipkins, a four-year varsity vet, made big plays and exuded toughness and confidence in leading the Bengals to a city championship last year. Who fills all that he brought to the table?

What to expect: The Bengals are going to have to really work to match last season’s success, which included the program’s first-ever city championship. However, they’re sitting in a nice place as the roll of spoiler to Simeon in the Red-South and Morgan Park in 3A.

12. ST. JOSEPH

The good: The defending Class 3A state champs still have a true, potential difference-maker with great size in 6-11 Nick Rakocevic (13 ppg, 10.5 rpg), something no one else has this side of Hinsdale South (Barret Benson). Rakocevic’s presence should help ease the transition for a young perimeter attack that includes junior point guard Jason Towers, who sat out last season, and sophomore Joffari Brown, a big guard who gained a taste of varsity basketball last year. There is plenty of young talent in the program, including Brown, 6-5 Jalen Boyd, 6-4 Jalen Boyd, point guard Ahmad Muhammad –– all sophomores –– and 5-10 freshman point guard Marquise Walker.

The bad: No one in the state has to replace a Big Ten backcourt as Glynn Watson (Nebraska) and Jordan Ash (Northwestern) have left for college after standout prep careers. That’s a whole lot of production, athleticism and experience to replace at key positions. Relying so heavily on inexperienced players is typically not a recipe for success. Also, with Rakocevic inside, do the Chargers have enough perimeter shooting to soften things up for the big fella to work inside?

What to expect: Coach Gene Pingatore has all the makings of a very good team. Can the Chargers be a great team and contend for a 3A title again? It’s not a reach to think that if everything comes together, which would mean consistent dominant play from Rakocevic, along with the young players flourishing by the time February rolls around, the Chargers could make another run at Peoria in Class 3A.

13. OAK PARK-RIVER FOREST

The good: The junior class at OPRF is deep and talented. But it starts with a senior, point guard Breshawn Wilkerson. He’s not a big-time Division I prospect or even a big name, but he brings the intangibles of strength and toughness and that a team can feed off. Wilkerson is a three-year varsity player with a football mentality and is a load to keep out of the lane with his size and strength. And in 6-3 Connor Fuller, 6-4 Cameron Gross and 6-5 Jared Scott, the Huskies have length, athleticism, experience and interchangeable parts. Coach Matt Maloney’s team will really be able to create problems getting out and trapping defensively and turning that into transition points on the other end.

The bad: The loss of Alan Griffin, one of the top sophomore prospects in the state who transferred out, is a huge loss. It’s particularly tough on this team because Griffin was one shooter defenses needed to account for on the perimeter. While this team will thrive playing up-tempo and with its pressure defense, can the Huskies shoot it well enough from the perimeter?

What to expect: With the roster having a nice blend of youth and experience, the Huskies are favored in the West Suburban Silver. But can it do more in the postseason? This March will be the 40th anniversary –– yes, 40 years! –– since the program’s last sectional championship. This team has that type of potential.

14. BRADLEY-BOURBONNAIS

The good: Coach Alex Renchen has quietly rebuilt this program in the far south suburbs, crawling before walking and now ready to run after last year’s 20-win season. There are a pair of Division I players in point guard Micah Bradford (Valpo) and 6-8 Zach Hollywood (James Madison), along with shooter Peter Gray (70 three-pointers last season), who are all three-year varsity veterans. On any given night that trio alone is capable of putting up 50-60 points between them. There aren’t many teams that can say that about their top three players. Additional support should come from senior guard Colin BeDell, a capable three-point shooter, while 6-7 senior Gary Pendleton provides added size.

The bad: Are the Boilermakers ready to compete at a high level, both mentally and physically, in order to beat the upper echelon of teams? This is not the most physically imposing group and it hasn’t experienced a whole bunch of head-turning wins just yet. While win totals of 19 and 20 games the past two seasons have equaled the 39 wins the program won the previous six years combined, winning championships is still a step this group must make.

What to expect: Can it win a tough Southwest Suburban Red title? Can it win the program’s first regional championship since 1999? Yes, that much is possible. This senior-laden group is poised to break through.

15. STEVENSON

The good: Despite a talent purge that saw four starters graduate, including a McDonald’s All-American and two all-staters, the Patriots are still ranked. That’s because 6-6 junior Justin Smith (10 ppg as a sophomore) is set to take his turn at the star’s table. Senior guard Ryuji Aoki had a nice offseason, while Rodney Herenton and Willie Herenton, a pair of talented guards, transferred in from Whitney Young. Also, simply being in this program the past three years and seeing the way last year’s seniors went about their business, practicing against them, being a part of all that winning, only helps.

The bad: Jalen Brunson is gone. That bears repeating: Jalen Brunson, the state’s best, most dominating player last season, is gone. So, too, is Connor Cashaw. That’s 40-plus points a game right there and, more importantly, big-time leadership, moxie and dependability. There’s no more leaning on those two stars, which will be a major adjustment. So, yes, even as a ranked team, the Patriots are in a state of flux.

What to expect: After what this program experienced the past three seasons, the expectations are tempered. But if Smith, already a dynamite prospect, can evolve into a bonafide star at the high school level, the Patriots can still be a force and stay in the rankings.

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 Gold 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.

18. LARKIN

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.

21. CRETE-MONEE

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.

22. THORNWOOD

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.

23. BOLINGBROOK

The good: After a few past March setbacks, the Raiders have something to crow about after reaching Peoria and finishing third 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.

For a look at the rankings for teams ranked No. 26-65: And the next 45 …

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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