We’re one week in and hundreds of games have been played. Here are a whole bunch of takeaways from the opening week of the season …
➥ Arguably the best Thanksgiving Tournament in the Chicago area –– the Chicago Heights Classic at Bloom and Marian Catholic –– lived up to its billing and provided a quality setting and a host of ranked teams. But it was a bit of a topsy-turvy week of hoops in the south ’burbs.
T.F. South beat Homewood-Flossmoor. Marian Catholic beat T.F. South. Homewood-Flossmoor beat Marian Catholic. And so many of the other tournament games were final-minute tight –– Marian Catholic over Thornwood 62-60 and H-F beating Thornwood 58-55 and Hillcrest 64-60.
There still isn’t an elite team in the south suburbs, but there is going to be a whole lot of competitive balance with the aforementioned teams, along with the likes of Bradley-Bourbonnais, Crete-Monee and Thornton.
But one big takeaway from the week is that Homewood-Flossmoor, with just two players with true varsity experience returning from a year ago ––Kendric Pryor and Trelan Morrow –– is ready to defend its Southwest Suburban Blue title. Coach Marc Condotti is going to dip into a strong, deep and unheralded junior class, including Morrow, polished guard Jarret Tribble, 6-5 Cameron Bowles, shooter Jeffrey Boyd and athletic Tyler DeMartra, and keep this team relevant.
➥ There were plenty of people who had ruled out the idea of defending Class 2A champs Uplift being a major player in 2A again this season. Understandable. After all, the Titans lost all five starters from a year ago.
But the player in the program with the most upside last year was just a sophomore –– Demarius Jacobs –– and he blossomed this offseason and flourished in the opening week of the season. The 6-3 junior guard averaged 23 points a game in leading coach David Taylor’s team to a 5-0 start. Jacobs, who was named tournament MVP and also hit a game-winning shot to beat Lake Forest Academy, was highlighted earlier this week as one of the Hoops Report’s breakout players in 2015-2016.
➥ Want another 2015-2016 projected breakout player? What can you say about the effort of Glenbard West’s Justin Pierce in the opening week of the season? He was sensational in leading the Hilltoppers to a 4-0 record and Thanksgiving Tournament title–– and doing so for a shorthanded Glenbard West team.
Pierce and fellow senior guard Alex Passi led the Hilltoppers, who were without three of its top seven players due to the football team’s run to a state championship. Pierce, a William & Mary recruit, averaged 26 points and 14 rebounds a game in the four wins and immediately put himself into the all-state conversation.
➥ The City/Suburban Hoops Report fell hard for Belleville East’s Javon Pickett last season, vaulting the 6-4 wing among the top 10 prospects in the Class of 2017 last winter. He continued to open eyes all spring and summer, solidifying himself as a top five college prospect in his class. Then the smooth junior wing opened the season with a bang, scoring 41 points in the season opener –– just two short of the school record, which is held by Michael Dale and current Illinois star Malcolm Hill. Pickett is averaging 24.2 points a game through the Lancers’ 3-1 start to the season.
➥ While neither Rock Island or West Aurora, two perennial basketball powerhouses, are what they’ve been in recent years, Bogan can still feel awfully good about what it accomplished on Saturday. The highly-regarded Bengals came home with 25-plus point wins over both Rock Island and West Aurora.
➥ Another quick start from a Chicago Public League team that was kept a bit under wraps –– Hyde Park. The four-game sweep at the Rockford Thanksgiving Tournament was fueled by a talented senior who has also been kept under wraps –– Tajuan Agee. The 6-7 multi-faceted forward averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks a game for the Thunderbirds. Agee is one of the best-kept secrets in the city.
➥ All our thoughts go out to Peter Gray of Bradley-Bourbonnais. The 6-3 senior and three-year starter’s basketball career came to a sudden halt as the sharpshooter was forced to call it quits due to a heart condition. Gray, along with the return of guard Micah Bradford and 6-8 Zach Hollywood, was a big reason why many had the Boilermakers favored to win the Southwest Suburban Red and a top 25 team in the preseason. He knocked down 70 three-pointers and averaged 12 points a game a year ago.
“As a dad, you would want your son to grow up and be like Peter Gray,” says Bradley-Bourbonnais coach Alex Renchen. “That right there says a lot about who he is as a person and is the highest compliment. When no one is around and no one is looking, you know Peter Gray is always going to do the right thing. That’s the type of kid he is.”
➥ Maybe it will take some time. But eventually Jacobs big man Cameron Krutwig is going to be considered among the best high school players in Illinois, regardless of class, regardless of where he plays, and regardless of position.
Yes, Algonquin is a good 45 miles from the city. Yes, the Golden Eagles play in the Fox Valley Conference, which Krutwig is likely to tear apart over the next two seasons. Yes, he’s overlooked on the club circuit scene. But he’s big, skilled and crafty. More importantly, he’s ultra-productive and he ultimately will be coveted by more college programs. Krutwig, who averaged 20.3 points, 15.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.8 blocks in four games this past week, has been under-appreciated by far too many.
➥ In a story earlier this month, the Hoops Report stated Downers Grove South would likely be the most improved team in the Chicago area. That remains the truth. DGS did lose to St. Joseph in the St. Charles East championship game, but the Mustangs (3-1), who won just five games a year ago, can dream big. This is a talented team with a lot of weapons that’s capable of winning 20-plus games. While juniors T.J. Clifford and Denis Alibegovic and senior Donovan Ferguson receive most of the attention, you have to love what point guard Sam Ebersold brings to this team.
➥ Niles Notre Dame and Marian Catholic won’t be alone in battling for the top spot in the East Suburban Catholic Conference. No, not after watching Benet Academy roll through the Loyola/New Trier Thanksgiving Tournament with four wins, beating Lake Forest, St. Ignatius and Glenbrook South –– all by double digits –– and taking care of upstart Lincoln Park in the final. Coach Gene Heidkamp doesn’t have a star, but he has offensive balance and perimeter shooting to go along with his typical disciplined approach at both ends of the floor.
➥ I like this St. Charles East team. On the right night –– when they’re knocking down threes from its surplus of shooters (Evan DiLeonardi, James McQuillan, J.T. Ford, Zach Mitchell and Zack Hondlick) –– they can play with just about anyone. But the Saints’ lack of size is going to be a battle for them all year.
The return of a healthy Justin Hardy, a 6-5 sophomore, will help. But right now, offensively, they don’t get much of anything at the basket, and relying on the perimeter shot night in, night out will be tricky against top teams. The matchup with St. Joseph last Friday night was so difficult for St. Charles East as 6-11 Nick Rakocevic posed major problems. Rakocevic had his way around the basket and finished with 31 points and 21 rebounds.
➥ Before anyone criticizes Fenwick’s rather soft start to the season and scoffs at its 4-0 start –– the Friars opened the season by beating Manley, Al Raby and Hope by an average victory margin of 48 points a game before knocking off Morton in the final –– take a look at the schedule coach Rick Malnati has put together.
In addition to playing in the tough Chicago Catholic League and Catholic League Tournament, the non-conference slate includes neighborhood rival and top 25 team Oak Park-River Forest, East Suburban Catholic Conference contender Benet Academy and favorite Niles Notre Dame, top-ranked Simeon, top 10 Riverside-Brookfield and prep school giant La Lumiere in Indiana.
➥ It might not be initially recognized, but the Loyola/New Trier Thanksgiving Tournament was a grind for participating teams. It was a field of various styles, top-notch coaching and outstanding balance among the likes of tournament champ Benet Academy, St. Ignatius, Lake Forest, Loyola Academy, New Trier, Glenbrook South, surprising Lincoln Park and Mather. These teams knocked some rust off in a hurry.
➥ It’s just one week –– and a busy week at that –– but anyone paying attention to the St. Charles East Thanksgiving Tournament would have noticed. St. Joseph was impressive in beating a pair of Hoops Report ranked teams, St. Charles East and Downers Grove South, en route to a 4-0 start.
If Nick Rakocevic wants to be, the 6-11 senior can be a dominating figure all year long. The top uncommitted prospect in the senior class was just that, impacting the game in multiple ways while being assertive and productive on a consistent basis.
There are plenty of young players who still must find their way, Rakocevic is energized and playing with something to prove, while junior point guard Jason Towers is helping alleviate the major absence of this team, which was the departure of Glynn Watson at point guard.
➥ When was the last time Neuqua Valley basketball started the season 0-3? That’s where the Wildcats were before picking up a win over Foreman on Friday.
This is a program that has won 20-plus games 12 of the past 14 years, hasn’t had a losing season in that time and averaged 24 wins a year over those 14 years. With a program that’s been as consistent and played at as high of a level as coach Todd Sutton’s Wildcats have over the years, it’s easy to give them the benefit of the doubt in the preseason.
So to see the 0-3 start is just, well, weird. But the truth is Neuqua, which makes the move from the Upstate Eight Conference to the DuPage Valley Conference this season, has maybe the least amount of talent it’s ever had on paper from top to bottom. There is just one returning starter and two players that saw extensive varsity minutes a year ago.
➥ There are certainly reasons to celebrate wins and Thanksgiving Tournament titles during the opening week of the season. But there are others who take way more stock in the results of these first three, four or five games than the City/Suburban Hoops Report does –– and always has.
More than anything else, it’s a measuring stick for the respective coaches to see where their team is at after what amounts to about two full weeks of practice. In high school basketball there are no exhibition games, no preseason schedule or scrimmages against other teams, which college and NBA teams are fortunate to have, so Thanksgiving week to me amounts to exhibition and preseason games that count on the final record.
With that being said, of all the hundreds of games that were played last week, here were the biggest matchups involving ranked teams.
▪ #7 Evanston 71, #8 Notre Dame 64 … In the matchup of the week featuring the two highest ranked Hoops Report teams, Evanston jumped out to a huge lead and held off the Dons’ late push. Nojel Eastern, who scored a game-high 22 points, was named tournament MVP. Here’s an early prediction: These two will meet again –– in a Class 4A sectional championship game in March.
▪ #12 St. Joseph 69, #16 Downers Grove South 60 … Both teams impressed in their four games at the St. Charles East Tournament and more than lived up to their preseason ranking. But St. Joseph’s Nick Rakocevic was the difference throughout tournament play.
▪ #20 Joliet West 79, #21 Crete-Monee 77 in overtime … What you would expect from a pair of City/Suburban Hoops Report preseason top 25 teams. Joliet West and Crete-Monee both were 3-0 heading into the tournament title game, where Joliet West’s Trevian Bell scored 20 points and sophomore Darien Bosby’s jumper at the buzzer gave the Tigers the win.
▪ #10 Marian Catholic 62, #22 Thornwood 60 … On the opening night of the season, two preseason top 25 teams went down to the wire. Thornwood dropped three games in the tournament –– by a combined nine points. Marian Catholic finished 3-1, falling to Homewood-Flossmoor.
▪ #35 Benet 59, #19 St. Ignatius 43 … There wasn’t a preseason ranked team that had a tougher week than St. Ignatius, which limped out of the holidays with a 1-3 record. After being drubbed by Benet on opening night, the Wolfpack then fell to Glenbrook South and Lake Forest.
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