Think about all the great and memorable basketball that has been played in the south suburbs, decade after decade after decade.
No program can match the iconic value, success and superior talent level as Thornton, which is arguably one of the five most recognizable and successful basketball programs in state history.
Hillcrest, Thornridge and Bloom have historic programs in their own right. H-F and Thornwood have been mainstays on the basketball scene, while Rich Central was a power from the late 1970s through the late 1990s.
Even schools like Seton Academy (Class 2A state champs in 2009 and top four finishes in 2012 and 2013)) and Crete-Monee (four straight regional titles and sectional championship from 2008-2011) have had their moment in the sun.
But you could make a fairly strong argument right now that Marian Catholic has the hottest basketball program in the south suburbs.
Who would have ever thought that sentence would be written or uttered at any time since the school opened its doors nearly 60 years ago?
In 50 years prior to the 2012-2013 season, Marian Catholic won just three regional championships and had a grand total of two 20-win seasons (20 wins in 1993 and 22 wins in 2006).
The program rose from the ashes and into prominence with the great Tyler Ulis and his classmates leading the way. In two seasons, that Ulis-led group won back-to-back sectional championships in 2013 and 2014 and a combined 57 wins.
But even with Ulis moving on to Kentucky and now beginning his sophomore year there, the future remains very bright at the Chicago Heights private school.
And you thought the little ’ol Spartans would fade away post-Ulis?
“It’s hard to hide the excitement,” admits Marian Catholic coach Mike Taylor, who took over the program in 2003 and has won four of the school’s five regional titles. “There is more overall depth and talent right now throughout the program than at any other time, but the chemistry with those teams [2013 and 2014] set them apart.”
Marian Catholic fell back near the .500 mark this past season, finishing 14-16. But the Spartans also played without top player T.J. Smith, who missed the year with a torn ACL. The sophomore team went 20-4, and that was with a handful of freshmen and sophomores playing at the varsity level.
Smith, a talented 6-6 junior with mid-major offers, is back, along with a surplus of rising youngsters and returning experience.
How did Marian Catholic turn the corner from a football power under coach Dave Mattio to a basketball school?
“You can’t discount Tyler Ulis and all that he did for this program,” says Taylor of his 2014 McDonald’s All-American who is now starring at Kentucky. “Tyler took us to an entirely different altitude, especially exposure wise.
“But we continue to use that group [led by Ulis, John Oliver and Ki-Jana Crawford] as an example. They were good kids, good students, good players and loved to play together, developing a great chemistry.”
But how did Ulis, who helped put the program on the map, even end up at Marian Catholic?
“We looked at the academics of schools in the area,” says Tyler’s father, James Ulis. “We wanted him to be in a great environment with great families and great kids.”
The more Ulis, who had moved from Ohio prior to high school, looked into Marian Catholic, the more appealing it became, with the hope the basketball program would improve with his arrival.
“The more we talked with families there, every parent would tell us the same thing about Marian Catholic –– your son will be a better young man,” says James Ulis. “They all told us it’s a place that will hold him accountable in the classroom and prepare him for college.”
Ulis was heavily courted by public schools in the south suburbs and in the city, both prior to high school and after a sterling sophomore season. James Ulis admits he and his son had a brief moment where they did think about leaving Marian Catholic after his sophomore season.
“I told Tyler that leaders lead, they don’t leave,” says James Ulis. “Plus, Tyler had become very close to his friends and their families and just said, ‘Dad, I love Marian. I love my friends here and I want to leave a legacy.’”
And that’s what Ulis did, leading the Spartans to heights it’s never been before and helping build a basketball program future players want to attend.
While there is no one the caliber of Ulis currently in the program, it is filled with talented depth, starting with Smith, who is still getting back into form following the rehab of his knee. As a freshman, Smith played an instrumental role for a 28-win, sectional championship team.
Senior Myles Howard, a blossoming 6-8 agile forward, and 6-8 junior big man TeeAaron Powell are rapidly improving and will be impact players this coming season. Both opened eyes this past summer. Warren Allen, a 6-5 junior, has come along nicely, while the junior class also includes 6-3 Austin Richie, 6-2 Sean Taylor and 6-0 Tyrice Richie.
The youth in the program is exciting. Tiny but talented Chase Adams, a 5-3 sophomore point guard, has the big reputation and dazzling game, but classmate Brandon Hurt is one of the unheralded sophomore guards in the Chicago area. Plus, the freshmen class brings yet another very talented group waiting in the pipeline.
When discussing the rise of Marian Catholic with Taylor, it’s impossible to get him to take any credit or talk about the amount of time and energy he personally has put in to develop the program.
Within three years on the job, Taylor had won 22 games and the first regional championship in 15 years behind star guard Vance Cooksey. Now the program is at an entirely different level from where it was, competing for conference titles, winning McDipper Holiday Tournaments and playing meaningful games in March.
“What I think I’m most proud of is how we prided ourselves on competition,” says Taylor of this teams, particularly during the early years. “We took pride in competing and continuing to try and raise that level of competitiveness.”
Marian Catholic basketball, which will likely be the preseason favorite in the East Suburban Catholic this coming season, is walking on the floor a little differently these days.
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