While there will be a team or two that pops out of nowhere to win a conference championship or surpass 20 wins this winter, there is a pretty clear picture, even at this early juncture, of which teams will be the most improved from a year ago.
Returning talent, senior veterans, new arrivals and impressive play this past June leads us to this list of eight vastly improved teams in 2016-2017:
• DePaul (last season’s record: 15-15)
There is veteran senior experience, along with young, dynamic talent, that received a boost of confidence last March with a Class 2A regional championship run.
With the bulk of that young team returning –– 6-4 Perry Cowan is one of the top prospects in the Class of 2019 and 6-6 sophomore Pavle Pantovic is emerging –– coach Tom Kleinschmidt’s team could push toward 20 wins this season.
• Waukegan (13-18)
This team is brimming with young potential –– a host of exciting freshmen played and impressed last season, led by all-conference player Bryant Brown, one of the top prospects in the sophomore class ––while also possessing a pair of standout seniors.
Carson Newsome, a 6-4 wing and four-year varsity performer headed to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, averaged 12 points a game last season. Another senior, Deshaun Davidson (10 ppg), is back after putting together a terrific summer.
• West Aurora (8-18)
An uncharacteristic single-digit win total for this program last year should be a distant memory this season. This group of seniors were unbeaten two years ago as sophomores, while junior Camron Donatlan is an athletic, stat-sheet stuffing guard. He led the Blackhawks in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and steals.
In addition to Donatlan, the return of guards DaVion Cross, DaQuan Cross, 6-3 Caleb Siler, 6-4 junior Ben Young and Damian Virgen should push West Aurora towards the top of the Upstate Eight Valley.
• Lyons (9-18)
Saying “Lyons will improve” after going 9-18 and finishing last in conference play isn’t exactly going out on a limb. But this is a team that could reverse last year’s record and even entertain a worst-to-first scenario in the West Suburban Silver.
Holy Cross commit Connor Niego (16 ppg, 9 rpg), a 6-8 senior forward and top 25 prospect in the Class of 2017, 6-4 senior Nolan Niego (10 ppg) and promising sophomore guard Tyrese Shines all return. A 20-win season after just nine wins a year ago is possible.
• Lincoln-Way East (7-19)
This could be the most improved team in the always competitive Southwest Suburban Blue.
Sam Shafer, an up-and-coming 6-5 junior who can space the floor with his shooting and possesses Division I potential, returns after averaging 10 points a game as a sophomore.
The junior class gained a ton of experience a year ago at the varsity level, beginning with starting point guard Zach Parduhn. Juniors Joey Buggemi, a 6-2 guard, and junior Mike Herlihy, an athletic 6-5 post, are also both back.
Plus, there is the addition of Lincoln-Way North transfer Dorian Aluyi. The athletic and talented 6-5 forward will be a major factor this season.
• Romeoville (10-17)
This was a talented but inexperienced team last year capable of putting a scare into a favored opponent. This year it will be a team capable of beating those teams it put a scare into.
Junior guard DeAndre Heckard is fresh off an eye-opening offseason, emerging as a Division I prospect and shooting up recruiting lists. A couple of other talented juniors, 6-6 Dontia Johnson and guard London Stamps, also return, along with sophomore guard Michael Salter.
• Downers Grove North (14-14)
There is no question the loss of graduated Devin Blake will be felt, but the Trojans should still be a better, more improved from last year’s .500 team.
Coach Jim Thomas welcomes back three starters and four players who played extensive minutes, including 6-5 athletic wing Bryan Jakobsze (12 ppg, 4.6 rpg), versatile 6-5 Anthony Castelvecchi (7 ppg), 6-4 junior Keenan Davis (7 ppg, 6 rpg) and 6-5 shooter Ryan Pustelnik.
When you add in the arrival of sophomore point guard Sema’j Henderson, who opened eyes all summer with his play, DGN figures to be a player in the West Suburban Silver after finishing just 4-8 in league play a year ago.
• Carmel (13-18)
After going winless in the East Suburban Catholic Conference last year, Carmel is poised to be one of the most improved teams in the league –– and one with a bright future, thanks to a super sophomore class.
There were a host of young players who gained varsity experience last year, starting with Johnny Roeser, a versatile 6-5 perimeter threat who is one of the better sophomore prospects in the Chicago area. Roeser averaged 8 points a game as a freshman and is only getting better.
In addition, 6-3 Jalen Snell and 6-4 Lukas Galdoni are a pair of sophomores who saw varsity time last year as freshmen, 6-4 John Barr is a returning senior, and 5-10 junior guard Zion Kilpatrick started several games before going down with an injury in February.
Plus, coach Zack Ryan welcomes Damone Williams-Grey, a 6-5 sophomore who transferred in after starting at Niles North last season, and 5-10 sophomore Evan Myers, who transferred in from Glenbrook North.
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