Curie’s Elijah Joiner (2) works out during practice on Monday. Worsom Robinson/ For the Sun-Times.

O’Brien: Top-ranked Curie is calm and confident

SHARE O’Brien: Top-ranked Curie is calm and confident
SHARE O’Brien: Top-ranked Curie is calm and confident

It’s hard to gauge the mood and identity of a preseason No.1 team until you are actually standing in the gym. Some have entourages, some have hyper-involved parents, some have star players that show up late or don’t show up at all. Some teams are massively driven towards greatness, almost obsessed with living up to the hype or avenging the previous season’s failures.

There was none of that at Curie on Monday. The Condors blasted away any of the program’s psychological demons by winning the Class 4A state title last season and open this season as the Sun-Times top-ranked team.

It’s the first time in school history Curie has opened the season at No. 1. The kids and coaches are taking it in stride. The players have a quiet confidence. No circuses.

Star guard Devin Gage graduated and is playing at DePaul. The only other major loss is promising guard Landers Nolley, who moved back to Georgia. Curie coach Mike Oliver has everyone else back, just older and wiser.

“This group are students first,” Oliver said. “They are business-minded. The average kid on this team has a 2.6 GPA, so it isn’t just basketball with them. It’s about the classroom and being on time, doing things the right way. That makes this group of guys a lot easier to coach.”

Senior Elijah Joiner, who averaged 11 points last season, will lead the way. He signed with Tulsa last week. The 6-3 guard was a vocal leader as a junior. He’ll have to pick up more of a scoring load this season to make up for the losses of Gage and Nolley.

“He’s going to handle the challenge well,” Oliver said. “Elijah is not a selfish kid, he’s all about team. He’s always been vocal and they respect him, not just because of the accolades off the court but because of his work ethic. He gets things done.”

Joiner’s backcourt mate, senior Allante Pickens, was a major surprise last season. He seemed to step up his game in clutch moments and was rock-solid with the ball.

“I have to play with a chip on my shoulder, come out and have something to prove every game, just like I did last year,” Pickens said.

Terry Smith Jr., a 6-5 senior, is a strong, skilled forward that can mix it up under the basket or on the wing. He’s a smart player with a nose for the ball.

Smith will have plenty of room to roam and make trouble for opponents this season. He’s unlikely to be a focus for other teams, that will be 6-7 brothers Treavon and Tyree Martin. Treavon is a junior, he had a breakout state tournament last year, his emergence was the key factor in the Condors state title charge.

Curie expects Tyree, also a junior, to have the same impact this season. He’ll be in the starting lineup with his brother. The pair were rarely on the court together last season.

“It’s pretty scary watching them play together now, they have a great chemistry,” Joiner said.

Treavon says his brother has “more power, more grit and grime” in his game. By the end of last season there wasn’t a team in the state that could handle one Martin, dealing with two will be difficult.

“We have a lot of experience, a lot of size and that’s going to be tough for anyone to stop,” Treavon Martin said.

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