O’Brien: Illinois club teams keep it local, Conant’s Jimmy Sotos sparkles

SHARE O’Brien: Illinois club teams keep it local, Conant’s Jimmy Sotos sparkles

Something new happened on Saturday at Riverside-Brookfield. For the first time in recent memory, most of the club basketball teams in Illinois gathered together at one in-state event.

There are more than a dozen high-level teams across the state. The club world is ultra-competitive. There isn’t a governing body or any rulebook. Players switch teams on a weekly basis. There are allegiances to three different shoe companies, each of which has its own club circuit. That all leads to some fierce rivalries.

“I’ve been involved with (club basketball) for 25 years,” Fundamental U’s Mike Weinstein said. “This is refreshing. A great crowd showed up. I wish all the Illinois teams would step up and come to this event. We should do a better job in our state of making people come see us here instead of running around to all these different places.”

Jimmy Sotos, one of Fundamental U’s players, took center stage at the event. Sotos, a junior at Conant, had a terrific high school season and transitioned easily to club ball.

“He’s really skilled, he’s a major gym rat and he has athleticism,” Weinstein said. “He might grow two more inches. He can dunk with either hand, has a great first step. That’s stuff you can’t teach that he can do. I know he’s a Division I player.”

Sotos sprouted from 5-9 to 6-2 in the last year. His three older brothers all played at Conant under coach Tom McCormack.

“I’ve been putting on muscle and trying to get more athletic every day,” Sotos said. “Most bigs think they can block my shot but I’m able to finish over them now. They don’t expect me to get off the floor so quick.”

Weinstein says a lot of colleges have been “caught off guard” by the massive improvement in Sotos. He currently has offers from Winthrop, Campbell and Lafayette. Expect that list to grow significantly in size and stature.

“[College] distance and size doesn’t matter too much,” Sotos said. “I’m just trying to find the best balance between academics and basketball.”

It doesn’t take long to identify a star high school point guard and Sotos showed on Saturday that he has all the necessary skills and confidence to be that type of player next season.

“I’m trying to live up to those expectations,” Sotos said. “[Conant] only lost one starter, we have nice chemistry so I think we can have a really good season next year.”

Marco Pettinato, Sotos’ teammate on Fundamental U, led Lincoln-Way West all the way to the Class 3A state title game last season. The Warriors’ success has opened the eyes of a lot of players. A Cinderella run like that makes every team believe that March success is possible.

“For sure, I think that made everyone feel that more is possible,” Sotos said. “I’ve talked to Marco about it a lot, just asking him how they beat those teams. He said you just have to have confidence in yourself and your teammates and pretty much anything can happen.”

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