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Young storms the court after coming back in overtime to win the Class 4A state championship at Carver Arena. Worsom Robinson/ For the Sun-Times.

2017 Basketball Preview: 10 things to watch this season

It’s been 242 days since the last meaningful high school basketball game was played. With the season set to tip off next Monday, here are 10 things to watch for during this 2017-2018 season.

Public League dominance

Will anyone be able to crack the stranglehold the Chicago Public League powers currently have on the state basketball scene? Young, Morgan Park and Orr won 4A, 3A and 2A titles, respectively, last March, the first time the city swept all three classes.

This season? Orr and Morgan Park are expected to repeat, while Simeon, Curie and Young are the three biggest favorites in Class 4A.

Keeping in mind each one of those powers received an impact transfer this offseason, imagine the reverberations if the Public League sweeps all three classes once again this March.

Is it Orr’s turn in the city?

While Orr did break through last year by winning a Class 2A state championship, there is still plenty of hunger for a team that returns virtually intact.

All of the city heavyweights –– Simeon, Young, Curie, Bogan, Morgan Park, Farragut and North Lawndale –– have won a Public League championship. The lone power missing from that list is Orr, which has yet to even play in a city title game.

South suburban struggles

For decades the south suburbs have been a hotbed for high school basketball. Thornton, Thornwood, Hillcrest, Homewood-Flossmoor, Bloom and Marian Catholic have been in the headlines and taken its turn as a ranked team in recent years.

This year there won’t be a single one of those aforementioned south suburban powers ranked among Michael O’Brien’s preseason Super 25 rankings.

The lone south suburban school ranked among the Super 25 will be Lincoln-Way East, a program still in search of its first regional championship.

Individually, there is just one player from the south suburbs –– Lincoln-Way East’s Sam Shafer –– ranked among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 50 prospects in the Class of 2018.

Will a player or program emerge and surpass the low expectations?

Battle for top spot in Class of 2020

Here’s what you need to know about Morgan Park’s Adam Miller and Fenwick’s D.J. Steward: The two sophomores are absurdly gifted young talents who play for highly-ranked teams and are ranked among the top 30 prospects in the country.

Watching the development of the two most talented sophomores in the state will be a fun sidebar to how their respective teams fare this season. Miller and Morgan Park will square off with Steward and Fenwick in a highly-anticipated showdown Jan. 20 at Glenbard East in the When Sides Collide Shootout.

“Downstate” talent

There are several big-named players and coveted prospects outside the Chicago area, particularly in the Class of 2019.

The City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top three prospects in the junior class include Belleville West’s E.J. Liddell, Normal’s Francis Okoro and East St. Louis’ Terrance Hargrove. Liddell and Okoro are both top 100 players nationally while Hargrove could emerge as one in time.

Bloomington’s Chris Payton is among the top half dozen prospects in the junior class and has committed to Illinois State.

Fortunately for Chicago area basketball fans, the top talent in the sophomore class, Adam Miller, is now playing in the Chicago area after transferring from Peoria Manual to Morgan Park.

New faces

Hinsdale South’s Zion Griffin and Corliss’ George Conditt are now the No. 3 and No. 4 ranked players in the senior class and headed to a high-major program, yet the majority of high school basketball fans have never seen either of them play.

While Griffin did put together an outstanding junior season and put himself on the radar, it wasn’t until the spring and summer when the highly-athletic 6-6 forward truly blossomed as a bonafide high-major prospect.

Conditt, meanwhile, was an absolute unknown 12 months ago. And while it won’t be easy finding a Corliss game for the average fan, he’s now an ultra-intriguing 6-10 prospect who garnered 30-plus offers between April and August.

From a team standpoint, Niles North and Romeoville are preseason top 10 teams with big expectations.

Niles North has become a consistent winner under coach Glenn Olson after years of basketball futility. But a top 10 ranking in the preseason and realistic hopes of playing in Peoria in March is some new territory. This is still a program with only four regional championships and one sectional title in its history.

Romeoville basketball has been pretty non-existent over the years. The highest win total in the last 20 years has been 16 wins, matched by last year’s team.

The school’s greatest season –– the 27-win team that finished fourth in the state in 1986 –– was stripped from the record books.The Spartans forfeited all 27 victories, officially finishing 0-33, after using an ineligible player.

Now it’s a chance to wipe the slate clean for a team that’s entering unchartered waters as far as expectations and rankings go.

Yes, there are some fresh, new faces on the scene this season –– individually and from a team standpoint.

The Upstate Eight River race

The Upstate Eight Conference’s River Division will be impossible to ignore this season with the quality depth and balance up and down the league.

It starts with a pair of ranked teams in Larkin and St. Charles East, but it continues with a Geneva team that has won 105 games over the past four seasons, a loaded St. Charles North and a much-improved and overlooked Batavia.

When you throw in the rivalries and proximity of the schools that churns out natural excitement, there won’t be a conference race that will be more entertaining this winter.

The return of Markese Jacobs

He wasn’t gone for long but the exciting and uber-athletic Markese Jacobs of Uplift has returned after a short stint at a prep school in Arizona. Jacobs transferred to Hillcrest Prep in Arizona in August but returned to Chicago in late September.

Jacobs injects a boost of talent into the junior class, particularly in the Chicago area where high-level talent is lacking. But it’s interesting to see the lack of hype surrounding a team with a Kansas commit who is ranked among the top 100 players in the country. Will that change over the course of the season?

Jacobs has the type of ability and pure explosiveness to put a team on his back and carry it.

The speed and pace of Whitney Young

They are the defending champs, so it goes without saying Young is one to watch this season. The Dolphins are talented enough to repeat in Class 4A.

But the style, speed and pace the Dolphins plan to play this season brings some intrigue and excitement. Now the question will be can Young put up points along with some offensive efficiency?

The personnel coach Tyrone Slaughter has on this team fits perfectly for the style and system the Dolphins are set to play.

It’s time to appreciate point guard Xavier Castaneda. The South Florida recruit impacts a game in ways a point guard should and now has a plethora of weapons around him on the perimeter.

There is Javon Freeman, a 6-3 athletic, lane-filling finisher who has signed with Valpo. Senior Justin Boyd is a 6-3 sniper from the perimeter. The young guard tandem of junior Myles Baker and sophomore Tyler Beard are set to blossom. Sophomore guard Elliot Sieger has transferred in from DePaul Prep.

Yes, there are a lot of guards. But it’s going to be fun watching them and a far cry from the Jahlil Okafor days of winning.

Player of the Year race

What’s a season without a Player of the Year watch?

Yes, Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu is the frontrunner and has pole position as the season tips off. But whether it’s for Chicago area POY honors or Mr. Basketball, Dosunmu will have legitimate challengers. But realistically there just won’t be a ton of them.

Trying to find the combination of highly-productive player on a really good team with chances to put together POY moments is not easy.

Maybe another darkhorse emerges, but the short list in the Chicago area includes Simeon’s Talen Horton-Tucker, Uplift’s Markese Jacobs, Hinsdale South’s Zion Griffin and Young’s tandem of Javon Freeman and Xavier Castaneda.

Any statewide award and Dosunmu will get a firm test from Belleville West’s E.J. Liddell, the highly-productive junior who will be leading one of the state’s best teams.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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