Lost in a weekend full of unbeaten teams going down, Public League and Catholic League champions crowned and conference titles being decided, was the announcement of coach Tom McCormack retiring at the end of this season.
The highly-successful McCormack has spent the past 31 building and maintaining a program that’s been respected by anyone who has watched Conant basketball over the years.
Under McCormack, there was a systematic style and approach opposing coaches dreaded to face. The end result has been enormous success, including 12 regional championships, four sectional titles, a trip to the Elite Eight in 1994 and 570 wins and counting.
What’s also been lost throughout McCormack’s three decades of winning at Conant is what shape the Cougars basketball program was in when he took over in 1986. In the six years prior to McCormack taking over at Conant, the basketball program was a combined 11-137, including 0-24 the season before.
Now, with senior Jimmy Sotos leading the way and a veteran supporting cast, the Cougars are 23-4 on the year and a No. 2 sectional seed.
[For Joe Henricksen’s look at what Tom McCormack has meant to Conant basketball READ HERE.]
Since the season began Evanston has been on my short list of favorites to capture a state championship.
But there have certainly been people who have slept on the Wildkits and their potential as serious state title contenders. Maybe some of those doubts were put to rest with their win over Simeon this past weekend.
Remember, this is a team that’s lost one game all season to an in-state opponent –– and that defeat came on a final possession, in overtime, to a team (Naperville North) currently ranked among the top 25.
The out-of-state schedule Evanston has played, which prepared the Wildkits for showdowns like the one with Simeon and what’s to come this March, has been underestimated.
The list of seven teams from outside Illinois has included elite, state-ranked teams from across the country, including two teams ranked among the top 10 in the nation. The schedule coach Mike Ellis put together was built to prepare Evanston for what matters most, and it’s a tougher schedule than what Evanston would have played if it simply stayed in Illinois all season.
In addition, Evanston has beaten four Chicago area teams that have been ranked this season.
Purdue-bound Nojel Eastern is the unquestioned star, a versatile 6-6 perimeter player who fills the stat sheet. But the other pieces, from 6-5 Elyjah Williams to scorer Chris Hamil to sophomore Lance Jones to Malcolm Townsel, have molded nicely together.
Plus, Evanston has a coach in Mike Ellis who has done it before. People forget he led two different Richwoods teams to state runner-up finishes in 2006 and 2010. In just his second year at Evanston he led a less talented Wildkits team than this one to a sectional title in 2012.
Now the Wildkits prepare for a March where they will be the top-seed in the Waukegan Sectional and likely face another Public League giant –– Young or Curie –– if it were to reach the super-sectional at Chicago State.
When Class 3A and 4A regional play tips off next week, Warren just might be the most dangerous double-digit seed around.
Warren started the season 3-7 but has gone 9-5 in its last 14 games. More impressively, the Blue Devils, a No. 10 seed in the Libertyville Regional, have not only beaten H-F, Oak Park and Stevenson during that stretch but also knocked off regional favorite Notre Dame.
Senior guards Jayson Dorsey and Juwan Perry have been solid, but the emergence of 6-2 junior Branden Ellis has helped fuel Warren’s resurgence.
A couple of other lower-seeded teams to keep an eye on in regional play next week: Thornwood and Downers Grove South.
After playing Thornton tough in a 64-59 loss in the middle of January to fall to 8-9, Thornwood, a No. 11 seed, has won seven straight. If Thornwood gets by Washington in the regional opener next Monday, it would play No. 6 seed Bloom in the regional semifinals. Thornwood beat Bloom 71-70 last month.
Downers Grove South, a No. 8 seed in the Hinsdale Central Sectional, has been wildly up and down all season but is finishing strong, winning seven of its last eight. The Mustangs now have momentum, a Division I player with size in 6-5 T.J. Clifford and a shooter in Denis Alibegovic who can alter a game with his three-point shooting.
Downers Grove South will have its hands full with No. 9 seed Hinsdale Central in the regional before it can even get a shot at top-seeded Wheaton-Warrenville South.
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