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Zion-Benton’s clamps down on defense on Waukegan’s Ja’Dyn Brown (2). Worsom Robinson/ For the Sun-Times.

2018 Basketball Preview: Most improved teams

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They took their lumps and finished below the .500 mark a year ago. Now they’re ready to take a big leap forward in this 2018-2019 season.

With practice officially beginning in less than three weeks, these teams figure to be the most improved in the Chicago area this season.

WAUKEGAN

Last year’s record: 11-16 overall; 4-10 in the North Suburban Conference

The expectations: Like last year the Bulldogs will be the favorite in the North Suburban Conference and are poised to be a preseason top 25 team. Just expect different results this winter.

Overview: What could go wrong did go wrong for Waukegan last year. This was a team with big expectations when the season started last year but due to injuries and eligibility issues stumbled.

Now coach Ron Ashlaw has a trio of seniors in the highly-productive Bryant Brown, Ja’Dyn Brown and Jordan Brown who have been through quite a bit and grown in three-plus years. From a personnel standpoint, senior transfer Andre White answers Waukegan’s biggest concern: point guard play.

OSWEGO

Last year’s record: 4-24 overall; 2-12 in the Southwest Prairie Conference

The expectations: This summer the Panthers did not look like a team that won four games the year before. While rival Oswego East is a likely preseason top 25 team and the conference favorite, Oswego is a sleeper, a team that will push towards the top of the conference.

From a record standpoint, Oswego may prove to be the most improved team this season after winning just four games a year ago.

Overview: Led by the return of senior Dylan Engler, the Panthers welcome back 13 of 15 players from a year ago. The senior guard, who averaged 10 points a game last season, has grown to 6-5 and is a big weapon with his perimeter shooting.

Jack Kahoun, another outside shooting threat, is an experienced junior and another double-digit scorer, while improving 6-8 junior Connor McCance and 6-5 senior Marco Wilson provides nice size. Throw in steady point guard Cal Hejza and the Panthers will quickly put last year’s campaign in the rearview mirror.

GLENBROOK SOUTH

Last year’s record: 9-19 overall; 0-10 in the Central Suburban League South

The expectations: While it’s a reach to say Glenbrook South can contend for a league title, it’s a team that could give the heavy favorites in the tough CSL South a real scare. It wouldn’t be out of the question if this team doubled its win total and challenged for a regional championship by the time March rolled around.

Overview: Coach Phil Ralston’s team may have been winless in one of the state’s toughest conferences a year ago and lost 19 games, but the Spartans were still mostly competitive.

Now, after a solid and productive summer –– Glenbrook South went 25-6 in summer play –– Ralston, who begins his second season as head coach at GBS, has experience and a point guard to build around.

Will King (6.5 ppg), a 6-4 senior with size at the point guard position, had a terrific summer and is one of the most improved players in the senior class. He can run a team and will be a more potent scoring threat this season.

Shooter Mac Hubbard (7.7 ppg), 6-4 wing Dom Martinelli (9.3 ppg), 6-2 Jimmy McMahon (7.6 ppg) and guard Gavin Morse. Plus, the junior class won a league title last year as sophomores.

DEERFIELD

Last year’s record: 13-18 overall; 6-4 in the Central Suburban League North

The expectations: With as much size as any team in the state, coach Dan McKendrick could possibly see his team flip its overall record around and challenge for the top spot in the Central Suburban League North.

Overview: The size and hopes start with junior Brandon Lieb, one of the top 25 prospects in the Class of 2020 who continues to show improvement. There is 6-9 senior Jackson Kenyon, 6-5 senior Dimitri Bousis and 6-6 Walter Mattingly, a talented and skilled sophomore move-in from Indiana. Ara Emerzian, a 6-3 senior guard, also returns for the Warriors.

WAUBONSIE VALLEY

Last year’s record: 13-18 overall; 6-10 in the DuPage Valley Conference

The expectations: It’s realistic that the Warriors could make a push towards the top of the DuPage Valley Conference and inch close to the 20-win mark.

Overview: The return of three key players, including all-conference performer Eric Cannon, ignites this team. The power-packed guard averaged 15 points a game as a junior and is a three-year starter.

With Cannon, senior guard Derrien Porter and improving 6-5 junior Marcus Skeete all back, Waubonsie will be a different team than the one that went 6-12 after December last year.

NOTRE DAME

Last year’s record: 14-16 overall; 4-5 in the East Suburban Catholic Conference

The expectations: With everyone talking about St. Viator, Benet and Marian Catholic in the ESCC –– and deservedly so –– this sets up nicely for a young Notre Dame team to play the role of spoiler. The Dons are a team poised to be a whole lot better in February and March than they are in November and December.

Overview: Coach Kevin Clancy’s Dons were inexperienced and competitive last year while hovering around the .500 mark. This year they will be dangerous. There is some serious young talent in this program, led by the sophomore tandem of guard Anthony Sayles and 6-6 Troy D’Amico. Sayles, who averaged 11 points a game as a freshman, and D’Amico are two of the top talents in the Class of 2021.

A couple of juniors –– Jason Bergstrom (6.5 ppg), a veteran 6-3 perimeter shooter, and guard Joey Tianen –– also return.

ZION-BENTON

Last year’s record: 10-17 overall; 3-11 in the North Suburban Conference

The expectations: With two young, promising players a year older and better, the Zion-Benton should be a much-improved team after an uncharacteristic 2017-2018 season. How uncharacteristic was it for the Zee-Bees?

This was a Zion-Benton team that finished in last place in the conference standings. And it was the fewest amount of wins and the most losses for a Zion-Benton team in 25 years.

After suffering through a 2-9 finish to the season a year ago, the Zee-Bees will challenge for one of the top few spots in the North Suburban and be ready for a playoff push in March.

Overview: Zion-Benton returns sophomore Amar Augillard, one of the most productive first-year players in the state last season. As a freshman the 6-5 wing averaged an eye-opening 18.5 points, six rebounds and nearly three assists a game. With Augillard and rising 6-5 junior Damontae Taylor both back, along with senior guard Quentin Williams, last year’s season will be an aberration.

MOUNT CARMEL

Last year’s record: 6-18; 0-8 in the Chicago Catholic League

The expectations: There is plenty of optimism for the Caravan. At the very least, expect a much more competitive team that will win double-digit games with the return of leading scorer Josh Redic, which is a far cry from the six-win –– and winless in the Catholic League –– season of a year ago.

Overview: This is year three for coach Phil Segroves and the arrow is pointing in the right direction after a rough 2017-2018 season.

This is year three for coach Phil Segroves and the arrow is pointing in the right direction after a rough 2017-2018 season.

There are some other seniors surrounding the 6-3 Redic, who quietly averaged 16.3 points a game last season, including point guard Will Mendez, 6-5 defensive specialist Arinze Egbuna and 6-3 Liam McDonough. But if the young talent emerges the Caravan will be much improved.

Keep an eye on 6-2 sophomore Miles McGee and the junior tandem of 6-8 Nick Kennedy and point guard Andre Bennett.

A few other improved teams to keep an eye on

Hersey (9-19 last season): After just nine wins a year ago, first-year coach Austin Scott takes over and has a tandem of point guard Matt Hanushewsky and scorer Rocco Ronzio to help in what should be a quick turnaround. The Huskies will be a contender in the Mid-Suburban League East.

Schaumburg (11-18 last season): The return of jack-of-all-trades athlete Heze Trotter, a 6-2 senior who averaged 10.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and two assists a game last season is a start. But the presence and improvement of 6-8 sophomore Chris Hodges will lift the Saxons out of the basement and into contention in the Mid-Suburban League West.

Kenwood (12-12 last season): Playing in the rugged Red-South/Central of the Chicago Public League can wear on an injured team. That was part of the struggles last year for the Broncos, who will rely heavily this year on a healthy Artese Stapleton at point guard and emerging big man Seryee Lewis inside.

Downers Grove North (13-13 last season): Oak Park is the clear favorite in the West Suburban Silver this season, but the backcourt tandem of Trey Boston and Semaj Henderson will be one of the best in the Chicago area. Look for the Trojans to make a nice jump, both with their win total and standing in league play.

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