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The 10 best conferences in high school basketball

Ranking and breaking down the top conferences in the Chicago area.

Curie’s Elijah Pickens (1) shoots the ball over Bogan’s defense.
Curie’s Elijah Pickens (1) shoots the ball over Bogan’s defense.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

We have hit the straightaway of the regular season. Conference races and the Public League playoffs take center stage in the final two-plus weeks before state tournament play begins.

Here is a conference roll call –– the ranking and breaking down of the top conferences.

1. Public League Red-South/Central

Why No. 1: Curie, Bogan, Simeon and Morgan Park. Enough said right there.

But Corliss and Hyde Park have proven to be teams worth mentioning. Combine the elite powers with the depth and it’s a clear-cut choice as the No. 1 conference in the state.

Best team: Curie. The Condors are facing a challenging time right now without coach Mike Oliver. But Curie has yet to lose to an in-state team, is ranked No. 1 and headed to the city semifinals.

Best player: Curie’s Ramean Hinton. With apologies to the high-scoring Adam Miller of Morgan Park, who remains the best prospect in the conference, the Curie star has been the engine of the No. 1 team in the state. He puts up numbers and instills a desire and determination with his own personal relentlessness.

Most underrated player: Elijah Pickens. While Hinton is the biggest name on the state’s No. 1 ranked team, point guard Elijah Pickens has been so instrumental to Curie’s success but without the fanfare and big numbers.

Biggest surprise: After all that Curie and Bogan lost from teams that reached Peoria a year ago, it’s a little surprising these two have had their way and are a combined 47-3 –– with one of the losses coming to the other.

Biggest remaining game: League play is complete and the Public League playoffs have taken center stage in the city with both Curie, Bogan and Morgan Park all in the semifinals.

2. Public League Red-North/West

Why No. 2: Young is among the state’s best teams while Orr remains a strong Class 2A state title contender. Lincoln Park’s season has been shut down, but the Lions were a bonafide top 10-15 team in the Chicago area before the controversy began.

Best team: Young remains state title contender after winning the Red-West/North title. The Dolphins came in as the favorite and lived up to the hype behind McDonald’s All-American D.J. Steward and Tyler Beard.

Best player: D.J Steward, the Duke recruit, has been a steady kind of terrific all season. He’s all about substance and consistent production.

Most underrated player: He had a big name early in his career, which started out at Clark before transferring to Orr, but Demarius Splunge has been a bit of a forgotten man as a senior.

The 6-5 forward has been a regular double-double and is putting together an outstanding senior season, including a 22-point, 12-rebound effort in a tough one-point loss to Curie in the city quarterfinals.

Biggest surprise: Westinghouse was a preseason top 25 team in the Sun-Times Super 25. The Warriors have played a tough schedule and dealt with some injuries, but the 11-13 record is the league’s biggest surprise.

Biggest remaining game: Everything has been wrapped up as the city playoffs are in full swing. Curie has advanced to the city semifinals.

3. Catholic League Blue

Why No. 3: The 1-2 punch at the top of the league is impressive. Loyola and DePaul Prep have a combined 44 wins on the year. Fenwick and St. Ignatius are two more 20-plus win teams while Brother Rice is knocking on the door of 20 wins. There is quality depth.

Best team: Loyola, though DePaul may have something to say about this. The Ramblers were upset by Brother Rice Tuesday night but have beaten Evanston and Notre Dame, play a physical and disciplined defense that is vastly under-appreciated and are 23-4 on the season. Coach Tom Livatino has his team in position to nab a No. 1 sectional seed.

Best player: Bryce Hopkins. The Louisville commit is just a junior but is the most dominating figure in the league. The 6-6 do-it-all wing is putting up huge numbers and can legitimately carry a team.

Most underrated player: Rasheed Bello. The DePaul Prep junior guard is a killer defensively and uses his vast array of talents to impact the game in multiple ways.

Biggest surprise: St. Ignatius may not be in the league race, but the Wolfpack have been sneaky good and are closing in on 20 wins on the season. This from a team that finished dead last a year ago.

Biggest remaining game: All eyes will be on the Loyola-DePaul Prep showdown Feb. 18. Both teams are 11-1 in Catholic League play.

4. Southland

Why No. 4: For starters, Bloom and Thornton are ranked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively. That’s a whopper of a top two in any league. Kankakee is ranked among the top 20 and has only lost to the two league heavyweights. But there is little to no depth in the conference.

Best team: Bloom. The Blazing Trojans lost to Thornton in December but took care of business in the rematch. There is the much-talked-about starting five of Division I talent which boasts experience and superior athleticism.

Best player: Dante Maddox Jr.. While Bloom is loaded, Maddox has taken his game to another level. He’s a powerfully strong guard who can score in multiple ways and defend.

Most underrated player: The Bloom boys get all the fanfare, and Thornton’s D.J. Williams has received his due with all that he brings to the Wildcats. But Kankakee’s Ambrozino “A.J.” Storr is the one player in the league who has broken through. The exciting 6-4 junior is averaging 13 points a game and has emerged as a prospect to watch in the Class of 2021.

Biggest surprise: Thornton. The Wildcats were expected to be good. But this good? 25-1 good? Top five good?

Biggest remaining game: Bloom and Thornton have already duked it out twice and split their two games. And the top two dogs have also already played tough Kankakee twice. So there will be a lack of drama in these final two weeks.

5. East Suburban Catholic

Why No. 5: The league boasts one of the state’s elite teams in Notre Dame. Marian Catholic has been ranked all season. Benet is rock solid and St. Patrick is a tricky team to play and on its way to a 20-plus win season.

Best team: Notre Dame is in a class of its own. With the Division I junior trio of Anthony Sayles, Louis Lesmond and Troy D’Amico, the Dons are stacked with talent. Coach Kevin Clancy’s team has thrived while playing a challenging schedule and are a legitimate Class 3A state title contender.

Best player: While the tantalizing junior trio at Notre Dame have each other to lean on, Marian Catholic relies so heavily on point guard Ahron Ulis, last year’s ESCC Player of the Year. Ulis is averaging 18.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and nearly three assists a game for the Spartans.

Most underrated player: There is a lot of individual star power in the league. But the player who hasn’t been talked about nearly enough is St. Viator’s Connor Kochera, a 6-4 bucket-getter who has quietly led the Lions to 17 wins on the year. Kochera is putting up some massive numbers with little fanfare, averaging 25 points a game, including 31 points a game over his last six.

Biggest surprise: Always one of the top basketball conferences in the state, the surprise here is the ESCC isn’t quite as strong overall as expected. Outside of Notre Dame, the remaining top four teams have 20 non-conference losses between them. But with that being said it remains one of the area’s best conferences.

Biggest remaining game: The Notre Dame-Marian Catholic showdown took place back in December. The Notre Dame win has given the Dons a one-game lead over Marian Catholic. The biggest ESCC game left on the slate is this Friday: Notre Dame at Benet.

6. Central Suburban League South

Why No. 6: It’s a league with a pair highly-ranked teams who have fared quite well, climbed the rankings and are among the state’s best. Evanston and Glenbrook South are an identical 23-3.

Best team: Evanston has played the tougher schedule, looks more impressive and, on paper, is more talented. But head-to-head matters, and right now Glenbrook South owns a double-digit win over the Wildkits.

Best player: Dom Martinelli. There is no denying what the 6-4 senior is doing from a production and success standpoint. He’s put himself smack dab in the middle of the Player of the Year conversation and is among the top five candidates.

Most underrated player: New Trier lost all five starters from a year ago but has evolved into a pesky team, thanks in large part to John Carragher.

Carragher may not have the Martinelli name or the recruiting interest of Evanston’s Jaylin Gibson or Blake Peters, but he’s tough, competes and can score the basketball. The senior guard is averaging 18 points, five rebounds and three assists a game for the 15-10 Trevians.

Biggest surprise: Glenbrook South graduated four starters from a year ago. But behind Martinelli’s dominance and the arrival of sophomores Cooper Noard and Nick Martinelli the Titans haven’t missed a beat and, surprisingly, are better than a year ago.

Biggest remaining game: A monumental rematch Feb. 21 between Evanston and Glenbrook South is appointment viewing for the high school basketball fan.

7. North Suburban

Why No. 7: It starts at the top as both Stevenson and Mundelein have been a couple mainstays in the rankings. Zion-Benton is dangerous and both Libertyville and Lake Forest have shown life and provide quality depth.

Best team: Stevenson has the winning pedigree, senior experience, balance across the board and owns a win over the team its fighting for a league title with in Mundelein.

Best player: Zion-Benton’s talented tandem of Amar Aguillard and Damonte Taylor stand out but share the load for the Zee-Bees. But the talent and importance of Mundelein junior guard Conor Enright can’t be underestimated. The tough, competitive point guard runs the show for a 22-win team while averaging 14 points a game.

Enright pumped in 23 points and hit five three-pointers Tuesday night in helping his team to a win over Aguillard, Taylor and the Zee-Bees.

Most underrated player: The intangibles and overlooked contributions of Matt Kaznikov of Stevenson, a senior-dominated team led by Matthew Ambrose, are most definitely underrated. He makes important plays and hits key shots. The big-bodied senior will get you a rebound, space the floor with his three-point shooting and score in double figures.

Biggest surprise: Libertyville has flown under the radar but has proven to be more than a competitive team with a 16-8 record. Names like Will Moore, Jackson Watson and Chase Bonder may not be household names outside the North Suburban Conference, but with them the Wildcats have surprised.

Biggest remaining game: This Friday is a big one as Stevenson meets Mundelein in a rematch between two teams tied for first.

8. Southwest Suburban Blue

Why No. 8: With it being just a five-team league, the top teams need to pack a punch –– and they do. Homewood-Flossmoor is a top 10 team with a sparkling 20-3 record. Bolingbrook has been in the rankings most of the season. Lincoln-Way East is strong and Sandburg is a competitive .500 team.

Best team: Homewood-Flossmoor has separated itself with its convincing win over Bolingbrook last week. The Vikings, led by 6-5 senior R.J. Ogom, have several three-point shooting threats, speed, athleticism and balance.

Best player: Darius Burford of Bolingbrook is a true difference-maker who puts up 25 points a game. The high-scoring guard is electric in the open floor and such a disruptive force.

Most underrated player: Although Homewood-Flossmoor and Bolingbrook, along with their star players, have hogged the headlines in the Southwest Suburban Blue, Sandburg’s Atharva Atreya is one overlooked player outside of the league. Atreya is averaging 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and four assists a game.

Biggest surprise: The breakout of Homewood-Flossmoor’s supporting cast has proved pivotal in what has been a huge season for the Vikings.

Yes, Ogom, a Charleston recruit, is the name. But whether it’s been Josiah Palmer’s scoring production in the backcourt, timely threes from the likes of Joel Watts and Julian Gatewood or contributions from Kenton Pryor, Brandon Brewer and big man Chad Readey, the balance beyond Ogom has all come together.

Biggest remaining game: Bolingbrook will get another crack at H-F in the regular-season finale. A Feb. 25 win at home would give the Raiders a share of the conference title.

9. DuKane

Why No. 9: There are seven teams at .500 or better, including four teams on the cusp of winning 20-plus games.

Best team: It’s really a toss-up between St. Charles East and St. Charles North. Both have been hot and playing well in the second half of the season. The debate will be decided soon.

Best player: We’ll go ahead and split the award between the two St. Charles North stars, Connor Linke and Luke Scheffers, who get the edge over Lake Park’s Trevon Montiel.

Linke’s presence defensively and on the glass is something no one else in the conference possesses. The St. Charles North 6-9 senior is a regular double-double guy who, as an added bonus, is a serious rim protecting big man.

Scheffers, a lead guard who makes this team go, has been playing his best basketball of late, averaging 13 points, four rebounds and four assists a game.

Most underrated player: St. Charles East’s Chase Monkemeyer’s game isn’t flashy. The 6-3 senior doesn’t force things and is very efficient. He’s emerged as the leading scorer for the top team in the league.

Biggest surprise: Wheaton-Warrenville South didn’t return a single starter, yet the Tigers are knocking on the door of 20 wins. Kudos to coach Mike Healy, a funky style of play and a no-name group that has come together nicely.

Biggest remaining game: A big one this Friday night between rivals St. Charles East and St. Charles North should decide the DuKane champ. Both are tied for the top spot with 9-1 records.

10. DuPage Valley

Why No. 10: It’s likely there will be four teams with 20-plus wins, including DeKalb, Waubonsie Valley and Neuqua Valley, who have already surpassed 20 wins, and Naperville Central.

Best team: DeKalb has been lights out en route to a perfect league record and has already clinched a conference title. The Barbs, led by three double-figure scorers in Trenton Kyler, Joe Owens and Zach Russell, will be a dangerous team in March.

Best player: There may be higher-profile college prospects, but the numbers and production of Waubonsie Valley’s Marcus Skeete are impressive. The 6-5 senior fills a stat sheet and impacts the game in multiple ways. The 6-5 senior, who set a school record with 41 points against Cary-Grove this season, is averaging 16.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists a game.

Most underrated player: DeKalb junior Trenton Kyler has been steady as a rock in leading the Barbs. The talented and savvy 6-1 guard is averaging 12 points, four rebounds and four assists in leading the conference leader.

Biggest surprise: DeKalb lost its best returning player to injury, Isaiah Youngquist, a three-year starter, and also entered the season with a new coach, albeit a veteran one in Mike Reynolds. But the Barbs, who were expected to contend, have cruised to a DVC title and remain unbeaten in league play.

Biggest remaining game: With a three-game lead, DeKalb has already locked up a league title.