These teams may not be ranked in the preseason Sun-Times Super 25. They may not be receiving any preseason love or fanfare. But overlooking them could prove to be problematic.
Here are five sleeper teams to keep an eye on over the course of the 2021-22 season.
After winning the Upstate Eight Conference last season and finishing 12-4 overall, keep an eye on the Hawks, who return three all-conference performers.
Senior Conrad Luczynski is an intriguing player to watch this season. The mammoth 7-2 senior continues to show improvement and gained confidence last year as he averaged 15 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and three assists.
Sophomore point guard Kelton McEwen was one of the most productive freshmen in the state a year ago, putting up 14 points and three assists while shooting 40 percent from three.
Ian Smith is the third returning player in double figures as the 6-2 senior averaged 14 points and shot 39 percent from the three-point line, while 6-2 sophomore Nathan Scearce came off the bench to average five points.
If Bartlett can replace the role-playing of last year’s seniors, who rebounded, defended and played with some grit, the Hawks can repeat in the Upstate Eight and hold off upstart Larkin, East Aurora and a much-improved Glenbard East.
The Ramblers have been so consistent in recent years as coach Tom Livatino has built a very respected basketball program –– and one that has enjoyed a lot of success and a ton of wins. Loyola won a sectional title in 2014 and then averaged 25 wins a year with four regional championships from 2017-2020 before going 14-7 a year ago.
While Loyola has been a top 25 regular over the years, it will enter this season an under-the-radar team. But it’s a team that could surprise and play the role of spoiler in the Chicago Catholic League where there are clear, ranked favorites.
There are a couple of players with starting experience, including senior Max Garcia, a versatile 6-3 hybrid type of player. He’s a post who sees the floor and an offense can be run through. Senior Connor Casper is a 6-5 guard who started a few games last season and brings length and scoring potential.
But keep an eye on junior point guard Alex Engro who is poised for a breakout year.
Loyola has done a masterful job of restocking the pipeline over and over with similar players. This team is no exception but will just need to find itself and overcome a lack of experience in the early going.
Behind the scenes, while playing only South Suburban Conference games a year ago during Covid, Lemont put together a 12-1 record.
Also while no one was paying attention, sophomore Nojus Indrusaitis emerged as one of the top basketball prospects in the state.
Put the returning talent together with the winning of last year and Lemont has a chance to burst on the scene this season.
The 6-4 Indrusaitis is a high-major prospect after averaging a whopping 19 points as a freshman last season and showcasing his scoring ability on the club basketball circuit in the spring and summer. Even at this young age, Indrusaitis is a game-changer.
The Castillo brothers –– sophomores Rokas and Matas –– are a fun, competitive pair of guards who gained valuable experience last season. Rokas is a returning all-conference player while Matas averaged 10 points.
Junior Miles Beachum is a 6-3 junior who transferred in and should provide an immediate boost for coach Rick Runaas.
There is a lack of size, so rebounding and interior defense could prove to be an issue Lemont will have to deal with. And, yes, Lemont is probably a year away from being a potential top 25 team. But it’s a team that can put pressure on opposing defenses right now with its shooting, should put points on the board in bunches and win a lot of games.
The Southwest Prairie Conference is pretty wide open. But Oswego East just may be the team to beat with the return of rugged wing Patrick Robinson and multi-dimensional Mekhi Lowery.
The Wolves won 20-plus games in each of the three seasons prior to last season’s 10-3 Covid-shortened season. This team has the potential to be as good as any of those teams, including the 24-win regional championship team in 2018-19.
There are three returning starters, but the starting point is the 1-2 punch of Robinson and Lowery.
The strong, athletic Robinson is headed to Division II Missouri-St. Louis. He’s a 6-4 freight train in the open court, a finisher at the rim and whose perimeter jumper continues to improve. Whether he becomes an impactful player on the glass and defensively will go a long way in whether this team can surpass expectations.
After showcasing a vast array of talent last season as a sophomore, the 6-5 Lowery continued to blossom this offseason and has put himself on the Division I radar with his length, skill and versatile scoring on the perimeter.
DeVon Oregon and Darren Oregon are a pair of 6-0 guards and returning starters in the backcourt. Senior Gavin Garcon, 6-5 junior Ryan Johnson and junior point guard Joey Patti will provide added depth.
St. Charles North
Coach Tom Poulin has a variety of weapons, including a surplus of three-point shooters, that make the North Stars a legit threat to win a very competitive DuKane Conference.
Seniors Ethan Marlowe, Max Love and Jude Love all bring a ton of experience. They were part of a North Stars team two years ago that won 24 games and were set to play for a sectional championship before Covid shut everything down.
Marlowe is a versatile 6-8 big man who can stretch the floor with his jumper out to the three-point line –– he shot 41 percent from beyond the arc. He did a little of everything last year as a junior, averaging 14.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and nearly two blocks.
Max Love brings some length and athleticism. But what the 6-4 wing does best is shoot the basketball. He returns after putting up 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds.
The 6-4 Jude Love (6.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is another wing with size, 6-3 senior Justin Hughes is a dangerous shooter, 6-4 senior Ned Hayes is another shooting threat with athleticism, and junior point guard Mason Siegfried gained experience last season off the bench.