The preseason rankings are fun. What better way to get high school basketball fans amped up and talking about the sport before a single game is even played?
But anyone who puts together a preseason ranking this year will quickly come to the realization that it’s unlike any other year for prognostications of teams led by teen-aged athletes. There was only so much basketball played last season and even less watched due to the small window of opportunity to play and the absence of tournaments and shootouts.
For years I have put together a massive preseason ranking of the top 85 teams, a number that just grew from the original top 50 in order to provide additional exposure and to highlight more teams and players. There was something humorous about a team or fan base feeling disrespected over being the 74th ranked team in November.
While the task of ranking 85 teams is daunting in a normal year, it was nearly impossible this season with so little basketball even played over the past year. Thus, I took a pass.
But we have Michael O’Brien’s Sun-Times preseason Super 25 to get us started and dissect. The following are the six teams that are arguably the very best unranked teams in the Chicago area, a few of which would be in my own preseason top 25 rankings.
This is the best team not ranked in the preseason Super 25. If things materialize just the right way, it will be a team that is a big threat by the time March rolls around.
Coach Gene Heidkamp didn’t take shortcuts in building this program when he took over in 2008. That’s paying off now as the respected Benet basketball program simply turns the page and wins, usually pretty big, every year. The standard remains just as high this year. And a Benet team that is under the radar is a dangerous one.
There is only one true returning starter, senior point guard Brennan White, but coach Gene Heidkamp has a junior class that will prop this team up and a host of perimeter shooters that should be able to put points on the board.
While White averaged seven points and three assists a game last year, 6-4 junior Niko Abusara is expected to make a big jump and is an unknown player to get excited about. He has length, athleticism and a will to get to the basket.
Both 6-3 junior wing Brady Kunka and 6-6 sophomore big man Parker Sulaver bring some physicality and gained valuable experience a year ago as young players at the varsity level.
The wild card will be 6-9 Kyle Thomas, a transfer from St. Joseph who was once regarded as one of the top prospects in the class. There is a lot to learn for Thomas, both within the Benet system and how to play with the expectations this program will fully expect. But if he can develop into a presence defensively, on the glass and can score using his size, athleticism and running ability for a big man, he could prove to be a huge asset.
There is something to be said about chemistry and cohesiveness, especially with an experienced group. With four returning starters who were all double-figure scorers a year ago, coach Brett Porto has a lot of it. This is why the Rockets are the favorite in the Fox Valley Conference after going 16-1 last season.
But this group wants more than a 20-plus win season and a conference championship. The program has never won a sectional title in school history. But this team is built for a potential long run in March, thanks to returning senior starters Gavin Sarvis, Carson Seyller, Zac Schmidt and Nick Carpenter. And keep an eye on 6-7 junior Andrew Scharnowski, who brings size and versatility.
The question now is whether this team can compete with anyone and play at the highest level? For one early measuring stick, the Rockets get a big mid-December test against Rolling Meadows.
Coach Mike Ellis has just one returning starter back from a year ago. But the Wildkits aren’t going away. It’s a team that could very well have been ranked in the preseason top 25, even with senior Rashawn Bost as the lone starter back from a year ago.
More importantly when it comes to the success factor, Evanston has become an elite program that’s enjoyed a magnificent run of late. This isn’t nearly as talented of a team as recent years, but it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the pace and win totals of the teams of the past five years. Nonetheless, Evanston will enjoy it’s new role of darkhorse in the Central Suburban League South with Glenbrook South and New Trier as the favorites.
This team’s potential starts with the lone returning starter. Bost’s role as an experienced guard will expand, along with last year’s sixth-man, Prince Adams, becoming an even bigger factor. The 6-6 Adams showed flashes last season and should take a significant step forward as a junior.
A big addition is senior David Gieser, a 6-3 shooter who has transferred in from Fenwick. Gieser brings a ton of experience and much-needed space-the-floor shooting that was lost with the departure of all-stater Blake Peters.
A couple of other players to keep an eye on are Javen Barnett, a junior guard and transfer from Hoffman Estates, and promising freshman guard Yaris Irby.
It’s not very often the preseason Super 25 doesn’t have a single team from the North Suburban Conference. Whether it’s been Stevenson, Waukegan, Warren, Zion-Benton or even an upstart like Mundelein a year ago, it’s been a strong and proud basketball league over the past few decades.
The favorite this year: Lake Forest. It’s a team that would be in my preseason top 25 and one that can make a run at 20-plus wins and be a major player in March –– this year in Class 3A.
The Scouts went 12-4 a year ago in the shortened season and welcome back junior Asa Thomas, currently the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top-ranked prospect in the Class of 2023. He sports several high-major offers already and is among the state’s best perimeter shooters. The 6-6 Thomas averaged 11 points a game as a sophomore but has become bigger, stronger and has two years of varsity basketball under his belt.
Senior Cade Nowik is a two-year starter and Leo Scheidler is an athletic 6-2 senior who will begin his third year at the varsity level. Senior point guard Sam Gibson has some nice size for the position at 6-3, while 6-1 Alex Forowycz is yet another perimeter player for coach Phil LaScala.
There aren’t enough people talking about LT basketball as this 2021-22 season tips off. This is a dangerous team with several weapons it can turn to with none bigger than Tavari Johnson.
The sleek senior point guard who signed with Akron is the rare combination of distributor and bucket-getter. He can do both efficiently and is poised for a huge season. Johnson is a game-changer with the ball in his hands and makes the Lions a threat to break into the top 25 at some point this season.
Will Carroll, a 6-4 senior, is another key returning player for coach Tom Sloan, while there are also some good, young pieces in the program. The junior class is talented, primed and ready to make a splash, including 6-6 Nik Polonowski, who has the look of a future Division I prospect, 6-0 guard Jackson Niego and 6-5 Graham Smith.
The Bulldogs can sometimes get lost a little playing in the non-descript Metro Suburban Conference. But R-B won last year, going 11-2, just as it’s done since the 2008-09 season. It’s been a decade-plus of this program regularly churning out 20-win seasons.
It should be more of the same this season with the return of so many veterans who produced a year ago and had another offseason to develop together. When you combine skill, shooting and experience, it’s a potentially dangerous offensive team.
There is an abundance of shooting and scoring in the form of 6-2 guard Joevonn McCottry (13 ppg), 6-3 shooter JP Hanley (16 ppg), 6-3 Joe Gilhooly (8 ppg), Cory Baker (10 ppg) and point guard Brady Vaia. Plus, Will Gonzalez is an exciting 6-4 sophomore with varsity experience who should take a big step forward. Arius Alijosius, a transfer from Stagg, adds depth and added shooting.