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Five teams to keep an eye on this week

These are teams primed and ready for a strong season regardless of what happens over the holidays.  But they can further enhance their own confidence and the belief of others by passing big tests in the coming week. 

Oswego East’s Patrick Robinson (1) maintains control of the ball as Joliet West’s Ashawn Burbridge (10) defends.
Oswego East’s Patrick Robinson (1) maintains control of the ball as Joliet West’s Ashawn Burbridge (10) defends.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Proviso East is unbeaten. The Pirates are 7-0, picked up an impressive 58-50 résumé-building win over Benet along the way and are headed to the prestigious Proviso West Holiday Tournament feeling good.

That opening paragraph sure doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary. This is, after all, Proviso East basketball.

But there weren’t big expectations from Proviso East when the season began.

The Pirates were just 7-8 a year ago and a very modest 17-13 the year before. They weren’t even in the discussion when it came to the West Suburban Gold conference race the past two seasons, and they haven’t played in a regional championship game since 2018.

That’s all a far cry from some of the glorious years Proviso East has enjoyed over the decades, the most recent being an electric two-year run where coach Donnie Boyce’s team went 62-6 with a pair of state trophies during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.

Despite the fast start to the season, no one really knows just how this Proviso East team will match up against the best. There isn’t a whole lot of meat in the schedule aside from that Benet win. But Boyce feels confident based on the work his players put in during the summer and fall. That’s when he saw a return to the right mindset.

“They work hard, put in the time and are all about the right things,” said Boyce. “What makes me feel so confident and encouraged is that our kids are playing our style of basketball again. The last couple of years I don’t think that was the case. The culture and chemistry has returned, and I think we are just starting to scratch the surface.”

The attacking style his players possess is what Boyce loves. With four guards averaging in double figures and with some balanced scoring prowess, Boyce says he has a trust and allows for some freedom with the ball in their hands.

“What I love is we have multiple guys who can break down defenders and get to the basket,” said Boyce.

Junior guard Jaloni Johnson leads the Pirates with 18 points a game. Combo guard Javon Johnson, who is also striving to be the senior class valedictorian, is averaging 17 points, five rebounds and five assists a game. Dakari Presley is a 5-10 senior who has been a menace at both ends of the floor, putting up 12 points with five steals a game, while Byron Pullun is adding 12 points a game.

While anyone with a high school basketball pulse knows the once star-studded Proviso West Holiday Tournament isn’t what it once was, it still potentially provides the Pirates a monumental measuring stick. If Proviso East is to really open eyes it will get a chance at its old holiday stomping grounds in Hillside. Both No. 2 Kenwood and No. 5 Young are there.

“I know these kids are going to compete and will be a tough out no matter who we play,” said Boyce.

There are several hot-start teams with a chance to further prove their worth over the holidays. While certainly not sleepers, these four teams are talented teams with big opportunities in highly-regarded tournaments.

Again, these aren’t some fast-starting teams that will fade away with a holiday tournament loss or two. These are teams primed and ready for a strong season regardless of what happens over the holidays.

But they’ve been living large in the opening month of the season with a combined record of 48-3 and can further enhance their own confidence and the belief of others by passing big tests in the coming week.

Wheaton-Warrenville South (11-0)

We are not in totally unfamiliar territory here with coach Mike Healy’s Tigers. If you haven’t noticed, this is another Wheaton South team destined to pile up 20-plus wins while laying low.

This group of no-namers will take their funky ball-press defense, precise execution and the sum is greater than the parts team to the State Farm Classic in Bloomington-Normal.

And while there, Healy may even be able to dig into the “disrespect” mantra to rile up his troops; the unbeaten Tigers are the No. 4 seed. Wheaton South has beaten Fremd, Rolling Meadows and Naperville Central, teams with a combined record of 24-3 this year when not playing the Tigers.

Regardless, this tournament will provide immediate tests, starting with a likely matchup with Brother Rice (9-1) in the second round. The Tigers will also get a different look and feel playing quality out-of-the-area teams like Normal, East St. Louis and Rock Island if it advances deep into bracket play.

Rolling Meadows (9-1)

This could be the most undervalued team in the Chicago area right now.

The reasons are simple. When you lose a player the caliber of Max Christie –– a top 20 player nationally and a McDonald’s All-American who is now playing at Michigan State –– it should be significantly felt.

Then the Mustangs lost to unranked Wheaton South at Thanksgiving. But everyone soon figured out Wheaton South is very good and having zero time to prep for the Tigers in tournament play is a tall task, especially over a busy Thanksgiving week.

But after watching Rolling Meadows, this team easily has the potential to be better than last year’s 15-0 team, particularly with another month or so under its belt. While led by the 1-2 punch of junior Cameron Christie and budding senior Orlando Thomas, there is more depth, more skilled size and several more scoring options than a year ago.

Christie is settling in as a go-to player with more responsibility while the young nucleus, including promising 6-5 freshman Ian Miletic and a trio of juniors –– 6-4 Foster Ogbonna, 6-6 Mark Nikolich-Wilson and 6-7 Tsvet Sotriov –– who are gaining maturity and experience by the week competing at the varsity level.

The coming week at York, where top-ranked Glenbard West is on their side of the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament bracket, is an ideal test for this emerging team that’s been a bit overlooked.

Benet (6-1)

A team that seems to be lurking but without a significant win to boost its stock. That opportunity was wiped away last weekend when its showdown with unbeaten DePaul Prep was canceled.

Having played just seven games this season, coach Gene Heidkamp’s team needs games and will head to the always-strong Pontiac Holiday Tournament having not played one in 12 days.

But behind steady, productive play from senior guard Brennan White and junior Brady Kunka, Benet has beaten the teams it’s supposed to beat with the exception of Proviso East in what turned out to be an ice cold shooting night. Can 6-9 big man Kyle Thomas become a productive theat and impose his will and physical attributes in making a consistent difference?

Heidkamp will certainly know a whole lot more about his team after three days in Pontiac. A second-round game with Bloom awaits. If it can get past the Blazing Trojans, it’s then likely to play two games in one day against the likes of Curie, Simeon or New Trier.

Oswego East (13-0)

Maybe not enough people have realized the Wolves are a gaudy and perfect 13-0 at Christmas. That includes a pair of wins at the Hinsdale Central Holiday Classic which sets them up for a semifinal matchup with the host Red Devils.

The most impressive wins thus far have come against Yorkville Christian and Marian Catholic. Now the stakes are raised for a team with multiple scoring options and disruptive quickness and athleticism. They’ve also won playing different types of pace,, whether it’s been slowed down or sped up.

Patrick Robinson is a physically imposing difference-maker. He’s a 6-4 powerful finisher who defenders simply bounce off of at the basket. But more importantly he’s starting to impact in other areas of the game, including an improved three-point shot.

Robinson, multi-faceted 6-5 junior Mekhi Lowery, senior guards Devon Oregon and Darren Oregon and 6-5 Ryan Johnson are all threats.

Oswego East is good, at times looks really good, but you get the feeling the Wolves are a win or two away from really waking people up and catching everyone’s eye. What remains at Hinsdale Central will do that for them.