Impressions from the high school basketball season’s opening stretch

Here are a bevy of thoughts from the week in this Thanksgiving leftovers column.

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Oswego East’s Mekhi Lowery (24) drives the baseline against West Aurora.

Oswego East’s Mekhi Lowery (24) drives the baseline against West Aurora.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

You never want to overreact from a week’s worth of Thanksgiving tournament basketball. Nonetheless, after waiting over eight months for the action to return — and a busy slate of games played in the opening week — there is always plenty to dissect.

There was a showdown featuring two top five teams, Kenwood and Young, to open the week, a flurry of high-profile games in Washington, Illinois, and plenty of 4-0 starts to the season to grab your attention.

Here are a bevy of thoughts from the week in this Thanksgiving leftovers column.

• Oak Lawn’s quick start to the season was an ascending one. Following somewhat expected lopsided wins over Bremen and Lincoln-Way West to open the Oak Lawn/Reavis Thanksgiving Tournament, the Spartans took down a spunky St. Laurence team 65-60.

Then it was the first big test of the weekend: Mount Carmel. And coach Jason Rhodes’ team passed with flying colors, knocking off the ranked Caravan 76-68.

While Oak Lawn returned just one starter from a year ago — and a part-time one at that — it was an integral piece in senior Ayham Salah, who averaged 9.5 points and shot 40% from three last season. In the first four games this season, the 6-0 guard put up 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

But the addition of Marist transfer Xavier Sulaiman has proved to be the spark for what will be a potent offensive attack.

The 6-2 guard has been on the radar since he was a freshman. But Sulaiman, who has always had a penchant for scoring the basketball, may be taking his game to a new level as a senior in a new basketball home. He was named tournament MVP following a week in which he averaged 24 points in four wins.

Corey Lee, a strong, quick 5-11 junior point guard, provides more offense with 12.5 points and 4.3 assists a game while doubling as the team’s best on-the-ball defender.

There is no time to relax. Oak Lawn will face another ranked team Friday when it hosts unbeaten Hillcrest.

• With a 3-1 record over Thanksgiving, including a win over Lake Forest and Asa Thomas, Loyola showed the potential to be better than a year ago. When you consider the Ramblers will welcome three players back from a state championship football team who figure to play meaningful minutes, that becomes even more of a reality.

But the improvement starts for this team with what will be one of the better backcourts in the Catholic League: senior point guard Alex Engro and junior combo guard Miles Boland.

• There is no doubt the ranked team with the biggest early tests the first week of the season was Joliet West.

Coach Jeremy Kreiger beefed up the schedule significantly, which included an opening week in Washington where it faced Cardinal Ritter out of Missouri, highly-ranked St. Rita, Lanier in Georgia and Metamora, last year’s Class 3A state runner-up with the majority of its team back. The Tigers headed home with a 3-1 record.

• Glenbard West lost Tuesday to DeKalb. That’s newsworthy when you consider the following …

The loss 56-54 overtime loss to DeKalb was just the second defeat to an in-state opponent in 998 days. That’s pretty remarkable.

The Hilltoppers lost a regional game to Batavia on March 4, 2020. Since then the Hilltoppers have lost only to Downers Grove North during the abbreviated Covid-shortened season and to DeKalb on Tuesday.

Last season Glenbard West rolled to a state championship, finishing 37-1, losing only to California power Sierra Canyon in overtime during the regular season. The year before it was a 16-1 record, losing only to DGN.

Prior to the DeKalb loss on Tuesday, the Hilltoppers jumped out to a 3-0 start as they beat up on the other Glenbard schools over Thanksgiving week — all this after graduating five starters from the state title team.

The 2022 Player of the Year Braden Huff is off to Gonzaga. Bobby Durkin will head to Davidson after a year at IMG in Florida. Caden Pierce is starting at Princeton. But coach Jason Opoka’s team still beat Glenbard East, Glenbard North and Glenbard South by an average victory margin of 25 points.

The new name leading Glenbard West: Logan Brown. In the three wins the 6-6 senior averaged 15.7 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two steals. The physical, Brown is a rebounding machine and is committed to play at Division III Haverford in Pennsylvania.

Benji Zander (11 ppg) and sophomore Dominic Seaney (10.7 ppg) joined Brown on the all-tournament team.

• It was expected when the season began, but the opening week just reaffirmed the Catholic League Blue is going to be an absolute grind for every team in it over the next three months.

St. Ignatius, which moved up from the Catholic White, is 4-0 with wins over Lake Forest and New Trier, a pair of preseason ranked teams. Brother Rice is 4-0 with a win over highly-ranked Curie. DePaul is 4-0. Loyola and Mount Carmel are both 3-1. And we haven’t even mentioned league favorite and the highest ranked team of the bunch, St. Rita.

• The big names are gone — Nick Martinelli is at Northwestern and Cooper Noard is at Cornell — but Rodell Davis, Jr., is back for Glenbrook South. The senior guard is making the most of an expanded opportunity this year. Prior to Tuesday’s loss to Rolling Meadows, Davis led the Titans to a 4-0 start and was named MVP of the Ed Molitor Thanksgiving Classic at Palatine.

• And how about that Central Suburban League South? Glenbrook North, Glenbrook South, Evanston and New Trier were a combined 15-1 coming out of Thanksgiving week with the lone loss coming to ranked St. Ignatius.

• St. Ignatius really is a different team than a year ago. But after getting a look at the 2022-23 version, there is no question the Wolfpack can end up back in Champaign again, which is where I picked them to be a week ago in my Fearless Forecast column.

That belief is because Richard Barron, an instrumental part of last year’s success and a George Mason recruit, has a take-over ability and mindset as a senior. Barron can be a 6-5, strong-bodied bully and a sharpshooting wing all rolled into one.

• This will likely be repeated over the course of the season because he continues to be an underappreciated, stat-sheet-stuffing senior star, but Oswego East’s Mekhi Lowery is only getting better. He looks more confident and assertive.

Following a 33-win season a year ago, the 6-6 Lowery is now the engine of a highly-ranked Wolves team that has started the season 5-0, which includes a pair of convincing, double-digit wins over West Aurora.

Towson, which won the Colonial and 25 games a year ago, has itself a recruiting steal in the versatile Lowery.

• You have to kind of like and appreciate the fact coach Don Houston’s Hillcrest team went out and won one of the tougher Thanksgiving tournaments in the state — after losing two key players, 6-9 Matt Moore (to Joliet West) and Isaiah Green (to Kenwood).

• Benet rolled to a title at St. Charles East, even with Niko Abusara playing in just one game due to an ankle injury. But it was the play of another senior who led the way.

Brady Kunka averaged nearly a double-double — and did so in limited minutes due to blowout wins — en route to being named tournament MVP. Kunka was one of the centerpieces of last year’s 25-win team that ran the table in the East Suburban Cathoilc Conference, so he’s not completely unknown. But he’s certainly an unheralded player in the senior class who simply helps teams win.

• With a first-look at Riverside-Brookfield this past week, a loss to ranked Curie, it’s clear the Bulldogs will take a step back from what they were a year ago. Nonetheless, it’s a team that should only get better and is blessed with a game-wrecker in Arius Alijosius.

The 6-1 senior guard who is headed to Division II Winona State in Minnesota is, very simply, one of the elite three-point shooters in the state. In the loss, Alijosius buried eight three-pointers en route to a 30-point game. He gets his shot off quickly off the catch and has unlimited range. He’s capable of turning around a game in a hurry.

• Benet and Marian Catholic were the favorites in the East Suburban Catholic Conference as the season tipped off, while a young but talented St. Patrick headed up the next wave of teams in the league. But Marist was an eye-opener last week, beating Andrew, Shepard and Richards while pummeling Perspectives-Leadership.

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