City/Suburban Hoops Report Three-Pointer: Jalen Brunson returns, Benet’s holiday road, teams with something to prove

The impact of Jalen Brunson, the former Stevenson star, is still felt in Lincolnshire and within coach Pat Ambrose’s basketball program.

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Jalen Brunson of the Knicks drives the baseline against the Bulls’ Coby White on Dec. 16, 2022 at the United Center.

Jalen Brunson of the Knicks drives the baseline against the Bulls’ Coby White on Dec. 16, 2022 at the United Center.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The impact of Jalen Brunson, the former Stevenson star, is still felt in Lincolnshire and within coach Pat Ambrose’s basketball program. 

It’s been nearly a decade since the superstar guard led Stevenson basketball to unprecedented heights, highlighted by a state championship in 2015. But the NBA guard, and one of the all-time greats in Illinois high school basketball, returned to Stevenson Thursday night to watch — and help fuel — his former school to its biggest win of the season. 

“They were definitely extra-charged up, a little more jacked,” said Ambrose of his players in regard to Brunson taking in the Patriots’ win over Lake Forest. 

Brunson’s New York Knicks were in town to play the Bulls. Both he and another former Stevenson star, Connor Cashaw, who is playing professionally in Europe, watched their former high school team. Brunson then spent some time with the team in the locker room following the game. 

Stevenson has quietly put together an impressive start to the season. This team doesn’t have a big-name and won’t wow you with overall talent. But it’s now 8-1 overall and unbeaten in the North Suburban Conference following the win over league favorite Lake Forest and Clemson recruit Asa Thomas. 

The Patriots, who are led in scoring by 6-6 junior Christian Uremovich, are very balanced. Michael Maloney, 6-4 David Sulnius, 6-6 Jack Dabbs, Brandon Sorokin and Aidan Bardic are all chipping in.

Bardic, who is just a sophomore, has stepped in and provided steady play at the point guard position. 

“Our passing, our fundamental passing, has been one thing that has stood out,” Ambrose pointed out. “We have five guys on the floor who can pass, and they share the ball. That passing is what leads to balanced scoring.”

But once again the real force in Stevenson basketball is Ambrose. The veteran coach just wins. 

Ambrose has never had a losing season since taking over the program in 1999. He’s won 17-plus games in 20 of his 23 seasons. With four top four finishes, Ambrose’s teams have brought home four state trophies, including the 2015 state title, at a school that previously had none. 

He won big before Brunson — Stevenson finished fourth in the state in the old two-class system in 2007 — and even bigger with him. The Brunson-led teams averaged 27 wins a year with a state title and both a runner-up and third-place finish. 

Speaking of Brunson, fresh off signing a $104 million deal this past summer, he’s emerging as a bonafide all-star caliber player this season with the Knicks. Through 29 games Brunson is averaging 20.5 points, 6.3 assists and 3.2 rebounds. 

Benet’s difficult road

There likely won’t be a top 10 team with a tougher holiday tournament road to win a championship than Benet. 

Coach Gene Heidkamp’s team will get Oak Park in the opening round at Pontiac. Then waiting for the Redwings in the second round will be No. 15 Bloom. 

If Benet can make it through the first two rounds, how about a potential double dip on the final day featuring No. 3 Joliet West in the semifinals and No. 1 SImeon in the title game? 

Proving ground

Holiday tournaments are a proving ground for every team. The stakes are raised throughout the state in the last week in December. 

But each year there are a few high-profile teams with a little more to prove than others. 

Those teams this year: St. Rita and Rolling Meadows. 

There are always eyes on St. Rita, the heavily-hyped team loaded with big-named juniors, and they will be closely watched during the holidays. 

The Mustangs remain ranked No. 4, thanks to an impressive road win at Brother Rice. But with three losses, including a lopsided one to Simeon and blowing a large, late lead to Joliet West, St. Rita will again be looking to establish itself as a bonafide state title contender. 

Coach Roshawn Russell’s team could potentially get a shot at two city heavyweights, Young and Kenwood, at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. Can the Mustangs pass a major measuring stick or two next week? 

The Jack Tosh Holiday Classic, the mammoth 32-team field played on five consecutive days, will provide just the test Rolling Meadows is looking for. This is a team that has visions of doing things the program hasn’t done in decades. That starts with a big holiday run. 

Rolling Meadows and star Cameron Christie have cruised in their 10 wins. But the Mustangs lost to the lone ranked team they’ve faced. They fell 65-64 to New Trier in a barnburner. 

The Mustangs did play that game without the emerging Tsvet Sotirov, a 6-7 senior who is averaging 17 points and nine rebounds. Nonetheless, the highly-ranked Mustangs remain in search of résumé-building wins.

Rolling Meadows, still the favorite at York, can take a big step forward with five wins in a tournament that features No. 9 ranked St. Ignatius, ranked and unbeaten teams in Lyons and Lemont, and always tough Bolingbrook.

Coach Kevin Katovich’s team was placed in a tough bracket. Before even reaching the semifinals, Rolling Meadows would likely face ranked St. Patrick in the round of 16 and a potential rematch with Glenbrook South in the quarterfinals.

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