Henricksen: What a difference a year makes

The regular season comes to a close this week and for several teams the past three months have been refreshing after experiencing a losing 2013-2014 season a year ago.

This isn’t the NBA, where you go out and sign a couple of free agents in the offseason, or even college, where you bring in a star-studded recruiting class to turn the tide. This is flat-out improvement from individual player to coaching staff, building chemistry and maturing along the way, which is why we salute the most improved teams in the Chicago area.

Willowbrook

Last year: 2-25
This year: 21-7

This is already a 19-win turnaround. Arguably the biggest regular-season story of the year as Willowbrook, led by sophomore sensation Alonzo Verge, Jr., has done things this program hasn’t done in decades. A conference title and 20-plus wins coming after a two-win season is a credit to coach Chris Perkins and making the most of a gifted player.

March fortunes: As a No. 5 seed in an up-for-grabs sectional, Willowbrook is a true sectional sleeper and certainly capable of winning the program’s first regional title since 2004.

 

Providence

Last year: 14-15
This year: 19-9

Who would have thought during the biggest week of the regular season that Providence basketball could steal some headlines from the likes of Stevenson, Simeon, Bogan and Lake Forest? The Celtics ran through St. Rita, Hales and St. Joseph to capture the Catholic League Tournament championship.

March fortunes: In a very winnable Bolingbrook Sectional, the fourth-seeded Celtics have every right to believe they can capture the program’s first sectional championship in over 30 years.

 

Niles Notre Dame

Last year: 13-16
This year: 23-4

An inexperienced group last season struggled at times, finishing below .500, but the arrow was pointing up heading into this season with the return of four starters. Behind guard Joe Mooney the Dons haven’t disappointed. The East Suburban Catholic League champs are more like the 24-win team of two years ago rather than last year’s 13-win team.

March fortunes: Will host a regional in what is going to be a very difficult sectional to win as a No. 4 seed, which means a likely matchup with top-seeded Stevenson in the sectional semis. But this is a dangerous team.

 

Barrington

Last year: 11-19
This year: 21-6

The arrival and emergence of junior Rapolas Ivanauskas has meant a rise for Barrington basketball and likely doubling last year’s win total. The Mid-Suburban League West champs have won 20 games for the first time since 2004.

March fortunes: The Broncos were awarded the top seed in their own sectional and are in search of their first sectional championship in 13 years. And in this very winnable sectional, anything is possible.

 

Palatine

Last year: 13-16
This year: 20-8

An underrated coaching job by coach Eric Millstone. The fortunes of this program were sky high two years ago with Division I prospect Roosevelt Smart a part of the program. Smart transferred to St. Viator last year and the Pirates struggled. But Millstone’s team has regrouped and won 20 games this year as Chris Macahon, a three-year starting point guard, has been the pulse of the Pirates.

March fortunes: The Pirates earned the No. 3 seed in a very wide open Barrington Sectional, but they will first have to get by Mid-Suburban League East champ Hersey in the regional final.

 

St. Ignatius

Last year: 13-16
This year: 20-7

The Wolfpack returned seven key players from last year’s 13-win team, including point guard Riley Doody, so expectations were back to normal. Behind Doody and the continued emergence of promising 6-6 junior Daniel Ogele, coach Rich Kehoe’s team has turned it around. The Wolfpack shared the Catholic League North title with St. Joseph and are a 20-game winner.

March fortunes: This program has been in the darkhorse/sleeper/one-to-watch position in the past when March rolls around. It gets to play that role again –– on its home floor in the regional –– as the No. 6 seed. But with Proviso East and Kenwood, the St. Ignatius regional is one of the state’s toughest.

 

Lincoln-Way West

Last year: 12-14
This year: 18-6

This is a new kid on the block as the school and program have been around for just a few years and are enjoying the first winning season in the program’s young history. With a nucleus led by junior Jon Marotta and sophomore Marco Pettinato, it’s also a program on the rise, as proven by its improved win total this season.

March fortunes: The program’s first-ever regional championship is there for the taking as the No. 1 regional seed. And you know what? In a winnable sectional, where favorite Hillcrest is a bit vulnerable, Lincoln-Way West can dare to dream big.

 

Eisenhower

Last year: 12-17
This year: 17-7

The Cardinals and their fast and furious style have reversed their record from a year ago and captured the South Suburban Red.

March fortunes: The feel-good regular season turns into a potential quick exit in the postseason. Although it hosts the sectional, it’s going to take an upset for the ages for Eisenhower to get there. First, the Cardinals must beat a talented nine seed in Crete-Monee, only to then have to face No. 1 ranked Simeon in the regional final.

 

DeKalb
Last year: 13-16
This year: 20-7

First-year coach Al Biancalana has led the quick rebuild of this program with a 20-win season and a conference championship with a 11-1 league mark.

March fortunes: Unfortunately, a 20-game winner like DeKalb is in arguably the toughest regional in the Chicago area and saddled with the fourth seed. First, it must beat a 15-win Batavia team to reach the semis, where it would face top-seeded Geneva. St. Charles East (21-3) and St. Charles North (17-8) are in the other bracket.

 

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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