When talking basketball improvement, we’re not talking NBA improvement with a splashy free-agent signing or high draft pick. College basketball is able to restock through a program-turning recruiting class.
But there are true signs when a high school team is poised to make a jump.
Maybe it’s high-level young talent maturing or a whole bunch of veterans returning for their senior year. Some have maybe offered a sneak peek into the future with their summer play in the month of June.
It’s fair to say these eight teams could prove to be the most improved teams from a year ago.
■ New Trier
Last season: Finished 15-14 and lost in regional final
Reason for optimism: Don’t expect this years New Trier team to be hovering around the .500 mark. Coach Scott Fricke’s team is primed and ready for a push towards 20 wins.
It starts with a pair of junior big men who are older, wiser, bigger and better –– 6-9 Ciaran Brayboy and 6-7 Spencer Boehm.
While New Trier’s size will be a big plus, the play and experience on the perimeter is why the Trevians will be much better this winter. The senior trio of gritty Andrew Kirkpatrick, guard Brian Conaghan and 6-4 Griff Ryan complements Brayboy and Boehm well and will keep New Trier contending in the Central Suburban League South.
Last season: Finished 12-16 and lost in regional quarterfinals
Reason for optimism: The return of 6-7 Drew Peterson, a Division I prospect who is among the top dozen prospects in the senior class, bolsters the fortunes for first-year coach Brian Zyrkowski. The presence of an all-state caliber player with all that type of varsity experience and who put up 20 points a game last season should improve a team that went 12-16.
In addition to Peterson, there is experience returning in 6-4 multi-faceted senior Chase Eyre, 6-3 senior Riley Gowens and 6-4, 235-pound post Brendan Cook, along with a junior group that finished 22-5 as sophomores.
Waukegan and Lake Zurich are the teams to beat in the North Suburban Conference but Libertyville should be the most improved and much bigger threat this season.
Last season: Finished 14-16 and lost in regional quarterfinals
Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs have potential for improvement written all over them after impressing over the summer.
Following a 14-16 season –– and 4-8 mark in the Upstate Eight River –– coach Jim Nazos’ team won the Hoop Mountain Summer Shootout in June. Now it hopes to make a run at Larkin, St. Charles East and St. Charles North in what will be a wild UEC River race.
Nazos will have multiple offensive weapons. Unheralded senior Eric Peterson, an active and versatile 6-3 wing, and promising and productive sophomore Jayden Johnson are both back, along with senior shooter Kyle LeFevre and senior guard Blake Carlson.
■ St. Viator
Last season: Finished 15-17 and lost in super-sectional
Reason for optimism: After finishing the regular season 11-16 the Lions went on a Class 3A postseason run that brought them close to the .500 mark. This year coach Quin Hayes has a group that could push towards 20 wins and challenge for an East Suburban Catholic Conference championship.
The younger talent in the program, headed by highly-regarded 6-4 junior Jeremiah Hernandez and junior guard Treyvon Calvin, has the St. Viator program looking up. Hernandez is one of the top young prospects in the Class of 2019, while key returner Pete Lambesis is one of the more improved players in the senior class.
There isn’t a lot of size and things will have to play out just right, but the Lions are in a position to be a danger in the ESCC –– and hope to play a spoiler role as it moves up to 4A this March.
■ Naperville Central
Last season: Finished 10-17 and lost in regional quarterfinals
Reason for optimism: There is a nice blend of experience and up-and-coming young talent. Plus, coach Pete Kramer has size and length you don’t find everywhere.
A couple of seniors will provide a foundation in 6-8 big-bodied Ben Wolf, who is headed to Division II Northern Michigan, and point guard Tyler O’Brien. That veteran experience alone should help the Redhawks come close to doubling last year’s win total and greatly improve last season’s 5-11 record in the DuPage Valley Conference.
There is also quality young talent in place, headed by promising 6-8 sophomore Chris Conway and the tandem of 6-5 Cameron Dougherty and 6-5 Mekhi Robinson. If the young players come along at a quick rate, Central could be a much bigger factor in February and March than in November and December.
■ Providence St. Mel
Last season: 8-17 and lost in sectional championship
Reason for optimism: Look for St. Mel’s record to greatly improve after a postseason run in Class 2A, where it fell to Collins, 58-55, in the sectional championship. The Knights will be one of the top teams in the revamped Catholic League’s White Division.
The junior class is stocked. Taeyon Neal is 6-9 difference-making big man while point guard Tim Ervin is another junior with a whole bunch of experience. Unheralded 6-4 junior wing Jason Mason and last year’s second leading scorer, 6-1 Tyriel Nelson, return.
Last season: 12-16 and lost in regional semifinals
Reason for optimism: Longtime assistant coach Mike Reingruber takes over the program and looks to steer the Bulldogs back to where they once were and to put last season in the rearview mirror.
This is a program that had rattled off eight consecutive 20-plus win seasons prior to last season. This year’s team should be reinvigorated. Senior Ryan Cicenas is the backbone after averaging 12 points a game last season. Junior point guard Zach Vaia is also back.
■ Glenbard East
Last season: 3-26 and lost in regional quarterfinals
Reason for optimism: The Rams were decimated by the loss of key personnel. Four-year starter Mike Finley, who was lost before the season began to a torn ACL, was one of three starters lost for the season.
Prior to last season, Glenbard East averaged 17 wins a year over the course of the previous 13 seasons, including six 20-plus win seasons, six regional titles and a fourth-place finish in Class 4A in 2011.
The win total should spike with the return of sophomore guard Alijah Nelson, who averaged 12 points a game and was an all-conference selection as a freshman. Senior guard Kenny Adams has returned after a year off and averaging 8 points a game as a sophomore two years ago, while 6-4 James Peterkin provides some size and athleticism.
The Rams hope to go from last in the Upstate Eight Valley to challenging heavily favored West Aurora.
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