City/Suburban Hoops Report: Ranking the top 80

Evanston's Isaiah Holden (3) goes up for two points against Zion-Benton. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.
Evanston's Isaiah Holden (3) goes up for two points against Zion-Benton. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

There has to be some craziness –– lunacy, idiocy or psychosis maybe? –– in trying to rank 80 high school basketball teams.

First, it’s virtually impossible to rank high school basketball teams 1 through 80. (Go ahead and try it if you never have).

Oh, there was no problem figuring out Young was No. 1, which I revealed last week. And even ranking the top 25 is a tradition that I’ve done and grown accustomed to for 23 years of the City/Suburban Hoops Report.

But a top 80?!?!

Michael O’Brien is smart and traditional, keeping his Sun-Times Super 25 right at the standard and optimum number of 25.

The real craziness is the process, because it’s a grueling one. It’s hours and hours and hours of taking all that I’ve watched, all that I know, all that I’ve gathered from high school coaches and then breaking it all down just to attach a ranking to 80 different teams. You should see this massive spreadsheet of endless information that goes into this computation.

Then I find myself sweating the decision between the No. 74, No. 75 and No. 76 ranked teams and who is going to be left out of the top 80? Really? At that point it’s, “Come on, Joe! Get a life, dude!”

But then it’s hours and hours and hours of actually putting it all into words in trying to highlight and dig into a team, especially the in-depth analysis of the preseason top 25 teams that will be revealed throughout the weekend.

And then after all that? Ahhhhhh … the reward of the insults via Twitter, texts and emails over their favorite team’s ranking. Fun.

“Wait! WHAT? Whoa, whoa, whoa … We aren’t ranked in the freaking top 80?”

When I inadvertently left Wheaton South out of last year’s rankings (Yes, an honest mistake can happen when trying to rank 80 teams), you would have thought I kidnapped coach Mike Healy, stole the Tiger mascot head and canceled their season.

Oh, it’s alright. Let it rip!

The purpose in all this madness? To bring attention to as many teams and players as possible in the Chicago area while drumming up interest, dialogue and discussion for the sport we love.

Does it mean a whole lot? Of course not.

Last year the top 80 included these teams that were ranked way too low: Lincoln Park at No. 62 (Hello, Terrence Shannon!), Joliet Central at No. 58 (23 wins and a conference championship), Benet at No. 48 (all they did was win 27 games), Loyola at No. 40 (24 wins and a regional title), Marist at No. 38 (27 wins a regional championship).

Then there was the biggest miss: Evanston. The Wildkits, if you remember, lost eight seniors, including Nojel Eastern, from the year before. But coach Mike Ellis guided his team from being ranked what I thought was a respectable No. 32 to finishing third in the state in Class 4A.

Those teams that were in the top 25 and didn’t quite live up to my preseason ranking and hype a year ago? St. Charles North at No. 25, Kenwood at No. 21, St. Charles East at No. 20, Romeoville at No. 11 and Waukegan at No. 9.

Inevitably, my colleague Michael O’Brien will get a silly but absolutely heartfelt quote from a player in the coming two weeks following a game that will go a little something like this: “We wanted to come out and just prove that we were better than the 51st ranked team.” Or, “We saw we were ranked 48th and wanted to show that was a joke.”

Always glad to help motivate those ranked too low.

Could the No. 41 team beat the No. 29 team? You bet it could –– and it may just happen Dec. 21 when York faces Downers Grove North. Could No. 47 take down No. 27? Again, the answer is yes. And No. 47 St. Charles East will get two cracks at No. 27 Geneva.

Maybe there’s a team celebrating being recognized and ranked 68th. Maybe the 68th ranking is fuel and fire and bulletin board material (So what is it Cary-Grove?).

The 80th ranked team has even become Illinois prep basketball’s Mr. Irrelevant. (Don’t feel slighted, Rolling Meadows!). Remember, last year’s Mr. Irrelevant, Maine West, had quite the season.

The massive top 80 rankings are meant to be fun, an introduction to all that we have to look forward to this high school basketball season in the Chicago area. So here we go …

1. YOUNG

What’s to like: A team that finished second in the state last year has a chance to be even better. That’s due to the return of senior Myles Baker and junior Tyler Beard, along with the huge addition of Fenwick transfer D.J. Steward, regarded as a top 100 prospect in the country in the the junior class. 

All three talented guards are accustomed to big-game basketball and are double-figure scorers. Baker and Beard have played in a state championship game as well as the gauntlet known as Young’s always tough regular-season schedule. Steward was the leading scorer as a freshman for a Fenwick team that finished second in the state and won back-to-back Catholic League championships. 

What Young also has is a potentially solid supporting cast, including senior point guard Justin Warren, 6-5 Sangolay Njie, junior guard Elliot Sieger and rising 6-6 sophomore Grant Newell. 

Difference-maker: Having a tandem like Steward and Beard is special. Steward and Beard are the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s No. 2 and No. 3 ranked juniors in Illinois in the Class of 2020, respectively. Beard is a 6-2 guard who plays bigger than his size, with tenacity and toughness and attacks the basket while evolving into a better facilitator. Steward is an ultra-smooth perimeter threat who can slash and shoot it. 

Most programs couldn’t withstand losing two players like Javon Freeman and Xavier Castaneda and still be in this position. But this 1-2 punch of Beard and Steward is better than the one that fueled last year’s team.

Parting shot: Young does not hide from expectations or competition. Coach Tyrone Slaughter’s Dolphins welcome pressure and don’t fear losing while always playing a grueling schedule. There is no doubt this team is built to win, and it’s a big year and opportunity to add to what is becoming quite an overall program résumé. In the last 10 years Young has two state titles, two state runner-up finishes and is in prime position to add another one of those trophies this year. 

2. EVANSTON

What’s to like: The Wildkits return the bulk of a team that surprised so many last year when it finished third in the state in Class 4A. And this year’s team should have even more firepower with everyone, including last year’s heralded freshmen group, a year older. 

Senior Lance Jones (15.5 ppg), who has signed with Southern Illinois, put together an outstanding season a year ago, leading the ‘Kits in scoring while playing composed and efficient. He’s strong, tough to deal with when he’s going north and south and has an advanced mid-range game. Jones’ running-mate, Jaheim Holden (14.8 ppg), is an underrated player in the senior class who is wired to score and isn’t afraid of the moment. The 5-11 guard is a streaky but potent shooter, devastating in space and can score in bunches. 

Senior Ryan Bost is also back –– and you win with players like Bost, a 5-10 guard who defends, does the little things and will fill a stat sheet. 

No one knew what to expect last year from a heavily hyped freshman class. Blake Peters defied his age and experience all season long, averaging 10 points a game and knocking down 76 three-pointers. Regarded as one of the elite shooters in the state, the 6-1 shooting guard is poised, tough and about as experienced of a sophomore as you will find. 

Look for 6-3 sophomore Jaylin Gibson to take a big step forward, while the addition of 6-5 Louis Lemond will be a huge addition. Lemond, a 6-5 sophomore, has Division I potential after showcasing his talents while playing with the France National Team this past summer. 

Difference-maker: The experience of last season. It’s not very often that so many players return from a team that went through so much the year before –– 27 victories, winning one of the state’s toughest conferences, capturing regional and sectional titles and playing in Peoria. Those big moments from a year ago should pay dividends this season.

Parting shot: Last year the Wildkits were expected to be good but were still able to sneak up on some people Evanston did the hunting; this year it will be hunted. Coach Mike Ellis has loaded up the schedule, so there can’t be any complacency. If the hunger remains –– and it should after getting so close last season to playing in the final game of the season –– Evanston will be in good shape by the time March rolls around. 

3. MORGAN PARK

What’s to like: Despite the loss of arguably the greatest player in program history, this team still looks like a serious state title contender due to –– what else? –– outstanding guard play. Morgan Park churns out guards. Ayo Dosunmu has moved on to Illinois but juniors Adam Miller (15 ppg) and Marcus Watson (9 ppg) return, along with the arrival of Lincoln Park transfer Chris Roberts. 

These three bring a dose of just about everything you fear in a backcourt, starting with the offensive pressure they will put on opposing defenses. Miller is a big 6-4 guard with endless shooting range and touch who can score and pass as well as anyone in the state. Watson is a super-charged scoring guard with the ball in his hands, and Roberts is an absolute blur in the open floor. How these three play together and feed off one another will dictate how high of a level this team can reach. 

The depth is not what it has been in the past, so there is a question of whether or not the Mustangs will be able to defend with as much aggression as they’re accustomed to. But there are some intriguing pieces, starting with 6-4 Isaiah Burrell, an outstanding athlete who showed well this summer. The hope is that raw but improving 6-9 Karl Jones can become a bigger factor as the season plays out. 

Difference-maker: Miller’s numbers skyrocketed last year when star Ayo Dosunmu was sidelined with an injury. Now it’s his team. The door has opened for Miller to shine and impact at the highest level. And this just happens to be the coach, program, style and system where star guards typically thrive and do it with some flare. Miller is one of the top 30 prospects in the country in his class and ready to show why he’s the top-rated player in Illinois in the Class of 2020. 

Parting shot: Since Nick Irvin took over as coach at Morgan Park, the Mustangs have never won fewer than 23 games in a season, averaging nearly 26 wins a year over the past 10 seasons. When you throw in the hardware Morgan Park has brought back from Peoria, that’s one heck of a decade of success.

The class of 3A basketball in Illinois is in position to win a third straight state championship –– and fifth title in seven years. 

4. SIMEON

What’s to like: No Talen Horton-Tucker? No problem. Even without the Sun-Times Player of the Year and all-stater who is now at Iowa State, Simeon still finds itself ranked among the top five teams in the Chicago area.

That’s because there is always talent at Simeon and coach Robert Smith runs a program that oozes respect and comes into every season with huge expectations.

It’s Kejuan Clements time at Simeon. He was a ballyhooed freshman several years ago and has played his role well in his three years. Now there will be a lot more on the plate of the tough, competitive 6-1 senior guard who defends and can get to the rack.

The arrival of transfer Antonio Reeves, a sharpshooting 6-5 senior who was originally at Kenwood but played his junior season in Arizona, is a big addition. He adds length, size, much-needed experience and is a player who can space the floor with his outstanding range.

A couple of youngsters are going to need to step up in order for Simeon to maintain top five status. Ahamed Bynum is an electric talent. But is he ready to shine and carry such a heavy load as a sophomore? And a big opportunity awaits 6-4 junior Bryce Hall, a promising player who can play multiple perimeter positions on the floor.

Don’t sleep on the Simeon big men. They aren’t going to wow you but the Wolverines do have 6-6 junior Sincere Callwood and 6-7 senior Jeremiah Stamps to throw down low.

Difference-maker: This is a big if but IF the young players in this program arrive a little earlier than expected, it would prove to be a big difference in the fortunes of this team.

Bynum, in particular, could rise to another level with his natural gifts and upside, while the star freshmen, 6-9 A.J. Casey and guard Jaylen Drane, could help. The freshmen don’t have to be impact players, but if they develop into small but valuable role players off the bench by the second half of the season, it would be a welcome surprise.

Parting shot: There is no getting around the fact this isn’t as imposing of a Simeon team as –– well, go ahead and pick your team from the past. There isn’t the experienced, star talent this program has so often featured.

There isn’t a Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn, Zach Norvell or Horton-Tucker on this roster. At least not yet. But while there is more uncertainty than normal surrounding the Wolverines, it’s still a team that can contend for city and state titles if all the pieces come together.

5. BOGAN

What’s to like: The depth is alarming. There are bodies up and down coach Arthur Goodwin’s lineup and bench –– and that’s after talented returner and expected starter Greg Outlaw transferred to Orr. That depth will come at opponents in waves, allowing the Bengals to feed off their speed, quickness and athleticism and create havoc with their pesky defensive pressure. 

Setting the tone in that department will be senior guards Jordan Booker and Jeremiah Washington. They are small but can really go. Senior Tyreon Hardin is another little guard with experience. 

There is size inside with 6-7 senior Rashaun Agee, who should be hungry as one of the better unsigned seniors remaining, and 6-8 junior Tremear Finley, a raw prospect but who is already a presence defensively and on the glass with his size and athleticism.  

A couple of transfers add to the depth –– 6-4 Kyndall Davis from H-F and junior guard Antoine Bloxton, who put up big numbers at Julian last season. 

Difference-maker: Bogan’s toughness and energy. The Bengals play with a fearlessness and passion that’s often difficult to match. But last year’s team got a little bit away from this and stumbled at times. With such a proven track record under Goodwin, look for this group to get back to their successful style and strengths. 

Parting shot: For all the wins and success Bogan has accumulated in the past decade, including last year’s 21-win, regional championship team, there is still just one sectional championship (2014) under their belt. And while the Bengals did win a city title in 2015 behind Luwane Pipkins, they’ve fallen in short in their attempt to play in Peoria on the final weekend of the season.

Bogan was blown out by Morgan Park in last year’s sectional final and was upset by St. Rita in the sectional semis two years ago. Is this the year Bogan checks off the to-do list as a program? If so it will need to find a way to get over the Morgan Park roadblock. Morgan Park has ended Bogan’s season in four of the past five years in the sectional.

6. BLOOM

What’s to like: While still relatively young, there is talent galore on this roster and its a group that gained valuable experience a year ago. What stands out are the various weapons at coach Dante Maddox’s disposal. He can mix and match in a variety of ways with this uber-talented, deep roster.

The super sophomore foursome of guards Keshawn Williams, Donovan Newby and Dante Maddox, Jr., and emerging post player Martice Mitchell, form a strong nucleus, complement each other well and are all Division I prospects.

Williams and Mitchell are among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 10 prospects in the Class of 2020. Williams is a powerfully explosive 6-2 guard who can turn the corner, get to the rim and attack in the open floor. Newby battled injuries last year but is a tough, composed guard. Maddox, a top 20 prospect in the junior class, is a big scoring weapon with his shooting and was the team’s leading scorer a year ago.

Don’t forget about the unsung senior trio of 6-6 Kevin Vance, 6-5 Emani Burgess and 6-4 Sincere Moses. This is a group of that adds several dimensions to this team, including size, athleticism, toughness, rebounding and energy.

Difference-maker: While he’s not there just yet as a dominating big man, Martice Mitchell is coming along and quite simply gives Bloom something few teams across the state have –– a long, rangy, gifted 6-9 big who can alter and block shots, run the floor and is becoming a better finisher around the rim.

Parting shot: There were maybe some misguided expectations last year; it’s just difficult to win big with four sophomores as the focal point of any team. While last year’s 16-11 record was more than respectable, this is now a legitimate top 10 team on paper and there’s a two-year window where the Blazing Trojans can be as good as they want to be. It’s a team primed and ready to win its first regional title since 2014 and has hopes of equaling the 2011-2012 team that won a sectional championship and reached Peoria.

7. BOLINGBROOK

What’s to like: You start with the veteran, Division I backcourt of Joseph Yesufu and Tyler Cochran, who are headed to Drake and Northern Illinois, respectively. That guard tandem is a handful, one of the best in the state and complements one another so well.

The athletic 5-11 Yesufu and the big-bodied, versatile 6-2 Cochran are three-year starters who combined to score 28 points a game last season. Most importantly, they’ve played in a ton of big games over the years. Yesufu is a powerful athlete in the open court and so strong to the basket. Cochran is a do-it-all threat who knows how to play and seems to come up big when it matters most.

Kam Leonard, a big, athletic 6-7 post player headed to Division II Lewis, has made strides and will be a huge component to Bolingbrook’s success. There is a lack of size and rebounding proven rebounding prowess on this team, so Leonard’s impact is needed.

Physical guard Jordan Myrick (9 ppg) is often the forgotten man. Junior guard Darius Burford is an exciting and promising talent ready to emerge, while 5-11 guard Anthony Thompson, a 6-4 transfer, should be a plus after averaging 16 points a game last season at Montini.

Difference-maker: That Bolingbrook speed and quickness. It just never seems to go away. It’s an absolute menace to the lesser-known teams and it makes the best teams the Raiders face uncomfortable. Coach Rob Brost’s team will thrive when it goes small and fast with the likes of Yesufu, Cochran, Burford and Thompson.

Parting shot: Here they are again, high in the rankings and a realistic threat to be playing in Peoria once again in March. Don’t take the massive success of the Raiders lightly as this program has won at an extremely high rate over the past five years.

8. CURIE

What’s to like: There has been a lot of talent churned out at Curie recently. The next wave steps in, takes over and elevates themselves to another level. DaJuan Gordon is the next to do so.

Gordon, a 6-4 perimeter threat headed to Kansas State, showed glimpses of being “next” a year ago as a junior when he averaged 10 points a game. He’s long, competes and is blessed with an offensive game that’s evolved since last season. If Curie is to uphold its top 10 ranking, Gordon will need to be the high-major prospect each night out.

After a small sample size of Ramean Hinton the past two years, it’s clear coach Mike Oliver should have two dependable weapons on the wing. The 6-4 junior’s motor never stops, he’s a player who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Tough and full of energy, Hinton can can guard and defend on the perimeter and the interior, make a shot, finish and attack the offensive glass.

Newcomer Damari Nixon, a transfer from Fenwick, can be counted on after playing three years of varsity basketball for the Friars. Nixon is creative with the ball and is disruptive with his dribble penetration.

Trevon Hamilton, Lorenzo Harmon and Elijah Pickens provide the Condors some depth on the perimeter and are the type of players who on a given night can be an X factor.

Difference-maker: There should be some hunger in this group of Condors. While any 26-5 season can be considered a success, Curie did lose to the city’s heavyweights in the biggest games of the year. Curie fell to Simeon in the title game of the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and finished second in the rugged Red-South/Central. They lost to Orr in the city semis and the season ended with a loss to Young in a Class 4A sectional final.

Parting shot: There is some retooling to do for this particular Curie team to get to the level it’s played at in recent years, but at this point the expectations don’t change in coach Mike Oliver’s program. Those aforementioned losses last year should further fuel this team and its potential.

9. BENET

What’s to like: What’s not to like in a program that has churned out nine straight 20-plus seasons and averaged just over 25 wins a year during that time. Throw in a state runner-up finish in 2014 and 2016 and this has become one very decorated basketball program.

This team has the potential to add to that eye-opening success.

Will Engels, a highly-versatile 6-5 returning senior, is one of the most improved players in the senior class. He’s poised to take a big step forward. Engels can play multiple positions as a scorer and facilitator, while junior Colin Crothers begins his third varsity season. The 6-7 Crothers is a factor with his size, experience and continued development as an offensive threat, both around the basket and improving as a face-up shooter.

The big plus is the addition of Kendrick Tchoua, a move-in from Maryland who will be a matchup nightmare at 6-6, 230 pounds with the capability to influence the game as a scorer, rebounder and presence. In addition to being a punishing finisher around the rim and one who can bully his way to the basket, Tchoua brings a different level of athleticism and physicality to the Redwings.

The trio of Engels, Crothers and Tchoua will be a load. Now it’s a matter of whether or not the next wave of role players can impact the way past Benet role players have stepped up. Who will emerge from a group of seniors that includes 6-4 Liam Tomshack, 6-3 Trevor Casmere, 6-5 Shane O’Mara and point guard Charlie Dollard? Tomshack and Casmere are both space-the-floor shooters, while O’Mara is a third big Heidkamp can throw into the mix with Crothers and Tchoua.

Difference-maker: Gene Heidkamp. He’s built a program that boasts everything you are looking for in a program –– from consistency and discipline to an easy-to-recognize system and culture. The expectations have been established and they always seem to be met or surpassed by the two-time City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year’s teams.

Parting shot: This is a different type of Benet team. There are questions as to whether this Benet team can be the type of defensive team it has thrived with over the years. Also, can this group evolve into the “team-first” overachieving group of a year ago? If those questions are answered, look out, because there is offensive pop rather than offensive manufacturing with this team. Benet will look a little different offensively with a potentially potent offensive group.

10. DE PAUL PREP

What’s to like: This could be a special year because of the combination of experience, depth, size and a star player leading the way.

You start with 6-4 Perry Cowan, an Ivy League-bound do-it-all who has signed with Brown. Cowan is a four-year varsity performer and all-state player who has already scored 1,347 career points.

Cowan (18 ppg), 6-2 point guard Raheem Anthony (13.5 ppg), who can be devastating downhill in the open court, physical 6-5 Pavle Pantovic (7 ppg, 6 rpg) and junior guard Lance Mosley (8 ppg, 53 three-pointers) are all back from a regional championship team that went 24-7 last year.

But it’s the added depth provided by some young players in the program that is intriguing. Sophomore Tyler Johnson and 6-2 junior D.J. Shower are capable of spreading the floor with their shooting. Sophomore Brian Mathews is a fast-improving 6-9 post who will make an impact.

Difference-maker: Cowan is an established name and Division I recruit, yet is one who is probably under-appreciated for all that he does and means to his team. Yes, he’s ultra-productive, but he’s also the one who leads and does the little things. And you better believe when your best player does that, it makes a difference.

Parting shot: When legendary DePaul and local prep star Tom Kleinschmidt took over the at his alma matter in 2012, this 2018-2019 team and season are what the program has been waiting for. There has certainly been a ton of success over the past four seasons –– an average of nearly 21 wins a year and four regional titles ––  but this team could be even better.

How good? This program last reached the state finals in xxxx (as Gordon Tech) when none other than Kleinschmidt led the way as a star player. This team has the capability to reach Peoria in Class 3A in March.

11. ST. VIATOR

What’s to like: The Lions have a big-time tandem to lean on in Trey Calvin, who has signed with Wright State, and Jeremiah Hernandez, who is headed to Kent State. Both fill a stat sheet and are among the top 15 prospects in the Class of 2019 in Illinois.

Calvin is a 6-0 point guard with the unique combination of playmaking and scoring ability as an extremely efficient shooter. While he won’t wow you with flash or sizzle, Calvin is a constant in that he’s alway getting things done. 

Hernandez, a versatile 6-4 guard, is a smooth, all-around talent who offers length and athleticism. A capable shooter with range and a slasher to the basket, Hernandez also offers a basketball feel and understanding of the game. 

Don’t underestimate the loss of Peter Lambesis, who graduated and took with him a whole lot of toughness, defensive intensity and much-needed intangibles. But look for a couple of juniors who got their feet wet a year ago to make significant strides as the season plays out. Connor Kochera is a 6-3 shooter who can stretch a defense with his shooting, while 6-7 Michael Huene continues to get better at both ends of the floor with his impactful size and length. 

Difference-maker: The aforementioned duo of Calvin and Hernandez is one not many teams in the state can match. These two combined to average 31 points, six assists, nine rebounds and over three steals a game. Look for all those numbers to increase as these two are capable of carrying the Lions and overcoming some of their deficiencies, including an overall lack of depth. 

Parting shot: This is a team that won 24 games a year ago and ran the table in the East Suburban Catholic Conference. Repeating –– both with 20-plus wins and an ESCC title –– is possible. But with St. Viator dropping down to Class 3A this season, the sky is the limit when St. Viator heads into March.  

12. OAK PARK

What’s to like: Good, old fashioned talent. That’s what Oak Park offers throughout its program and what you really like about the Huskies this season. 

Senior point guard Dashon Enoch (12 ppg, 3 apg) is the catalyst and brings end-to-end speed with the ball in his hands. When Enoch is locked in and on Senior Anthony Roberts (10 ppg, 5 rpg, 2 spg) is an emerging 6-4 wing with versatility. Charlie Hoehne (9  ppg, 5 rpg) is a 6-6 big who can run and jump. Chase Robinson (11 ppg, 6 rpg), a 6-1 senior guard with an old school game, is an overlooked weapon. 

But the talent doesn’t end with this group of seniors. Look for Isaiah Barnes, a 6-6 sophomore who is among the top 10 prospects in the Class of 2021, to emerge as the season progresses. He’s long, skilled and oozing with talent. Sophomore Josh Smith is a real sleeper to watch and keep an eye on the development of 6-7 junior Justin Cross. 

Difference-maker: Senior core. The talent coach Matt Maloney boasts starts with a nucleus of seniors who should be productive and dependable with two years of varsity basketball already under their belt. Enoch, Roberts, Hoehne and Robinson have a chance to do some things Oak Park basketball hasn’t done in a long time.

Parting shot: All Oak Park has done over the past two years is win 47 games, including going a combined 23-1 with two conference titles in the West Suburban Silver.

But the Huskies have much more on their agenda and want to avoid a fade down the stretch. The seniors got a taste of a regional championship as sophomores but suffered a regional upset last year. If everything comes together, there is enough talent to challenge for the first sectional title for this program since 1976.

13. LOYOLA

What’s to like: There is experience, led by the return of four players who played a part in Loyola’s 24-win team that won a regional championship. And that starts with Connor Barrett, an unsung star who is one of elite shooters in the state. The 6-4 Barrett made 90 three-pointers a year ago while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.

The Kwiecinski twins, Jordan and Bennett, are bigger, stronger and better. The 6-8 bookend forwards are two of the better players and prospects in the Class of 2020 and will prove to be more difficult matchups than a year ago with their added versatility.

Quinn Pemberton, a 6-1 senior guard, provides they type of toughness, leadership and on-the-ball defense you covet, while the senior trio of 6-5 Will Bodkin, 6-3 Nikko Landon and Ryan Evans will play key roles. Keep an eye on the development of intriguing 6-3 junior Matt Enghauser.

Difference-maker: Defense. The Ramblers really defended a year ago –– physically and systematically –– and it really was under-appreciated in their success. The question now is can that every day approach be replicated this season?

Parting shot: This is a program that has developed an undeniable culture that has included competing and winning at a high level, including three regional titles, a sectional championship and an average of 21 wins a season over the past five years. Expect more of the same if the guard play comes through.

14. LEO

What’s to like: There is size, there is athleticism, there is experience, there’s a star, and there’s some real motivation. The Lions won 20 games last year and captured a Catholic White title but fell in an upset to Marshall in the regional championship as a No. 1 seed. With a large group of players back from that team, that loss adds fuel to the fire. 

With the return of dynamo guard Fred Cleveland, 6-7 DeChaun Anderson, 6-4 Kendale Anderson and junior Kevin Drumgole, the surge from Leo this winter will be no surprise. Cleveland is a scoring lead guard while DeChaun Anderson is a bully around the basket, has a unique nose for the basketball and gobbles up rebounds.

Kendale Anderson has improved his overall game. Myles Thomas, another returning player from a year ago who is a perimeter shooting threat, and 6-6 Bogan transfer Tim Howard will provide complementary roles. 

Difference-maker: Despite signing with North Carolina A&T, Fred Cleveland is without a doubt one of the most overlooked prospects in the senior class. And it’s because of his impact as a scorer –– despite his diminutive 5-9 size. Cleveland dazzles with the ball, has outstanding shooting range and is a true difference-maker. 

Parting shot: Don’t forget this is a Class 2A team that’s ranked among the preseason top 25 in the Chicago area. That makes this team a bonafide Class 2A state contender and one that can win the Chicago Catholic League.  

15. HOMEWOOD-FLOSSMOOR

What’s to like: There is talent up and down this roster. The trio of 6-4 senior Isaac Stanback, 6-4 senior wing Maurion Scott and 6-5 junior R.J. Ogom are all back after making major contributions a year ago. Stanback is a junkyard dog who plays bigger than his size and is a four-year varsity player (two seasons at Hillcrest and his final two at H-F).

Young big man Chad Readey, a 6-7 sophomore, is set to take another step forward in his development. 

Senior guard Damen Trice is a steady influence while juniors Josiah Palmer and Oscar Parrish are a pair of 6-0 junior guards with upside. Palmer will provide much-needed perimeter shooting. 

The challenge heading into the season is establishing quality point guard play, whether it be an individual or by committee. 

Difference-maker: Size and length. The centerpieces of this team –– Stanback, Scott, Ogom and Readey –– have an abundance of it and will pose all types of issues for opponents at both ends of the floor. Those long, rangy players with athleticism can extend defensively and need to impact on the glass, particularly on the offensive end for easy baskets and second-chance scoring opportunities. 

Parting shot: When the season began a year ago, all the talk in the Southwest Suburban Blue centered around perennial power Bolingbrook and upstart Lincoln-Way East. When it was all said and done, H-F won the league by two games and finished 21-7. This team should be even better.

16. OSWEGO EAST 

What’s to like: It’s hard not to be bullish on a team that returns players who put up such impressive numbers a year ago. 

Ray J Dennis, a Boise State recruit who put up 17.8 points, five assists and 4.2 rebounds a game, is the headliner. But 6-7 junior Tommy Schultz averaged a double-double (14 ppg, 11.1 rpg) and is an adept passer with 3.8 assists for a big man. And  bouncy athletic 6-5 senior Kameron Battle averaged 11 points and 5.8 rebounds a game.

That trio helped the Wolves to a 20-win season a year ago, and they’re primed for more this winter with the addition of Bolingbrook transfer Damari Grant, a 5-11 senior guard with speed and scoring ability.

Difference-maker: There is a reason why Dennis went from one Division I scholarship when the season ended to 20-plus offers by the end of the summer. For starters, he was finally seen. But the rise was mostly because his game and confidence grew over the past eight months. The 6-2 guard is a smooth operator as a scorer, but he also has the ability to make those around him better with his vision and passing. 

Parting shot: It’s a program that hasn’t won high-stakes basketball games –– yet. That’s the roadblock the Wolves will face as the expectations have been raised. All the pieces are in place for a memorable season as this is the best Oswego East team since the Jay Harris-led one in 2010 won 24 games and the program’s only regional championship.

While matching expectations is rarely easy, the Wolves have a shot at a Southwest Prairie Conference title, the school record for wins and challenging for the program’s first-ever sectional championship.

17. WAUKEGAN

What’s to like: In Bryant Brown, Ja’Dyn Brown and Jordan Brown, coach Ron Ashlaw has the luxury of having three key pieces who will begin their fourth year of varsity basketball. When you add senior point guard Andre White, a transfer who has played at three other high schools, that’s four players with four years of varsity experience. 

Bryant Brown has been one of the most productive players in the entire senior class. The 6-5 forward put up 23 points a game last season, will score over 2,000 points in his career and is the clear alpha dog that coach Ron Ashlaw’s team will need to play with the state’s best teams. 

Both guard Jordan Brown and 6-2 wing Ja’Dyn Brown are forces with their athleticism, while Jaylin Cunningham is a much-improved 6-3 senior wing. 

Difference-maker: Andre White. Enough of the point-guard-by-committee or trying to find the answer to the point guard position. White fills a big hole for the Bulldogs as a lack of quality point guard play was one of the reasons this team sputtered a year ago. This allows the rest of Ashlaw’s personnel to move back and play their natural positions. 

Parting shot: Hunger should play a role in this team’s season. This group has to be fired up to get the taste of last season out of its mouth, a season in which it was ranked in the preseason but stumbled to a 11-16 record and was ousted early in the regional. There are big expectations again this year. With a senior-dominated team and White handling the point guard chores, expect different results. 

18. ST. RITA

What’s to like: There are just so many players with valuable varsity minutes under their belt over the past two seasons, that the natural progression of this team screams 20-win potential.

Junior guards Alec Millender and Joel Watts are already three-year varsity players, while Jeremiah Oden is a long, bouncy 6-7 senior with several Division I offers. Oden should be a weapon who probably is not talked about enough, and though he’s yet to dominate, there’s a feeling his time is now.

An under-the-radar talent to watch is sophomore Reggie Ward. The 6-4 multi-skilled perimeter player was brought up last year as a freshman and is poised to make a bigger push into the rotation this year with the offensive versatility he gives coach Gary DeCesare.

Difference-maker: St. Rita’s size and length at the high school level should prove to be problematic for opponents. Oden is a rangy and active 6-7. Stedmon Iherjirika is a 6-5 rebounder and physical presence, Cameron Bartman is a 6-8 big-bodied post who takes up space and has shown steady improvement over the years, and 6-5 Javon Cooley is emerging as a more versatile threat. All four are seniors with varsity experience.

Parting shot: This is the best St. Rita team since the Charles Matthews years. The Mustangs should be more productive and offensively consistent this year, which means it’s a team that can challenge for a Catholic League championship and be a major player in Class 3A next March.

19. UPLIFT

What’s to like: Coach David Taylor’s Titans will be one of several teams in the city faced with the challenge of pushing past Public League heavyweights like Young, Simeon, Morgan Park and Curie. But they may have the means to do so as this should be a better team than the one that finished 18-10 a year ago. But do they have the moxie?

The backcourt is brilliant with the return of DePaul recruit Markese Jacobs, the No. 2 ranked senior prospect in Illinois, underrated 6-3 scorer Detalian Brown and 6-0 DeAndre Vortes. These three seniors played major minutes last season. Tavion Underwood, a 6-3 senior wing, is another threat who has experience. 

What has Taylor excited is the emergence of 6-2 Michael Allen and 6-0 Taijay Brown, a pair of juniors who have opened eyes in the early part of practice. If Allen and Brown fulfill their roles and add some pop, Uplift could be awfully dangerous offensively. 

Difference-maker: In Jacobs, Uplift has a weapon few others have. You won’t find another guard with the combination of speed and electric athleticism he possesses. He can get where he wants to on the floor and offers a unique strength: scoring without the need of a pass from someone else. Jacobs is a disruptive force and can go get a basket when needed. Now it’s a matter of playing consistently –– both with his energy and with his mind.

Parting shot: There are a lot of ifs when it comes to Uplift, starting with just which Markese Jacobs will you see from game to game and even half to half. When –– and if –– he’s right (i.e. making others better while also being able to morph into the star talent that he is) Uplift will be better than last year’s 18-10 team. And it will be a major threat in Class 2A. 

20. HILLCREST

What’s to like: There’s experience back at important positions from a team that quietly went 22-6 and went 13-0 in conference play. You begin with three returning starters in senior big man Dylan West and the backcourt tandem of Jeremiah Staten and sophomore Kenton Wright.

West (8 ppg, 6 rpg) has really improved, becoming more of an offensive threat this past offseason, while Staten is rock solid and Wright emerged on the scene in a big way last year as a freshman.

Expect a spike offensively with the addition of Morgan Park transfer Mar’Keise Irving. He gave Hillcrest a different look during the summer. The 5-10 guard is wired to score and showed what kind of weapon he can be with an impressive offseason.

The unknown is intriguing with this team as a pair of players with size could develop into factors, so keep an eye on the progression of 6-6 sophomore Julius Rollins and 6-7 Trevon Walker, a transfer from Perspectives. 

Difference-maker: Consistent winning and success. Following last year’s stunning upset loss to Rich East in the regional finals, it seems some are underestimating the Hawks. But this is a program that’s put together 20 consecutive 20-plus win seasons.

Parting shot: In Staten, Wright and Irving, coach Don Houston has the luxury of three guards who can handle the ball and score. That’s a great path to follow in getting the taste of last year’s finish to the season out of their mouth.

21. NEW TRIER

What’s to like: This will be one of the biggest teams in the state this season with 6-9 Ciaran Brayboy, 6-8 Spencer Boehm and 6-5 Sam Silverstein. More importantly, all three gained valuable experience playing in a sectional championship game last year as juniors en route to winning 25 games. 

Brayboy, a Harvard recruit who offers size and physicality that’s nearly impossible to match at the high school level, averaged 11.2 points and 6.5 rebounds a game last year. Plus, he plays with a high-running motor. Boehm has improved since the conclusion of last season when he chipped in 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds a game. Look for Brayboy and Boehm to increase those numbers as seniors. 

Silverstein, a late-blooming wing who offers versatility, is the wild card. He has made big strides since last year and can play all over the floor. Seniors Noah Osher and Andrew Kost will be keys in spacing the floor for Silverstein and the two big bodies inside. 

Difference-maker: Size. While the sport is trending toward a little man’s game, New Trier offers significant size very few teams can match up with. The two best shots in basketball are the layup and three-point shot. New Trier can make it difficult for opponents to score around the basket and, with its size and length, can try and extend defensively at times with its 1-3-1 zone defense. 

Parting shot: The focus shifts this season. Last year there was experienced, productive guard play, led by graduated Andrew Kirkpatrick. This season the Trevians will be relying heavily on the impact of the frontcourt. But for coach Scott Fricke’s team to be among the state’s best, the unproven guard play must handle its business and come through.

22. MARIAN CATHOLIC

What’s to like: Lets first get the negative out of the way before boasting about the positives. Compact guard Malik Tidwell abruptly left the school and transferred to a prep school last month. That’s a 15 point-a-game senior who bolted just a month before the season started.

But …

After reaching Peoria last season, finishing third in the state in Class 3A, coach Mike Taylor’s team will lean heavily on two key pieces from that team –– junior guard Ahron Ulis and 6-6 senior Chris White. What’s exciting about these two is the growth they’ve shown as players since the conclusion of last season.

Ulis, the younger brother of former star and current Chicago Bulls guard Tyler Ulis, is a 6-2 guard who averaged 13 points a game, while White has made considerable strides after averaging 10 points a game last season.

Now the Spartans need someone to step up from a group of 5-11 junior guard Jordan Green, 6-5 junior Elijah Jones, 6-5 senior Blair Cruther and 6-3 senior Breion Hill. Jones, a long, lanky and promising prospect, is set to emerge sooner or later.

Difference-maker: Program toughness and competitiveness. The loss of Tidwell hurts. Marian loses a proven scorer and also takes a hit to its overall depth. But Taylor and this program have grown accustomed to these transfer situations and have kept on ticking. That’s a credit to the program’s perseverance.

Parting shot: Who would have ever believed the following statement at any time during Marian Catholic’s first 50 years of existence: Marian Catholic basketball has averaged nearly 23 wins a year the past six seasons. There were decades where that line would have been considered absurd. But that’s where this once dormant program has risen to under Taylor, and they’ll be pushing towards 20 wins again this season.

23. ORR

What’s to like: There were some heavy losses from a state championship team. But coach Lou Adams has faith this group has what it takes to make a bigger impact than people believe. The big, super athletic of 6-5 Tujautae Williams, 6-6 Demarius Splunge and 6-4 Greg Outlaw is a nice place to start. 

Williams played minimal minutes a year ago but has blossomed this offseason, emerging as a Division I prospect with several offers. He’s long, active and extremely bouncy off the floor. He will move over to play some point guard and can be devastating in getting to the rim. 

The big addition is Outlaw, a transfer from Bogan who fits the Orr mold. He’s super tough and freaky athletic.

Although he’s been hindered with an injury in the early going, Splunge is a big-bodied wing who came in as a freshman with hype and plenty of promise. Now it’s time for this junior to show the tools he possesses. 

Adams believes this team could actually be deeper than last year’s team, and that starts with a host of role players set to emerge in senior guard Terry Williams, 6-2 junior Tyler Bullock, 6-1 junior Shaun Harris and 6-2 senior Michael Taylor, who may be the key to this team. Taylor is a tough, physical player fresh off a successful Orr football team.

Difference-maker: Orr’s toughness and hustle. Regardless of the talent, whether it’s off-the-charts good like last year or just good or even average, coach Lou Adams essentially always has a team raging with toughness and feistiness. And Adams and his coaching staff likes the potential of this team if the cohesiveness can come together. 

Parting shot: Don’t forget about the defending Class 2A state champs just yet. True, there is no team that lost more star-studded personnel than Orr. No one. You’re talking virtually everyone of consequence. 

Literally, all the points, rebounds and assists are gone from a veteran, cohesive group that included Raekwon Drake and Dannie Smith to Ty Mosley, Emanuel O’Neal, Chase Adams and Brian Hernandez. But the emergence of Williams and the arrival of Outlaw is going to keep this team in the Class 2A conversation in the March.  

24. NOTRE DAME

What’s to like: Sophomore Anthony Sayles and Troy D’Amico give coach Kevin Clancy a young, talented combination few coaches can claim. While young, it’s a terrific tandem to build around for the next three seasons. 

Sayles, an outstanding all-around athlete, was terrific as a freshman as he averaged 11.5 points, three rebounds and 2.5 assists a game. Emerging over the past year as one of the top five prospects in the Class of 2021, Sayles is a force with the ball in the open floor and dazzles in the halfcourt. Plus, he plays with an air of confidence that defies his age. 

D’Amico, a 6-6 forward who averaged 8 points a game as a freshman, had an impressive offseason. Look for D’Amico and his growing game to make a big jump this season, both physically and with his individual game.

A pair of juniors, 6-3 Jason Bergstrom and 6-0 Joey Tianen, gained valuable experience last season. Bergstrom (6.5 ppg) has shown he can stretch the floor with his shooting and range, while Tianen is another ballhandling guard to take some pressure off of Sayles. 

Difference-maker: Forget the fact he’s just a sophomore; Sayles is a difference-making guard who is one year removed from making an enormous impact as a freshman. He’s played in high-stakes football games all fall as the quarterback of a state-ranked team. And he will flourish with a year under his belt on the hardwood. 

Parting shot: There are some pitfalls the Dons will have to overcome, namely a lack of overall depth and youth. Then there is the matter of the football team still playing into late November with Sayles at quarterback. So the possibility the Dons stumble a bit out of the gate is very real. And while it’s a team that is probably a year away from soaring a little higher than even this ranking, it’s a team that will be very dangerous by the time March rolls around.  

25. KENWOOD

What’s to like: While there isn’t a big name, there is talent in place. And that starts with a healthy and more polished Artese Stapleton at point guard. The Broncos struggled when Stapleton was out for a short time with an injury. Expect his role to expand as the 6-2 rangy lead guard has a presence about him.

There is a lot of excitement surrounding 6-8 junior Seryee Lewis, who has picked up Division I interest and offers and is among the better big men prospects in the Class of 2020 in Illinois. If he can step up on Day 1 and be a legit scoring weapon inside and major factor on the glass, Kenwood can solidify this top 25 preseason ranking. 

The return of power-packed guard Lamond Johnson, who began his career at Morgan Park and headed to a prep school, gives them some athleticism, strength, experience and some perimeter scoring punch. If a pair of juniors, 6-2 guard Richard Simmons and 6-4 forward Darnell King, can rise to the occasion 

Difference-maker: Reasonable expectations. And that’s a good thing. There isn’t a lot of noise and hype surrounding Kenwood as it heads into the season. There seemed to be a quick elevation of the program in Finner’s first few seasons and with any quick, rising program, some drama can soon follow. 

While this team can and will be hungry, it’s also not burdened with heavy expectations that can sometimes capsize a team. They have a chance to simply go out and play and surprise people along the way. 

Parting shot: After a somewhat frustrating, up-and-down season a year ago, Kenwood looks to get back to the standard it set when coach Marlo Finner first took over the program in 2014 –– and the immediate seasons thereafter. Remember, this program won two Red-Central titles and played in the 2016 Chicago Public League title game where it fell to Simeon. So the Broncos want to get back to competing against the best and winning big games. 

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1 comment;

  • Horace Evans

    I usually do not comment, but if you are willing to rank Rolling Meadow because of one player,then if (being humble)Montini beat them Friday,replace them with Montini. They will still be minus key players to football run.

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