By Joe Henricksen
Every year there is that team. You know, the one with talent and potential that, if all the parts come together, they emerge from sleeper to contender. The one that rolls through January and heads into February with 17 or 18 wins and everyone asks, "Where was that team in the preseason rankings?"
Niles Notre Dame may just be that team.
The Dons, who were ranked No. 44 in the Hoops Report's preseason rankings, couldn't be found in any Top 25 rankings when the season began. Now coach Tom Les' club can be found in everyone's rankings and will likely stay there.
Notre Dame, with an East Suburban Catholic showdown set for this Friday with Benet Academy, is off to a 7-0 start. The impressive early season includes wins over Evanston, Zion-Benton and a 20-point victory over Loyola Academy.
"They are very, very good," said Loyola coach Tom Livatino. "They are athletic, shoot the ball well and they get out and guard you and put pressure on you. That's probably what is most impressive."
On paper, this is the most talented team Les has had at Niles Notre Dame. His 2008-2009 team reached a sectional final, losing 67-61 to Glenbrook North, but this Dons team sets a higher standard as it clearly has more depth and athleticism. And it has a 1-2 punch in Quinton Chievous and Rodney Pryor that is about as good as it gets on the wing.
The 6-4 Chievous, one of the best unsigned prospects in the senior class, has had Oregon State and N.C. State in to look at him in the last week. Chievous and the 6-3 Pryor are combining for roughly 40 points a game between them.
While opponents have focused on Chievous, Pryor has thrived. Pryor's fast start is partly due to the unselfish play of his running mate as Chievous has become a better creator and passer. Most importantly, Chievous is playing with a better motor. But Pryor has made big strides in the past year as a player -- both mentally and with his consistency.
"I'm not sure he bought into playing defense or bought into Notre Dame last year," Les says of the emerging Pryor. "He has figured it out. He's bought into everything we've asked of him, and he's bought into winning."
Now Pryor is one of the rising sleepers in the senior class, who is long, athletic and is able to extend defenses and space the floor with his three-point shooting. Pryor torched Carmel for 34 points last Friday night and followed it up with 22 in a win over Loyola. He scored 27 in the win over Zion-Benton.
But more than the tandem of Chievous and Pryor, defense has set the tone and been a constant -- and surprise -- for Les. While still two weeks from holiday tournament play, the Dons have gelled defensively when most teams are still trying to piece things together.
"This group has figured things out defensively a little earlier than past teams," Les says of his team that limited Loyola to 14 second half points last week.
Les believes if his team can maintain that defensive mindset and emphasis, continue to improve on the defensive end, then it can be an impressive defensive team when it matters most -- in March.
As it always seems to be at Notre Dame, there is a lack of size. The 6-3 Cody Neidenbach is your blue-collar, lunchbucket role player who will rebound and do some of the dirty work. However, the Dons can hurt you from the perimeter with junior guard Ross Langlois and shooters in Pryor, Chievous, Ryan Tompkins and junior Greg Leifel.
The future is bright as well. Donte Stephenson, a 5-9 sophomore guard, is a defensive terror who brings a bundle of energy and quickness off the bench for Les. A pair of very talented and promising freshmen -- Daunte Stephens and 6-6 Jon Johnson -- are two of the better young players in the Class of 2014. In fact, don't be surprised if Stephens and Johnson add to the depth and talent Les has at his disposal at some point this season.
Notre Dame has become Benet's biggest challenger in the East Suburban Catholic, a favorite in the Wheeling Hardwood Classic later this month and likely a major threat this March.
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