By Joe Henricksen
Off the top of any prep basketball fan's head, they can rattle off Simeon, Whitney Young, Proviso East, Warren, De La Salle, Homewood-Flossmoor and several other top teams as the ones to watch through March. But the identity of a few teams might escape those fans as the season tips off Thanksgiving week.
They may or may not be ranked. They may or may not be picked to win their conference. But they certainly are worth watching and they are all primed to gain a little recognition this season. Here are the Hoops Report's winter sleepers.
• Rich East
The history: When it comes to south suburban basketball, Rich East won't be mentioned with any of the heavyweights in the area. In fact, over the past several decades the Rockets have hardly been mentioned at all. Yes, there was the 2008-2009 season where coach George Leonard's team won 21 games and a regional championship. But that was the first regional title in over 40 years and the most victories at Rich East since 1955.
The personnel: The Rockets are quick, long and athletic. Raheem Jackson, a 5-11 all-conference point guard a year ago, returns, along with up-and-coming 6-5 junior Ron Lawton (10 ppg, 7 rpg) and athletic senior Anthony Perkins. Plus, promising 6-4 sophomore Don Henderson and a host of juniors are up from a sophomore team that went 25-2 last season.
The realistic hopes: Rich East, just as it did a few seasons back, could be the sleeper in the south 'burbs and a challenger to both Crete-Monee and Bloom in the Southland Conference. If things get rolling and the junior group matures, Rich East will be a top four sectional seed with the likes of Morgan Park and Hillcrest.
• Seton Academy
The history: The program was non-existent until Ken Stevenson led the Sting to prominence a few years back. Seton, which won a Class 2A state championship under coach Ken Stevenson in 2009, are ready to make another Class 2A run this season. Coach Brandon Thomas led the Sting to 21 wins and a regional championship last year. This team is better -- and plenty deep. "We'll go 10, 11, maybe 12 deep," says Thomas. "I really like all the options we have."
The personnel: The three-guard offense from a year ago returns intact, with senior Jordan Foster (11 ppg) providing a presence and toughness. Junior guard Mark Weems (10 ppg) is completely under the radar, while fellow junior guard, Kamal Shasi (10 ppg), is another double-figure scorer.
There is size in 6-8 Russell Robinson (12 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-6 junior Johnny Patterson and 6-4 Sylvester Tolliver, a transfer from T.F. North. Junior guard Tyler Williams, who started last year as a sophomore for Rich Central before transferring to Seton, provides added depth.
The realistic hopes: Here is another south suburban team that may be overlooked in November but could surprise in the Catholic League and be making headlines in March. Seton has enhanced its schedule, starting with a trip to the Lincoln Thanksgiving Tournament, in preparation for state tournament play. Seton has dreams of playing in Peoria and those dreams are very realistic.
The history: No, it wasn't that long ago that Waukegan was receiving plenty of recognition. Always a solid basketball program, Waukegan rose to a new level with the arrival of Jereme Richmond, who led the Bulldogs to 53 wins and two state trophies -- a third-place finish and a state runner-up finish -- in back-to-back years. A year after the Richmond Era ended, Waukegan went through a rather ordinary 12-13 season a year ago.
The personnel: Coach Ron Ashlaw is excited about coaching this particular team, which has speed, quickness and more depth than a year ago. The Bulldogs will return with some bite this winter behind the 1-2 punch of four-year veteran Akeem Springs, a 6-3 do-it-all, and emerging 6-4 junior Devonte Taylor. Springs was a part of those two teams that reached Peoria. Springs and Taylor have the potential to impact games at a high level each night out. Keep an eye on junior point guard Jordan Johnson and the development of 6-5 sophomore Jerome Davis.
The realistic hopes: While New Trier is the team to beat in the Central Suburban League South, Waukegan is the darkhorse. The Bulldogs will learn a lot about themselves in late December in a very loaded Pontiac Holiday Tournament. Yes, after a one-year absence, Waukegan will be a presence again in the north suburbs and a sectional title contender by the time March rolls around.
The history: There just isn't a whole lot of basketball history at Bogan, though the past couple of seasons the program has built a nice reputation as a team that plays hard and competes at a high level and against quality competition. Last year Bogan went 18-8 but, as a No. 5 seed, was upset by St. Rita in the regional semis. The year before Bogan won 23 games and won a regional championship.
The personnel: Forget about what might have been at Bogan (some super talent transferred out and headed to Hyde Park this offseason, including 6-8 Moshawn Thomas and guard Phillip Lee), this is still a tough, hard-nosed Chicago Public League team that's going to compete in the Red-South. There is a group of seniors ready to put a scare in a few of the big-named programs in the city.
That senior toughness and leadership starts with guard Ronnell Buckner. Add fellow seniors Kendall Wesley and Devaughn Johnson and coach Arthur Goodwin has some veterans to lean on, while promising freshman point guard Luwane Pipkins learns the ropes.
The realistic hopes: Realistic? Well, as it stands now, Bogan will be looking up at Simeon in both the Red-South and when the sectional pairings come out in March. And that sectional, if it remains intact, is loaded with Simeon, Curie, Hyde Park, St. Rita and Marist -- five teams all ranked in the Hoops Report's preseason top 20. Bogan will be the sleeper no one wants to play and a team that will put a scare into -- and knock off -- a big boy or two.
The history: After years, decades even, of being irrelevant in high school basketball, Oswego has a recent history to build on and a bright future to look forward to. The Panthers won 3A sectional championships in 2009 and 2010. They've averaged 23 wins a season the past three years, which is saying something considering the program had two previous 20 win seasons in school history.
The personnel: On paper, this team is more talented than Oswego's Cinderella team in 2009 that was a Class 3A state runner-up. But the Panthers are still young and already have a glaring weakness that can't be fixed -- a lack of size. Nonetheless, five starters (four juniors) return from a team that won 18 games a year ago, along with talented Oswego East transfer Thomas Wilder.
The catalyst is Elliot McGaughey, an unheralded 6-2 junior guard who averaged 18 points a game last season and is among the Hoops Report's top 35 prospects in the junior class. Junior guard Miles Simelton (13 ppg) and 6-3 senior Ryan West are two other double-digit scorers back for coach Kevin Schnable, who will be in for a battle in a balanced Southwest Prairie Conference.
The realistic hopes: Oswego has finished in second place, a game out of first, in each of the last three seasons in the Southwest Prairie Conference. This year the Panthers are the team to beat. Oswego certainly has the potential to position itself as a top four seed when sectional seeds come out in February.