By Joe Henricksen
While the Division I-loaded Mac Irvin Fire, Meanstreets and Illinois Wolves did not make the trip to Milwaukee this past weekend, the NY2LA Invitational did welcome a plethora of Illinois-based club programs. After two days of watching a dozen-plus Illinois teams in three different age groups with many Division I and small college prospects, the Hoops Report came away impressed--once again this spring--watching a true, up-and-coming AAU program: Chicago LockDown.
The Chicago LockDown program flies under the radar, mostly due to the fact it doesn't sport teams in the 16U and 17U divisions and has only been around for a couple of years. However, founder Joe Niego, a part of a high school basketball family in the city that is legendary when he and his twin brothers, Charlie and Tom, played at De La Salle, is building a foundation. I still remember going to the East Aurora Holiday Tournament in the 1980s and watching and being intrigued by the three Niego brothers playing together and leading one of the state's top teams.
Now Niego, who starred at Lewis University with his brothers following their days at De La Salle, is on the cusp of putting together a respected program in the Chicago area. They may not yet have the name or a shoe deal sponsorship the higher profile club teams have, but take in a few of their appearances this spring at the 15-and-under level and it's easy to be impressed.
It's difficult, nearly impossible, to find disciplined, fundamentally sound, well coached AAU teams on the club circuit. This 15U Chicago LockDown team is all of that when comparing it to other programs and teams--no matter what age group you're talking about--around the Chicago area. This group has fun when it plays and competes. There aren't very many AAU teams that you would call "fun" to watch, especially at the lower levels, but this team is enjoyable.
Now, it's a huge advantage having a real "coach" running things for the 15U team, with St. Viator's Mike Howland, one of the young, rising coaches in the prep ranks, as the man on the bench. When it comes to AAU basketball and watching Howland and his team, it's often like watching chess vs. checkers when it comes to matching up with others in the underwhelming club basketball coaching world. Plus, highly-regarded Greg Ktistou, a former high school coach and AAU coach in the Chicago area, is the program's skills trainer.
The LockDown 15U team reached the championship game this past weekend in the NY2LA Invitational, where it lost to finish the weekend with a 7-1 record. Earlier this spring, LockDown won the Nike Showdown in Merrillville and went 5-1 in the Spiece Run 'N Slam.
While this team has several impressive parts and potential if it stays together over the next two years, there continues to be two LockDown players in the freshman class that jumps out at the Hoops Report--St. Viator's Mark Falotico and Hinsdale Central's Matt Rafferty.
Under Howland, who was in his first year as head coach at St. Viator last season after spending eight years as an assistant, the Lions won a school record 25 games and went undefeated in the East Suburban Catholic Conference for the first time in school history. Along the way, super sophomore Ore Arongundade received plenty of accolades--and a lot of love from the Hoops Report--while Falotico played a small but important role as a freshman. Look for a huge impact from Falotico next season and over the next three seasons.
Falotico is an impressive prospect, who has a wide-ranging package of talent. The 6-0 point guard understands the game, the position and his value, which isn't typical when talking about a player so young. His offensive game will only flourish as he already has a solid perimeter shot with range out to the three-point line and an advanced pull-up, mid-range game. Throw in a willingness to get out and defend and a demeanor that screams mature and Falotico is among the top 10-15 prospects in the Class of 2015 at this early juncture.
Rafferty, one of the Hoops Report's top dozen prospects in the Class of 2015, showed flashes over the second half of the season while playing for coach Nick Latorre and Hinsdale Central this past season. The 6-7 versatile 4-man can face up, knock down shots with range and is comfortable on the block and willing to battle in the lane, where he has a nice touch finishing around the basket. Although he splits his basketball time with football, Rafferty's hoops future is bright.
While Falotico and Rafferty are the top two prospects in the LockDown program right now, there are several other impressive talents, including Harrison Niego. The 6-0 combo guard from Lyons Twp. just gets it, plays with confidence and can really shoot the basketball.
With size in Rafferty, outstanding guard play from Falotico and Niego and several up-and-coming players surrounding this trio, Chicago LockDown has the components to compete at a high level in their age group this July and over the course of the next two years.
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