The 2013-2014 season is here. And it's shaping up as a great one with superstar talent headlining the top teams.
When do you ever get arguably the best, most dominating high school players leading what very well could be the best teams: Jahlil Okafor and No. 1 Whitney Young, Cliff Alexander and No. 2 Curie, Jalen Brunson and No. 3 Stevenson, Tyler Ulis and No. 4 Marian Catholic, D.J. Williams, Zach Norvell and No. 5 Simeon and Charles Matthews and No. 6 St. Rita. When it comes to top players and the best teams, it doesn't get any better than that. Here is a look at the City/Suburban Hoops Reports preseason Top 25.
#1 WHITNEY YOUNG
What's to like: For starters, the nation's best player is back for another year as Duke-bound Jahlil Okafor is one of three starters returning from a team that won a city championship and reached a sectional final. With Okafor, yes, it's about his talent, but it's also his imposing 6-10 size, particularly at the high school level, that makes him so dominating. Okafor gives the Dolphins such a decisive matchup advantage. Versatile 6-8 Paul White and Saint Louis recruit Miles Reynolds are three-year starters to lean on. Newcomers Ant Mosely, a junior point guard who adds an offensive dimension Young didn't have at the position a year ago, and 6-4 sophomore wing Skyler Nash won't be asked to carry the load. However, these two will need to provide some added production for balance.
Biggest concern: Depth. L.J. Peak, last year's second leading scorer, moved back to South Carolina, while promising 6-7 junior Joseph Toye, last year's sixth man, transferred out. Coach Tyrone Slaughter had very little depth a year ago, either, so navigating that concern -- hopefully -- won't be an issue.
X-Factor: One wouldn't think Paul White, a consensus top 100 player nationally headed to Georgetown, would be an X-Factor. His talent and potential is immense, but the consistency and ability to dominate at a high level regularly may be the difference between being a really good team and a great team.
What's to like: Superstar Cliff Alexander was outstanding last year, dominating at times. The good news for coach Mike Oliver and Curie -- and bad news for all their opponents -- is the consensus top five player in the country has made a huge jump forward. He's still a physical and athletic specimen at 6-9, but his mindset is to now dominate entire games with his rim-rattling, rebounding and shot-blocking abilities. There is some impressive talent around Alexander, including a rejuvenated Joseph Stamps, a 6-4 senior who has had an embattled career, super sophomore guard Devin Gage and 6-5 junior sniper Joshua Stamps. There is depth with guard Kamar Marshall, 6-5 junior Malik Washington and Foreman transfer Marcus Gathling.
Biggest concern: The point guard play will be imperative if Curie wants to do things this successful program has never done before -- i.e. city title, reach Peoria. Gage doesn't have to carry Curie, but he has to lead, be composed and make good decisions. That's a lot to ask out of a sophomore.
X-Factor: Experience. A year ago Alexander was the only regular who made major varsity contributions the previous year for Curie. This year there are seven seniors, along with a couple of youngsters, who have all tasted varsity basketball to some degree.
What's to like: The Patriots return three starters, 56 points of offense and five key players who were part of a Class 4A state runner-up team. But lets not kid ourselves. Jalen Brunson (22 ppg) is the catalyst that carried the team a year ago and vaults the Patriots into a top five ranking. Brunson's level of play last year as a sophomore was off the charts, and it raised everyone else's. Division I prospect Connor Cashaw (16 ppg), a 6-4 junior, is one heck of a running mate on the wing. So much was made of the super sophomore tandem of Brunson and Cashaw, that many forget the strides two other sophomores, 6-3 Cameron Green and 6-4 Parker Nichols, made last year. And don't forget about 6-3 Matt Morrissey (8 ppg), a Michigan State football recruit, who provides production and intangibles.
Biggest concern: For the most part, Stevenson snuck up on everyone outside the North Suburban Conference last year as a legitimate state power. How will this group handle the pressure of headlines and heavy expectations right out of the box? Will they stay as hungry?
X-Factor: While it's true coach Pat Ambrose has his biggest star ever, there's a reason Stevenson has made two trips to Peoria and averaged 19 wins a year over the past 14 seasons. Ambrose is one of the real underrated coaches in the state. His teams are disciplined, defensive-minded and so well prepared.
#4 MARIAN CATHOLIC
What's to like: There isn't a bigger or better catalyst in the state than dynamic star Tyler Ulis. He scores, creates, makes those around him better and provides any team he plays on with an oozing confidence. Ulis is the rare player who produces monster numbers but remains team-first and completely unselfish. The Kentucky-bound point guard led the Spartans to a school-record 29 wins and a sectional title last season and is one of five returning starters. With Ulis and his supporting cast, led by 6-6 T.J. Parham and guard Ki-Jana Crawford, there isn't a more seasoned or experienced team in the state. They all just seem to get it, truly enjoy playing with one another and flourish in all knowing who their go-to guy is on the floor.
Biggest concern: There's been a lot of chatter since last season ended just how good this team will be in 2013-2014 after a historical and magical season last year. But how will Marian adjust to being the hunted rather than the no-named team trying to earn respect?
X-Factor: Chemistry. This is a group of players who have played together and, more importantly, stuck together throughout their high school careers. Any flaws or weaknesses you find with this team is often taken care of with that key ingredient: chemistry.
What's to like: The talent in place, albeit young and inexperienced talent, is still pretty special. All five starters graduated, including Mr. Basketball winner Jabari Parker, so the Wolverines will rely heavily on the unknown. But does this sound like a roster that is hurting: Illinois commit D.J. Williams is a 6-7 wing and a consensus top 50 player nationally in the Class of 2015; 6-4 sophomore guard Zach Norvell is the top prospect in Illinois in the Class of 2016; Donte Ingram, a 6-5 senior, has signed with Loyola; and 6-6 junior Edward Morrow has multiple Division I offers.
Biggest concern: The lack of players who have been in significant situations and have never had to carry any type of burden on the floor is a monumental concern. That's not the recipe for high-level success. But there is no question this team will be a whole lot better in February and March than December and January. It's just a matter of how much better.
X-Factor: THE goal is not winning a city championship or getting back to Peoria. The GOAL is to win a state championship. That's the mindset at Simeon, regardless of who has graduated, and it's one that is engrained in their mind. That right there is a different type of basketball program.
#6 ST. RITA
What's to like: There is size, athleticism, experience and some big-time weapons up and down the roster. Northwestern recruit Vic Law, a versatile 6-7 forward, and 6-5 guard Charles Matthews, the top prospect in the state in the Class of 2015, are as good of a 1-2 combo as you'll find. And four-year guard Dominique Matthews is back after averaging 16 points a game last season. The talent continues with two more Division I prospects in juniors Armani Chaney and Myles Carter. Chaney is a point guard who will be leaned on heavily to free up the likes of Law and Matthews, while is a 6-8 athletic rim protector and rebounder. There are enough talented pieces in place to pose nightmarish matchups for opposing teams.
Biggest concern: The program has gone from non-existent to one ranked in preseason polls under coach Gary DeCesare. Yet it's one that is lacking big, defining, in-state wins. Last year's disappointing experience of falling in the regional to DuSable on its home floor needs to be a motivator rather than one that leaves doubt. It's time to turn that talent and potential into some grit and March success.
X-Factor: Experience. Despite all the expectations last season, the Mustangs were still very young. Now, with five returning starters, including four-year varsity players in Dominique Matthews and Law, along with three-year varsity player Charles Matthews, it's a team built around talented veterans.
#7 MORGAN PARK
What's to like: You look at the nucleus of this team and you say, this team is very similar to the one that won a state championship last year with their speed, quickness and defensive pressure. It's just more of the same. Lamont Walker, a 6-4 guard and UMKC recruit, and 6-7 Josh Cunningham, the top uncommitted senior in Illinois, are returning starters and impact players. Cunningham was a high-level producer a year ago and is much improved. Senior Torry Johnson and sophomore point guard Charlie Moore both gained valuable experience last season.
Biggest concern: With four-year star Billy Garrett, Jr. off to DePaul and Kyle Davis now at Dayton, coach Nick Irvin has a full slate of work ahead trying to fill voids and mix pieces to make up for the loss of arguably the state's best backcourt. But all the necessary ingredients are in place for a second straight Class 3A state title.
X-Factor: Kain Harris. His role last year was limited. But the 6-4 junior is a big, strong guard with big-time scoring potential. If Irvin can lean on Harris this season, the offense lost with Garrett and Davis graduating will be felt a little less.
#8 NORTH CHICAGO
What's to like: Three names for you: JayQuan McCloud, JaVairious Amos-Mays and Kurt Hall. All three attack the offensive end with abandon. McCloud (17.4 ppg), a Murray State recruit, is a skilled and smooth 6-2 scoring guard. The high-motored Amos-Mays is tough and versatile. And Hall is a classic big-bodied hybrid forward, a finisher at the rim with improving perimeter skills. Who knows or cares who's really the third option -- McCloud? Amos-Mays? Hall? -- there aren't many teams who have the luxury of having a great third option capable of carrying a team like North Chicago has. This threesome will put a fear into any defensive game plan and gives North Chicago a realistic shot of winning a 3A state championship.
Biggest concern: They will put up points -- 100 if you let'em -- but will the Warhawks ever totally buy into being a defensive-minded team? The belief internally is defense will be a higher priority this season. With all the success North Chicago has had over the past seven years (167 wins, six sectional titles with two trips to Peoria), maybe the question should be: Does it matter?
X-Factor: Chemistry and leadership. For North Chicago, these two words should and won't be underestimated after seeing what a lack of it did last year. It led to, at times, uninspired play, off-the-court issues and one lackluster performance in the biggest game of the year -- a supersectional loss to Orr.
What's to like: The Spartans have continuity with the roster returning nearly intact from a team that finished fourth in the state in Class 3A last March. Among the six key returnees, Orr has a trio of athletes with size, experience and talent in 6-8 Marlon Jones, 6-7 Tyquone Greer and 6-3 guard Louis Adams. All three are uncommitted Division I prospects. Jones, in particular, has a chance to be one of the elite players in the state with his ability to impact games around the basket at both ends of the floor.
Biggest concern: Don't underestimate all that unheralded Jamal McDowell, last year's senior leader at point guard, meant to this team. He wasn't the biggest name, but he's a big hole to fill due to all the attributes he brought.
X-Factor: With Jones, Greer and Adams the focal point of most defenses, it's an opportune time for Crane transfer Isaiah Hayes to blossom into the catalyst Orr needs at the point guard position. If Hayes can fill McDowell's shoes, Orr will be more dangerous offensively than last season.
#10 ST. VIATOR
What's to like: This was a preseason top 25 team before the arrival of Palatine transfer Roosevelt Smart, a 6-2 junior who averaged 18 points a game last season as a sophomore and boasts Division I offers. He joins Drake recruit and seasoned veteran Ore Arogundade, who can fill a stat sheet. The 6-2 Arogundade averaged 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2 steals a game. Add in returning point guard Mark Falotico (10 ppg, 4 apg) and there is enough talent to make a run at an East Suburban Catholic Conference title.
Biggest concern: Maybe it just won't matter with all the perimeter firepower, but the Lions will lack size and a presence inside -- at both ends of the floor. Sal Canella, a 6-5 junior, brings some size but is a more skilled, lanky big.
X-Factor: Pat McNamara, a 6-4 junior, should flourish as a sharpshooter who can space the floor for a solid point guard in Falotico and dynamic slashers and scorers in Smart and Arogundade. McNamara is the one who could provide those back-breaking moments for opposing teams from beyond the arc.
What's to like: The talent-level. Despite the loss of Ben Moore, who graduated and is playing at SMU, coach Rob Brost has pieces to play with. It starts with junior scoring guard Prentiss Nixon, who averaged over 16 points a game last season with eight games of 20-plus points. The emerging Gage Davis, a 6-2 shooting guard headed to IPFW, appears destined for a breakout season. Then there is the size, with 6-6 Kenny Williams (signed with Division II Northern Michigan) and ever-improving Julian Torres, a 6-8 junior.
Biggest concern: In order for the Raiders to surpass last year's 20-win total, they're going to have to be more consistent and handle adverse situations better. Is this Bolingbrook team ready for that? Can this team stay away from stretches of looking like a very good team and then stretches of being average?
X-Factor: Depth. It goes so much deeper than Nixon, Davis, Williams and Torres. Senior guard C.J. Redmond started last season. Josh Dillingham, a rough-and-tumble 6-4 senior, was last year's sixth man. Sophomore guard Devon Sams is beginning to blossom. And 6-6 senior Shakur Triplett can be a major factor with his length and athleticism.
#12 BENET ACADEMY
What's to like: There is no question the backbone of this team is Xavier recruit Sean O'Mara, a 6-9, big-bodied, true back-to-the-basket threat who makes those around him better with his presence and passing ability. The productive O'Mara (17 ppg, 8 rpg as a junior) is a player capable of dominating at the high school level and is able to take pressure off those around him. The beneficiaries will be much-improved senior guard Collin Pellettieri and 6-3 junior Colin Bonnett, who can space the floor with his shooting ability.
Biggest concern: Last season, when the Redwings needed, well, just about anything, battle-tested Pat McInerney provided it. But most importantly he brought mental and physical toughness. Who will provide that this season?
X-Factor: Little-known Liam Nelligan, a 6-4 senior, moved back from Singapore after attending Benet as a freshman. He brings many different positives -- some size, toughness and versatility -- for a team looking for another weapon.
What's to like: When prepping to play the Zee-Bees, two things will jump out at any opposing coach in the film session: Milik Yarbrough's dynamic offensive talent and the pure strength and size of underrated 6-5 junior Admiral Schofield, 6-6 Jerome Davis, a transfer from Waukegan, and the 6-5 Yarbrough. Both Yarbrough, who is on pace to become the all-time leading scorer in Lake Country prep hoops history, and Schofield possess offensive gifts.
Biggest concern: Is there a player who can consistently run the offense, get teammates good shots while creating offense? The guard play will have to evolve over the course of the season if the Zee-Bees want to do anything special when March rolls around.
X-Factor: It sounds crazy to label Yarbrough as an "X-Factor" when he's a what you see is what you get plus-scorer. But even with his scoring forays, is Yarbrough poised to raise his overall game to the level where he's one of the handful of elite difference-makers in the state?
#14 LOYOLA ACADEMY
What's to like: You'll be hard pressed to find any team with a better basketball acumen than the Ramblers, whose guards are smart, tough, savvy and experienced. That will bode well for Loyola in crunch time of tight games as point guard Kevin Kucera, one of the most improved players in the area, combo guard James Clarke (14 ppg) and shooter Jack Morrissey (18.5 ppg) complement one another so well. The development of 6-4 junior Griffin Boehm inside will be a key for a team that went 22-6 a year ago but doesn't have much size.
Biggest concern: When push comes to shove and the Ramblers are playing the best of the best, do they have a) enough size, and b) enough athleticism? Coach Tom Livatino's club is lacking both.
X-Factor: The experience of the players and the continuity within the program should pay dividends this season. Livatino is now in his fifth year as head coach at Loyola, and he has a matter-of-fact honesty players respect and a system that has been embraced.
What's to like: There is so much to like that this Friars team may be the best since Corey Maggette led Fenwick to Peoria and the Elite Eight 15 years ago. There is experience (four returning starters), there is size (three key players over 6-5, including improving 6-8 Dan Dwyer) and there is a star player in Northwestern recruit Scott Lindsey, whose ascent will be eye-opening to those who watched him as a junior. Lindsey truly blossomed this offseason after an up-and-down junior year. How big of jump point guard Mike Smith makes since starting last year as a freshman will go a long way in Fenwick's success.
Biggest concern: Lindsey is still recuperating from a broken leg he suffered this past fall. If the Friars intend on competing with the state's top teams, the versatile Lindsey will need to be at 100 percent -- and the sooner the better.
X-Factor: Rick Malnati. The first-year coach returns to the high school game following two years in the college game as part of Loyola's coaching staff. Simply put, Malnati is one of the best in the business. Expect Fenwick to be efficient offensively, defend and buy into a whole new vibe.
#16 PROVISO EAST
What's to like: Speed, quickness and guard play. It is Proviso East, so what else would you expect? West Virginia recruit Jevon Carter (13.3 ppg) was the leading scorer a year ago for a team that reached Peoria and finished fourth in the state. That's a nice place to start for coach Donnie Boyce. Plus, 6-2 junior Kalin Fisher should be a double-digit scorer after providing a little offensive pop as a sophomore.
Biggest concern: There are a couple concerns. First, there is no proven size to speak of. Second, while Carter is a weapon capable of carrying a team with his streaky scoring outbursts, how will he adjust to being the focal point of opposing defenses with stars Sterling Brown and Paris Lee having graduated? Carter must provide a high-level of leadership.
X-Factor: A pair of young guards named Williams -- sophomore Antonio Williams and freshman Mahir Williams. Antonio is capable of providing a real offensive boost with his explosiveness, while Mahir is special with the ball in his hands and making decisions -- yes, even as a freshman. Look for these two players, and this team, to gain more and more confidence as the year plays out.
#17 ST. JOSEPH
What's to like: Few guards can match the hype Glynn Watson and Jordan Ash have received since entering high school. Now it's their time to shine. The pairing of Watson, a pure point guard, and Ash, a 6-2 athletic guard, is one of the top guard combos in the state. Their maturation over the next three months will ultimately determine if this is a team capable of making a Class 3A run to Peoria in March.
Biggest concern: In a perfect world, you would like to rely on seniors. When the going gets tough in a rugged Chicago Catholic League this winter, coach Gene Pingatore can only turn to young players. That's cause for concern for any team, but at least Watson, Ash and guard Joffrey Brown are seasoned juniors.
X-Factor: The big men. Jon Johnson, a 6-6 senior, has to be a consistent factor on the glass and defensively. Nick Rakocevic, a 6-9 sophomore with length and skill, is a terrific talent who can knock down perimeter shots. But can these two be rim protectors on the defensive end?
What's to like: A solid nucleus returns from a team that won more games last season (23) than any Larkin team in 20 years. And it starts with the guard play of underrated Kendale McCullum, who averaged 11 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds a game as a junior, and four-year varsity player Derrick Streety. Both will be counted on for even more productivity, as will three-year starter Drew Jones, a 6-5 senior forward. Throw in 6-5 veteran Brayden Royse and coach Deryn Carter's club is loaded with returning talent and experience.
Biggest concern: Gone are last year's top two scorers, Quantice Hunter and Quentin Ruff. More importantly, some perimeter shooting was lost. But Larkin hardly missed a beat offensively when watching them during an impressive summer.
X-Factor: There are some significant reinforcements on the way, led by exciting 6-5 freshman Christian Negron. This team has relied so heavily on guard play, that Negron provides a dimension -- an athlete with size and high-level ability -- this team will welcome with open arms.
#19 DE LA SALLE
What's to like: The eye-opening play and development of rugged 6-5 junior Brandon Hutton is the reason the Meteors have vaulted into the top 20. His motor and competitiveness, combined with his physical and athletic presence, make him a matchup nightmare at the high school level. There is balance and depth, with junior guards Martez Cameron and 6-4 Karl Harris both poised to blossom. Keep an eye on a couple of under-the-radar young players: athletic sophomore guard George Wilborn, III and 6-7 junior Isaiah Robinson.
Biggest concern: There is talent in place, but it's still a relatively young team that may be a year away with only two seniors among the top eight. Plus, there is no getting around the fact of what Alvin Ellis, who is now at Michigan State, did for this team last year.
X-Factor: Can the Meteors turn their combination of athleticism, quickness and some decent size into not only a functional halfcourt defensive team, but a difference-making one?
What's to like: First-year coach Ron Ashlaw, who takes over after a strong run as head coach at Waukegan, will be opening things up and will get out and run a little more than past Bloom teams, which should fit his personnel perfectly. This should be a more versatile team at both ends of the floor. Plus, there is a veteran presence back in point guard Zerell Jackson, rugged 6-4 James Coleman and 6-4 wing Jared Johnson. A real key could be the steady and consistent play of senior Dalvin Echols at the 2-guard position.
Biggest concern: There could be some early growing pains with a tough early-season schedule and a new head coach in place. As is always the case with any coach taking over a program, especially a team with so many pieces and double-digit depth, developing chemistry -- and "buying in" -- will be a key.
X-Factor: It may take some time, but the development of 6-3 junior Mickhiell Harris, an exciting and promising talent, could prove to be pivotal.
What's to like: There is tremendous speed and athleticism at every position, along with a program that always gets after it. With talented guards Luwane Pipkins and Bryce Barnes returning, coach Arthur Goodwin's strength is in its backcourt. Pipkins, a 5-10 junior, averaged over 20 a game last season, while Barnes is a playmaking sophomore. An influx of under-the-radar young talent within the program who bring size and athleticism in 6-6 junior Antonio Thomas and 6-4 wing James Jones will be a big help.
Biggest concern: Getting over the psychological hump of playing -- and finding a way to beat -- the defending state champs in 3A (Morgan Park) and 4A (Simeon) in the rugged South Side of Chicago. Also, is this young team -- there isn't a senior in the regular rotation -- a year away from being a true force?
X-Factor: It's undoubtedly Pipkins, who will have to find the right mix of scoring and distributing to help this team beat the city and state powers.
What's to like: Coach Dan McKendrick's club loses virtually nothing from last year's squad, while welcoming a junior group that went 20-4 as sophomores last season. That experience/newcomer mix -- and an impressive offseason -- makes the Warriors the favorite in the Central Suburban North. Leading scorer Eric Porter (12.3 ppg) has become more than a scorer, while 6-4 Michael Alfieri (10.4 ppg, 6 rpg) is a jack-of-all-trades.
Biggest concern: Is this program ready to compete at a high level and win big games after going a combined 22-34 the past two seasons?
X-Factor: Newcomers. The veterans will be the backbone. But there is incoming talent that's going to make this team better than people realize. Jordan Baum is a talented 6-3 sophomore who showed well this past summer. Jack Lieb is a 6-8 junior who missed all of last season with an injury. And Stefanos Fasianos is a skilled, wiry 6-4 athlete on the perimeter who transferred in this summer.
What's to like: There are three key contributors back from a 24-win team that rolled through the South Suburban Blue unbeaten. But one of those three, 6-7 Taylor Adway, will be looked upon to become a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. Allen Jones is a perimeter threat, while 6-4 junior DeAngelo Isby can be a mismatch with his size, strength and athleticism. Almari Daniels progression at point guard will be a key.
Biggest concern: The Hawks relied so heavily on Jovan Mooring for scoring a year ago. Who will pick up the slack? Coach Don Houston, however, is excited about the balance he thinks he will have offensively.
X-Factor: Although this has been a consistent Top 25 program over the years -- and squeezed itself into the rankings again this year -- the Hawks are far from hyped. For once Hillcrest can use the "no respect" card heading into the season.
#24 PLAINFIELD EAST
What's to like: Aaron Jordan. He averaged 16 points a game and shot nearly 50 percent from the three-point line as a sophomore. Now he's a more dynamic, confident talent with high-major offers. His return, along with four other starters, instantly makes the Bengals the favorite in the Southwest Prairie. Sharpshooter Nick Novak (50 three-pointers a year ago) will help space the floor and keep defenses honest.
Biggest concern: The perimeter talent, including a star piece in Jordan, is in place. Will there be enough of an inside presence at both ends of the floor?
X-Factor: Although coach Branden Adkins has chemistry and experience with five returning starters, there is some impressive young talent in the program that will provide depth in 6-4 sophomore Elyjah Goss, sophomore guard Jordan Reed and 6-4 freshman Malik Benns.
What's to like: Look who's back! Although just 14-12 a year ago, Thornton has depth, quickness and plenty of scoring options on the perimeter. A veteran trio returns in three-year starter Justin Taylor and guards Justin Montgomery and DeMarcus Turner.
Biggest concern: With only one player at 6-4, the Wildcats have little to no size inside. The quickness, depth and defensive pressure must take some of the pressure off a potential problem on the glass.
X-Factor: Is it premature to put the Wildcats back in the Top 25 after a couple of so-so seasons? Coach Troy Jackson has plenty of experience returning in six key seniors. But the keep an eye on a talented junior group, highlighted by guard Leslie Wilson, 6-2 DeQuan Applewhite and 6-4 Brian Davis, who is long and rangy. The juniors went 24-0 a year ago at the sophomore level.
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