By Joe Henricksen

Your biggest sleepers and most improved teams

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All the preseason rankings are out (Here is a look at the Hoops Report's PRESEASON TOP 25) and Thanksgiving tournaments have been played. Top 25 teams have lost and the constant and typical shuffling of teams in and out of the rankings throughout the season has begun.

Just because a team couldn't be found in the Hoops Report's preseason top 25 doesn't mean there aren't high expectations surrounding a dozen or so programs in the Chicago area.

The short list starts with a trio of teams in the West Suburban Silver -- Oak Park-River Forest, Hinsdale Central and York -- a league that figures to be one of the most entertaining and competitive over the next three months.

Here is a short list of eight teams, starting with those three West Suburban Silver rivals, poised for potential big years this winter, along with a list of five of the most improved teams from a year ago.

The Sleepers
• Oak Park-River Forest
Why they're overlooked: They're not, really. The Huskies can be found in various rankings and are expected to challenge for a West Suburban Silver title. Nonetheless, it's a team that might be significantly better than what people are anticipating.
Why they're intriguing: This is quite possibly the best team that didn't crack the Hoops Report's preseason Top 25. There were a few key losses from a team that won 20 games and reached the sectional championship game last season, but the Huskies welcome back high-scoring guard Erick Locke (20 ppg, 4.5 apg). Javonni Harrell, who put together a quality off-season, is a promising 6-6 presence inside at both ends of the floor. With players like Harrell, unheralded wing Jason Gant and a host of others on this deep team with length and quickness, the Huskies' 1-3-1 trapping defense should be extremely effective.
The wildcard: Purdue football recruit Simmie Cobbs is the underrated difference-maker. Cobbs, who transferred back to OPRF from Montini, brings three qualities any team would die for: toughness, physicality and athleticism. With Cobbs, and a deep bench, this is a team that could pop into the rankings, stay there and be better than both of the previous 20-win teams of the past two years.

• Hinsdale Central
Why they're overlooked: They weren't big names, but the Red Devils won their first conference title since 2000 last year with four unselfish senior starters as the backbone. Replacing four senior starters is never easy to do.
Why they're intriguing: Although four seniors departed, coach Nick Latorre does welcome back his best player: Matt Rafferty. The 6-7 junior is a double-double on a regular basis (15.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg) and a Division I prospect the Red Devils can lean heavily on. Chase Hamilton, a 6-2 guard, is an outstanding perimeter shooter who is more than capable of loosening things up inside for Rafferty.
Wildcard: The addition of Nazareth Academy transfer George Kiernan, a talented 6-6 junior, could prove to be big. But the Red Devils will first have to wait as Kiernan recovers from a knee injury.

• York
Why they're overlooked: When a program like York loses a player like David Cohn, it's easy to put the Dukes up on the top shelf and forget about them. Cohn, now playing at Colorado State, was a high-scoring four-year varsity player and all-stater who led York to 22 wins and a regional title last season.
Why they're intriguing: Anyone who caught a glimpse of York this past summer realized there was a chance for this team to be good. Frank Toohey, an Air Force recruit, is a blue-collar, 6-8 workhorse who is more versatile than he was a year ago. That's a great starting point for coach Vince Doran, who also has a spread-the-floor scorer and shooter in Charlie Rose.
Wildcard: Point guard play. There is some size and there are some capable players on the wing, some of which will have to slide over and provide some point guard minutes. But point guard play will remain a question until firmly answered.

• Highland Park
Why they're overlooked: When it's come to recent talk about the Central Suburban League North, both Glenbrook North and Niles North have dominated the conversation. Highland Park was a pedestrian .500 last season, both overall (15-15) and in the league (5-5), and is often the forgotten team in Lake County.
Why they're intriguing: If you want to throw around the word "underrated," go ahead and start with Highland Park. Coach Paul Harris is extremely underrated, while guard David Sachs is one of the more underrated juniors in the Chicago area. With some talented young players in the program -- keep an eye on 6-3 junior Jordan Krawitz and junior guard Luke Norcia -- and the shelf life may be a little longer than just 2013-2014. But the Giants will play this winter out as that dangerous, under-the-radar team.
The wildcard: Keep an eye on Hallvard Lundevall, a versatile 6-3 forward who has improved and provides the Giants some of the little things any team may lack.

• Fremd
Why they're overlooked: In the grand scheme of things, when it comes to Chicago area basketball lately, teams out of the Mid-Suburban League have been overlooked rather easily. Last season there wasn't a single MSL West team that won a regional.
Why they're intriguing: There is experience, size and depth for a team that won 19 games a year ago. Ben Carlson, a 6-6 senior, is vastly overlooked by the masses, 6-4 guard Riley Glassman is a stat sheet stuffer headed to Cornell, and 6-5 Matt Ochoa is a blue-collar workhorse
The wildcard: Pat Benka. The 6-6 sophomore Pat Benka is a young, budding talent who brings skill, size and versatility. If his progression continues on the fast-track, Fremd will be tough to beat in the MSL and a threat in March.

• Glenbard North
Why they're overlooked: There are a number of reasons. After a dream season in 2002 that, stunningly, landed this program in the Elite Eight in Peoria, it's been 11 years of bouncing between below .500 and mediocrity. This is a football and wrestling school, right? And when it comes to Glenbards and basketball, it's been Glenbard East that's provided headlines over the past decade.
Why they're intriguing: Everyone is projecting West Aurora and Naperville Central to battle for the top spot in the DuPage Valley, but Glenbard North is a sleeper. The Panthers have four returning starters, led by leading scorer Chip Flanigan, and pieces from last year's bench that gained valuable experience.
Wildcard: One of the best-kept secrets in the western suburbs is Flanigan, a 6-5 forward who has become even more versatile than the player that averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and over 3 assists a game as a junior. He had a terrific summer, has become a more consistent shooter and might be the biggest difference-maker in the DVC this season.

• St. Charles East
Why they're overlooked: First, everyone is talking about Larkin in the Upstate Eight Conference. Second, even though he missed half the season a year ago, any program that loses a Big Ten recruit like Kendall Stephens is bound to take a step or two back, right?
Why they're intriguing: Led by senior point guard Dom Adduci, a tough, scoring point guard, the Saints have several experienced pieces -- junior point guard Cole Gentry, athletic 6-5 senior A.J. Washington, improving 6-7 senior Dave Mason (when he gets back from his football injury) and up-and-coming 6-4 sophomore guard James McQuillan -- that should make this team very dangerous.
Wildcard: Health. This is a program that has been absolutely decimated by injuries over the past 12 months. The injury bug has already hit again this year. But if healthy, there is enough talent to battle both Larkin and Geneva in what should be a competitive Upstate Eight River race.

• Lake Zurich
Why they're overlooked: A team in the bottom half of a league like the North Suburban Lake, arguably the most underrated basketball conference in the Chicago area, can be easily forgotten. Wins are tough to come by when playing the likes of Warren, Stevenson, Lake Forest and Zion-Benton twice every year.ry
Why they're intriguing: It's been a steady climb under coach Billy Pitcher, with back-to-back 15-win seasons after winning a combined 10 games the previous two years. Senior Brad Kruse (10 ppg) and up-and-coming junior Mike Travlos (11 ppg) are two capable scorers. Stevenson and Zion-Benton will fight for the top spot in the North Suburban Lake, but Lake Zurich should finish in the top half and push towards a 20-win season.
Wildcard: Junior big men. The guard play will be rock solid with Kruse and Travlos, so a boost from the junior tandem of 6-6 Will McClaughry and 6-7 Zach Wallace will be imperative for the Bears to get over the hump and into the top half of a rugged league.

Most Improved
We will let the season play out before we see what program is the most improved from a year ago. But after struggling to even get close to the .500 mark a year ago, these teams are poised for a big turnaround in 2013-2014.

• Bradley-Bourbonnais
Don't be surprised if last year's 9-16 record is flipped. Bradley-Bourbonnais is a team on the rise. There is experience with three seniors, led by L.J. Harris (15 ppg, 7.4 rpg), and five returning starters. Plus, there is an emerging talent in 6-7 sophomore Zach Hollywood and a quality coach in Alex Renchen. Thornton and Thornwood, you've been warned in the Southwest Suburban Red.

• Mt. Carmel
After a rough 11-17 campaign a year ago, coach Mike Flaherty's club will be much improved with a pretty potent perimeter attack in senior guards David Nichols, 6-3 Montana Byrd and Christian Searles, who just finished up his football season on Saturday. It may take some time for the Caravan to be fully functional due to the football team's run, but it's a team capable of mucking things up in a loaded Chicago Catholic League this winter.

• Plainfield East
With virtually everyone returning from a year ago, including 6-4 junior Aaron Jordan, one of the premier players in the state, the Bengals go from a team that went 12-16 a year ago to one that is favored to win the Southwest Prairie and push towards 20-plus wins this season.

• Lincoln-Way West
Last year's forgettable 3-25 campaign should be a distant memory as this season plays. The Warriors return 97 percent of its scoring. With four returning starters, including 6-5 senior Hayden Witt (18 ppg as a junior), this will be a completely different team than a year ago. In addition to Witt, coach Jon White has a couple of impressive young players in 6-7 sophomore Jon Marotta, who turned in an eye-popping freshman season by averaging 13 points and 8 rebounds a game, and freshman guard Marco Pettinato.

Oak Forest
Although the Bengals may not be ready to win the South Suburban Blue, a league Hillcrest and Lemont have battled for over the past two seasons, they will be much better than the 12-17 team of a year ago. Coach Matt Manzke has four starters back, including senior guard Tom Shute (14 ppg) and 6-9 junior big man Kyle Flanagan (9 ppg 7 rpg).

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter all season long @joehoopsreport

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I'm not really excited by any of this, all I want to know is when is Ryan Boatright playing in the area again. Also, is there any player in the area that can bring the excitement that this young man brought? After having watched all these so called area high school stars the last few years, I have become totally convinced that Ryan is by far the most talented and exciting high school player I have ever seen in person. I have not been able to convince myself that it's worth going out in the cold to watch these other kids play. I have not seen anyone that played with the passion that this young man did. I saw Tyler Ullis the other day on TV, he's a good player but he couldn't carry Ryan's jock as a high school player. I'm really not sure what's going on in Ryan's head right now at UCONN, but he's not the same electric player he was in high school, maybe lacking a little bit of confidence or something, or maybe thinking this is the way the pros want him to play, but he made his name on being aggressive and creating for others, I don't really see that type of player now. Getting back on track, the above categories are nice, but really just fluff, because there really aren't the caliber of players out there that merit all this discussion(point blank), but I guess you have to write a column.

Last week Hinsdale South knocked off two of your "sleeper" teams, beating Hinsdale Central in double OT and beating Glenbard North by 16 in the championship game of the crossover tournament. How about a little love for the Hornets?

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on December 1, 2013 8:09 AM.

Nick Rakocevic headlines list of no-namers no more was the previous entry in this blog.

Hoops Report's Thanksgiving leftovers is the next entry in this blog.

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