Why have one compelling title race in the Upstate Eight Conference when you can have two?
For the first time since the UEC's inception in 1963, the now-14-member league will crown champions in two divisions: Valley and River.
The River Division race got underway last night as St. Charles North (2-3) knocked off visiting Batavia (1-3). Those two teams will have to contend with Elgin (4-0), Geneva (2-2), Larkin (2-2), Streamwood (2-3) and St. Charles East (0-4).
Fresh off last year's Class 4A Elite Eight appearance, Bartlett (3-2) will compete in the Valley Division against Neuqua Valley (4-0), Waubonsie Valley (3-1), Metea Valley (3-1), East Aurora (3-1), Lake Park (3-1) and South Elgin (2-2).
Notice anything similar about those records in the Valley Division? Not a losing mark in the bunch.
"I think both divisions are loaded with some really good talent, good teams and great coaches," Bartlett coach Jim Wolfsmith said. "I don't think there's an easy game in the entire Valley Division.
"The River Division is going to be tough, too. I would not be surprised if the team that wins either division has three losses because teams are going to beat each other up. It's going to be competitive."
Bartlett's coach isn't alone in that opinion.
"I don't think it's going to be like it was in the past where there's one team that will go undefeated," South Elgin coach Chaz Taft said. "I don't know if somebody can go undefeated through a division on either side. It'll be a grind."
As both races get started this weekend, here are eight things to watch in the Upstate Eight.
1. Home and home
Unlike in previous seasons when UEC teams only got one crack at each other, the divisional format calls for two meetings a year against each foe. Not only is it a fairer way to determine a league champ, such a schedule will spark rivalries where none existed previously.
For example, though new division foes like Geneva and Larkin don't have much of a history, both sides will look forward to the Jan. 20 rematch if Saturday's league opener is decided at the buzzer.
2. The new kids in town.
Metea Valley joins the UEC, competing in the Valley this season without the benefit of a senior class. Youth didn't keep the Mustangs from racing to a 3-1 start and a third-place finish at the Joliet West Thanksgiving Tournament.
"We saw them last summer and they've got some pretty decent players," Wolfsmith said. Will upsets by the hungry new kids be a determining factor in the conference race?
Also new in the River Division are Batavia and Geneva, longtime rivals with excellent basketball traditions. Playing home games against sharpshooting Geneva will be about as enjoyable for UEC teams as making the trip to Batavia, which receives some of the best fan support found in the suburbs.
3. The Ryan Boatright show.
East Aurora's talented senior guard has been in the spotlight since he was in eighth grade, when he verbaled to Southern California. Now committed to Connecticut, last week Boatright gave an early glimpse of what should be a spectacular season when he scored 55 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and made 11 steals in a Thanksgiving tournament victory over St. Charles North, 75-66.
Paired with the talented Snoop Viser, few teams can match the Tomcats' ability in the backcourt.
4. The development of Lance Whitaker.
Bartlett's outstanding sophomore "will play in the pros one day, you heard it here first," one UEC coach told me before the season. Whitaker gained more playing time late in his freshman season. Now he's the main man at Bartlett.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard averaged 24 points per game as the Hawks went 3-2 at the Mundelein Tournament. How well the rest of Bartlett's inexperienced but talented roster supports Whitaker and secondary scorer, guard Matt Chaltin, holds the key to Bartlett's success.
5. Elgin's growth
Last year Elgin started one junior (Jordan Dean), alongside sophomores Kory Brown, Dennis Moore and Matt Andres and freshman point guard Arie Williams. Coming off a 32-5 record over the summer, the Maroons demonstrated they've grown up quickly after beating Stevenson and the host school on the way to their first Thanksgiving tournament title at Buffalo Grove since 2002.
Tourney MVP Kory Brown's confidence level is light-years ahead of where it was this time last year, when he was figuring things out at the varsity level. Now teams will have to figure out the Maroons, who should be one of the toughest teams in the area this year (not to mention next year) due to their willingness to play shut-down defense.
6. The dark horse
When asked which team might surprise people the most, several coaches mentioned Streamwood.
Though the Sabres lost a tenacious rebounder in Lorenzo Mitchell in a transfer to Bartlett, the program has gotten a lift from several multisport athletes who chose to return to basketball after a year or two off.
The Sabres dropped their first three games over Thanksgiving while playing short-handed. Now back at full strength, the team has won its last two games heading into Saturday's nonconference home game against McHenry.
"I'm happy with this group," Streamwood coach Tim Jones said. "These kids work hard. We just have to keep plugging away."
The Sabres get a triple dose of UEC play next week. They open play in the River Division with home games against Geneva and St. Charles East followed by a crossover at Waubonsie Valley on Saturday.
7. Follow the North Stars?
St. Charles North was already counted among the league favorites, thanks to solid returning performers like Josh Mikes, Kyle Nelson and Chris Conrad. When sophomore Quinten Payne transferred to the school on Red Gate Rd., the North Stars got that much tougher.
The younger brother of former Burlington Central/Schaumburg guard Cully Payne, now at Iowa, Quinten (6-foot-4) was a third-team all-state pick in Florida as a freshman. How well the group meshes together now that the season is underway will be interesting to watch.
8. South Elgin's clampdown
South Elgin has become a basketball program known for its defense. With scorers like Boatright, St. Charles East's Everette Stephens, Whitaker and Brown (among others) sprinkled throughout the league, the Storm doors will be tested.
Those tests start right away with a game at Waubonsie Valley tonight and a home game against Boatright and East Aurora on Saturday.
"What a way to start conference play, huh? Jeez," South Elgin's Taft said of the tough back-to-back games. "We'll find out exactly where we are."
There are far more storylines than we have space for, of course. Watch them all play out on a UEC court near you this winter.
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