This is when it gets interesting.
Holiday tournaments are in the rearview mirror and area teams have a good handle on where they stand at the season's midpoint.
Here's a look at how boys basketball teams from the Fox Valley fared over the holiday break and what's in store for each as conference play heats up this month.
Bartlett (8-7): The Hawks are playing the way coach Jim Wolfsmith predicted they'd play before the season started: inconsistent but improving.
A young team overall, led by a budding sophomore superstar in 6-foot-3 guard Lance Whitaker, Bartlett has been competitive in narrow defeats against talented teams like Neuqua Valley, East Aurora, Mundelein and Barrington.
Wolfsmith expected such growing pains and can live with them if it means the Hawks are learning lessons they can use to win in March, like they did in last year's run to the Class 4A Elite Eight.
Due to Bartlett's 0-3 start in division play, the UEC Valley title may already be out of reach. But that could work in the Hawks' favor in the long run. Faced with a similar situation last year, Wolfsmith began postseason preparations weeks earlier than usual and such focus paid off in regional and sectional titles.
Burlington Central (6-5): The Rockets entered the DeKalb Tournament with a .500 record and went 3-2 behind junior guard Ray Hunnicutt, who was named to the all-tournament team. He and senior Sam Klein have been a potent scoring duo all season.
Central is off to a 2-0 start in the Big Northern East, a race that looks like it will come down to the Rockets and rival Hampshire.
The Rockets can put themselves in good position this week with winnable BNE games against Richmond-Burton (5-9, 0-1) and at North Boone (4-5, 1-0). If they win both, the Rockets would improve to 4-0 in the division heading into a showdown with the Whip-Purs on Rocket Hill on Jan. 15.
The rivals will rematch in Hampshire on Feb. 18, a game that will likely decide the BNE title.
The Rockets have only beaten one school with a winning record: Rockford Lutheran (8-5).
Crystal Lake South (9-4): The Gators have enjoyed a solid first half of the season with signature wins at Batavia and against Barrington at the Jacobs Tournament, where they won 4 out of 5 games.
CL South possesses the size and physicality to give teams trouble in the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference, which looks to be a wide-open race. This team is coherent. Of the Gators' 19 field goals in a win over Cary-Grove last week, 14 were assisted.
CL South opens FVC Valley play with a big game against visiting Huntley on Jan. 11. The rub? It will be the Gators' first game following an 18-day layoff.
Cary-Grove (5-8): The Trojans win when they score points in the post, but they've struggled to do so regularly.
Senior point guard Nick Richter has been a steadying force after missing the second half of last season with an injury. He was named to the all-tournament team at the Jacobs Tournament, where the Trojans went 2-3.
This team is well coached and can't be counted out on any given night when they're clicking, particularly at home, but losses to teams like Grayslake Central (3-7) and Belvidere (5-9) didn't raise the confidence level of the defending FVC Valley champs.
Cary-Grove's 5 victories are against teams with losing records. The Trojans are 0-6 against teams with winning records.
Dundee-Crown (6-4): The Chargers played inconsistently against tough competition at the Elgin Tournament, where they finished 1-3 overall.
This team's 6 victories have already surpassed last season's total, but D-C still experiences just as many lapses as moments of brilliance for a team returning the majority of its lineup.
At Elgin, a big lead against Larkin nearly slipped away the day after the Chargers let a 12-point lead against Glenbrook South evaporate. They can't be counted out of the FVC Valley race, but they haven't shown enough to be favored either.
D-C plays nonconference road games this weekend at Larkin and Rockford Guilford in preparation for next Tuesday's FVC Valley opener at Cary-Grove.
Elgin (9-3): The Maroons have arrived. By winning the Buffalo Grove Thanksgiving Tournament and placing second at their own holiday tournament, junior-centric Elgin has proved it can win now.
Led by clutch performers Kory Brown, Dennis Moore, Jordan Dean and Arie Williams, the Maroons thrive on defense and hit big shots under pressure. That's a winning postseason formula.
Elgin's road to a title in the River Division of the Upstate Eight likely goes through St. Charles North. Elgin visits the North Stars this Friday; St. Charles North invades Chesbrough Field House Feb. 4.
From a pure entertainment standpoint, make a point of attending Elgin's UEC crossover game against Connecticut-bound guard Ryan Boatright and East Aurora on Jan. 25. Boatright and Snoop Viser vs. Kory Brown and Dennis Moore is well worth the ticket price.
Elgin Academy (2-7): The Hilltoppers don't compete in a holiday tournament. They'll return to action for the first time in 18 days on Wednesday against Faith Lutheran prior to two Independent School League games this weekend.
Hampshire (8-4): The Whip-Purs stamped themselves as a team to watch with impressive first-half wins over Winnebago (8-5) and Byron (11-2) and a 3-point loss to NIC-10 Conference contender, Rockford East (11-3).
Before the season started coach Bob Barnett complimented this group's willingness to work, to learn, to push themselves. Such want-to attitudes combined with naturally talented players like junior Tyler Watzlawick (6-foot-7) and sophomore Shane Hernandez (6-6) and sophomore guard Tyler Crater make for a promising mix.
The Whips hope to end their affiliation with the Big Northern Conference in style by winning the East Division one last time before departing for the Fox Valley Conference next season.
Hampshire's season could boil down to a showdown for the Class 3A regional title on its home floor against future FVC Fox Division rival Crystal Lake Central (10-2).
Huntley (10-2): Champion of the Sycamore Thanksgiving Tournament for the second straight year, Huntley made it all the way to the Jacobs Holiday Tournament title game before bowing to Mundelein, 60-50.
Senior Dylan Neukirch returned from a broken hand in time to make the all-tournament team alongside teammates Tyler Brunschon and Troy Miller.
Two tough nonconference road games at Marian Central (Tuesday) and Barrington (Saturday) should prepare the Red Raiders for the important FVC opener against CL South at Gator Alley on Tuesday, Jan. 11.
Jacobs (6-5): Results have been mixed for the Golden Eagles, who won the first 2 games of their holiday tournament to improve to 6-2, then dropped their next 3 games.
Senior guard Nick Hofman has been toughing out a knee injury to lead the team in scoring. He was named to the all-tournament team after scoring 21 points in the finale against St. Charles North.
Jacobs faces three challenging road games to open the new year. The Golden Eagles play Saturday at South Elgin (7-6), which is merely prelude to FVC Valley contests next Tuesday at McHenry (10-2) and next Friday at Huntley (10-2).
Larkin (3-11): The Royals enter the new year on a good note after beating Willowbrook at the Elgin Tournament. The win snapped an 11-game losing streak for a young team in the midst of a rebuilding year.
The Royals can get rolling when outside shots are falling for junior guard Ian Fluhler, sophomore guard Quantice Hunter and freshman guard Derrick Streety. However, Larkin has trouble scoring inside and suffers long scoring droughts when teams shut down their perimeter shooters.
The Royals are scrappy and improving, but they will be relegated to a spoiler's role in the Upstate Eight's River Division this year. Nevertheless, the building will be rocking in hopes of an upset when talented crosstown rival Elgin pays a visit on Thursday, Feb. 10.
St. Edward (4-8): Coach P.J. White believes the experience of playing Class 4A and Class 3A teams over the holidays pays off for Class 2A St. Edward come playoff time. The Green Wave finished 1-4 at the Jacobs Holiday Tournament, losing to bigger schools like Cary-Grove, Bartlett and Crystal Lake Central.
The Wave won't be able to challenge 3A power Wheaton Academy (13-0) for the Gold Division title in the Suburan Christian Conference, but a solid second half would position senior guard Michael Ellis and his teammates for a possible run at the Class 2A Plano regional title.
South Elgin (7-6): This team can play with anyone, as the unseeded Storm demonstrated at the York Holiday Tournament by knocking off No. 3 seed Oswego and No. 6 Riverside-Brookfield. South Elgin tied its best showing at York with a 2-2 record and sixth-place finish.
Senior guard Sammy Sutter is one of the area's top all-around players. He was named to the all-tournament team at York, where Dillon Gardner and Jake Maestranzi also played well.
South Elgin is 1-2 in the Valley Division of the UEC but has an opportunity to make something happen with 4 straight home games to open the new year against Bartlett (Friday), Jacobs (Saturday), Neuqua Valley (Jan. 13) and Lake Park (Jan. 15).
Streamwood (4-10): Coach Tim Jones isn't sure what to make of this team after it followed one of its best games of the season (a 64-60 overtime win over Vernon Hills) with its most disappointing (a 51-28 loss to Naperville Central).
Overall, Jones felt the Sabres played competitively at the Wheeling Hardwood Tournament despite finishing 1-3. If this team of multisport athletes can jell a bit more, the Sabres could provide a stumbling block for one of the UEC River Division contenders.
Westminster Christian (9-3): The Warriors won once in three tries at a Holiday Tournament in Richmond, Ind.
This is one of the strongest teams hall-of-famer Bruce Firchau has coached at Westminster, led by 6-8˝ senior center Ian Dutcher. The Warriors have a chance to win a regional title in their first season in Class 2A. They've already beaten two of the other four teams in the regional field: St. Edward and Genoa-Kingston.
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