After more than a half-century in the game, West Aurora boys basketball coach Gordie Kerkman has seen it all. His vast experience and Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame credentials makes him uniquely qualified to pare the game, and his players, down to the essence.
"It's a really good group of young men," Kerkman said of this year's squad. "They're a joy to coach -- with the exception they sometimes get a little impatient and they don't rebound as well as they should."
Perhaps his players can initially be excused for a little impatience when shooting the ball. They must be excited because as Kerkman also noted: "I think we have the potential to be very good."
West Aurora returns all but two players, Brandon Gossett and Juwan Starks, from the rotation that lost to 2012 Class 4A state runner-up Proviso East at the Hinsdale Central supersectional.
Granted, the loss of Starks is huge. He was an IBCA First-Team all-stater, a four-time unanimous DuPage Valley Conference first-team selection, West Aurora's all-time leader in points and 3-pointers and the reigning Daily Herald Tri-Cities All-Area honorary captain. Starks, now at Casper Community College in Wyoming, also led the team in rebounds and steals.
The Blackhawks hope to replace him with a diverse number of athletes and abilities.
Four starters return: third-year starting point guard Jontrel Walker, center Josh McAuley, guard Jayquan Lee and forward Chandler Thomas.
Also back are Chandler's brother Spencer, forwards Aaron Kennebrew and Matt Williams, defensive scrapper Booker Ross and improved backup center Rey Acevedo, among others. Kerkman displayed his confidence in sophomore point guard Matt Dunn -- who along with Lee may periodically allow the 3-stroking Walker to move to shooting guard -- that Dunn saw time against Proviso East as a freshman.
"We look to distribute the ball a little bit," Kerkman said. "Usually we have pretty good balance and I think we have a number of kids who are capable of scoring this year."
That ball distribution -- and the patience Kerkman seeks -- begins with Walker. The junior guard, with a trip to Iowa and interest by Marquette to his credit, averaged 13.6 points and made 51 three-pointers last season. He really shined at the foul line, converting nearly 82 percent of his free throws to edge Lee in that category.
Walker, who averaged 3.4 assists, will be assigned to get the ball to McAuley, who almost certainly will improve upon his 5-point scoring average.
"If Josh McAuley plays up to his ability, Josh can be a big-time scorer," Kerkman said.
Defensively and on the backboard the Blackhawks should be up to the task, with McAuley, Acevedo, springy Kennebrew and the Thomas brothers, who along with football linebacker Williams are rugged individuals who won't be pushed around. Fundamentals and grit should be enough to offset an overall lack of height.
Yes, it sounds like Kerkman thinks this team's success comes down to proper shot selection.
"I think if we are impatient -- which we were at times last year and were this summer -- we won't be taking as much advantage of the people we've got," he said. "I'm not opposed to shooting the ball quick. I am opposed to shooting bad shots in a hurry."
Coach: Gordie Kerkman (37th year, 735-292)
Last year: 25-6, 11-3, second in the DuPage Valley Conference
Key players: Jayquan Lee, G, sr.; Josh McAuley, C, sr.; Chandler Thomas, F, sr.; Spencer Thomas, F, sr.; Jontrel Walker, G., jr.
Skinny: Five of top six back from supersectional team