There's something very different about Carmel forward Cullen Barr this season.
He looks the same, for the most part. But his game has changed. It's done a 180, in fact.
"He's undergone a complete transformation," Carmel coach Tim Bowen said. "Cullen has changed his entire mindset and the way he plays the game."
Last year as a junior, the 6-foot-5 Barr wanted to be Carmel's 3-point specialist. And he had the shot to do it.
"The problem was, we had a lot of 6-foot and under guys who could spot up and shoot too, and what were we going to do with them if they weren't doing that? Playing time for that spot started to become an issue," Bowen said. "Those smaller guys can't really play inside. But Cullen can. He can also score and rebound and get to the basket.
"When he had to sit the bench last year while some of those other guys were playing, I think he realized that he needed to make a change if he wanted to be on the floor more."
So last summer, Barr morphed from a shooter into a banger. He worked on post moves, drives to the basket and rebounding, and now he's one of Carmel's biggest threats on the front line.
"He's tougher, he's more physical, he's a much better rebounder, he makes things happen when he goes to the basket," Bowen said of Barr. "Sometimes you think of yourself in a certain way, and Cullen was thinking of himself as that 3-point shooter. But he's realized that he can get inside and score and really play more.
"He got into the weight room, he changed his mindset and I give him a ton of credit."
Recently, Bowen credited Barr in front of his teammates.
"Just the other day, I told our guys that if everyone made a fundamental change that would help their game like Cullen did, we'd be a really good team. Because the change that Cullen made not only helps him, it helps our team. I'm really proud of him for doing that."
Despite Wednesday's heartbreaking 43-42 loss in overtime to Cary-Grove, Carmel is off to one of its best starts in recent memory.
The Corsairs, who went 11-15 last year and haven't had a winning season in more than a decade, are 4-2 and are getting better by the day.
"I think one of our biggest improvements since last year is our guard play and some of those guys keep improving," Carmel coach Tim Bowen said. "We had some young guards last year and they had a really nice summer and fall. They've gotten bigger and stronger and more mature.
Returning guards Nickai Poyser, Billy Kirby and Greg Edkins will all log a lot of minutes for the Corsairs this season. Poyser and Kirby are juniors and Edkins is a senior.
"When you watch these kids play, you get a sense that they are more confident having gotten that taste of varsity basketball last year," Bowen said. "You also feel like they understand what direction we're going and how to get us there."
When it's rivalry week, coaches tend to pull out all the stops.
Antioch coach Jim White is digging deep into the video library in an effort to pump up his players prior to Saturday's intra-district tilt against sister school Lakes, which will host the game (7:30 p.m. tip-off).
White did the same thing last year … with the same DVD.
White likes his players to see the last game between the two teams that Antioch won. It was a triple-overtime thriller about five or six years ago that registered as a huge upset. Lakes boasted one of its best teams and featured all-conference stars Chuck Kempf and Sean Hertz.
Since then, Lakes has regained its footing and has clearly had the upper hand in the series.
"No one is giving us a chance, I'm sure," said White, whose Sequoits have opened with a 1-4 record while Lakes is one of the favorites in the North Suburban Prairie Division. "But when you watch a game like that, when that Antioch team was also a team that didn't have much of a chance, you start to believe in the idea that you really never know what might happen, especially in a game like this. You can kind of throw the records away.
"Last year, we showed the guys the DVD and I think it kind of pumped them up. We battled Lakes hard for the first two quarters and it was a game at halftime. We want to do that again this year and find a way to stay in the game until the end."
So much for easing in.
Round Lake freshman forward James Mobley has kept optimism alive through his team's 0-6 start. He's averaging about 10 points and is one of the team's top rebounders.
"When you think about the fact that he was playing eighth grade basketball last year, you're just amazed," Round Lake coach Jim Roberts said of Mobley. "He is a big-time talent already. I mean, he's already so strong. The strength of his game really stands out. When he wants to get into the paint, he can. He's also strong enough and versatile enough to bring the ball up against pressure.
"James can play inside or out and he picks up things quickly and does so much. He'll be special. That makes us really excited to see how the rest of our season will go."
The injury and illness bugs seem to work in cycles.
A few years ago, the little pests wreaked havoc at Libertyville, wiping out player after player, many at the same time.
Well, the bugs are back, and let's just say head coach Scott Bogumil is in no mood to roll out the welcome mat.
He's lost starters John Vernasco and Drew Cayce and multiple key reserves to everything from concussions to ankle sprains to mono and the flu. Last month, the Wildcats were playing over the Thanksgiving holiday with four of their top eight players out.
"We went through this before, and it's been devastating to be in this situation again," said Bogumil, whose team is off to a 1-5 start. "We're like the walking wounded. It's been one thing after another. We have gotten to the point where we're competing with smoke and mirrors, playing people out of position, playing people with no experience because we have no depth. Half the time, I'm not sure who is going to be available and who's not."
In fact, Bogumil even cancelled a practice this week because he was going to be low on players. Plus, he's doesn't want the healthy players that he does have to get injured.
"The plan is just to watch film and go home," Bogumil said of the lost practice day. "This has been tough on us in games, but where it really hurts is practice because now you're not even 10-deep and you can't scrimmage or run certain drills anymore."
The good news for Bogumil and the Wildcats is that most of the injured or ill players are day-to-day, with impending returns. But Vernasco and Cayce are more uncertain. Vernasco still hasn't been cleared from a concussion he suffered during fall basketball and Cayce, who had recovered from mono, turned his ankle in his first game back. He's in a walking boot for at least the next 10 days.
Undercutting the competition:
As quickly as John Vernasco's adrenaline rose, it came crashing to the ground. Literally.
Vernasco was elevating to slam home a dunk during a fall league game a couple of months ago when he suddenly slammed against the court instead.
The Libertyville forward had been undercut by an overzealous defender.
"The kid didn't want to get dunked on," Libertyville coach Scott Bogumil said. "Apparently, it was a terrible fall. The way John hit the ground was really violent."
The back of Vernasco's head hit the floor. He suffered a concussion and hasn't played since. That was eight weeks ago. In fact, Vernasco, who would be starting at forward for the Wildcats, isn't even back in school full-time as too much stimulation in the classroom can trigger headaches.
"With the way things are now with concussions, you've got to be extra careful," Bogumil said. "We're not sure when we'll get John back."
Injuries have also taken a toll at Vernon Hills.
Two starters, forward Trent Fulton and guard Dylan McNamara have missed nearly the entire season so far with an ankle and knee injury, respectively.
Fulton suffered a high ankle sprain in the first minute of the Cougars' season opener and is still out while McNamara just recently joined the lineup after rehabbing the knee he sprained in football. McNamara missed the first five games of the season.
"We've kind of had to do a patch-work job as we've battled through these injuries," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. "I had envisioned Trent being a 15-point, 9-rebound kind of guy for us and Dylan is a big 3-point shooter for us. It's really hurt having them out of the lineup."
But the players who have stepped into the lineup have provided McCarty with a pleasant surprise. For instance, Tristan Klintworth has filled some holes inside for Fulton and Michael Mariella came off the bench against Grayslake Central and hit three 3-pointers.
"We've been trying to look at the injuries in a positive way," McCarty said. "We have some young guys playing more minutes than they probably would have expected at this point. Some of them are playing in varsity games for the first time. But the good thing is, it will help them in the long run."
Counting by 3s:
Height is high on the list of needs at Vernon Hills.
At 6-foot-3, forward Trent Fulton is the Cougars' tallest player. After that, a couple of players check in at around 6-foot-1, and that's about it.
"I feel like we might be leading the nation in getting our shots blocked," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. "Height-wise, we're just at such a disadvantage. It really affects us inside. I don't want our guys to be discouraged about going inside, but we're going to have to mix in other things, too."
For starters, McCarty is looking for a lot of kick-outs.
While height might be a weakness, long-range shooting will be a strength. If the Cougars can't score over taller defenders inside, McCarty thinks his guards can arc jumpers over them from the outside.
Vernon Hills is particularly effective from 3-point range.
"When we're shooting well, we'll be able to hang with anyone with our 3-pointers," McCarty said. "I don't want to die by the 3, but I think we can live a lot on them."
Guards Stephen Curry, Nate Rathod, Dylan McNamara and Robbie Nardini are all dangerous 3-point shooters for the Cougars. In a recent win over Round Lake, Curry drained four 3-pointers.