If the first two months are any barometer, Fox Valley area fans should brace for a thrilling second half of the high school boys basketball season.
Here's what we've learned to this point, and a look ahead at what's in store down the stretch.
Top team thus far: Larkin (14-2, 4-1) has stamped itself as the team to beat in the bunched-up River Division of the Upstate Eight Conference, if not the Class 4A DeKalb sectional. The Royals, who have already played 16 of their scheduled 26 regular-season games, ended December on a 9-game winning steak, culminating in a 60-51 victory over the rival Maroons in the Elgin Holiday Tournament championship game.
Navigating the treacherous UEC River will be tricky in January and February, but the Royals maintain a slight advantage due to earlier road sweep of St. Charles East (9-4, 3-1) and St. Charles North (9-5, 3-2).
Two upcoming games between UEC River co-leaders Larkin and Geneva (13-3, 4-1) should lend some clarity to the title chase. The Royals visit Geneva on Jan. 19, while the Vikings make a return visit to Larkin on Feb. 8.
The Royals also face road tests against teams they have already beaten twice. They play at Batavia (6-8, 1-4) on Jan. 24 and at Elgin (9-7, 1-4) on Feb. 1.
"It's still to be determined," Carter said when asked if his team has exceeded expectations this season. "Where we have met our expectations is guys getting better everyday. That's always been our program expectation. The wins are nice, but the everyday improvement is something we're real proud of."
If Larkin eventually does win the UEC River, it would set up a season-ending, 2-game series with UEC Valley leader Neuqua Valley (14-0, 6-0). The teams are already scheduled to play a UEC crossover on Feb. 15. However, if both finish the season in first place in their respective divisions, they would square off again in the de facto UEC championship game on Feb. 21.
Best individual performance: The player of the first half was Elgin point guard Arie Williams. Faced with constant double teams and ball pressure, the 5-foot-8 senior routinely delivered 20-plus point performances, none better than a career-high 39-point output in a 76-73 double overtime loss at Larkin on Dec. 12.
He followed with back-to-back, game-winning shots during the Elgin Holiday Tournament. First, he sank a shot from midcourt at the buzzer to rescue the Maroons from an upset against Francis W. Parker in the tournament opener. The next night he drilled a tough fadeaway in the corner to beat Dundee-Crown, which was 8-1 at the time.
"He wasn't just fading away," teammate Kiko Mari said, "I mean, I think he shot that from in the crowd."
Williams is the keystone of an improving 7-man rotation that has already exceeded expectations following the graduation of four starters from last year's sectional final team. Senior center Eric Sedlack (6-5) scored 27 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in his final 2 tournament games, and players like Tanner Bednar, Ryan Sitter, Isaiah Butler, Mari and Malik Parham-Dunner have contributed at different times. Elgin fares best when two of those players crack double-digit scoring in support of Williams.
Following an upset win over Las Vegas Centennial in the tournament semifinals, the Maroons finished their exciting 3-1 tourney run on a sour note with their second loss to rival Larkin in 17 days, though their tournament showing was undoubtedly an overall success.
"If we would have lost to Parker and then won the consolation tournament, we would have been 3-1 and felt good about ourselves," coach Mike Sitter said after Elgin lost the title game. "Everybody would have been on a high. But we lose (to Larkin) and everybody feels bad, and they shouldn't. We went 3-1 and we're 9-7 at the midway point of the season. Most people didn't expect us to be 9-7 right now."
The sleeping giant: Area fans have yet to see the best of Huntley (7-5), though the Red Raiders finished the first half on an uptick following 3 straight impressive victories at the State Farm Classic in Bloomington over Plainfield South (52-37), T.F. North (58-44) and Thornwood (39-32).
That streak came on the heels of 4 straight losses, including a 50-40 decision against North Lawndale in the State Farm Classic opener.
"We really turned the corner," Huntley coach Marty Manning said. "After halftime of (the Plainfield South) game, we came out and played a lot better. We played T.F. North, which has had a really good year, and we played Thornwood, and we beat both of them. It was two of our better games. We played eight straight good quarters.
"Going down there was definitely good for us. As we told the guys, we just have to make sure we don't get complacent and that we keep progressing and we keep getting better the rest of the year."
The Red Raiders resume their schedule at McHenry on Saturday at 5 p.m. It could be the last game they play without 6-6 junior forward Amanze Egekeze. The Huntley standout is expected to see his doctor next Monday. If cleared to play and deemed game ready by the Huntley staff, Egekeze could make his season debut next Tuesday against visiting Crystal Lake South (5-7), which lost to Crystal Lake Central last week in the Jacobs Holiday Classic championship game.
"Hopefully he'll be cleared to play," Manning said. "If he is, there's a possibility that he'll play next week."
Though Cary-Grove (7-6, 0-1) Crystal Lake South (5-7) and Jacobs (6-7, 1-1) are improved compared to a year ago, the primary threat to two-time defending champion Huntley's FVC Valley Division throne looks to be Dundee-Crown (9-3). The Chargers won their first five games of the season and finished sixth in the Elgin Holiday Tournament. Huntley hosts D-C on Jan. 19 and visits the Chargers on Feb. 9.
Cool Whips: With a blend of poise, experience and athleticism, the well-coached Hampshire Whip-Purs are enjoying one of their best seasons under hall-of-fame elect coach Bob Barnett.
Not only did the Whips reel off 11 straight victories at one point and finish third at the DeKalb Holiday Tournament, they did so amid the distraction of their head coach missing 6 games due to the heart attacks he endured the morning of the season opener. Barnett has since recovered and resumed his coaching duties.
Led by 6-6 center Shane Hernandez and athletic guards Tyler Crater and Ryan Cork, the Whips have the look of a contender in the Fox Division of the Fox Valley Conference. To compete for the title, they must hold their own in 2 contests against Jacobs Holiday Classic champion Crystal Lake Central (12-1). The Tigers host Hampshire on Saturday at 5 p.m. CL Central visits Hampshire on Feb. 1.
Not-so-Green Wave: Despite the team's relative youth, a bigger, stronger squad from St. Edward (13-3, 3-1 SCC Gold) made major inroads in the season's first half by winning 3 more games than it did all last season.
A lineup that includes senior point guard Antonio Domel and 6-4 senior forward Adrian Ponce has been fortified by sophomores Nick Duffy (6-4) and Danny Favela (6-3) and junior guard John Butzow (6-0), among others.
The Green Wave will face some tough road games yet, including the regular-season finale at Immaculate Conception (12-3, 3-1) on Feb. 15. The teams have split 2 meetings this season.
A key contest looms on Jan. 25, when St. Edward hosts SCC Gold leader Montini (10-4, 4-0). The Broncos have saddled the Wave with 2 of their 3 losses, including a 59-44 Gold Division victory in Lombard on Dec. 7.