It's been three weeks since the last Mid-Suburban League game, but with holiday tournaments in the rearview mirror, the second half of the season is upon us with conference play resuming tonight. Here's a look at what's ahead:
In talking with head coaches around the league before the season, the consensus was that Elk Grove, with returning guards Austin Amann and Kishan Patel, and Prospect, armed with talent despite losing 90 percent of its scoring to graduation, would challenge for the East title.
Four games into division play, both teams have held serve, and that sets up their showdown tonight at Elk Grove.
"It's not the end-all, be-all, but it definitely allows one team to at least have the momentum going into the second round of conference," said Prospect coach John Camardella.
"We don't want to treat it as an all-or-none," said Elk Grove Anthony Furman. "A lot can happen. We're trying to focus it more as it's our fifth (division) game and last of the first round of the conference."
Prospect (10-4, 4-0) suffered a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer to Deerfield at Wheeling and went 2-2 at the Hardwood Classic.
Junior sharpshooter Bobby Frasco leads the Knights in scoring at 12.8 per game, and Devin O'Hara, Mike Houghton and Tommy Flahaven are all averaging at least 8.
Elk Grove (8-5, 4-0) is coming off an up-and-down tournament at Jacobs in which they upended tournament favorite Zion Benton but lost three of their five games. Scoring wasn't the problem as the
Grendiers put up 59 points per game. Their downfall was allowing 62 per game.
"The tournament made us better and that's what is important," Furman said.
"We're playing really well offensively and at times we're playing good defensively, but it's going to be very important for us to cut down turnovers and defend better, keep (Prospect) off the boards," Furman continued.
You don't have to tell Prospect how dangerous Elk Grove can be on offense as the Grenadiers scored 51 points in the second half in a 75-71 upset win over Prospect last February. Not surprisingly, Amann and Patel led the charge that night.
"And most of that was keyed off their energy, their ability to attack the basket and hit open shooters," Camardella said of Amann and Patel. "They play extremely well off each other. There's no way we're going to completely stop them. It's our hope that we can limit them."
Joell Melendez and Bryan Alcazar do a little bit of everything for the Grenadiers and sophomore Matt Wary has come on strong of late.
If Buffalo Grove (7-8, 2-2) can beat Rolling Meadows (3-11, 1-3), the Bison will keep their foot in the door of the division race. And with high-scoring guard Luke Potnick (22 ppg) and home games against Prospect and Elk Grove in the second round of divisional play, anything can happen.
"The longer that you can stay in the hunt, other teams will start to
knock each other out," said BG coach Ryan O'Connor. "We just want to stay alive as long as possible."
Hersey (4-9, 1-3) and Wheeling (2-13, 0-4) both have the talent to spoil someone else's chances in the second half.
Through four games, the West is as muddled as it was to start the season. With five teams within a game of each other, it's anyone's game.
And in all likelihood, that's the way it will be down to the very end when divisional play concludes on Feb. 15.
"It very well could come down to that last weekend," said Fremd coach Bob Widlowski. "All of the teams are playing well right now and that could definitely be a possibility."
Fremd (11-5, 3-1) and Barrington (11-7, 3-1) have the early advantage. But a Conant squad that took second at York, an experienced Schaumburg team and a young, upstart group at Palatine all are within striking distance.
In fact, if Palatine (9-8, 2-2) wins at Barrington, Schaumburg (8-7, 2-2) wins at Fremd and Conant (10-7, 2-2) wins at Hoffman Estates (3-12, 0-4), there would be a five-way tie for first on Saturday morning.
"It does not surprise me at all that things are as tight as they are," said Conant coach Tom McCormack. "I think there are a lot of good teams, but I don't think there's one dominant team. I think probably most of the coaches would concur with that."
"Win or lose, any team is going to have to have a short memory because another battle awaits the following week," said Schaumburg coach Matt Walsh. "There's certainly no games off the remainder of the season."
This season is starting to take on a similar feel to 2010-11, when Schaumburg, Fremd and Barrington all finished at 7-3 and Conant was knocking on the door at 6-4.
"You have to look big-picture and not get disappointed with one loss," said Palatine coach Eric Millstone. "Four losses might win this thing. It starting to take on a Big Ten type of schedule and the last man standing wins it."
East Suburban Catholic
Playing in the high-powered East Suburban Catholic this season is a lot like playing in the Big Ten; there are no easy games.
The top six teams in the nine-team league have a combined record of 75-16, and even the lower end of the conference with teams like Marist (8-4, 0-2) and Carmel (5-9, 0-3) are tough matchups.
St. Viator (10-3, 1-1), which won all eight league games last year to claim the title, faces a challenging path to a repeat crown.
Marian Catholic (15-1, 2-0), featuring star point guard Tyler Ulis, won the McDipper Tournament. Benet (16-3, 2-0) finished fifth out of 32 teams at the Proviso West Tournament and boasts one of the best big men around in 6-foot-9 Sean O'Mara. St. Patrick (12-2, 2-0) took third at Hinsdale South and Notre Dame (13-3, 1-1) won the Hardwood Classic.
"Each program just keeps getting better," said St. Viator coach Mike Howland. "It's a lot of fun going in that knowing everything game is going to be an absolute war. I have a ton of respect for the coaches in the ESCC and the way their teams play. Whoever comes out on top is going to really have to earn it."
Howland, who played at St. Viator and also was an assistant for eight years before taking over for Joe Majkowski last year, said this is the strongest he's ever seen the league.
It stirs up memories of Howland's junior season in 1996-97 when the Lions won the conference, but it was Notre Dame, who finished sixth in the regular season, who made it downstate to Peoria.
But Howland's squad is more than equipped to handle the rigors of the ESCC, having already taken down nonconference foes Prospect, Conant, Loyola, Fremd and Glenbrook North, among others. With junior Ore Arogundade (15.7 ppg) and sophomore Mark Falotico (10.2 ppg) leading the way and seniors Kevin Hammarlund (9 ppg) and Patrick Martin (9 ppg) also contributing, the Lions can compete with anyone.
And they'll have to, with out-of-conference battles against Lake Forest and New Trier still on the schedule.
"Doing the little things and who's guys are going to step up in the big moments will be the difference," Howland said. "It's going to be a tight race all the way to the finish."
West Suburban Gold
Leyden (10-4, 2-4) has played well outside of the conference, including its first-ever title at Glenbard West Holiday Classic over conference rival Willowbrook.
Omar Lazoya (18 ppg) and Jonny Woolf (15 ppg) have been solid all season and having Anthony Gonzalez back in the lineup after getting hurt against Addison Trail last month has been huge down low for the Eagles. Jacquil Jackson has played well at point guard.
As always, Proviso East (11-3, 3-0) will provide a challenge and Morton (9-5, 4-0) could challenge the Pirates for the league crown.
But Leyden coach Bill Heisler is looking forward to seeing how his team handles the second half.
"We can get some momentum going in our league," Heisler said. "We went on the road and lost a lot of tough games early, but we have a lot of those teams coming back to our place."
"Our expectation is to outwork our opponent and do the things that we do to give ourselves a chance to win."
Central Suburban North
Maine West (9-6, 1-3) nearly won the consolation title at Wheeling and wins against Fenton and Ida Crown are part of a 4-1 stretch for the Warriors.
The key for Maine West to compete in a division with Niles North (11-3, 4-0) and Glenbrook North (7-7, 3-1) is to get contributions aside from Tom Kukec and Allante Bates. Joel Ferreren has come on strong lately and Anthony Domes had been solid running the point.
Maine West coach Erik McNeill also expects Jamal Sherman to continue to improve.
"For us, the main thing is to be more consistent offensively," McNeill said. "We go through spurts where we don't score. We're doing a decent job defensively, but it's hard when you don't score and go through big droughts."