A high school boys basketball program is officially deep in talent when it graduates its two leading scorers from a team that won conference and regional titles yet still harbors higher expectations than the year before.
That's the state of Larkin hoops these days.
Led by third-year varsity players Kendale McCullum and Drew Jones, fourth-year guard Derrick Streety and returning starting forward Brayden Royse, the Royals are poised to build on last year's 23-6 season, the program's highest win total in 19 years.
"At the very least I want to go further than last year," said McCullum of a season-ending loss to Rockford Jefferson in a Class 4A sectional semifinal. "Every team dreams of going downstate. If we stay dedicated and hungry, we have the kind of team that can make it down there. We can make it happen."
Whether or not the Royals qualify for a Peoria trip at the end of the season is a question that won't be settled for four months. Meanwhile, it should be fun watching them try to develop into such of team. Based on their 29-2 record over the summer, some might argue this team is already pretty well developed.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the new-look Royals is the addition of 6-foot-6 freshman Christian Negron. Those on hand last winter when Negron wowed a Larkin halftime crowd know why. Once a year the players from the Jr. Royals feeder program get to showcase their skills during a scrimmage at halftime of a varsity game.
Those who witnessed Negron's coming out party likely won't forget it as the then-eighth grader threw down multiple dunks. We're not talking just-made-it-over-the-rim dunks. We're talking two-handed poster-izations of fellow middle schoolers.
With Negron now in the varsity mix, it gives Carter the versatility to go with a big or small lineup from the opening tip. If he chooses the big lineup, opponents will face a frontcourt of Jones (6-6), Royse (6-5) and Negron. Jones is a smart player and talented shooter who handles the ball well and excels on the wing. He sank 9 attempts from 3-point range last season and was the area's third-leading rebounder at 7 per game. He is coming off knee surgery to repair the torn meniscus he played through in the Jefferson game, which at the time was thought to be a hyperextension.
"I would say I've added a more aggressive mindset scoring and making plays," Jones said of his off-season improvement. "Offensively, I think I need to be a lot more of a threat than I have been in the past."
Royse, also a baseball player who developed into one of Larkin's best pitchers last spring, does the dirty work. A heady player who understands Carter's system and his role in it, Royse averaged 5.7 boards per game and will be asked to crash the boards once again.
Then there's Negron, who is more than a one-trick pony.
"I really expect him to make an impact," Carter said. "He's a freshman, so game by game we'll see how it goes. Projecting what he might be able to do in 27 games is probably unfair. There will be some nights he'll look better than others, but that's any freshman. Heck, that's any sophomore or junior. But he has a big ceiling, he works hard and he's humble. He fits right in with our guys."
If Carter opts to go with a smaller lineup, he can start Jones and Royse along with a three-guard look that includes McCullum, Streety and either Taylor Boley or junior Keyvon Kyles, who became a key part of the guard rotation over the summer.
McCullum is one of the area's premier guards. An All-Area pick a year ago, he averaged 11.2 points and 4.7 rebounds and was second areawide with 5 assists per game.
"People who think he hit his ceiling last year are wrong," Carter said. "He was just scratching the surface."
Streety, an intelligent ballhandler with a deft scoring touch, averaged 7.9 points coming off the bench last season. He could enjoy a breakout season from a scoring perspective now that guards Quentin Ruff and Quantice Hunter have graduated and taken their combined 29.1 points per game and 125 3-pointers with them.
Boley sank 11 shots from 3-point range last season and will get more chances as a senior. Junior Trell Mardis will also be part of the guard rotation.
The defending Upstate Eight River champion Royals will be pressed in their repeat bid by good teams from St. Charles East and Geneva, but a more versatile, balanced Larkin stands ready for that challenge and any other.
"Last year we shot a lot from the outside in some games and other games we would drive more, but this year it's a lot better mix," Jones said. "We're a different team and we do things differently. And so far everything looks good. We've really been focused on getting done what we need to get done to get ready for this year for a reason.
"We want to go to state. We want to be in Peoria."