The best is yet to come as the conference wars kick into high gear, but first let's recap some highlights from an exciting first half of the boys basketball season in the Fox Valley coverage area.
Larkin (13-2) remains the top story. Ranked No. 2 in the Daily Herald Top 20 since the preseason behind Class 4A state runner-up Stevenson (13-0), the Royals are flush with leaders like cagey, veteran guards Kendale McCullum and Derrick Streety and versatile forwards Drew Jones and Brayden Royse.
Those key returnees from last year's Upstate Eight River title team have been joined by the above-the-rim presence of freshman Christian Negron to form an athletic, smart, hungry starting five. Along with reserve guards Taylor Boley and Charles Sanders, someone different plays hero from game to game.
The Royals' only setbacks came against two of the better teams in the state: in overtime against defending Class 3A champion Morgan Park and a 6-point defeat against talented Zion-Benton. That loss to the Zee-Bees in a semifinal at Jacobs was Larkin's only defeat in a stretch of 7 games in 10 days.
"Our only days off were Christmas Eve, Christmas and a Sunday," Larkin fifth-year coach Deryn Carter said after his team defeated Jacobs 56-47 for third place. "The last seven times we were together as a team we were playing. It's probably really bad scheduling, but we wanted to challenge our guys and they met it for sure. I'm so happy with it."
Jacobs coach Jimmy Roberts has seen Larkin rise over time. He previously coached for three seasons at Round Lake, which participated in the same Thanksgiving tournament at Woodstock as the Royals.
"I saw them when they were struggling. They were not very good," Roberts said. "But they competed and they fought hard and they defended. They played the same way they play now. It's a process. Competing is a habit and that's what we're trying to instill in our guys. That's what you have to do if you want to play at a level where Larkin is at."
South Elgin (8-6) exited the Jacobs tournament with positive momentum after winning its last 4 games. The Storm endured a blowout loss to Larkin in the tournament opener, but they bounced back to defeat Barrington ahead of three heart stoppers: a 69-65 overtime win against Prairie Ridge (7-6), a 60-59 win over Crystal Lake South (11-2) on a buzzer-beating layup by 6-foot-8 sophomore Tyler Hankins and an 83-80 overtime win over Cary-Grove (6-7). Against Cary, the Storm overcame a 16-point, fourth-quarter deficit. First-year coach Matt Petersen called the tournament "a turning point" for his team.
"We're playing good," South Elgin sophomore forward Julian Lynch said. "Coach has a lot more in store for us, so I think down the road we'll be even better off."
Huntley (10-4) remains the team to beat in the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference. The three-time defending league champs lost their first game at the Elgin Holiday Tournament to eventual runner-up Phillips, then won 3 straight to take the consolation championship.
A fourth consecutive title won't be a cakewalk, however. The FVC Valley is slightly better than it was a year ago, thanks to the maturation of top players like Austin Rogers of Crystal Lake South, Chrishawn Orange of Jacobs, Michael Bradshaw of Prairie Ridge and Jason Gregoire of Cary-Grove. Rogers nearly averages a double-double, Orange is dynamic in the open floor, Bradshaw can shoot from anywhere and Gregoire twice scored 36 points in the Jacobs tournament.
Nevertheless, Huntley senior Amanze Egekeze remains the best player in the conference and the Red Raiders still play better defense than any of their challengers. In 14 games Huntley has allowed more than 60 points twice, more than 50 points only four times. Its last seven opponents have averaged 39.9 points.
The Red Raiders face one of their toughest challenges of the season against Fremd (13-0) on Tuesday at 7 p.m., weather permitting. Ranked No. 3 in the Daily Herald Top 20, the veteran Vikings won the Wheeling Hardwood Classic last Saturday with a 77-67 win over fourth-ranked St. Viator (12-2). They also won Fenton's Thanksgiving tournament.
Larkin doesn't hold a monopoly on basketball success in the city of Elgin this season. St. Edward (14-1) finished the first half with the area's best record and three tournament titles to its credit. The Green Wave won Thanksgiving titles at Westminster Christian and Aurora Christian. They defeated Evergreen Park 63-53 on Monday to claim the IC Catholic Prep/Westmont Christmas Tournament championship .
"I'm tickled to death," St. Edward coach P.J. White said after the Evergreen Park game. "I thought we'd have a few losses. We've played really good teams and we've played well. The kids are talented and they're working hard."
Unlike St. Edward's more successful girls volleyball and girls basketball programs, which were elevated to Class 3A last year, the boys basketball team still competes in the Class 2A state tournament. The Green Wave have been assigned to the Aurora Christian regional along with IC Catholic Prep, Lisle, Westmont and Aurora Christian. Already this season St. Edward has defeated IC Catholic Prep (60-57), Aurora Christian (53-46) and Westmont (56-47).
A story that bears watching is the developing Big Northern East race between Burlington Central (9-4, 1-1), Genoa-Kingston (9-5, 2-0) and Richmond-Burton (8-3, 1-0). Defending BNC East champion Central lost only 1 division game last season (11-1), but the Rockets were beaten at home by Genoa-Kingston right before the Plano Christmas Tournament started, 62-59.
Meanwhile, Richmond won 5 straight games and defeated Grant 68-65 to win the E.C. Nichols Holiday Tournament title at Marengo last Saturday. Central hosts R-B next Friday and travels to Richmond for the regular-season finale on Feb. 28.