If opponents think the Vernon Hills boys basketball team shoots a lot of 3-pointers during games, they should see practice.
The Cougars, who haven't met a long-range shot they don't like and led the Wheeling Hardwood Classic last month with 35 3-pointers over four games, aren't effective 3-point shooters by chance. They practice their craft. Over and over and over again.
"A couple of years ago, when we saw that we weren't getting a lot of size in the program, we changed our offense and the way we practice," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. "We concentrate on 3-point shooting because we believe we can hang with bigger teams when we hit 3-pointers.
"At every practice, we dedicate the last 30 minutes to having our 3-point shooters work solely on 3-points shooting. We get out the gun (shooting/ball retrieval machine) and just have those guys shoot. They like that a lot."
McCarty likes the success his team is having behind the arc. The Cougars are 10-4 and went 2-2 at Wheeling. They were the only Class 3A team to play in the winner's bracket.
Robby Nardini, Bo Manso, Mike Mariella and Sam Rattner all proved to be big 3-point threats. Nardini, the Cougars' go-to 3-point shooter, is averaging 21 points per game. Manso hit at least two to three 3-pointers in each tournament game. Mariella was efficient and is hitting about 43 percent of his 3-pointers and Rattner provided a 3-point shooting spark off the bench.
Meanwhile, Matt Weaver and Cory Levin aren't necessarily seen as 3-point specialists, but they are also very capable of connecting from long range consistently.
"We've got a lot of guys who have proven they can shoot and they have fun with it," said McCarty, whose team hit a season-high 14 3-pointers against Round Lake in December. The Cougars have also drained 13 3-pointers twice (vs. Antioch and North Chicago). "We had an optional practice on Dec. 30 and all of our guys who shoot threes were there and they had fun making up their own 3-point shooting games."
Height is in short-order at Vernon Hills, and yet, the blocks are piling up.
Lem Turner is making sure of it.
At 6-foot-4, the junior center might be a bit undersized for his position. But with his shot-blocking abilities, it seems as if he's much bigger.
Just 14 games into the season, Turner has already rolled up 62 blocks. That's 4.4 blocks per game. At the Wheeling Hardwood Classic last month, Turner finished with 14 blocks in four games. That was tops in the tournament.
"Lem's got great jumping ability, so he plays really big, like he's about 6-foot-8," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. "He's blocking shots at a record pace and it's good for us. We don't have a lot of size but it's nice to have someone like him in the middle to give us that big presence on defense."
Coaching his team in the Proviso West holiday tournament took Scott Bogumil of Libertyville back.
"I grew up in that area, in the western suburbs, and the thing to do over Christmas when I was a kid was to go watch the Proviso West tournament," Bogumil said. "My dad would take me.
"I remember when I was in grade school watching Isiah (Thomas) there when he was at St. Joe's. All the good (Chicago) King teams and the Proviso East teams back in the day would play there. The place would always be packed, and one year, ESPN was there getting highlights.
"It's such a fun tournament with a lot of history and we're really glad we got a chance to play there."
Libertyville went 2-2 at Proviso West, which features a 36-team field and bills itself as the largest high school holiday tournament in America. The Wildcats defeated Dunbar and Nazareth and lost to Homewood-Flossmoor (in overtime) and St. Charles East.
"Part of the reason we wanted to go to Proviso West is that we wanted to see a lot of different styles and we wanted to play really good teams and we did that," Bogumil said. "We played city teams and suburban teams and Catholic teams. We saw some different looks, like the really quick and athletic press that Homewood-Flossmoor used the entire game.
"I think all those experiences were really good for our kids and will help us a lot in the second half of the season."
The plan was in place.
Junior guard Drew Cayce was going to be Libertyville's starting point guard this year, which would free up senior guard and go-to scorer Jack Lipp to focus more on scoring and less on ball-handling.
But when Cayce transferred to an Indiana prep school late in the summer, that plan was turned on its head.
So far this season, Lipp has been pulling double duty. He's starting at point guard for the Wildcats, but is still counted on for his scoring. He's averaging about 17 points per game.
"We're asking a lot of Jack," Libertyville coach Scott Bogumil said of the 6-foot-4 Lipp, who has had two 32-point games this season (St. Charles East and Lake Forest). "I think a lot of teams are really going hard at him, trapping him, making him work just to bring the ball up, so that he's tired on offense.
"They want to wear him down and we need to make sure that doesn't happen. We need to get Jack some relief."
Enter sophomore guard Cam Chen. Bogumil has been patiently developing the young Chen over the first half of the season so that he can play some point guard and take some of the ball-handling responsibilities off Lipp's plate.
"Cam might be the best point guard in our entire program," Bogumil said. "We just need to get him some experience and some extended time. I think that will really help us and I know it will help Jack."
The wins weren't there for Mundelein on its holiday trip to Arizona, but the camaraderie was.
The Mustangs, who went 0-4 at the Desert Edge Holiday Classic despite an all-tournament team effort out of guard Derek Parola, used their week-long trip to the Phoenix area to build up relationships and team chemistry.
"Back when (former Mundelein coach Dick Knar) was here, that was the purpose of why we put a big trip like this on the schedule in the first place," said Mundelein coach Corey Knigge, a long-time assistant under Knar. "We wanted the kids to have a chance to hang out and really get to know each other.
"I think we were able to do that over Christmas."
Knigge pointed to younger players such as sophomore forward Isaiah Woolford and how the trip was an opportunity for him to bond with the older players on the team.
"The younger kids like Isaiah didn't know our older kids all that well, but on the trip those kids were able to sit down with each other and talk and that was great for those relationships," Knigge said. "That was a great part of the trip."
The Mustangs also had fun soaking in the warm temperatures, taking in both a Coyotes game and a Suns game and meeting NBA player Evan Turner, a friend of Mundelein assistant coach Ceola Clark. Turner, a guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, was in Phoenix to play the Suns.
All charged up:
Talk about putting your body on the line.
J.T. Michalski of Mundelein has walked the walk all season long, becoming a charge-taking superstar for the Mustangs.
Through 13 games, Michalski has rolled up an astounding 38 charges taken, a school record. That means that Michalski is drawing nearly 3 charges per game.
"It's unbelievable, really," said Mundelein coach Corey Knigge, noting that Michalski still has about half a season to add to his total. "J.T. certainly has a knack for drawing charges."
The last Mundelein player with that unique knack was forward Navjot Singh, who drew 36 charges (a school record at the time) during the 2006-07 season.
"I remember telling the college coaches who were looking at Nav at the time about all his charges and they were in disbelief," Knigge said. "So for J.T. to be at 38 with so many games left is almost crazy.
"He's just found a way to figure out what to do. He takes some shots, but he's also really good at working his footwork and quickly getting position. I think once you get that feel for it, it kind of gets easier."