It's not difficult to recognize the reversal of fortune for Naperville Central's boys basketball team.
First half versus second half of the season, the improvement is clear.
"I think we've turned the corner a little bit," said Redhawks coach Pete Kramer. "It's much better than the alternative: winning in the first half and losing in the second."
Naperville Central (9-14, 4-9) began DuPage Valley Conference play with seven straight losses before beating Lake Park at the end of the first half of league play. Five games into the second half of the season, the Redhawks already have reversed three results from the first half.
They've avenged losses to Neuqua Valley, Metea Valley and Waubonsie Valley -- teams that beat the Redhawks by a double-digit average in the first round. Metea Valley actually started the first game on an 18-0 run, but Nick Kramer's 24 points helped Naperville Central win the rematch 66-55 last week.
Consistency, though, continues to be an issue as evidenced by Tuesday's 69-50 loss to Wheaton Warrenville South. If the Redhawks can get Nick Kramer, Noah Swope and 6-foot-8 Ben Wolf going at the same time -- and cut down turnovers -- they'll be even more dangerous as the playoffs approach.
"We have a better mindset right now," coach Kramer said. "We do need to be more consistent on both ends, but we're still learning."
Despite graduating four starters -- and having no one with the last name of Benson for the first time in eight years -- Hinsdale South (14-9, 6-2) finds itself in position to grab at least a share of the West Suburban Gold title.
With their second win over Willowbrook, the only two losses suffered by the Warriors this season, the Hornets are in control of their own destiny with four league games to play. If they beat Downers Grove South, Leyden, Addison Trail and Proviso East, they'll be guaranteed a piece of the championship.
Hinsdale South was hit hard by graduation after last season, the biggest loss obviously being four-year starting center Barret Benson, who's now contributing at Northwestern. An influx of talent helped offset the loss.
In addition to Nick Perry's transfer from Homewood-Flossmoor, junior Zion Griffin emerged from last year's sophomore team to become one of the Gold's top players this season. He scored 28 points in last week's win over Richards, and then the 6-foot-5 forward scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half to beat Willowbrook.
"He's just a tremendous player," said Hinsdale South coach Brett Moore. "Every day he does something that's hard to believe."
Griffin has been a model of consistency while averaging 17.6 points and 8.1 rebounds. With D.J. Anderson, the lone returning starter, Karol Lipiszko and Perry all averaging between 8 and 9 points, Griffin's gotten plenty of support.
The Hornets will need contributions from all of them during the tough final stretch of schedule.
"(Griffin's) really grown in the last year," Moore said. "He can hit a jumper, he can finish around the basket. He does so much for us."
St. Francis vs. the Lions:
The Chicago Catholic League Tournament began Tuesday with two play-in games, including Montini's 73-59 loss to St. Francis de Sales.
On Jan. 24 St. Francis of Wheaton, the No. 13 seed and No. 7 in the CCL North division, beat St. Francis de Sales on a Mike Cascella buzzer-beating layup. That's one of several recent nail-biters on a demanding schedule that has coach Erin Dwyer believing the Spartans can play with most teams with a proviso: they commit 10 or fewer turnovers.
"When we can get to that number I feel we can compete with anybody," Dwyer said.
At 4 p.m. Saturday, St. Francis (9-14, 3-6 CCL North) faces what Dwyer calls a "massive" 17-6 Leo team at Montini. It's one of five CCL tourney games Montini is hosting, starting with de Sales against No. 1 seed Fenwick at 1 p.m. No. 17 seed Montini (9-14, 1-8) concludes the slate at 7 p.m. against No. 15 Providence-St. Mel.
Dwyer, whose team went 1-8 in the CCL North last season, believes the Spartans have adjusted to the league's physicality. He complimented their energy level in practice and their attention to film studies.
Dwyer lauded the senior leadership and minutes provided off the bench by swingman John Brundage and forwards Nate Kravchuk and Bryan Murray. He's also got freshman guard Danny Blank averaging 8 points off the bench. Among starters, forward Andrew Harvey earned all-conference honors as a junior.
"The kids are hungry to learn, they want to play better," Dwyer said. "We're focused on one thing and that's taking care of the ball. I'm sure that's the same with 90 percent of teams but numbers bear out that if you take care of the ball you'll be more competitive."
The Essig Report:
Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Essig continues to compile his boys prep rankings, The Essig Report, with business partner Bob Schmidt. Essig started this in 1990, though on Tuesday he reported the duo is considering "dissolving the Report and turning it over to anyone interested."
Sticking with Class 3A and Class 4A teams, this computerized system compares teams based on the mean average of game results measured against strength of the competition. The site's rankings and other information are always interesting.
Through games of Feb. 4, The Essig Report's top five Class 4A teams were: Simeon, Curie, Evanston, Edwardsville and Fremd. Among West suburban teams Geneva rated the highest at No. 11, with Benet at No. 13. Interesting that Benet trails No. 8 Stevenson, a team the Redwings defeated 69-53 on Jan. 31.
Top 50 teams include: No. 20 Wheaton Warrenville South, No. 22 Naperville North, No. 31 Hinsdale Central, No. 34 Downers Grove North and No. 36 Wheaton North. Willowbrook is right there at 51.
In Class 3A the highest ranked DuPage County team is No. 85 Glenbard South, followed closely by No. 87 St. Francis.
Since strength of schedule is paramount to Essig's ratings, he has a chart on that, too. Whitney Young heads that list followed by Orr, Simeon, Farragut and -- surprise -- St. Viator and DuSable in a tie for fifth. Benet follows with the state's seventh most difficult schedule, according to Essig. Hinsdale Central is tied at No. 22.
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