Thinking inside the box
The holiday tournaments are over, and now so are the Martin Luther King Jr. Day tournaments and shootouts.
Which means we're entering the homestretch of the season.
For most teams that means slogging through the second half of their conference schedule. For the most part it means familiar opponents, familiar game times and familiar gyms the rest of the way, with teams fighting for position in their conference standings (and for a few, conference tournaments) and seeding for the IHSA postseason, which is right around the corner.
It's time to refocus.
1. Home alone:
The St. Francis girls basketball team played a home game Tuesday night. This season that qualifies as news.
The Spartans (11-8) have just seven home games scheduled this season and have played five at Spyglass Center. After defeating Rosary the other night, the Spartans will play three road games, then the GCAC tournament before finishing at home with nonconference opponents Sandburg and Joliet Catholic the second week in February.
"It's different. It's a lot different," Spartans senior Isabel Bettag said. "It's like, when's our last home game? Oh, we haven't even had a home game yet. It's far away, and now we have them all at once and then it's going to be over."
Part of the reason for the lack of home games is that they had more conference games at home last year, but the league schedule is reversed every year. Part of it is they owed games to nonconference foes on the road to make up for home games held in previous years. And the Spartans don't host any tournaments.
"It's just how it worked out," Bettag said.
But there is a bright side, coach Melissa Taylor said.
"We play better on the road," Taylor said after the Rosary win. "I hate to put it that way. Tonight was a good night ... But they really feed off of each other rather than the pressure of being home. Not so much their parents, because their parents go to every game, but their teachers, their friends. There's that home environment that maybe gives some teens a lot more adrenaline and that homecourt advantage comes into play. But for us they're going to step up regardless."
And there is another plus.
"Maybe it benefits us because we're not going to host a playoff game," said Taylor, whose team is assigned to the Class 3A Kaneland sectional, "so it we're constantly on the road and just playing in a different environment and adjusting to different hoops, then maybe it works in their favor."
2. Not done yet:
At the holiday break the DuPage Valley Conference girls race looked like it was going to come down to Wheaton North and Naperville Central, with Wheaton Warrenville South having a chance to play spoiler and maybe sneak past both.
That analysis was premature. It turns out the rest of the conference isn't willing to be overlooked.
The Tigers were the first to learn that lesson, losing to an improving Lake Park team on Tuesday.
That leaves WW South with three losses, two games behind one-loss Naperville Central and three behind Wheaton North, which made it through the first half of the DVC season unbeaten.
You can be sure the Wheaton North and Naperville Central coaching staffs are well aware of how hot Lake Park can get from 3-point range. And they know how strong Metea Valley's frontcourt is. And they will be sure their players know that any team in the league is capable of turning the DVC race topsy-turvy.
"There doesn't seem to be any pushovers, especially the second time around," Redhawks coach Andy Nussbaum said. "They know who you are and they know what you do."
The Redhawks listened to their coaches Thursday night, defeating an upset-minded Metea Valley. And yes, the players really did get that warning.
"Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely," Redhawks coach Andy Nussbaum said after Thursday night's win. "The thing is, we play 16 (DVC) games. It's easy to have an off night. Well, we can't have an off night anymore. We have no margin for error. And we've said that since Jan. 5 (when the Redhawks lost to Wheaton North). We have no margin for error."
3. Surprise, surprise:
Might be a good time to reflect on the first half of the boys basketball season. Specifically, the biggest surprises.
If you look at some of the top teams in DuPage County -- Downers Grove North, Naperville North, Wheaton North -- they're pretty much where we expected them to be near the top of their respective conferences. Willowbrook's another team that planned to challenge for the West Suburban Gold title, but the Warriors have pushed above and beyond expectations.
Willowbrook notched its third tournament championship last weekend at the Sterling Martin Luther King Weekend event and raised its record to 16-1. Interestingly, the Warriors' lone loss came to Hinsdale South to put them a half-game back in the Gold standings.
The biggest area surprise is undoubtedly Wheaton Warrenville South, which graduated 91 percent of its scoring and 87 percent of its rebounding. Regardless, the Tigers boast a stunning 19-1 record.
Where does Benet stand? Coming off last season's second-place finish in Class 4A, the Redwings were expected to be good. While a 14-5 record may not seem overly impressive, it's surprisingly strong given their brutal schedule.
Benet may actually pick up a few more losses by the end of the regular season, but the Redwings will remain among the favorites to win the Hinsdale Central sectional.
That's when the real surprises might kick in.
4. Elbow room:
I could be wrong -- and my sample size is limited -- but I think crowds may be up at boys basketball games this season.
Weekday and Saturday crowds especially seem bigger than recent seasons. Where it really stood out, though, was at last week's cross-town game between Naperville North and Naperville Central.
Granted, it was a rivalry game on a Friday night. But even by that standard the crowd seemed bigger than normal.
It didn't go unnoticed.
"We're 5-11 and we've got a student body that shows up like we're 15-2," said Naperville Central coach Pete Kramer. "I'm just extremely proud of our community, our school and our student body. We've had other seasons with winning records and the student body's half the size."
Hopefully it keeps up. Basketball is always better in front of a large and lively crowd.
5. Stat time:
That's all Wheaton Warrenville South's boys basketball team needed in a four-minute overtime period to beat Bloomington and win its Martin Luther King Weekend tournament championship on Monday.
The Tigers got a stop on the opening possession after losing the tip, and then proceeded to run off about three-and-a-half minutes. Just before the buzzer sounded, Bloomington was whistled for a foul that sent Chase Stebbins to the free-throw line.
With 0.7 seconds on the clock Stebbins hit the first attempt, giving WW South a 55-54 lead. He missed the second attempt, but Bloomington had no time to get a shot off.
As methodical as WW South typically runs its offense, though, playing for the last shot wasn't the plan. At least not until the final minute. The Tigers were simply working for a good shot.
"We were looking for the best shot possible," said Tigers senior guard Drew Healy. "If it was two minutes in or 30 seconds, we would have taken it. It just happened to be in the final seconds."
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