No one is claiming the provincial title in this group of highly improved teams. Maybe only one or two will make the cut this season. But the following groups have one thing in common: significant improvement.
These eight teams, all of which were at or below .500 last season, look to be vastly improved teams from last year.
Last year: The Cougars were a respectable 14-14 last season and finished in the bottom half of the Mid-Suburban League West. But coach Matt Walsh didn’t have a single senior on the roster.
Reason for optimism: There’s plenty going on, including plenty of veteran talent returning.
There is a player who started three years keeping score in all conferences, Yusuf Cisse.
There’s size and versatility in 6-6 Camden Lathos, a two-time MSL player, and 6-6 Bradley Biedke, a rising junior.
There are two key players in Austin Potocnic and Shreyas Talluri who are starting their third varsity season, and senior Isaiah Rhodes returns after providing a boost off the bench last season.
Reasonable expectations: This is the team that hasn’t finished with a winning record in the MSL West since the 2017-18 season. That streak ends as the Cougars are the league favorite. This is Conant’s best team since the 2016-17 team won 25 games and the district title in coach Tom McCormack’s final season.
Last year: For a team that finished just 3-9 in the struggling West Suburban Silver — and 13-18 overall — it was a competitive team that played tough opponents, especially in the second half of the season.
Reason for optimism: The Dukes have one of the best-kept secrets in the state in senior AJ Levine, a guard who posted 17 points and four assists last season. Levine is a star but he is one of seven returning seniors and one of the top four running backs.
Kyle Waltz is a 6-5 wing who showed this past summer that he is a much improved player after averaging nearly double figures as a junior.
Reasonable expectations: Yes, Downers Grove North is the clear favorite for West Suburban Silver. But York could be the biggest threat and have a chance to turn last year’s record –– and more.
Last year: The 12-17 record was nothing to be proud of, but it was a clear step up from last year’s 3-27 record.
Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs return a good mix of young up-and-comers and older veterans – all with some experience under their belts.
There are two sophomores, 6-3 Simereon Carter and point guard Carter Newsome, who are among the cheerleaders for Waukegan basketball. Big wings Brandon Phillips and Nehemiah Dunn are offensive threats.
Reasonable expectations: Coach Ron Ashlaw’s team may not be ready to make a legitimate run at the North Suburban Conference championship, but it will clearly be an improved team that will make life difficult for any contender. And by the end of the season, this team could put itself in a position to win the district championship.
Downers Grove South
Last year: The Mustangs finished 11-18 with eight of those wins coming against struggling West Suburban Gold.
Reason for optimism: After winning just five games in his first year and 11 last year, the arrow is pointing upward as coach Zach Miller begins his third season at the helm of the program.
The Mustangs will lean heavily on the Svveiteris brothers — 6-7 junior Daniel and 6-7 senior Justin. They bring production, size, flexibility and a ton of experience.
Seniors Will Potter and Richard Gasmen are both three-year varsity veterans while junior guard Wyatt Wawro gained valuable varsity experience last season.
Reasonable expectations: Winning West Suburban Gold can be achieved. And if Downers Grove South pushes up and takes down the perennial power of Proviso East, that’s saying a lot considering where the program was two or three years ago.
Last year: It was tough for the Saxons, who lost 20 games, including eight of their last nine games to finish 10-20 on the year.
Reason for optimism: The top three scorers and leading rebounder are back for coach Jason Tucker.
Among those key returners is junior Jordan Tunis. He averaged 13 points and 4.5 assists a game while being named to the all-MSL team as a sophomore. Tunis and fellow junior Javonte McCoy (9 ppg) form a good backcourt.
There’s also some added size with the addition of 6-7 Zion Young, a transfer from Fenwick.
Reasonable expectations: Although Conant is the favorite, Schaumburg should be able to compete in the MSL West and far surpass last year’s 10-win total.
Last year: The Chargers finished with a 13-17 record, including a 3-5 mark in the Southwest Suburban Red.
Reason for optimism: Experience. And a lot of it.
Coach Marty Strus welcomes back six of his leading scorers from last season, including all-conference player Connor Williams. The 6-3 guard is a junior college prospect after averaging 13 points per game last season.
Juniors Domas Narcevicius and David Ortiz are perimeter shooting threats, and 6-3 Yousef Jarad is a 6-3, 235-pound senior who plays bigger than his size.
Reasonable expectations: Stagg will have his first winning season since 2016-17. But there is reason to think even more. The Chargers have their sights set on taking down defending champion and favorite Bradley-Bourbonnais in Southwest Suburban Red.
Last year: The Cardinals have battled through 18 straight losing seasons and have gone a combined 6-20 in South Suburban Red play over the past two years.
Reason for optimism: When you bring back the conference player of the year, there is always hope. Coach Neil Miguez has that kind of comfort in senior guard AJ Abrams, who averaged 21 points a game last season -– and is just 50 points shy of 1,000 in his career — in an elusive position.
Abrams is one of four third-year varsity starters. Also, senior wing Cam Ellis, a transfer from Tinley Park, will be a nice boost.
Reasonable expectations: The Cardinals may not be reaching the 23-game winning streak of last season’s 2019-20 season, but they are a much-improved team that could push league favorite Evergreen Park.
Last year: After winning 25 games the past two years, the Bengals finished bottom of the South Suburban Blue last season, winning just three league games, and ended the year with a 12-19 record.
Reason for optimism: Coach TJ Cobbs begins his second season at the helm and brings back almost all of the key pieces from last year.
Deshawn Nolan, an all-conference returning player who scored 13 points a game last season, and Johnny Wiggins, another two-time scorer who knocked down 50 three-pointers, were the leading scorers. But Amari Brownlee-Davis, Greg Anderson and Jesean Shannon are the only three seniors to have combined for 24 points a game as juniors.
Reasonable expectations: It is not easy to climb up from the bottom. But there is no question that the Bengals will be the most improved team in the league, a league where Hillcrest is not as good as it was and Lemont has lost all five starters.