There isn’t a state title contender among this group of the most improved teams. Maybe only one or two will crack the rankings this season. But the following teams have one thing in common: significant improvement.
These eight teams, all either .500 or below last season, look to be the most improved teams from a year ago.
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 is just so much experience, including plenty of veteran talent returning.
There is a three-year starter at point guard in all-conference senior Yusuf Cisse.
There is size and versatility in 6-6 Camden Lathos, a two-time all-MSL player, and 6-6 Bradley Biedke, a rising player in the junior class.
There are two valuable role players in seniors Austin Potocnic and Shreyas Talluri who begin their third varsity season, and senior Isaiah Rhodes returns after providing a boost off the bench last season.
Reasonable expectation: This is a 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 the best Conant team since the 2016-17 team won 25 games and a regional title in coach Tom McCormack’s final season.
Last year: For a team that finished just 3-9 in the loaded West Suburban Silver –– and 13-18 overall –– it was a competitive team that played opponents tough, particularly 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 put up 17 points and four assists a game last season. Levine is the star but is one of seven returning seniors and one of the four top scorers back.
Kyle Waltz is a 6-5 wing who showed this past summer he’s a much improved player after averaging nearly double figures as a junior.
Reasonable expectation: Yes, Downers Grove North is the clear-cut favorite in the West Suburban Silver. But York could very well be the biggest threat and have an opportunity to flip last year’s record around –– and more.
Last year: The 12-17 record wasn’t anything to pump its chest out about, yet it was a clear step up from the previous year’s 3-27 mark.
Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs return a nice blend of up-and-coming young players and senior veterans — all with some experience under their belt.
There are a pair of sophomores, 6-3 Simereon Carter and point guard Carter Newsome, who are in the midst of bringing some excitement back to Waukegan basketball. Senior wings Brandon Phillips and Nehemiah Dunn are offensive threats.
Reasonable expectation: Coach Ron Ashlaw’s team may not be ready to make a legitimate run at a North Suburban Conference championship, but it’s clearly going to be an improved team that will make life tough for any contender. And by the end of the season this group could put itself in position to win a regional championship.
Downers Grove South
Last year: The Mustangs finished 11-18 with eight of those wins coming in a downtrodden West Suburban Gold.
Reason for optimism: After winning just five games in year one and 11 last year, the arrow is pointing up as coach Zach Miller begins his third season leading the program.
The Mustangs will lean heavily on the Svveiteris brothers –– 6-7 junior Daniel and 6-7 senior Justin. They bring production, size, versatility 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 expectation: Winning the West Suburban Gold is within reach. And if Downers Grove South pushes its way to the top and takes down perennial power Proviso East, that’s saying an awful lot considering where this program was just two or three years ago.
Last year: It was a tough one for the Saxons, losing 20 games, including eight of its last nine games in finishing 10-20 on the year.
Reason for optimism: The top three scorers and the leading rebounder are back for coach Jason Tucker.
Among those key returning players is a catalyst at point guard in 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 nice backcourt.
There is also some added size with the addition of 6-7 Zion Young, a transfer from Fenwick.
Reasonable expectation: While Conant is the favorite, Schaumburg should be able to contend in what will be a competitive MSL West and far surpass the 10-win total of a year ago.
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 the top six scorers from last season, including all-conference performer Connor Williams. The 6-3 guard is a small college prospect after averaging 13 points a game last season.
Junior Domas Narcevicius and David Ortiz are a pair of perimeter shooting threats, and 6-3 Yousef Jarad is a 6-3, 235-pound senior who plays bigger than his size.
Reasonable expectation: Stagg is set to have its first winning season since 2016-17. But there is reason to think even bigger. The Chargers have their eyes on taking down defending champ and favorite Bradley-Bourbonnais in the Southwest Suburban Red.
Last year: The Cardinals have battled through back-to-back 18-loss seasons and have gone a combined 6-20 in South Suburban Red play over the past two years.
Reason for optimism: When you return the conference player of the year, there is always optimism. Coach Neil Miguez has that luxury in senior guard AJ Abrams, who put up 21 points a game last season –– and is just 50 points shy of 1,000 in his career –– in relative obscurity.
Abrams is one of four starters back who are beginning their third year at the varsity level. Plus, senior wing Cam Ellis, a transfer from Tinley Park, will be a nice boost.
Reasonable expectation: Maybe the Cardinals don’t reach the heights of the recent 2019-20 season where they won 23 games, but it’s a much-improved team that could possibly push league favorite Evergreen Park.
Last year: After winning 25 games two years ago, the Bengals finished at the bottom of the South Suburban Blue last season, winning just three league games, while wrapping up the year with a 12-19 record.
Reason for optimism: Coach TJ Cobbs begins his second season in charge and welcomes back virtually every important piece from a year ago.
Underrated guard Deshawn Nolan, a returning all-conference performer who put up 13 points a game last season, and Johnny Wiggins, another double-figure scorer who knocked down 50 three-pointers, are the headliners. But Amari Brownlee-Davis, Greg Anderson and Jesean Shannon are three other seniors who combined to average 24 points a game as juniors.
Reasonable expectation: It’s never easy climbing out of the basement. But there is no question the Bengals will be the most improved team in the league, a league where Hillcrest is not what it’s been and Lemont lost all five starters.