The holiday tournaments have come and gone, which means high school basketball is officially entering the dog days.
We've gone through seven weeks of boys' hoops, with six weeks until small school regionals begin and seven before the big schools tip off the postseason. It isn't quite the stretch run, but conference games will be the norm going forward as the season winds down.
As we reach the midpoint of the season, here's what we know about teams around the area and their trajectories as the playoffs draw nearer.
Record: 8-3, 1-1 NIB12 West
This post is actually one day too soon, as we'll find out much more about the Pirates' postseason hopes when they put a five-game winning streak on the line Tuesday night against conference favorite Sterling. But there is no doubt Ottawa is playing good basketball as it continues through the middle portion of the schedule.
The Pirates were seeded sixth at the Plano Christmas Classic, but took care of business in a very even tournament and won the title with a series of crushing defensive performances. That continued Friday in a 55-40 win against Morris, the fourth straight game the Pirates held an opponent under 45 points.
The play of McKe Tucker (19.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG) has been exemplary, and Wyatt Hill (12.1 PPG, 38.2% on 3-point shots) has emerged as weapon on the perimeter. Still, Ottawa's ceiling will very much be determined by its defense--and that's good news, if the last two weeks are any indication.
Andrew Bacon has been lauded for his outstanding on-ball defense, but the Pirates have also rebounded and helped on defense significantly better than over the first six games of the season. Sterling will provide a test with their size and athleticism, as will DeKalb and a second meeting with Rochelle later in the season.
It will not be easy playing in a Class 4A regional that could feature the likes of Rock Island, Moline, state-ranked and regional host United Township, Bradley-Bourbonnais or Danville. That's to say nothing of Champaign Centennial and the schools in Normal. But if the Pirates emerge from the fray, Kingman Gym hosts the sectional playoffs.
Record: 7-6, 3-0 Tri-County
It seemed like 2016 could be the year that Marquette finally took home the Marseilles Holiday Tournament crown, but despite being the tournament hosts, the Crusaders never looked at home. After struggling—but still winning—their opening two games to reach the semifinals, Marquette lost a pair of two-point games to Indian Creek and Kewanee to settle for fourth place in the tournament.
It was a disappointing end to a tournament that seemed to have a favorable path, especially after a competitive loss to tournament high seed Kewanee in the Colmone Classic at Hall High School.
Some of the problem in Marseilles: not enough offense. The Crusaders finished second in points allowed for the tournament, but just the 13th-best offensive output despite having the second best field goal percentage. When Marquette has struggled this season, sloppy transition play and turnovers (often in tandem) have been the catalyst.
What the week of low scores hides is how many offensive weapons the Crusaders have at their disposal, including 3-point bomber Austin Threadgill. When on, Marquette’s perimeter shooting opens up the inside for Bryce Fanti, Hayden Cowie and Sam Hettel to operate in the interior, and vice versa. That blend of outside and inside in the half court has served the Cru well over the past several seasons and has been very effective for Marquette through the first half of the season.
Hayden Cowie (14.4 PPG) has often led the Crusaders in points and rebounds, but the play of Fanti may prove to be the difference going forward. The senior has shown great touch near the rim and very good range away from it, giving him an ability to stretch the floor that few other players in the Tri-County Conference can match. He made a splash with 17 points in a loss to Newark, a team the Crusaders will almost certainly see again if a deep playoff run materializes.
Record: 7-6, 3-1 Interstate 8
The Plano Christmas Classic was a disaster for the Bulldogs, which started the tournament as the fifth seed and ended it by losing the 11th-place game. Streator simply could not get stops, allowing opponents to score nearly 60 points per game for the tournament while shooting north of 53 percent from the floor.
The slide continued in the first game of the new year, as Streator lost a low-scoring affair to Lisle and enters Tuesday’s game at LaSalle-Peru on a three-game skid. The loss to the Lions was the product of very unkind iron, with the ‘Dogs shooting just 33 percent for the game. But it’s clear that this is not the same team right now that demolished Reed-Custer 96-70 on Dec. 16 to move to 6-2 on the year.
The good news is that a midseason lull can be corrected. The Bulldogs still have the I-8 Tournament to contest, and they haven’t faced conference leaders Plano, Sandwich and Peotone yet. Those games will be a particularly useful barometer for Streator, as the former two are potential regional opponents, along with fellow conference foes Coal City, Herscher and Manteno. A good finish in the conference would have the Bulldogs feeling good about their chances in regional play.
It doesn’t hurt that Streator has D’Angelo Pryor, who has been an absolute monster for much of the season. He has been held to single-digit scoring in two of the last three games, but don’t expect that to last for very long.
Seneca Fighting Irish
Record: 3-13, 0-5 Interstate 8
Any time your season includes a nine-game losing streak, particularly if those nine losses follow a season-opening win, things haven’t gone particularly well. But that doesn’t mean the season isn’t looking rosier for the Fighting Irish.
Following Seneca’s close 48-46 loss to Manteno on Friday, head coach Russell Witte wrote, “We are starting to play some really good ball. We just have to find a way to close.” He added that the team is "playing hard and getting better," which are good signs for a team that struggled through the first third of the season. A favorable schedule the rest of the way could see the Irish winning and building momentum for the postseason.
No, Tuesday’s game against Newark is not an ideal matchup for the Irish. But Seneca has already played (and lost to) the conference frontrunners, leaving Westmont, a reeling Plano team, Wilmington, Lisle, Coal City and Reed-Custer on the schedule. The Irish will have the benefit of the conference tournament to potentially see a few of those, and they’ve already had a chance to see how they size up with Reed-Custer in the Marseilles Tournament.
And there’s something about Marquette that always brings out the best in the Fighting Irish. Could Seneca finish with 10 wins in the regular season? It’s certainly possible, and if they can avoid Dwight in regional play, Seneca’s typically stingy defense could put them in the running in a wide-open subsectional.
Record: 12-3, 2-1 Little 10
Ok, the Newark game didn’t go well. But consider what it ended: a run of 10 straight wins, including the Marseilles Holiday Tournament championship.
Last year’s team went 12-17, so to match that win total in the first week of January represents a significant turnaround that has Serena riding high and thinking big down the stretch. The Huskers are hard to put away –they erased a five-point deficit in the final minute against Flanagan-Cornell on the first day at Marseilles—and even harder to come back on, as Serena has won six games decided by single digits.
In fact, the Huskers won every game at Marseilles by seven or less, winning the tournament with a margin of victory of just 14 total points.
Serena’s knack for finding a way should be of concern to whoever they line up against in regional play, which could very well be a second (or third) crack at Newark. But it won’t happen without the continued stellar play of Dawson Fuller, Brad Byrnes and Jakob Setchell, all three of whom are averaging in double figures.
The takeaway, however, is that Serena is back and very much for real. The Little 10 Conference Tournament should provide some guidance as to their ability to compete with Newark, but Indian Creek and Somonauk are potential roadblocks on the way to the final.