In the last two weeks, the CSN Preps Power Rankings have seen five teams in the top 20 lose to out-of-state opponents. Morgan Park, the best high school basketball team in Chicagoland, lost in Detroit along with top-10 teams in the Public League like Bogan and Kenwood last Monday. Riverside-Brookfield and Marian Catholic -- both preseason top 10 teams -- also fell to out-of-state opponents at the Chicago Elite Classic.
The top teams in the area losing to teams from outside of Illinois helps point to something that we already knew entering this season: that it was going to be a down year in Chicagoland high school basketball without a bonafide superstar.
There is no consensus top-50 national player in the area in the junior or senior class, and the field of teams who can win a state title is more open than ever this season.
Which is why Curie's win over Thon Maker and Athlete's Institute, an elite high school program in Canada with multiple high-major players, at the Marshall County Hoop Fest in Kentucky was a huge win for the Condors in building their confidence this season.
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If you haven't seen Maker, he's the 7-foot YouTube sensation who could be a future top-5 pick in the NBA Draft.
Curie head coach Mike Oliver has done a great job of getting his program to win games at national events against elite competition the last few seasons. The wins have continued even without former McDonald's All-American Cliff Alexander the last two seasons.
The Condors beat a McDonald's All-American in Purdue's Caleb Swanigan and Homestead High School last season as Homestead went on to win Indiana's state title in Class AAAA last season.
The win over Maker, a consensus, five-star top-ten player in a loaded national Class of 2016, is another statement for Curie, who has hopes to carry this over to the state tournament this season.
"I really believe that we can make it downstate and win a Class 4A state championship," Oliver said to CSN.
"We have a lot of talent but we're young. [The win in Kentucky] helped show that we can play at the highest level of high school basketball."
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In the last few seasons, Curie has defeated star players like D'Angelo Russell (Ohio State/Lakers) and Ben Simmons (LSU) with Montverde (FL), Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV) and Chase Jeter (Duke) with Bishop Gorman (NV) and Carlton Bragg (Kansas) with Villa Angela-St. Joseph (Ohio). All of those guys were McDonald's All-Americans and the Condors also defeated Jahlil Okafor and Whitney Young as well.
But the national success and wins over future pros hasn't carried over to deep state tournament runs in Illinois. Curie had a nice road win at Fenwick to win a Class 4A regional last season before falling to Riverside-Brookfield in the sectional semifinals. But they need to make a trip to Peoria to always be mentioned among the city and state's elite teams.
They return most of the roster from last season -- minus graduated senior Josh Stamps -- including senior guard and DePaul commit Devin Gage and junior guard Elijah Joiner, who had a very good summer. The sophomores who helped fill out the roster last season have now grown together for another season and feel more comfortable in big games around Gage and Joiner. And the Condors added a talented sophomore transfer in 6-foot-5 Landers Nolley.
Oliver likes the national showcase events because it gets his players seen by national talent evaluators and college coaches. His team also bonds on the road and veterans like Gage respect when younger players show up for a big opponent. The time together in different states has helped Curie build confidence in new players that step up in the spotlight.
"I tell the guys, 'How many times do you get to play nationally-ranked teams in front of a few thousand people?'" Oliver said. "I usually explain the history of that game, we work hard for it in practice and we believe we can come out and win."
As Oliver pointed out, Curie is often the underdog in these games against national teams.
"They have nothing to lose; the pressure comes on the nationally-ranked teams," Oliver said. "A lot of teams take us for granted because we might not be nationally ranked but we're going to be ready to play in the spotlight."
Curie is off to a 4-0 start on the season and they'll compete in a very tough Red-Central with ranked teams like Kenwood and Hyde Park. The Condors are hoping the conference tests prepare them for the Class 4A Riverside-Brookfield Sectional, which might be the deepest in the state in terms of overall talent.
In a down year in Illinois, Curie is off to a solid start and the Condors will be a team to keep track of in the Class 4A state title race.