Crete-Monee coach Tom Cappel can only speculate if last week's last-second, one-point loss to Rich South cost his team the No. 3 seed in the Class AA sectional tournament at Lockport.
But he is certain of one thing. In his first season at Crete-Monee, after winning 502 games in 23 years at Hillcrest, the 64-year-old Cappel is dealing with issues that he didn't anticipate when he was hired.
"It has been different," Cappel said. "It has taken longer for the kids to get into our system. I'm used to playing one way in September, then still trying to get stuff in when the season begins. I needed more time to convince them that this works.
"I had to change my system. We're playing more man-to-man defense. They were used to one system and they liked it and were more comfortable with it. It takes a while to show how things work. When you have a summer to do it, it is easier to convince them. I'll try to work my system next year."
Cappel's system produced two Elite Eight teams at Hillcrest. His current squad is 16-6 after beating Rich Central 75-68 last Friday. This Friday, the Warriors will meet Bloom, the top-seeded team in the Lockport sectional. They have lost to the Trojans twice, including the final of the Big Dipper Holiday Tournament.
"My system is to put pressure on other teams with defensive sets, a combination of zone and man-to-man and trap," Cappel said. "I like to run but we're not running as much because we don't line up right. Our offense is inconsistent. We haven't played four quarters yet.
"I hope it gets better. I would like to be running more. I would like to be more organized. But I'm happy with where we're at and I'm trying to convince them that if they do things better, we'll go farther in the state tournament. We haven't played anyone we can't beat."
Rated among the top 15 teams in the Chicago area in the preseason, Crete-Monee has struggled at times. The Warriors have beaten only one rated team, Seton. Losses to Bloom (twice), Andrew, Notre Dame and Hillcrest "tells us that we must play better against good teams," Cappel said.
"Our cohesiveness is good. Our kids are terrific. If they realize what they can do, we can go far. Some play to play. I don't know if they realize how good they can be. We go in spurts in every game, then for a quarter we are terrific. In the final quarter or in overtime, we play with a sense of purpose. We have won four games in overtime."
But Cappel doesn't want to wait to get the desired results. When all of his players are healthy, which hasn't been too often, he is confident that they are as competitive as any team in the sectional or beyond. He just hasn't had enough time to put his act together.
"This is a bigger adjustment than I thought," he said. "I knew it would be difficult because we didn't start until September with open gym. We have to do better on two fronts -- hit more free throws at crunch time and lower our turnovers. Sometimes we go too fast and we need to slow down our thinking process."
Crete-Monee is led by one of the state's premier point guards, 6-foot-2 Michael Orris (10 points, five assists per game), who is committed to Illinois. He was slowed by a sprained ankle early but "is getting back to where we thought he would be," according to Cappel. "He sees the floor very well, can deliver the ball and breaks pressure."
Two other standouts are 6-foot-3 junior LaQuon Treadwell (10 points, nine rebounds per game), who is better known as one of the state's top football prospects in the class of 2013, and 5-foot-9 junior guard Marvie Keith (13 points per game).
Against Rich Central, Treadwell had 24 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. Orris had 15 points and six assists.
Treadwell plays basketball as he plays football. "He is a great athlete. He has a never-say-die attitude. He competes with everyone. He has no fear. He relishes the idea of competing against whomever he has to guard. He wants to dominate them," the coach said.
But Marius Hopkins is an unsung hero. The 6-foot-2 senior (9 points per game) is described by Cappel as a lockdown defender. "I call him my Eveready battery. He never stops. He is go-go-go. He has been a key factor this year. He listens, he's quick and he is willing to sacrifice his body for the ball," he said.
Hopkins didn't play much last year. In fact, as the eighth man, he usually got on the floor only during mop-up time. "But we were winning so I didn't want to pout over it. I was looking forward to this year," he said.
He worked hard during the summer, every day he was free from his part-time job working with his mother at a cleaners to earn spending money. He came to school and worked on his defense, shooting and rebounding, often with other team members.
"My role is to bring energy to the team, get stops and defend the other team's best offensive player. I try to keep him from attacking and keep the ball out of his hands," Hopkins said.
The trick is to get all of the players on the floor at the same time. Jordan Perry, a 6-foot-3 senior, is sidelined with scarlet fever. His sub, 6-foot-4 junior Mark Conner, was all-tournament at the Big Dipper. T.J. Morris, a 5-foot-8 senior, is back after suffering pneumonia before the holidays. And 6-foot-7 sophomore Rashod Lee is back after being ineligible prior to the holidays.
"If we play together, we can beat a lot of good teams," Hopkins said. "Sometimes someone tries to do too much. But we're getting better as the season goes along. That (to Hinsdale Central) was a frustrating loss. We played hard to the end but they got the game-changing free throws.
"We can't let that bring us down. We have to learn from it. It has to motivate us for the next game. We have to play hard from the first to the fourth quarter and never let up."