The start of the high school basketball season in Illinois often means a focus on Thanksgiving events, special showcase games and shootouts during the opening weeks of the season.
But conference play, for many leagues, can begin as early as the first week of December. Even though that’s a long way away from the end of the season and deciding conference championships, it’s important to keep an eye on a few leagues that should stand out.
We’ll examine the conference races more in-depth following the holiday tournaments. But here’s five conference races to be mindful of early.
Chicago Public League Red South/Central
The toughest conference in the area preseason, the Red-South/Central is once again loaded with elite teams.
Morgan Park, Curie, Bogan and Simeon remain perennial powerhouses who are all capable of city and state tournament runs. In fact, it wouldn’t be inconceivable if this conference won state titles at the 3A and 4A levels this season.
And the star power is also ridiculous. Mustangs senior guard Adam Miller is a preseason Player of the Year favorite while others like Curie’s Ramean Hinton, Bogan’s Kyndall Davis and Simeon’s Jeremiah Williams are all on the Preseason All-Area team. Juniors like Morgan Park’s Brandon Weston and Simeon’s Ahamad Bynum (DePaul commit) are both high-major prospects as well.
There’s even an emerging Class 2A threat in Corliss as they made it to Peoria last season and return an intriguing group of players.
Although other leagues in the area might be more balanced from top-to-bottom, there is no matching the power at the top of the Red-South/Central.
Chicago Public League Red-North/West
Although the Red-North/West doesn’t look as strong at the top as its southern counterpart there’s an argument to be made that this is a tougher league overall this season.
Whitney Young remains a major threat in the city and state title race as they return Player of the Year co-favorite D.J. Steward, electric point guard Tyler Beard and a talented supporting cast. Gaining national recognition this preseason, the Dolphins are the favorite for this league entering 2019-20.
There should be plenty of tough tests throughout the conference this season that the Dolphins have to contend with.
Orr is the three-time defending Class 2A state champions as the Spartans are always a tough out during league play. Even though Orr is in a smaller class, they’re capable of competing with any team in the state as head coach Lou Adams will have his team prepared to play.
Lincoln Park is also a preseason top-25 team as most of last season’s 20-win team returned. The backcourt of Julio Montes and Ishmail Habib is one of the state’s best and big man Romelle Howard could be a major problem inside.
The Class 3A ranks also has some teams to watch in Westinghouse and Farragut as both of them have a chance to make postseason runs.
Not many conferences can claim to have tough teams in three classes but it speaks to the depth and balance of the Red-North/West as a whole.
The Southland was already going to be a league to keep tabs on this season thanks to Bloom and Kankakee returning promising teams.
But now that Thornton, Thornwood and Thornridge have joined the Southland it will make for a crowded field of quality teams. How often does a conference add multiple basketball schools coming off of 20-win seasons to the mix?
Bloom is the obvious favorite after winning last season and returning four Division I starters. The Blazing Trojans are good enough to be the best team in the state this season if they’re rolling on all cylinders. The quartet of Martice Mitchell, Keshawn Williams, Donovan Newby and Dante Maddox Jr. is the best senior group of any team in Illinois.
Second place becomes a fascinating race if Bloom maintains its elite status. Kankakee has an abundance of size and talent as the program’s recent success has flown under the radar. Thornton and Thornwood will want to prove themselves in their new league. And Rich East remains a wild card after playing teams like Bloom very close last season. Wouldn’t it be fun to see the Rockets competitive in the conference race in the school’s final season of athletics?
There will be a lot of fascinating Southland games this season as the new teams should inject some additional life into an already strong conference.
Central Suburban League South
It can be almost guaranteed that the CSL South won’t be as strong as last season. A banner season for the league saw an astounding five of six teams win at least 20 games with Evanston placing second in Class 4A.
Although the league will feature plenty of new faces this season, there are still multiple ranked teams — which should make for a fun race for the league title.
It starts with the Wildkits, as Evanston has to replace a strong senior core. Blake Peters and Jaylin Gibson should be up to the task as the junior duo are both Division I prospects. Head coach Mike Ellis has built Evanston into an annual contender as the program is deep with talent.
Niles North and Glenbrook South also both have top-25 caliber squads led by senior stars who made the preseason All-Area team.
The Vikings are almost a lock for 20 wins every year as they’re led by senior Aquan Smart and promising junior Jalen Butler. Dom Martinelli is a sleeper Player of the Year contender for the Titans as he’s coming off of a monster junior season. Glenbrook South has to replace a lot of lost veteran leadership, but Martinelli and his teammates beat some impressive teams during June.
Of course, it would be silly to count New Trier and Maine South completely out. Although both rosters were hit hard by graduation losses, they’ve both been consistently strong programs with good coaching. Even Niles West, last place in the conference last season, made a regional final last season and returns a lot of size.
There won’t be an easy out in any of the CSL South games this season as it remains a very difficult league every single game.
East Suburban Catholic Conference
The race for the ESCC title remains one to watch once again with multiple top-ten teams and tons of talent all over the league.
Marian Catholic gets the nod as the preseason favorite with the return of many players from last season’s strong squad. Point guard Ahron Ulis (Iowa) is perhaps the area’s best true point guard as he’s joined by talented options like Joe Green and Elijah Jones.
Notre Dame is a junior-led team that has the talent to claim the ESCC crown (and/or a state title). Anthony Sayles, Troy D’Amico and Louis Lesmond all have multiple Division I scholarship offers while senior Jason Bergstrom is underrated in his overall abilities.
St. Viator, Benet and Carmel all have top-25 potential at some point this season. St. Viator senior Connor Kochera and Carmel junior Kimahri Wilson are both Division I players. The Redwings can rely on the steady interior presence of all-conference senior big man Colin Crothers.
St. Patrick is the potential wild card in the ESCC race thanks to their abundance of young talent. The Shamrocks have some impressive underclass prospects that showed out this fall as they remain in the conference mix.