St. Rita coach Gary DeCesare says he likes to "stay under the radar." But he admits he wants his team to earn its just desserts and bristles when it doesn't. Like now. Some polls rate the Mustangs, some don't. And DeCesare can't understand why.
"Guys who do polls don't understand ratings. They don't understand the value of playing against top competition," he said. "We have played a national schedule. We can play against anyone on any given night."
St. Rita is 13-5 after crushing Bishop McNamara 90-66 on Friday night. The Mustangs have a date against Curie and 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander on Tuesday and meet Hales Franciscan on Friday.
"Potentially, this is the best team I've had at St. Rita," said DeCesare, in his fourth season. "We're still young. We start two sophomores and two juniors. But we have four starters back from last year's 16-11 team (that lost to Whitney Young in the sectional). We have a lot of experience and the kids are battle-tested."
In an attempt to prepare for the rugged Catholic League grind and the postseason tournament, DeCesare arranged for a schedule that to date has featured five highly rated out-of-state opponents, including Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas, Scott County of Kentucky and St. Raymond's of New York.
"We have seen every style of basketball from fast pace to slowdown and we have had a great deal of experience playing against the shot clock," he said. "We have a lot of versatility. We play together as a team. The kids understand the value of finding the open man and sharing the ball.
"We have four guys averaging in double figures. When we do that, we are tough to beat. When we don't, we have lost. We're trying to find our edge. I don't think they understand how good they can be. Once they do, the sky is the limit. The key is to bring the same intensity every night. We will win as a team, not as individuals."
Which is in sharp contrast to a year ago when St. Rita was led by one of the most prolific scorers in the state, 6-foot-2 do-everything Tony Hicks, who averaged 25 points per game. Hicks, an All-Stater and the recipient of the Tony Lawless Award as the most outstanding player in the Catholic League, is at the University of Pennsylvania.
This year's leader is 6-foot-6 junior Victor Law, who was an All-Catholic League selection last season. He is averaging 13 points and nine rebounds per game. He had 19 rebounds in a recent game. Against McNamara, he had 18 points and 10 rebounds while Dominique Matthews scored 21 points.
"He is one of the most versatile players in the state," DeCesare said of Law. "He has a great work ethic. His ceiling is very high. If he continues to stay the course, he will be a Division I player. He also has great leadership skills."
Law began honing his game as a second grader by playing against his older sister, Simone, who played at Marian Catholic and now is a sophomore at Loyola. A McDonald's All-America candidate, she constantly beat her younger sibling in one-on-one match-ups in the drive-way of the family's home in South Holland.
"We worked out together. It was like Reggie and Cheryl Miller. It was always embarrassing to lose to my older sister," Victor said. "But she was a good player and showed me how to be good. She pushed me to be better. Finally, in seventh grade, when I was 6-foot-2, she stopped playing me. I was too good for her. One of my goals always was to beat her."
He wasn't sure which school he wanted to attend. His original choices were De La Salle or Homewood-Flossmoor. However, after attending a tournament at St. Rita with his grammar school team, he changed his mind.
"I really liked it," he said. "It had a family feel. The love I got here was different than any other school. People knew who I was as a student and as a basketball player."
Law, a three-year starter, lines up with 6-foot-2 junior Dominique Matthews (15 ppg), 6-foot-3 junior Scott Kingsley (10 ppg), 6-foot-4 sophomore point guard Charles Matthews (11 ppg, 5 assists) and 6-foot-8 sophomore Myles Carter (6 ppg).
DeCesare said Dominique Matthews is "the most underrated guard in the city." Charles Matthews, Dominique's brother, is one of the leading prospects in the class of 2015 in Illinois.
Top reserves are 6-foot-2 junior Treston Forbes, 5-foot-9 sophomore Armani Chaney and 6-foot-4 sophomore Brandon McRoy.
"Our style hasn't changed," Law said. "The guy (Hicks) was hot all last year. We didn't want to go away from him. If he's hot, give him the ball.
"But I thought we could have gone farther in the state tournament. Some things we could have done better, small things that could be corrected. This year we've seen every type of basketball team and style of basketball. We all want to come together for one goal--win the state title."
The formula for success, DeCesare and Law agree, is try to get better every day and go undefeated in March.
"I want to be known as an all-around player," Law said. "Basketball isn't a one-dimensional game. I'll do whatever it takes to win...score, rebound, defend, take a charge, block out, steal the ball. My goal is to get a double-double or triple-double in every game.
"I want to keep pushing myself every day, one day at a time. I want to rise to the occasion every day and step up. How far can we go? We can go all the way. We're doing great things right now, even though we are young. We're playing at a high level. The key is not to waste opportunities. The coach is putting us in the right position to take advantage of our opportunities."