At Neuqua Valley, it's all about the numbers. Jersey numbers, that is. Jabari Sandifer, the Wildcats' 6-foot senior point guard, has been wearing No. 24 since he was a freshman. That's because all Neuqua Valley point guards wear the same jersey.
But that isn't all. According to tradition, each position player wears the same number, year after year after year. The big man (6-foot-4 senior Pat Kenny) wears No. 55. The shooter (6-foot-5 sophomore Connor Raridon) wears No. 32. And the hustle player (6-foot-2 senior Trevor Davis) wears No. 44.
"Nobody ever asked why," Sandifer said. "It's just the way it is."
There is, however, a logical reason why Neuqua Valley is 10-0 and leading the Upstate Eight Conference's Valley Division with a 6-0 record after sweeping Bartlett and South Elgin last week.
"Our man-to-man defense helps us win games," Sandifer said. "We are aggressive, we pick up point guards full-court and press them, we shut down the opponent's best player and take away their shooters."
In last Thursday's 63-44 victory over Bartlett, Sandifer scored 18 points and 6-foot-5 junior Elijah Robertson contributed a career-high 13 points off the bench. Sandifer converted three three-point shots in the last three minutes to break it open.
In last Saturday's 74-32 rout of South Elgin, Sandifer scored 13 points, Kenny 10.
Still, the Wildcats have to get better to satisfy coach Todd Sutton, who is in his 15th season at the Naperville school. His teams won 22 or more games 10 times in a span of 12 years. "We aren't that good. We are above average. I just looked at our schedule and there is a stretch where we could go 1-7. I'm surprised to be 10-0," he said.
"We have played a decent schedule but we have had a lot of injuries and suspensions and things off the court. We have been a good defensive team so far. We have shut people down. Everyone has stepped up when called upon. But our wings need to shoot better. We need to get points in the paint. Some nights we do and some nights we don't."
But Neuqua Valley is off to its best start since 2009, when Sutton's best team was 31-2 and lost to Dundee-Crown in the supersectional. They returned three starters from last year's 18-12 squad that lost to Plainfield East by two in the sectional.
As they prepare for their Dec. 26 assignment against Geneva in the opening round of the East Aurora Holiday Tournament, Sandifer is averaging 13 points and four assists, Kenny is averaging 13 points and five rebounds, Raridon is averaging six points, Davis three.
"The coach knows we are a pretty good team. We wouldn't be 10-0 if we weren't pretty good," Sandifer said. "But that is the way the coach motivates us. He knows we are a good team but we still have a lot to improve on. We aren't where we need to be.
"Bartlett is a good team and we shut them down defensively. We shut down Lance Whitaker, their best player. So how good are we? We need to get better in small areas, mainly on offense. If Pat (Kenny) and I are off, we have to have other people contribute. We need more consistency on offense."
The offensive struggles and defensive tenacity were never more evident than in an earlier victory over Matea Valley. Neuqua Valley was limited to 38 points but won 38-36.
"This is my team," said Sandifer, who signed with Western Illinois last month. "I was an eighth grader when they were 31-2. That team had a lot more size than we do. But we have potential to be a pretty good team. We can go Downstate if we continue to improve taking care of the ball on offense, cut down on our turnovers and get better on free throws.
"I'm definitely a coach on the floor. I get on my teammates a lot if they aren't doing something right. I talk a lot on the floor, especially when they don't execute right. I want them to do well and win the game. It's nothing personal."
Western Illinois coach Jim Molinari, a former guard himself, liked what he saw when he scouted Sandifer. He made Sandifer a priority in the recruiting process, a pass-first point guard with a knack for getting the ball in position for his teammates to score.
"I was their first offer, a priority for them. It felt good to be a priority," Sandifer said. "I loved the campus and the coaching staff and the players. They offered me in July after seeing him at the Riverside-Brookfield tournament. I knew from the start that I wanted to go there."
But first there is somewhere else that Sandifer wants to go--Peoria.
"It's important to get Downstate. That's our No. 1 goal. We have never been close to going Downstate," he said. "If we keep playing hard, we can get there. I hope my teammates want it just as badly as I do."