Kenwood’s Darrin Ames (4) drives the ball past Clemente’s Trey Spires (2) last season. | Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times
You will be hard pressed to find a team more talented than Kenwood — at least on paper and when putting the Broncos up against the eye test.
Glenbard West opened the season as the preseason No. 1 team. The Hilltoppers are still the best team after the work coach Jason Opoka’s Hilltoppers have put in over the first two weeks of the season.
But you will be hard pressed to find a team more talented than Kenwood — at least on paper and when putting the Broncos up against the eye test.
When you consider coach Mike Irvin lost the state’s best junior prospect, athletic 6-7 wing JJ Taylor, to a prep school this fall, that’s a startling statement. Taylor is one of the top 10 prospects in the country in the Class of 2023.
However, there is no shortage of high-level individual talent at Kenwood. Right now it’s a young team that is still coming together under Irvin, who begins just his second season as head coach.
While the competition Kenwood faced in its Chicago Elite Classic matchup was clearly overwhelmed — the Broncos crushed Evangel Christian out of Kentucky 80-38 with a dazzling display of three-point shooting and transition basketball — the individual talent opened eyes. And many college coaches in attendance I spoke with throughout the night took notice.
Senior guard Trey Pettigrew is headed to Nevada and brings a wealth of experience. Darius Robinson, a senior scoring threat who transferred in this year, impressed in the backcourt. Freshman Bryce Heard is arguably the top-ranked player in the state in the Class of 2025.
But Saturday was a time for the junior tandem of Darrin “Dai Dai” Ames and Davious Loury to shine. These are two of the elite players in Illinois in the Class of 2023. Ames is a dynamic scorer who pumped in a game-high 30 points, including seven three-pointers. Loury is a skilled, multi-faceted 6-7 forward who scored 20 points in a variety of ways.
Don’t overlook Wheaton South’s 6-0 start. The Tigers have handed Naperville Central, Fremd and ranked Rolling Meadows and star Cam Christie their only losses of the season. Throw in a win over a solid St. Charles North and coach Mike Healy’s team is clearly one to watch going forward.
The early-season success should not be a surprise. Wheaton South went 16-2 a year ago, won the DuKane Conference and returned several key players. More importantly, Wheaton South’s system works and the winning has become commonplace.
Healy scrapped the man-to-man defense and implemented a ball-press defense in 2015-16. Admittedly, Healy’s team struggled with the adjustment that first season but managed to finish 17-12. But he made a commitment to the ball-press and his players completely bought in and became more comfortable with it.
There are different concepts to the ball-press, but it’s truly a safer form of a pressure defense. The players in the Wheaton South program have thrived with it. There are five players constantly moving with specific responsibilities. They anticipate, communicate and react and are aware of the passing lanes all while being able to dictate tempo.
The wins have followed since the innovative move to the ball-press.
Prior to last season’s impressive 16-win Covid-shortened season the Tigers put together four straight 20-plus win seasons, highlighted by the 2016-17 team that finished 29-2.
This is no slight to the individual players that have come and gone through the Wheaton South program over the past six-plus seasons, but there are few coaches who have won more with less than Healy.
There is precision and patience offensively, but a large part of the success is a defense and overall style that is a burden to play against. Wheaton South’s ball-press defense frustrates and can wear down opponents, often forcing them out of their normal offense. Plus, no one is truly accustomed to playing against it.
This season senior varsity veteran Tyler Fawcett has led the way with 15.2 points a game, but there are three others in double figures. The senior backcourt of Danny Healy and Rourke Robinson and 6-4 junior Braylen Meredith are all averaging 10 points a game.
Here’s a 1-2 punch no one has heard of just yet: Jonah Hinton and Mantas Zilys.
The Naperville Central tandem have put up some whopping numbers to start the season. Hinton and Zilys are averaging a combined 42 points a game in leading the Redhawks to a 6-1 start.
Hinton entered the season as a recruiting priority for many small college programs. The 6-2 senior point guard has put up 20.2 points, four rebounds and 5.2 assists a game.
Zilys, a 6-4 junior and versatile weapon on the perimeter with his ability to shoot and get to the basket off the dribble, is averaging 22 points, eight rebounds and 2.7 steals a game.