Considering that about one-third of the teams on their schedule last year were nationally-ranked or state-ranked, the fact that Evanston’s basketball team won 28 games and only lost 4 was definitely something to celebrate.
But the topic of last year hasn’t come up once as the Wildkits prepared for Monday’s 2017-18 season opener against Highland Park at the St. Viator Thanksgiving Tournament.
The Kits have turned the page on one of the best seasons in school history and you won’t hear head coach Mike Ellis dwelling on the past during practice sessions, or once the season officially gets underway, either.
“I’ve tried hard not to do that,” said the veteran coach. “One of my goals this year is not to bring up last year’s team. With all of the new faces we have, including four freshmen who weren’t around, there’s really no point in talking about last year.
“These guys aren’t interested in being Chris Hamil Number 2, or Elyjah Williams Number 2, or Nojel Eastern Number 2. They want to be better — and make their own names. Their focus is on the present — and on the future.”
Evanston’s returning talent base includes three juniors who actually shared a starting spot a year ago, a unique strategy employed by Ellis to make sure that Lance Jones, Jaheim Holden and Ryan Bost all saw significant varsity minutes to help them progress as players.
Now all three of them have landed starting jobs along with 6-foot-7 senior Matt Hall, a career backup at ETHS until now. The fifth starter for Monday’s 5:30 p.m. contest will be either a senior — probably Reggie Henley — or a freshman — likely 6-3 Jaylin Gibson.
The varsity roster also features four other seniors (Harry Porter, Semaje Jefferson, Jaylen Winfield, Gabe Cheeks), four other juniors (Thomas Neumann, Jalen Christian, Ben Tarpey, Rasheed Bakare) and freshmen Blake Peters, Isaiah Holden and Elijah Bull.
“What do I like most about this team? “ asked Ellis. “I’d have to say the depth of our talent. We’re a little deeper because we’re better with the ball in most of their hands. We have a lot of playmakers this year, and you can never have too many of those. We’ll have multiple options and teams won’t be able to focus on stopping just one guy.
“For those three juniors we have back, they all have some experience now and it’s not a new learning curve. There were times we were able to play at least two of them and sometimes three together at the same time when we had double digit leads last year. They have confidence in their abilities (at the varsity level) now, and they understand what it takes to win or lose at this level.”
Jones, a 6-2 slasher who is already being heavily recruited by several mid-major colleges, is a difference maker at both ends of the floor who will take on point guard duties full-time. He only averaged 6.1 points per game — starting 23 games, most among the returnees — but ranked second on the team in assists behind Eastern and first in steals.
His defensive presence was sorely missed when he suffered a back injury in the second quarter of the season-ending loss to Whitney Young in the Chicago State Supersectional last year, leaving the Kits just one win short of a trip to the Final Four.
Ellis hopes that someone — maybe Jones since it would be a natural fit for most point guards — will emerge in a leadership role for his inexperienced crew.
“Right now we don’t have a leader, we have 17 followers,” the coach suggested. “Lance’s defense can be his offense and he could add 6-8 points a game just off his defense. I’ve seen him mature a lot in the last six weeks and I think he’s feeling that he’s at the crossroads, now that the ball’s in his hands. He’s looking to show the college coaches that he can lead a team as a Division I recruit.
“We need to find someone who can direct us to where we want to go in the tough moments this season.”
Both Holden (36 percent) and Bost (35 percent) will be solid scoring threats from 3-point range and can also lead in an offense where the Wildkits don’t really rely on a “true” point guard. In Ellis’ four-guard system, the point guard is just the next guy to receive a pass.
“All three of those juniors are very, very competitive, and that’s their strength. Ryan brings us a lot of value guarding the ball and he’s not afraid to mix it up against bigger guys,” praised Ellis. “They’re productive and skilled players, but we want guys who are competitive like that. That’s the reason that we keep score.”
Evanston’s “big” men — the 6-7 Hall, 6-5 Winfield, 6-4 Neumann and 6-4 Christian — all lack experience as varsity players. And although the game of basketball has changed over the past decade into one dominated by backcourt players, size still matters.
“Our lack of size is a concern when it comes to defense and rebounding, because that’s where you win or lose a lot of games,” said Ellis. “We can’t give up gaps in our defense and we can’t give up a lot of second shots to other teams. We don’t have that one guy who’s a defensive stopper on the wing, so we’re going to need fortitude and discipline from all 5 of our players on the floor playing together. If we have holes in our defense, they’re going to be exposed.”
Evanston’s new look for the upcoming campaign includes four players coming straight out of junior high, and that’s a first for Ellis as a coach. But all four freshmen are expected to contribute at the varsity level at some point, although Ellis could move them back and forth between the varsity and lower levels depending on need.
Gibson, the son of freshman coach Jetter Gibson, grabbed a team-high 9 rebounds in the squad’s Orange-Blue scrimmage last week and that certainly caught the head coach’s eye. Holden, Jaheim’s younger brother known better by the nickname Itchy, has a game similar to his sibling, and Peters and Bull are both move-ins who were attracted by the success of the ETHS program.
Bull is the brother of former Niles North star Malachi Nix and those are impressive bloodlines.
“I’ve come around to the idea that it’s only fair that if you’re one of the top 15 or so players in the high school, you should be on the top team at that school,” said Ellis. “I think this situation favors a productive culture for them to develop, and all four of them certainly belong. They’re all good athletes and at times in practice they’ve been our best players.
“Right now it’s the defensive part of the game that has them behind, and that’s the same whether you’re going into your freshman year of high school or freshman year in college. They have to learn to play hard and not take possessions off, and usually freshmen don’t understand that. The sooner they learn that defense is what wins or loses games, the more they’ll be on the floor for us.”
After playing a schedule highlighted by numerous shootout appearances and some out-of-state trips last year, ETHS will play a more “normal” slate in 2017-18. Familiar foes like St. Joseph, Zion-Benton and Oak Park-River Forest are back on the regular season schedule, but the Kits will spend the post-Christmas holidays in downstate Centralia for the first time after earning a runnerup tournament finish in Myrtle Beach, S.C. last winter against some of the nation’s best teams.
“We have St. Joe, Zion-Benton and Oak Park back on the schedule and you can’t knock the challenge of playing against those teams every year,” Ellis added. “And we’re really looking forward to playing at Centralia. We played there when I was an assistant coach at Peoria Richwoods, and that tournament really has such a great history and tradition attached to it.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.