Fans of the Evanston Township High School boys basketball team may not believe it, but head coach Mike Ellis did actually tell people “no” when it came to putting together the 2016-17 season schedule for the Wildkits.

He had to, or Evanston would have violated Illinois High School Association season schedule limits. The reason for the high demand to place ETHS on the schedule, of course, is that everyone wants a piece of Nojel Eastern.

The most highly-recruited player to wear an Evanston uniform in decades, the 6-foot-6 senior will oblige as many foes as he can as the Kits take on what shapes up as the most challenging schedule in school history.

Evanston will travel more than 4,000 miles to take on some of the elite programs in the country, with brand-new Thanksgiving and Christmas tournaments and 6 shootout appearances set for a program that is again taking aim on the Final Four.

Ellis’ philosophy is that playing the best competition he can find will help better prepare the Wildkits for postseason tournament play in Illinois, especially after a late-season fade last year that saw the Kits lose 4 of their last 6 games, including a sectional semifinal loss to Notre Dame.

There’s been a big turnover in the roster — 4 seniors graduated and 3 other players chose to transfer — but the bar is still set high as far as Ellis’ expectations are concerned.

“Our talent is better than last year, I think, but it will be more of a challenge for us to win 20 games this year playing this schedule,” Ellis explained. “I’ve never been concerned about my coaching record or the number of wins we have, though. I just always want to give our guys the best experiences possible that will help them later on in March, and will give them great high school memories.

“I think it’s fair to say this is the toughest schedule the school’s ever had. We’ll play nationally-ranked teams on at least a quarter to one-third of our schedule, not just here or there in a shootout.”

Evanston opens Monday with its debut at the St. Viator Thanksgiving Tournament, facing Libertyville at 7:30 p.m. They’ll meet St. Viator (Tuesday at 6 p.m.), Highland Park (Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.), highly-regarded Conant (Friday at 5 p.m.) and Prospect (Saturday at 3:30 p.m.) in the round-robin affair.

Following a matchup against the team ranked No. 2 in the USA Today high school preseason poll, Montverde (Fla.)   on Dec. 3 at the Chicago Elite Classic, the Wildkits are in action at the LeBron James Shootout for two days in Akron, Ohio. They’ll also participate in the 16-team Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C. over the Christmas break, and will enter shootouts at Glenbard East, Loyola Academy and downstate O’Fallon, too.

And in Central Suburban League South division play, the defending champs will  be tested further as Niles North shifts over from the North to the South division.

All that attention for the program comes as a direct result of Eastern’s presence. The senior guard recently committed to attend Purdue University and is poised for a big finish to his high school career now that his future has been decided.

All that’s left for him to establish his legacy as the No. 1 player in school history is to lead the Wildkits Downstate this season.

“That’s the one thing he hasn’t done for us yet, lead us Downstate,” said Ellis. “We had two choices as we looked at it this year. We could ask Nojel to go out of character, take a lot of shots and average 20 points a game — or say now it’s time for you to be a leader and lead us Downstate. He’s not the type of guy who wants to take 20 or 30 shots a game, so I think you know what his choice is.”

Ellis will just be happy to have a healthy Eastern, and a healthy 6-5 Elyjah Williams, for an entire season. Eastern has racked up 955 career points in three years on the varsity but hasn’t been injury free at any point in his career so far.

And Williams missed almost all of last year with a broken foot, then was sidelined on the first day of the summer season with a retina injury. He did come back to start for the ETHS football team on occasion this fall.

“We’ll finally have Nojel at 100 percent, and this is the first time he and Elyjah and (senior) Chris Hamil will be together for a significant portion of playing time,” the coach pointed out. “That’s why I’m excited about this season. We think we’ll be improved just because they’re all healthy.

“Nojel needs to work on better shooting (only 40 percent overall last year, 33 percent from 3-point range), and he has to be a leader and make sure everyone is accountable and that they’re all on the same page. When we lost Elyjah last year, we lost a big piece. He’s quick and athletic and very skilled, a Division I player who has already gotten some interest from Ivy League schools.”

Hamil averaged 7.1 points per game last year and led the squad in 3-point shooting, connecting on 32-of-82 attempts for 39 percent. Ellis believes all three seniors will benefit from a more stable rotation of players on the floor with them at the same time compared to last year, when 11 different players earned starts based on some of the most competitive practice sessions held anywhere in the state of Illinois.

An influx of young talent coming up from an undefeated sophomore team chased away three guards who transferred — Jerome Bynum to Chicago Bogan, Malik Jenkins to Notre Dame, Dravon Clayborn to Niles North — rather than return to ETHS.

“I don’t know if that speaks to the talent we have coming up or not, but I do know that none of our bigs transferred,” said Ellis. “I do know that we have some sophomores (Lance Jones, Jaheim Holden, Ryan Bost) who have a thirst for the game and a thirst for improving their games. My job is just to make sure they’re there for the seniors when they’re needed. You have to say the jury is still out on them especially became none of them are over 6 feet.

 “This summer they held their own playing just as well as the seniors and I’m looking for them to contribute, even surrounded by the big expectations that we have for this team.”

Another new face who figures to see significant action is 6-4 senior Malcolm Townsel, a transfer from Whitney Young. His versatility will help when the Wildkits face different styles of play in those showcase events, according to Ellis.

“He’s athletic around the basket and he can do a lot on the basketball court,” the coach declared. “He’s more of a guard at his size, but he can play the No. 2 or No. 3 spots and he gives us a lot of flexibility. You don’t want to be predictable, you want to have flexibility with your players, and you want to be able to mix and match against different styles of play.”

Seniors Tyler Battle and Obi Ukachjukwu, along with 6-7 junior post player Matt Hall, should also log minutes along with the expected starters. Help will also come from senior Joseph Jones and juniors Reggie Henley Jr, William Porter, Gabriel Cheeks and Tyler Neil-Matthews.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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