If anyone knows Final Four basketball talent when he sees it, it’s Mike Ellis. And the Evanston coach will get the opportunity to coach that kind of talent every day in practice this season.
The Wildkits are taking aim on defending their Central Suburban League South division championship — and maybe extending their season all the way to the Final Four in Peoria.
Ellis has been there and done that. As the leader of the Peoria Richwoods program, Ellis guided the Knights to state runnerup finishes in both 2006 and 2010.
And with virtually everyone — except leading rebounder Elijah Henry — returning from a team that won 20 of 29 games last year, the expectations in the program have never been greater.
Ellis and his staff try to set the bar high every year. But led by returning all-conference player Nojel Eastern, one of the top players in the state of Illinois in the junior class, the Wildkits could be poised for one of those special seasons.
Evanston opens Monday at the Battle of the Bridge Thanksgiving Tournament, co-hosted by DePaul Prep and Lane Tech. The Kits will play Mount Carmel, Taft and and DePaul in order on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at DePaul, with the final round set for Friday.
“There are so many obstacles in our way, and we haven’t really talked much about the state tournament except for one day,” Ellis said. “I believe that you have to focus on the process, and not just the outcome. A lot of things have to happen for us to do it. But this team has the talent to do it, and I think we’re in the discussion to make a trip to Peoria.”
If they can extend the season that far, they’ll already be used to playing on the road. After accepting invitations to four different showcase events — one-game shootouts designed to highlight the talents of Eastern and other top individuals in the state — Ellis finds his squad left with just six home games on the 2015-16 calendar.
They’ll also take a trip to Louisville, Kentucky for a Christmas tournament instead of returning to the Pekin Holiday Tournament.
“In my 15 years as a coach, this is the toughest schedule I’ve ever had,” Ellis said. “This will be such a challenging and grinding winter for us that we have to remember to stay in the moment as much as we can. We can’t look past a single opponent, or even a single possession.
“With this team, and with the expectations that we have, you owe it to them to stretch their capabilities and find out just how good they can be. They need to be tested for the postseason, to find out what wins and what loses games for us. That’s why our schedule looks like this.
“Right now I think we can go 10 or 12 deep. We’re two or three deep at every position. We did lose our leading rebounder for the last three seasons in Elijah Henry, so we’ll have to make it a group effort and have everyone pitch in on the boards. Right now in practice we’re also putting the emphasis on our transition defense — we have to eliminate those cheap baskets — and we also want to put more pressure on the ball this year.”
Eastern has grown to 6-foot-6 and will again serve as the main cog in Evanston’s machine. He didn’t get any court time this summer with his teammates, recovering from an ankle injury, but likely would have spent those summer months as a full-fledged member of Team USA basketball developmental program for the nation’s elite players anyway if he had been 100 percent healthy.
Ellis has already acknowledged in the past what a luxury it is to have your best player also stand out as your most unselfish player on the floor, and Eastern could stake a claim as the best player in ETHS history if he is able to lead the Kits to Peoria either this year or next year.
Last year Eastern led the Wildkits in scoring (14.8 points per game), assists (63), steals (48) and even blocked shots (48). He’s the main reason Evanston will play in the Chicago Elite Classic (Dec. 5 at the UIC Pavilion), Glenbard East Shootout (Jan. 23), War on the Shore (Jan. 30 at Loyola Academy) and City-Suburban Showdown (Feb. 20) at Lyons Township.
“Nojel has grown a couple of inches since last year and I think his shot is better, too,” Ellis said. “One of the things he has to work on is cutting down on his turnovers, because our opponents are going to double-team him more this year. We can’t give up the ball without getting a shot just because he’s double-teamed.
“I do like the fact that everybody we put on the floor can put the ball in the basket. So if you want to double-team Nojel, then it’s a case of pick your poison, because the other guys can beat you, too.”
Evanston only shot 28 percent from 3-point range last winter, but Ellis expects that number to improve with experienced shooters like juniors Chris Hamil and Jerome Bynum returning for their second varsity seasons.
That pair is part of an experienced core of backcourt players that also includes senior Micquel Roseman, junior Malik Jenkins, and senior Tre Marshall. Evanston has so much depth at point guard that Eastern won’t always have to bring the ball up the court and on occasion will move over to shooting guard. Sophomore Dravon Clayborn will be in that mix after earning a promotion for postseason play last year.
Both Roseman and 6-6 forward Elyjah Williams have been able to keep pace with the up-tempo practice sessions held by Ellis and his staff, even though both are coming off a full football season where they logged extended minutes on both offense and defense.
And two of the school’s baseball standouts, Dylan Mulvihill and Charlie Maxwell, have opened the eyes of the basketball coaching staff despite focusing on their off-season efforts to claim Division I scholarships (Mulvihill to Penn, Maxwell to Northwestern) in the spring sport.
Don’t be surprised if both of them are in the starting lineup Monday.
“Dylan has really separated himself from the rest of our post players,” said the coach. “He worked out totally on his own, changed his body shape more than anyone I’ve coached, and created his own schedule this summer to make sure he got into the gym. I think he lost about 20 pounds. He’s quicker and he’s got more agility now. Last year he shot 70 percent for us and any time he went into the game he’d almost automatically make a play for us. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.
“Charlie Maxwell probably had the best camp of anyone. His rebounding and his leadership have really improved, and he’ll be one of the smartest players on the floor. And now that there’s no pressure on him and Dylan to work for those baseball scholarships, they can enjoy the basketball experience even more.”
Other upperclassmen to watch are junior Obinna Ukachuckwu, 6-7 sophomore Matt Hall, 6-8 junior Atticus Deutsch and 6-5 junior Tyler Battle.
Three freshmen played extensive minutes at the varsity level last summer. Guards Lance Jones, Ryan Bost and Jaheim Holden will likely start the winter campaign at the lower levels, but have the talent to make contributions at the varsity level once they can adjust to the pace of play.
The Wildkits won their first conference championship since 2010-11 last year and Ellis knows that a repeat performance won’t be easy.
“We’ll just have to take it one game at a time,” Ellis said. “You can’t take a night off playing in the CSL South. We’ll get everyone’s A game and we have to be prepared for that. We won’t scare the other teams in this conference. They’ll be ready for us.”
Source: ETHS Sports Information