Most improved teams? Look at Naperville Central, St. Francis

After a .500 COVID-shortened spring season, Naperville Central has exploded onto the area's boys basketball scene this winter.

The Redhawks are 19-7 and have a chance at winning a share of the DuPage Valley Conference title for the first time since 2009-10, depending on what happens Tuesday night in its game with Metea Valley and Neuqua Valley's tilt with DeKalb.

Senior Jonah Hinton and junior Mantas Zilys have done the most damage offensively for Naperville Central, both averaging about 20 points per game. That might seem to be enough, but look deeper.

The intangibles of the rest of the rotation make the Redhawks a very dangerous Class 4A playoff team.

There's senior Brad Kuta, back from a broken thumb in the spring, who "does a little bit of everything," according to coach Pete Kramer. "I kind of call him our utility guy. He is one of our better defenders on the team, he distributes, and he knocks down threes when they are available."

Then there's senior James Jopes, a football player who rebounds and can shoot the 3 as well. Teams have to come out on him, which opens the lane for Hinton, Zilys and others. Juniors Michael Boyce and Pambos Nicoloudes are physical and finish around the basket, while two other juniors, Grady Cooperkawa and Simon Krugliakovas are yet two more dangerous shooters.

In fact, at any given time, the Redhawks will have five effective perimeter shooters on the floor.

"This team has overachieved and has developed, Kramer said. "We're at our best when we're playing as a group. Jonah is our leader based on how he handles the ball, but it's always two of those guys off the bench that score 10 points. It makes us a little deeper."

But don't take his word for it. Take that of Kuta and Jopes, who played together on the Illinois Rockets club team in the off-season.

"We have a lot of great players who do a lot of different things - scoring, rebounding, defense, really everything," said Kuta. "I think a lot of it has to do with buying in to playing as a team and winning games."

Jopes said the team's 11 juniors have made a huge difference.

"They can spread the court," he said. "If we are driving to the hoop, it's nice to know we can kick it out. We're a lot quicker than in the past. It's definitely a different pace than we're used to, and it's working for us."

The Redhawks are the fifth seed in the Class 4A Bartlett sectional, and will face a familiar opponent in the regional semifinal - Naperville North, who they have beaten twice this season already.

St. Francis bounces back, too:

Another team that went .500 in the spring and has jumped into a new world this winter is St. Francis. The Spartans sit at 22-8 (9-2 in the Metro Suburban) and are getting contributions from everyone in coach Erin Dwyer's rotation.

Start with senior Brendan Yarusso. A three-year starter, he leads the team at 14 ppg, and is shooting 54% from the field and 42% from 3-point-land.

"Teams are defending him more," Dwyer said. "The past few games, he's created more assists. He's second on our team in total assists."

Then there is another three-year starter in senior Sebastian Miller, who's scoring 11 ppg and is the team's second-leading rebounder at 5 rpg.

Seniors Jack Brennan, Adam Wiborg, Nikolas Rowlan and Sean Killian are in the 5 to 7 ppg range, while junior football star TJ McMillan is a major physical presence underneath.

The key with the Spartans is that virtually the entire team has played together since middle school, so there is a high level of trust in things like Dwyer's press break, which they've run since sixth grade.

"We all did the Spartan feeder together, and a few of them did travel ball," Yarusso said. "We're on the same page 90% of the time we're on the floor."

That longevity is important to Miller "because you can learn how the other people are going to play. On the court, you're able to hit them when they're most comfortable."

St. Francis opens the Class 3A playoffs Feb. 23 against the winner of Plano and Aurora Illinois Math and Science Academy.

Blue-collar underclassmen boost DGN:

Downers Grove North sits at 14-8 (5-6 in the tough West Suburban Silver) and has done that by relying on four juniors and four sophomores to play most of the minutes. That group includes soph George Wolkow - a South Carolina baseball recruit - and junior Jacob Bozeman, who is the team's leading scorer at 13 ppg.

That group prides itself on its own brand of basketball.

"We want to be the blue-collar boys and rep our blue-collar basketball brand," Wolkow said. "That means getting on the floor, diving for loose balls, taking more charges and being as aggressive as we can on the boards."

"They are super-competitive kids," coach Jim Thomas said of his youngsters, which include juniors Max Haack, Finn Kramper and football player Ethan Thulin, and sophomores Owen Thulin, Jack Stanton and Jake Riemer. "They are very physical. We have good speed at the guard position and good shooting and good balance."

That combination is going to make the Trojans a real pain to deal with in the Class 4A playoffs for powers like Chicago Whitney Young, Riverside-Brookfield and Oak Park-River Forest.

"We're the seventh seed, and because we're a young team, we're kind of underlooked," Bozeman said. "We aren't looking to play just to play."