Last year's champion Centralia, second-place Carbondale, fourth-place Marion and fifth-place Cahokia are in full-blown rebuilding mode for the 2018-19 season, so that leaves Mount Vernon and Belleville Althoff a path to the South Seven Conference title.
Centralia (24-5, 9-1 South Seven) lost seven seniors from last year’s team, including three starters and four of the top five off the bench. The returning starters are senior guard Bryan Meskil and junior guard Jamie Long. The only other players with varsity minutes are junior guard Preston Johannes and senior guard Akeel Johnson.
“We have only four guys with varsity experience, so we’re starting from scratch,” said Centralia coach Lee Bennett. “We’re going to be real young and real inexperienced. Some are making a huge jump from freshman ball, so right now we’re trying to teach and learn as fast as we can.”
Carbondale (21-8, 8-2 South Seven) is in the same boat, with two starters back in junior off-guard Davarius Macklin, who averaged five points a game last year, and junior second-team all-conference guard Clayton Greer, who is coming off a foot injury that ended his football season.
“The last several years we’ve had pretty good athletes, but we haven’t been very deep, but once we get everybody healthy we’ve got maybe 10 players we can depend upon,” said Carbondale coach Jim Miller. “What we lack in size they more than make up for in their competiveness and aggression. We’re going to have to change some of what we’ve done in the past because we don’t have the go-to guys, so our offense is designed to get everybody involved and give them their best opportunities to score. I think this group will be very enjoyable to watch.”
Three seniors from the football team include Jakeba Burleigh, Austin Reliford and Javon Love, who is also coming off a season-ending football injury, are expected to earn starting spots or significant playing time.
“Jakeba had significant minutes last year and towards the end of the season he proved very valuable,” Miller said. “He’s improved over the summer and he’s going to be one of our team leaders. Austin made significant progress as well and has a chance to be a major contributor. Javon was playing his best basketball this summer and we hope to get him back by Christmas. He is a key player for us and one of our better perimeter shooters.”
The Terriers opened the season with a 61-28 win over Carnahan at the Alton Thanksgiving Tournament. Macklin led the team with 16 points with senior Thomas Anderson adding 12. Burleigh and Reliford had six points with Cairo transfer James Vaughn five.
“Anderson is our undersized center,” Miller said. “His energy level is fantastic. He goes 100 percent 100 percent of the time. He gives us that spark that we need.”
Mount Vernon (17-12, 5-5 South Seven) is in better position with three returning starters. Back are junior second-team all-conference guard Amir Spann, who averaged 13.5 points and 5.2 rebounds a game last year, and seniors Weston Brockhouse (10 ppg./4.2 rpg.) and Lukas Cooper (5.5 ppg.). Juniors Simon Wilson and Jackson Creel move into the starting lineup.
“I think we’ll be better defensively and rebound better this year and that will be keys to our success,” said Mount Vernon coach Doug Creel. “We may lack some athleticism to be a good 3A team, so we have to make up for that by playing hard and smart.”
Spann opened the season with a 30-point performance at the Pyramid Plus against Meridian, with Westhouse adding 15 and Wilson 10, including three 3-pointers.
Creel also has talented sophomores Evan Leake, Carson Post, Tramel Hawkins, Quani Rudd and Hunter Simmons.
Marion (22-12, 4-6 South Seven) is coming off a great season in coach Gus Gillespie’s first at the helm, when the Wildcats won its first sectional title since 1990.
Gillespie will have to pull off another Marion Miracle after losing all five of his starters, but he does have honorable mention all-conference junior guard Jackson Connor back, who missed the final 10 games last season and is expected to rejoin the team this weekend.
When the season opened at the Pyramid Plus against Collinsville the new starting lineup was seniors Boston Ziegler and Mitchell Jackson and sophomore Matthew Cook at forward, junior Brett Lewis at center and freshman Rayzhaun Bardo at guard. Zeigler and Lewis finished with seven points each.
“We return just three players who had significant minutes in Connor, Ziegler and Jackson,” Gillespie said. “We’re going to rely on a bunch of juniors and a couple freshmen, who are going to have grow up quickly.”
Senior center Hunter Campbell came off the bench to lead the team in scoring with eight points. Junior guards Cavan Cameron, Frankie Horner, Drake Gravatt and Lucas Will all came off the bench.
“We have a totally different team in size and athleticism, so we have to find a different way to skin the cat,” Gillespie said. “It might take some time, but we have guys who are coachable and we’ll get better week by week.”
Cahokia (13-15, 4-6 South Seven) was in the mix last year, but the Comanches will have to rebuild with just two starters back after losing two starters who transferred to East St. Louis, including first-team all-conference guard Elijah Rice.
Cahokia coach Darian Nash has two seniors – shooting guard Cortez Brown and forward Shamon Hudson – to build around. He also has his sixth man senior power forward Deavis Johnson, two junior guards Antwan Baker and Keaton Higgins and sophomore point guard Steve McCall.
“The one thing I like about these guys is they are really working,” Nash said. “In the next three or four years if we don’t lose any more players we’ll be a contender for state because I’ve got a lot of freshmen and sophomores that have size and talent.”
Belleville Althoff (4-22, 0-10 South Seven) is coming off its worst season since 1992, but could be poised to make a comeback with four starters backs led by second team all-conference combo guard junior Greg Wells. Also back are junior center Patrick Readye, junior forward Daulton Burgner and sophomore point guard Ethan Brown.
“We’ve got 10 guys we feel pretty good about putting in the game,” said Althoff coach Greg Leib “We have two guys who played some JV minutes last year in junior shooting guards Jack Bruening and Connor Wilson that are going to play and three others who are going to contribute, so we’re deeper.”
The Crusaders ended last year on a nine-game losing streak, but snapped that streak with a 76-54 win over Ritenour at the Alton Thanksgiving Tournament to open the season. Wells led the team with 23 points with Brown adding 17.
“We’ll try to guard and make plays on the ball and then work it from there,” Leib said. “The main difference between this team and last year is a lot of the guys went from being 15 years old to 16, so that’s a big jump in high school. They grew up and worked hard in the offseason.”