Homestead coach Chris Johnson knows the expectations are going to be high for the Spartans this season.
“Any time you have two major Division I players on your team, that's a coach's dream. You want that,” Johnson said. “We had that six years ago, and we were able to win state. So with our players, I don't want to sound cocky, but our expectations are high. It would be crazy not to be high right now, with the players we have returning.”
The Spartans (16-9 in 2019-20) were, of course, looking forward to the senior season of Luke Goode, who has been one of the most attention-grabbing players in the SAC for several years now.
But they also received a pleasant surprise in the form of Fletcher Loyer, a 6-foot-5 guard whose family moved from Clarkston, Michigan, to Fort Wayne over the summer. Loyer, whose father has been an NBA coach and scout and whose brother Foster was Michigan's Mr. Basketball and now plays at Michigan State, is ranked as the No. 22 recruit in the class of 2022 by 247 Sports. He announced his commitment to Purdue on Monday.
“He's a great young man on and off the court. Great teammate. Really can shoot the basketball, a pure shooter,” Johnson said. “He's been extremely fun to watch. I know in college he's probably going to be playing the 2, but we're going to put him at the 1 spot for the most part for us, because he can really get to the basket. And I just think he puts a lot of pressure on the defense.”
Goode, junior Andrew Leeper and senior Grant Simmons combined to score about 35.5 points per game last season, and Loyer averaged 22 at Clarkston. That gives the Spartans the most promising lineup since the 2014-15 state championship team that included Caleb Swanigan (who played for Purdue and is now a Portland Trail Blazer) and Jordan Geist (Missouri).
“We're going to rely a lot on our outside shooting. We're still looking for that double inside, being able to score some easy buckets, because the 3-point shot's not always going to fall for you,” Johnson said.
“So that's something that Blackhawk, with them having a big guy at 6-10, Furst, they're able to get some easy buckets. You have to know where he is. And that's what we're trying to get with our kids, to take advantage of some of our length to get easy buckets.”
But Carroll will be looking to play spoiler. Senior leaders Richie Gross and Ray Vollmer have graduated, but Jalen Jackson, who was the team's leading scorer with 11.8 points per game as a sophomore, has only gotten bigger and stronger in the offseason.
“He's gained quite a bit of pounds on him, so he's bigger, thicker, stronger, more explosive,” coach Marty Beasley said. “He's improved his jumper. We hope that his decision making in the game is better. I think he's more talkative, trying to lead a little more. He's progressing into a junior basketball player, and he's doing all the things he needs to be doing to make himself better.”
The Chargers, who went 17-6 last season, have already been dealt a glancing blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, as practice was shut down for three days. The team was able to return in time to play Norwell on Wednesday, winning 67-37.
Defending regular season champion Bishop Luers (15-7) will be looking to remain in the mix, although they were hard hit by graduation.
Snider (19-6) has been among the best teams in the SAC and concluded last season by winning a sectional title (the rest of the boys state tournament was postponed and then canceled all together in the week that followed the sectional win), but seven seniors, including four starters, graduated. Michael Eley, who led the Panthers who 21.2 points per game and is now a senior, left to join Elevation Prep.
“With three new assistant coaches and a bunch of new faces on varsity, it's a little bit like re-instilling the culture and re-instilling principles,” coach Jeremy Rauch said. “We do have some guys who can do what we want and what we expect from an effort and attitude standpoint, especially.”
Karson Jenkins, who often made big splashes when he got in the game as a sophomore last season, will now have to be a go-to guy, as will his classmate Aidan Lambert, who averaged just under eight minutes per game.
North Side, meanwhile, appears to be on an upswing. The Legends won just one game in 2019-20, but they matched that in their season opener on Wednesday when they beat Mississinewa 77-73. Freshman Brauntae Johnson scored 26 points. North Side has 10 returning varsity players, and coach Gary Andrews said he is excited to have a number of seniors with previous varsity experience, something he hasn't had since he took over ahead of the 2018-2019 season.
But to make a real dent in the standings, North Side will have to improve on defense.
“We were terrible defensively last year. We're not good yet, but we're better than we were last year, and we're hoping we can be a solid defensive team by the middle or the end of the years,” Andrews said.
The number of returning players could also favor the South Side Archers, even accounting for the graduation of Treveon Jones and Kamron Mitchell, who averaged a combined 31.2 points per game last season. Senior Austin Jordan, who missed much of last season due to an ACL tear, is back on the floor, as is Ashton Johnson (10.3 points per game), Jaylen Lattimore (5.8) and Xzaevyon Hollister (3.3).
Predicted Order of Finish
3. Bishop Luers
4. South Side
8. North Side
9. Bishop Dwenger
5 Games to Watch
South Side at North Side, Dec. 11: North Side hasn't won a conference game since Gary Andrews took over two years ago. The game against rival South Side would be a great opportunity to show how much they've improved.
Homestead at Bishop Luers, Dec. 18: The Spartans are the heavy favorites to win the SAC this year, but the Knights are the defending champions, and they're motivated to defend their title.
Snider at Northrop, Jan. 8: Both teams have had significant losses to graduation, but by January these teams should be starting to gel.
Carroll at Bishop Luers, Jan. 15: The Knights were victorious in this matchup last year, which went a large way to determining the conference champ. It could again this year.
Carroll at Homestead, Feb. 19: It's a classic for a reason. These teams are the favorites in the conference, and if everything goes according to chalk, this game could be for all the marbles.