A new level of commitment is the No. 1 priority for the Evanston basketball team this season following a 10-19 effort last year.
So far, so good, according to head coach Mike Ellis, whose team opens the 2013-14 campaign on Monday at the Frank Lollino Thanksgiving Tournament hosted by Lane Tech.
Nine players who saw significant playing time last year return after suffering 10 consecutive losses during one stretch over the second half of the season.
So far Ellis has seen that lessons were learned, even though that knowledge came the hard way for the Wildkit veterans.
“I think they did a better job over the summer of understanding now what it takes to win,” Ellis said prior to Monday’s 5:15 opening test against Mount Carmel. “You have to be all in, and I think they’ve shown in practices that they’re a little more committed this year.
“Last year some players worried more about their minutes, instead of what the team could accomplish. That was totally opposite of what happened the year before, and I think they’ve learned something from that experience. It will all come down to how much leadership we have. We have a lot of players who can perform, but leadership will be a key factor to where this team goes this year.”
Ellis and his staff are seeking a better offensive output than a year ago, when the Kits averaged only 48 points per game and shot just 40 percent from the floor. They’ll build around 6-foot-5 junior Elijah Henry, who led the team in rebounding and tied graduated senior Peter Winslow for team scoring honors but averaged just 6.6 points per game.
Seniors who figure to join Henry in the starting lineup — at least for the first week of the season — are Jackson Mihevc, Will Jones, Nibra White and Dante Henley.
“Those are the five players who did the best job in practices so far,” Ellis explained. “We weren’t consistent at the offensive end last year because we didn’t have a go-to scorer, and there was too much pressure on us to score because we only played average defense, too.
“This year we think our defense will make our offense that much better. We’re hoping we can pick up the tempo and generate more easy baskets.”
Between them, the ETHS starting five for the opener combined for 63 starts in 2012-13, so experience is a major plus this time around. Ellis is looking for a breakout season from the 6-foot-3 Mihevc, a sharpshooter who only converted 30 percent (22-of-73) 3-point field goal attempts as a junior.
“Jackson had a taste of success with the golf team (earning a team trip downstate), and I think that has carried over for him so far,” the coach said. “He’s very anxious to improve and we’re really going to rely on him to take that 3-point shot.
“Will and Nibra have really worked hard to take their games to another level, and I think Elijah will be more of a threat inside besides just his rebounding. And we have 5 or 10 guys who have shown in practice that they can come in and play without a big dropoff from the starters, so that will help.”
Part of that improved depth is the arrival of freshman guard Nojel Eastern at ETHS. The 6-2 Eastern is one of the most highly-regarded players to enter the program in years and was pursued by several private schools before deciding to play for his home town.
It’s rare for Ellis to promote a freshman to the varsity, but Eastern is expected to be an impact player even competing against more experienced players.
“He’s a player with a lot of talent, and he can be a difference maker. It’s off the ball where he needs to continue to grow,” Ellis pointed out. “The big question is how well he can impact the game on defense, and off the ball. He’s the kind of player who can score and put his team on his back when he senses that’s needed. He has a very high IQ and he’s definitely earned the opportunity to play extended minutes with the varsity.”
Other players to watch for the Wildkits include seniors Jack Kremin, Marcus Johnson, C.J. Singletary and Nate Brieva; junior Tommy Haughey, and sophomore Micquel Roseman.
Corey Gongora is a 6-4 senior who is still awaiting word on his eligibility from the Illinois High School Association after transferring in from Uplift of the Chicago Public League.