The Lyons Township High School boys basketball team failed to produce a winning record last season for the second straight year, finishing 13-15, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“The last two years the guys have gotten absolutely as much out of their ability and size as possible, especially considering how tough our league has been,” LTHS coach Tom Sloan said. “We went 3-9 in the league and 10-6 in all other games and we beat five teams by 30 points. We beat a couple teams that won their conferences fairly easily.”
The West Suburban Conference Silver Division figures to be just as rugged this winter, in part because the Lions are going to be one of those teams that will be tough to beat on any given night.
While the Lions return only four players with significant varsity experience, one of those is point guard Harrison Niego. The 6-2 junior is already drawing plenty of interest from Division I colleges after a sophomore campaign that saw him average 11.6 points, 4.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds.
“He had a very good summer for us and a really good AAU summer,” Sloan said. “We had 30 days of open gym and at more than half of them there were college coaches there. On most of those days, he was the best player there.”
Having a Division I prospect on the floor automatically makes the Lions competitive and Niego will lead the team in a variety of ways.
“As a sophomore last year, timing-wise it worked out really well for Harrison because last year’s team was in desperate need of a point guard and he was ready to handle that role,” Sloan said. “As a sophomore that says a lot. He’s got the athletic ability and physical size and basketball IQ to do the job. He’ll do a better job of getting into the paint and scoring.”
But Niego won’t have to do it all if, as expected, opponents key on shutting him down. Seniors Omarr Miller and Jim Cullen will back up Niego at the point and occasionally be in the lineup at the same time to allow Niego to play shooting guard.
“Both those guys are good ballhandlers and really quick,” Sloan said. “They’ve improved their perimeter games, they’re good passers and really good at pushing the ball up the floor. So it gives us good flexibility and that can take some of the pressure of the point guard duties off of Harrison.”
Up front, the Lions will start 6-4 senior Matt Mrazek and 6-3 seniors Sam Cybulski and Chris Hester. Mrazek (5.3 points, 5.6 rebounds) started last year while Cybulski (7.0 points, 3.6 rebounds) and Hester (3.9 points, 3.9 rebounds) were part-time starters.
“They’re all good-sized kids,” Sloan said. “None of them are 6-8, but they are very athletic and long-armed and are tough, hard-nosed kids.”
LTHS should have a deeper bench this season, led by 6-5 junior forward Nathan Albertini, 6-4 junior forward Sean Lannan, 6-2 junior guard/forward Jaquan Phipps and 6-1 senior guard Griffin Furlong.
“We’re fortunate in that our top 10 guys, everyone we put on the floor has the ability to put the ball in the basket, so hopefully that will help if the other teams choose to focus their defense on Harrison,” Sloan said. “He’s an unselfish kid and our other guards can hit the long-range shots and our big guys can hit the mid-range jumper.”
While a conference title seems a bit far-fetched with Oak Park and River Forest, York and Hinsdale Central among the favorites, Sloan foresees a higher finish for the Lions, though he isn’t inclined to make any predictions.
“There aren’t going to be any easy games but I do feel better about our depth,” Sloan said. “I feel we have guys that can step in and do the job. I think we can win every game on our schedule but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. We could also lose every game, but I feel confident that we are going to have a chance every game we play.”