The talent level is impressive and the schedule as rigorous as can be.

And the enthusiasm? That’s off the charts.

The Fenwick High School boys basketball team can’t wait to get the season started and it is easy to see why.

The Friars return their entire starting lineup from a team that went 22-7 and reached the regional finals before losing 59-56 to Curie.

Fenwick coach Rick Malnati thinks his squad can better that record this winter, though the Friars will have to earn it against an upgraded schedule highlighted by a home game against Simeon.

In addition to the usual slate of Catholic League opponents and another trip to the Proviso West Holiday Tournament, the Friars will play Oak Park and River Forest, Riverside-Brookfield and Benet, among others.

“We have one of the toughest schedules in the state,” Malnati said. “Every tough team we could schedule, we scheduled.

 “I think this team needs a challenge. The guys want to play against the best because they feel they can be the best. That is why we play the tough teams, to see if they are as good as they think they are.”

Running the show is senior point guard Mike Smith, a four-year varsity player and Division I prospect who averaged 17.4 points and 4.4 assists last season.

Smith has several scholarship offers and earlier this month made an official visit to Dartmouth.

“He’s interested in being able to excel in both basketball and school at the highest level,” Malnati said. “He’s doing a great job in the classroom, as all our kids have.”

The presence of Smith has bumped junior Jacob Keller, who has an offer from Vermont, to shooting guard. Smith, Keller and senior Quinn Fisher are all capable point guards who could start for most teams.

In order to get them all playing time, Malnati utilizes his players in multiple positions. Jamal Nixon is a case in point. The 6-4 junior is a natural guard but has played mostly forward for the Friars, who need his size in the paint.

Nixon averaged 9.1 points and 5.6 rebounds and shot 62 percent from the floor before missing the second half of last season due to injury. Malnati said Nixon has his bounce back and is ready to help out senior Mike Ballard on the glass.

The 6-5 Ballard is a terrific shooter but his defensive and rebounding prowess after Nixon got hurt was a revelation. He was voted Fenwick’s Most Improved Player for the second consecutive season after averaging 15.9 points and 6.4 rebounds and sinking 69 three-pointers.

“He had some brilliant games for us at the end of last year,” Malnati said. “He can go months without missing a shot and his range has extended. When Jamal went out he led us in rebounding.”

While the Friars, who made 38 percent of their 432 three-point attempts last winter, excel in the run-and-gun offense, they will still need to rebound well. That area figures to be improved this year with Ballard, a healthy Nixon and an improved Charlie Boyle, a 6-8 center who has added an inch and 20 pounds to his frame.

6-1 senior Jay Millitello, a talented three-sport athlete who will pitch for the Lewis University baseball team next year, brings defensive toughness.

This team has the potential to be the best Malnati, who guided New Trier to the state semifinals in 2002 and the state quarterfinals in 2000, has ever coached.

“At New Trier I had two great shooting teams,” Malnati said. “This team is a little bit better off the dribble and making passes, better than I’ve ever had, and they play the game the right way. That’s fun.”

Fenwick Friars

Head Coach: Rick Malnati (3rd season, 44-16)

Record last year: 22-7, 7-4 Catholic League; lost to Curie 59-56 in Class 4A regional final)

Top players: Mike Smith, G, Senior; Mike Ballard, F, Senior; Jamal Nixon, F, Junior; Charlie Boyle, C, Senior, Quinn Fisher, G, Senior; Jacob Keller, G, Junior.

Quote: “Mike could be the best shooter in the state. He won our Most Improved Player award his sophomore year and junior year. When you win that two years in a row, you’re doing something right.” -Malnati on Ballard.