Lyons Township senior Connor Niego and sophomore Nolan Niego actually have been basketball teammates for a while.
For family pickup games, they often pair against older brother Harrison and younger brother Grant, an LT freshman.
“There’s one more in sixth grade (Jackson). If there’s an injury, he’ll jump in there,” said Connor Niego, laughing.
The return of the Niegos is among the strengths for the Lions as they expect to improve significantly from last season’s 9-18 finish following their 2015 West Suburban Conference Silver Division title.
The 6-foot-8 Connor Niego, who recently signed with Holy Cross, and 6-4 senior cousin Noah Niego enter their third varsity seasons.
Other returnees who played at least 20 games are seniors Eli Bright and Frank Cannistra and sophomores Tyrese Shines and Nolan Niego, LT’s first freshmen on varsity in recent memory.
“Nobody likes to lose games so (last season) was frustrating. I do think the guys learned and improved as the season went along,” LTHS coach Tom Sloan said. “We had a pretty successful summer, not that wins and losses really tell the story. I just felt like we were competitive. Practice has been very competitive when you go down the roster.”
More than two-thirds of last year’s scoring returns.
Connor Niego received all-conference honors after averaging a team-high 16.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game with a team-best 36 blocked shots.
“Last year I was more of an outside threat and I’d like to build upon that and add more of an inside game,” Connor Niego said.
Noah Niego (9.7 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game) brings the same outside-inside threat. Shines (6.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg) also started and was sometimes replaced by or played with Nolan Niego (3.6 ppg, 1.5 rpg) in the backcourt.
The physical 6-3 Bright (2.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg) was a part-time starter and strong rebounder. Cannistra also is a point guard with a “very high basketball IQ.”
“With our guys coming back, there’s a lot of interchangeable parts,” Sloan said.
Seniors Nick Ellison, Charlie Heyer, Will Higgins and Joe Larson also saw varsity action. Newcomers are juniors Ryan Barker, Nick McColgan, Matt Piento, Nate Rusk, Robert Spencer and Lazarius Williams. Sloan said guard Williams and inside players Rusk and 6-6 Spencer have played well this fall.
“Connor had a really good season for us and he’s improved significantly since then,” Sloan said. “I don’t know if we’ll see a big increase in his numbers, but if the other guys can put the ball in the basket, it’ll open it up for him or if they have to guard all of our guys equally, that’ll make Connor a pretty big threat.”
The Lions have emphasized defensive improvement. Last season, they lost four games by five points or fewer and 10 by 10 or fewer.
“This past summer, we focused more on defense than we had in the past just because I felt it was something we really needed to improve on,” Sloan said. “What we focus on right now is more man-to-man fundamentals. It’s (also) going to help any zone you play.”
Connor Niego hopes for the kind of season when he was a sophomore and brother Harrison was the Lions’ starting point guard. Harrison Niego has transferred to Hillsdale College from Indiana.
“We really need to lock in defensively, have good defense and rebound,” Connor Niego said. “(Last season) one major thing we learned in our conference is no game is just given to you. One major thing we need to do is put teams away when we’re up 10, up 12.”