MAPLE PARK – The Kaneland boys basketball team entered the season with little returning firepower, scarce size, an injured point guard and not much in the outside shooting department.
That might not sound like the recipe for a championship season, but the Knights are showing a knack for defying convention.
As the calendar nears February, the surging Knights are knocking on the door of a Northern Illinois Big 12 East title. Kaneland is 5-1 in NI Big 12 East play with four conference games to go, two games ahead of a trio of teams that are 3-3 in the conference.
Kaneland coach Brian Johnson acknowledged that this season shaped up as a “semi-rebuilding” year, especially after gifted wing Thomas Williams moved to Texas after his impressive sophomore year. Williams’ departure was one of a handful of key losses from last year’s 17-11 team.
“It was one of those, let’s put in a few things defensively and offensively, and see where we’re at toward the end of January, and maybe we’ll be in position, maybe we won’t,” Johnson said.
“I think what’s been huge is when you lose dynamic players like Thomas Williams and Marcel Neil is seeing a cohesiveness. Granted, Matt [Limbrunner] is our leading scorer, but it’s not always just about Matt. There’s a lot of guys who are stepping up at different times, and I think that’s been a big key to our success, and that’s kind of put us in the position that we are.”
It’s an enviable position.
Not only are the Knights the front-runner in the conference entering Friday’s game at Yorkville, but Kaneland (12-6) has won all six of its games in January after falling to Aurora Christian in the third place game at the Plano Christmas Classic.
As well as January has unfolded for the Knights, Kaneland is suffering no delusions of grandeur.
The Knights have had to scrape by with some ugly wins (see a 34-32 win against LaSalle-Peru), weird wins (see a 65-62 W against Rochelle in which Kaneland was outscored 42-3 from the 3-point line), and needed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by senior point guard Drew David to defeat visiting Sycamore last week.
It’s also become apparent that this isn’t an especially strong season around the NI Big 12.
“I think it’s a mix of some young talent and some changing with coaching philosophies and things like that,” Johnson said. “It takes some time, which then makes the playing field a little bit more even.”
But, for its part, Kaneland has made major strides in recent weeks, scarcely resembling the team that started the season 0-3 at Batavia’s Windmill City Classic.
David’s return at point guard after missing the first few weeks with a broken wrist was sorely needed, and Limbrunner’s emergence has supplied the Knights interior scoring punch. Limbrunner, the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-4, is averaging 14.8 points a game, best on the team.
“As a freshman, I remember he didn’t really even play this much, he was like on the ‘B’ team,” Kaneland senior forward Dan Miller said. “He’s just made incredible improvements to his game. He’s really fun to play with and fun to watch.”
The Knights have also benefited from the progression of secondary scorers such as John Pruett and Ty Carlson, but for a team that doesn’t shoot the ball especially well, defense is the calling card.
That has generally been true since Johnson took over the program, and is paying off handsomely this year as the Knights eye what would be their second conference title in three years.
“A lot of our practice is defense, and all the hard drills that we don’t like, they’re going to help you out in the long run, so we’ve got to really work hard on that,” Limbrunner said.
Effective help defense emboldens the Knights to be in attack mode on the defensive end and bolster their sporadic offense with points off turnovers.
“Everybody’s helping out everybody, nobody is just stuck on their guy,” Miller said. “Everybody is helping out when needed, and everybody on our team can play defense, whether it be the first guy or the last guy.”
As favorable as the conference standings look, plenty can change in four games. Sycamore, Morris and Friday’s foe – Yorkville – all remain in the hunt at 3-3 in the conference.
Johnson also pointed to difficult remaining nonconference tests against Wheaton Academy and St. Charles North as threats to the Knights’ current bliss.
“I think the boys realize we can’t take anything for granted, especially after how we started the season,” Johnson said. “We’re starting to play some huge games for conference.”
Northern Illinois Big 12 East standings
Team Div. Ovl.
Kaneland 5-1 12-6
Morris 3-3 12-7
Sycamore 3-3 12-9
Yorkville 3-3 10-9
Rochelle 2-4 9-15
DeKalb 2-4 4-18