The Mooseheart boys basketball team is again poised to go 7-foot-1, 6-10 and 6-7 this season with gifted South Sudanese transfer students Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng.
Just don’t forget about 5-8 sophomore Freddy Okito. He might hold the Red Ramblers’ state championship ambitions in his much smaller palms.
As the Ramblers prepare to open the season next week at the Canton Thanksgiving Tournament, the development of Okito at point guard might be the single most crucial factor in Mooseheart troubleshooting ball-handling woes that ended the Ramblers’ 2012-13 season in gut-wrenching fashion.
As you might recall – and as the Ramblers surely have tried to forget – Mooseheart led Chicagoland Jewish Academy by 10 points with a little more than 3 minutes to go before collapsing down the stretch of a 70-67 loss in an IHSA Class 1A sectional semifinal.
Mooseheart went 24-6 and generated unprecedented buzz for its basketball program last season but the sectional loss still shined a harsh spotlight on the team’s guardplay and ball-handling.
“Our big issue is being able to handle the pressure and the press,” Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens said earlier this week. “Since practice started on the 11th, we have worked every day on breaking the press. It was our downfall, I think, from last year.
“I don’t think anyone is happy, in all honesty, with [last season]. I think everyone on our team counted last year as a disappointing season to us, and we’re looking to improve on that, and the first way be able to do that is handle the press better.”
Successfully doing so isn’t a one-man plan, but Ahrens expects Okito to be a big part of the solution.
Okito saw some time on varsity as a freshman but has made major strides toward becoming Mooseheart’s lead ball-handler this offseason.
Junior wing Hameed Odunewu and Deng – who possesses a guard’s skill set despite his 6-7 build – also will have the ball in their hands a lot, and when all else fails, lobbing the ball up to the biggest guys on the floor on inbounds passes is a workable Plan B.
“I don’t think our guards worked hard enough to get open [on inbounds plays] so I think it’s going to be pretty simple – working a lot harder to get open, and then we have some safety valve things to make sure we can get the ball inbounds,” Ahrens said.
Once Mooseheart moves the ball upcourt, the Ramblers are well positioned to again overwhelm most opponents, especially the small schools on their schedule.
Puou, who averaged 19 points and 10.8 rebounds last season, has an improved mid-range stroke, Nyang is more of an offensive threat than he was last year and Deng – just about finished recovering from offseason shoulder surgery – will continue to be a matchup disaster for most opponents, Ahrens said.
Last season included much-publicized eligibility questions that were a major distraction.
The absence of that drama, plus a year of high school basketball under their belts, should benefit the South Sudanese seniors greatly.
“All three of them got a lot better basketball IQ-wise, which has really helped,” Ahrens said. “We’re getting in a few more sophisticated things than we did last year because their basketball IQ is getting better. There’s still room to improve, but I’m happy where they’re at right now.”
It likely will not be known whether the three will be academically eligible to play college basketball at a four-year school or need to go the junior college route until after the season ends. They’ll have several high-profile opportunities to showcase their talents, including at Batavia’s tradition-rich Night of Hoops and in a game at the United Center against Gage Park.
Fans who turn out might count Mooseheart’s rim-rattling dunks or the number of opponents’ shots swatted.
Ahrens will keep closer watch on the turnover tally.
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.