IHSA basketball rankings: Rockford area's top 10 boys basketball teams

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

High school boys basketball starts this week, just a handful of days before the state title football games. We will find out Friday and Saturday who the best football teams in the state were this year.

As far as best teams, there will be a lot to choose from. The NIC-10 is the deepest it has been in years. Maybe decades.

"Eight teams can be better than they were last year," Harlem coach Mike Winters said. "I don't remember that ever being the case."

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Here is an early look at the best boys basketball teams in Rockford with our preseason power rankings.

1. Rockford Lutheran

Rockford Lutheran teammates congratulate Garrett Bertrand after he hit a winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat East in the championship game of the East Summer League on June 29, 2021. Lutheran finished No. 1 in Class 2A at 16-0 in the spring and could have more to celebrate this season. The Crusaders start the season at No. 1 in the Rockford Register Star's boys basketball power rankings.

Lutheran went 16-0 last year and finished the season ranked No. 1 in Class 2A, but had no chance to prove it in a COVID-marred, playoff-less truncated season. The Crusaders graduated second-team Associated Press all-stater Zach Derus and lost hugely talented 6-foot-6 sophomore Mike Jones, who transferred to Auburn in September. But Lutheran was one of the deepest local teams in memory and still has enough experienced talent, led by Walter Hill and Garrett Bertrand, to be a state-title contender in Class 2A.

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"We are a very difficult team to play," Lutheran coach Tom Guse said. "Offensively, we are extremely unselfish. There is not a guy who can't shoot the long ball. We also have guys who can get to the rim. We will have to rebound as a group. We play some Class 4A schools that will be a tough matchup for us, but in 2A if we stay healthy we will be a tough team to beat."

2. Auburn

Auburn's Adrian Agee dribbles against Guilford in the first quarter at Auburn High School on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Rockford.

Guilford coach Chris Dixon rates three Auburn players among his top seven in the NIC-10: Jones and guards Rob Chaney and Adrian Agee. Agee is one of three returning first-team all-conference players. Chaney would have been, but missed all by 2 ½ games of his second straight season with a second ACL injury. And the 6-foot-6 Jones, although only a sophomore, is one of the most athletic big men in recent league history.

Auburn also has holdover Brennan Horton-Lee, a talented junior guard. Keiwonne Neal returns as the starting point guard and Rob Harden transferred from Jefferson. "Harden is all hustle and energy and heart out there; he fits with how we play," Auburn coach Brian Ott said.

3. East

Jemere Jefferson led the NIC-10 in 3-pointers last year and transferred from Jefferson to East this year, making the defending champion E-Rabs one of the favorites to win the 2022 NIC-10 title.

Jemere Jefferson and Rashard Young transferred from Jefferson to East to help the E-Rabs reload. East has won two of the last three NIC-10 titles after previously not winning conference for more than 35 years. Jefferson led the NIC-10 in 3-pointers last year.

“We think we can compete up there at the top,” East coach Roy Sackmaster said. “We have great depth and character and excellent students. We are still learning how to come together, but that’s been the formula for success for our program. We have had a lot of kids the last four or five years who are winners and champions off the court and that carries onto the court.”

4. Boylan

Boylan’s Tristian Ford shoots a three-pointer on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, at Boylan High School.

The Titans went 8-4 last year with only three seniors on their 16-man team. They return their two best players in senior forward Joe Appino and sophomore guard Tristian Ford. Boylan hasn't finished lower than third in the conference in 28 years. Why should this year be any different?

5. Hononegah

Dominic Commisso, left, shown guarding Jefferson's Latrell Graham last year, is one of three players 6-foot-6 or taller in Hononegah's starting lineup.

Hononegah (6-2) missed a few games last year because of COVID quarantines but lost only to league champ East (by eight points) and in double-overtime to Jefferson, which led the league until the final week. Hono is led by Owen Hart, who shot 50 percent from 3-point range as a junior, and big men Dominic Commisso (6-8), Braydon Savitsky-Lynde (6-6) and Brandon Beck (6-6). "They have incredible length and size, which will make their zone very difficult to attack," Belvidere North coach Todd Brannan said.

6. Harlem

Harlem's DeAndre Young drives against Boylan's Tyler Hood in the second quarter of their game at Harlem High School on Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Machesney Park.

Harlem lost in the NIC-10 title game to East last year, a COVID season where the league was divided into divisions. That was a chance for the Huskies to win their first league title ever. They return first-team all-conference pick Lathan Lewis and special mention pick DeAndre Young at guard and 6-3 senior forward Alex Wilson, who averaged 5 points and 5 rebounds. The junior class went 26-3 on the freshman level two years ago.

"We're a lot stronger and a lot more experienced," Harlem coach Mike Winters said. "When you have a team that returns that many players and you came that close to a championship, you are coming back pretty hungry."

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7. Pecatonica

Pecatonica went undefeated to win its own 10-team summer league for the first time. Pec has gone 9-3 last year and set a school record with 24 wins two years ago. Many of those players are still around, led by returning all-conference picks Hunter Hoffman Bo Seaton and Trent Hetland. "We also have a wealth of experience and talent from our junior class and a handful of underclassmen," Pec coach Bobby Heisler said. Aquin, Lena-Winslow and Orangeville should all challenge Pec in the North, the NUIC's deepest division, with Scales Mound and East Dubuque favored in the West and Eastland in the South.

"Pecatonica is clearly the best 1A team in the area," South Beloit coach Matt Stucky said. "They have great depth, athleticism, and are extremely well coached."

8. Guilford

Guilford's Malachi Johnson goes for the layup against Auburn in the second quarter at Auburn High School on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Rockford.

Guilford (6-7 in the league last year) is led by guards Mekhi Dolby and Malachi Johnson. Guilford coach Chris Dixon said Dolby, a junior, "has good ball handling skills and finishes strong on drives," while the sophomore Johnson "has long-range shot capabilities and has great potential." Johnson came into the league as one of the most-hyped freshmen in recent years and led Guilford in both scoring (10.2 points) and 3-pointers (20) last year.

9. Aquin

Aquin's senior class went 22-0 at the sophomore level and was a big part of the Bulldogs going 12-3 in last year's COVID-shortened season. All-conference forward Ollie Arndt leads the way but the Bulldogs also have good depth. "We are looking for a big season from guards Dom Alber and Evan Broge and center Connor Seneff," Aquin coach Matt Weik said.

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10. South Beloit

The Sobos went 9-4 in the COVID spring season, their first winning season in a decade, led by Brad Knepper. This year, Knepper not only returns, but the 6-4 senior is joined by 6-7 freshman Ross Robertson, who can score from outside as easily as inside. Coach Matt Stucky says the Sobos also "have some great shooters" in junior Aidan Finn and Blake Ayotte and senior Tanner Joiner. "All three have the ability to take over games with their ability to make 3s," Stucky said. "Put it all together and it should be the recipe to have a really solid offensive team that's capable of going on explosive runs."

The Sobos should do well in the NAC and maybe join their 28-2 team in 2009 coached by Rockford Public Schools athletic director Mat Parker as the school's only Class 1A regional champion in more than 40 years. The Sobos went 3-1 vs. Class 1A teams this summer, losing by three points to Pec in the finals of the Pecatonica League, and 7-3 vs. 2A teams. They also got experience against NIC-10 teams in the East Summer League.

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge