A day off from school didn’t mean a day off from practice for the Althoff Crusaders as they prepared for the starting of the 2018-19 boys basketball season.
“It is only five days. That is getting here in a hurry,” said Crusaders coach Greg Leib last Thursday afternoon as he prepared to head over to the school for a voluntary practice on a day snow had canceled classes.
The Crusaders opened their season Tuesday against Cardinal Ritenour at the Alton Tip-off Classic. They will follow that with a Wednesday game against the host Redbirds.
After ranking among the state’s elite teams over a three-year stretch — the Crusaders placed second at the Class 3A state tournament in 2015, won the 3A championship in 2016 and finished 18-11 in 2017 — Althoff struggled a year ago checking in at 4-23 and 0-10 in South Seven Conference play.
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But that was a young team Leib is confident will grow from that rough road.
“I’d say eight to 12 of those games were decided in the last six minutes,” he said, “and we’re thinking the experience and maturity we bring back can level some of that out. I know these guys, and in the time between the season ended and practice started on Nov. 5, they’ve worked hard on improving their game and getting it to a high level.”
In sophomore point guard Ethyn Brown (6-feet) and juniors Patrick Readye (6-7, forward), Greg Wells (6-2, forward/guard) and Daulton Burgner (6-5, forward), the Crusaders return four players who saw significant court time.
At 7.9 points per game, Wells was the leading scorer of the group. Readye and Burgner both averaged around six points a game. Brown topped last season’s team in assists with 2.2 per contest.
Last season’s top scorer, Khalifah Muhammad, a 6-5 guard, departed the team late in the campaign and will play his senior season at Belleville East.
Leib expects thos four – Brown, Wells, Readye and Burgner – to set the tone for his team.
“Ethyn, who’s coming off a broken ankle from September, has grown about three inches and is looking very good,” said Leib. “Wells is shooting the ball better. He’s bigger and much stronger. He’s ready to knocks some people around after getting knocked around last year.
“Daulton gives us a lot of versatility both inside and outside. And big Patrick, he keeps on getting better every day.”
Still, Leib says almost everyone on the 11-player roster will get the opportunity to earn significant playing time.
Jack Bruening (5-10, junior) and Connor Wilson (6-1, junior) both return from a year ago, while J.D. Patterson (6-2, soph.) and Alek Falk (5-10, junior) have moved up from the lower levels.
The Crusaders also feature three transfers, Anthony Reed (5-10, jr.), from Centralia, and Will Ache (6-3, jr.) and Mack Harris (6-4, jr.), both from Belleville East.
“I think we have about 10 guys who can contribute, which really is a good problem to have,” said Leib. “If everyone is willing to work toward a common goal, not worry about who is getting the minutes or the shots, I think we can accomplish a lot of good things.”
A key for the Crusaders will be doing the little things correctly.
“We’ve got to communicate on defense, get a little bit better with the help side,” said Leib. “Offensively, we’ve got to continue to work on sharing the ball, making the right reads. Playing with confidence.
“We’re not a team that’s going to have the same leading scorer every night. There are six or seven kids who that could turn out to be. They can’t be concerned with that and just let the game play itself out.”
The Crusaders schedule once will be tough with non-conference games already on the docket against Belleville East, Mater Dei, Chaminade and others. The South Seven also figures to be full of tests.
Centralia won the league in 2017-18 with an 11-1 record. Carbondale was second at 8-3.
“It will be as solid as always, and that’s mainly because of the coaches,” said Leib. “Carbondale’s Jim Miller has 400 or 500 wins and a second-place state finish. Centralia’s Lee Bennett about the same in wins and has a second-place finish.
“Gus Gillespie at Marion, I think finished third last year in the conference, and still got his team to a super-sectional. That’s the fun thing about high school basketball, it’s the different styles of play you see almost every time you are on the floor.”
Leib isn’t too shabby himself with the two pieces of hardware he was won with the Crusaders and an overall record of 338-217 at the school.
“It looks like we’re hitting year 21 here, but I still get a kick looking into the kids’ eyes and seeing the joy they have playing the game,” he said. “Hopefully, when I quit doing that, I know it will be time to find something else to do.