Craig basketball has size, experience to contend for title
The so-called experts say the answer is yes.
Craig High is ranked seventh in the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook preseason poll and the favorite to unseat four-time defending champion Madison Memorial in the Big Eight.
The Cougars, under longtime coach Bob Suter, have not won a conference title since the 1998-99 team went 15-1.
Despite a wealth of talent and size returning, Suter is not sold on all the preseason hype surrounding his team.
“We’ve got a bunch of really nice kids, maybe too nice. We don’t play nearly as tenacious on defense as we need to,’’ Suter said.
“I’d like to see a little bit more intensity and a more consistent effort defensively. We have to adapt that mentality.
“Now, can we play with anybody on any given night? Yes, we can. But it’s going to take five guys working together to get it done. Not one guy working his fanny off while the others aren’t.”
Leading the charge for the Cougars will be 6-foot-6 senior Lucas Burns. The Concordia-St. Paul recruit has led the Cougars in scoring the last two seasons, including a 16.2 average a year ago en route to an All-Big Eight first-team selection.
Burns hit the weights hard over the summer and is expected to improve on his team-leading 7.0 rebound average from a year ago.
Suter said by signing early, Burns eliminated any extra pressure during the season.
“Lucas made a lot of unofficial visits, but Concordia was the one place that he was really fired up about,” Suter said. “Now he can concentrate on playing basketball without the distraction of worrying about where he’s going to school.
“And it’s a great fit for him,” Suter said of Concordia. “Lucas will work hard and do whatever he can to succeed at the next level. Offensively, he has all the skills. Defensively, he knows what he needs to work on, and he will.”
Craig’s other returning starter is senior Cooper Cullen. The 6-2 guard was second in scoring a year ago with a 10.1 average, but will miss the first five games because of a code violation.
“Cooper has really elevated his game,” Suter said. “He’s worked hard on his ball handling, and is going to the basket much stronger.”
Junior JoJo Pregont logged extensive minutes off the bench a year ago and will move into the starting lineup at center. Pregont’s got an abundance of athletic ability with his 6-6 frame, Suter said, and brings an intensity to the court that was lacking from the team a year ago.
“JoJo’s a blue-collar guy that does the little things on the court that you need to be successful,” Suter said.
“He probably should’ve started last year, but for chemistry reasons, it worked better with him coming off the bench.”
Also expected to contribute in the low post are 6-3 senior Tyler Uschan, along with 6-6 juniors Will Clanfield and Darnell Sims.
Although the perimeter game should be solid, Suter has some concerns about the lack of experience in the backcourt. Senior Charlie Roherty, along with juniors Kyle Goike and Joey Kennedy, are battling for the shooting guard position.
“We’ve got shooters, but I’m a little concerned defensively,” Suter said. “Defense starts in practice, and I’m getting tired of telling them that night after night.
“You can have all the firepower in the world, but if you don’t slide your feet and get after people defensively, it doesn’t matter.”
Others expected to contribute are seniors Mac Craig, Ryan Koeberl, Darius White and Jake Kuehne, along with juniors Brad Cagney, Keith Wright, as well as sophomore Alex Lowe.
Suter expects Memorial and Madison La Follette, the two schools that have dominated the conference the last six years, to battle for the Big Eight title.
Where does that leave Craig?
“We’re as big as we’ve been in a long time, and we definitely will have some fouls to give,” Suter said.
“Once we get healthy and get everybody back, we’ll have a chance to put a pretty good team on the floor. It’s going to depend on how well we play defensively night in and night out.”
(7:30 unless indicated)
NOVEMBER: x-24—Madison Edgewood (Big Eight Shootout at Alliant Energy Center); 29—At Middleton.
DECEMBER: 1—Madison Memorial, 2:45 p.m.; 7—At Beloit Memorial; 13—Janesville Parker; 15—At Madison West, 2:45 p.m.; 18—Sun Prairie; x-22—Baraboo; x-26—Adams Friendship (UW Field House), 7:45 p.m.
JANUARY: 4—At Madison East; 8—Madison La Follette; 17—At Madison Memorial; 19—Middleton; 25—Beloit Memorial; 31—At Janesville Parker.
FEBRUARY: x-2—Milwaukee Madison; 5—Madison West; 8—At Sun Prairie; 9—Madison East; 12—At Madison La Follette.