Rock Valley Conference boys basketball coaches are in agreement.
The talent level team-wise and player-wise this season will be at an all-time high.
Led by two-time Conference Player of the Year AJ Vukovich of East Troy, five of the seven first-team all-conference picks from a year ago return.
“The top half of our conference is as good as it’s ever been,” Edgerton coach Daryl Fox said. “You’ve got five or six teams that have a lot of talent coming back.
“Our nonconference schedule is really tough, and we did that on purpose because we need those games to get prepared for what’s going to be a very difficult conference schedule.”
The season officially tips off tonight statewide, with conference games slated to begin a week from tonight in several area conferences.
Here’s a look at the Gazette’s readership area conferences and what to expect.
The Big Eight Conference was a senior-dominated league a year ago, with Madison East senior Anthony Washington the only returning first-team selection.
The 6-foot-3 Washington is a Division I recruit and helped lead the Purgolders to the Big Eight title a year ago.
East ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in Division 1 and is the preseason conference favorite. The Purgolders don’t open the season until Dec. 6 at a national tournament in Milton, Georgia.
Sun Prairie figures to be the biggest threat to dethrone the Purgolders. The Cardinals were the Division 1 state runner-up last season and have three starters back.
Madison La Follette, led by sharpshooter Ben Probst, was second in the Big Eight last year and could make a run at a conference title this season.
Madison Memorial doesn’t possess the offensive firepower of an East or La Follette, but the Spartans’ defense will keep them in every game.
Janesville Craig and Janesville Parker don’t match up athletically with the top three or four teams in the conference, but there’s also a big drop off in talent after the top four teams, which should allow the city teams to be competitive most nights.
Monona Grove is the defending champion in the Badger South, but the Silver Eagles were hit hard by graduation, including conference scoring leader Caden Nelson.
Stoughton returns all-Badger South first-team pick Adam Hobson and likely enters the season as the favorite.
Monroe and Watertown also have a strong nucleus returning.
Milton struggled to a 4-19 overall record last season, including 1-13 in the Badger South. However, led by sophomore point guard Jack Campion, third-year head coach Alex Olson hopes his program continue taking steps forward.
"Our back court will be the best it has been since I have taken over the program," Olson said in a preseason survey. "Looking to piggy back (off the) success of the football team (with) lost of multiple-sport athletes. Looking for double-digit wins for the first time in eight years."
Campion earned second-team all-Badger South honors after averaging about 13 points and six assists per game.
Junior Sam Burdette averaged 4 points and 3 rebounds and joins Campion as a returning starter.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An original version of this story published incorrect information about players returning for Milton. We regret the errors.
As long as AJ Vukovich is still playing, the road to the Rock Valley championship goes through East Troy.
The senior and University of Louisville baseball recruit has been a dominating presence since first taking the floor as a freshman.
Last season, Vukovich led the conference in scoring and rebounding with 26.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
“He’s just a special player,” Beloit Turner head coach Ken Watkins said. “He can hurt you so many ways.
“But East Troy is not just a one-man team. He (Vukovich) has got really good players around him, as well.”
East Troy, which is ranked third in the state in Division 3 in one preseason poll, went 18-0 in winning the conference title last year. Turner and Evansville tied for second at 13-5, and both teams bring plenty of talent back.
Turner is led by The Gazette’s 2018-19 area player of the year Jordan Maheed. The senior was fourth in the Rock Valley in scoring at 18.4 points per game and is one of four starters returning for Turner.
Seniors Dai’Vontrelle Strong (6-6) and Kenny Draeving (6-5) give the Trojans good size in the post, while senior point guard D.J. Wash is back after leading the Rock Valley in assists last season at 6.4 per game.
“This group I have is past the learning curve,” Watkins said. “They’ve been playing together long enough now that it comes down to preparation and fine-tuning the details.
“The key is to focus and stay hungry. They can’t get caught up in the hype and how good they’re supposed to be. That’s a poison. They’ve got to bring it every day, whether it’s practice or a game.”
Turner is ranked eighth in the D3 preseason poll.
Evansville will be led by four-year starter Sulley Geske. The senior and two-time first-team all-conference selection was fifth in the conference in scoring last year at 17.7 point per game and is also one of the top defenders in the league.
Senior Seth Maag (6-5) and Aaron Anderson (6-4) are both returning starters for the Blue Devils, while seniors Ryan Borchardt, Trey Louis and Gavin Mielke also saw extensive playing time last year.
“I think we’re going to be a much more balanced team this year,” coach Kendall Buttchen said. “Hopefully, teams are going to be able to just key on Sulley.
“And I really like where we’re sitting right now. We’re kind of flying under the radar because everybody is talking about East Troy and Turner and Edgerton, which they should be, and how good they’re going to be. No one is talking about us, which I like, because I think the conference champion is probably going to have at least three conference losses.”
Edgerton has a wealth of talent back, led by first-team all-conference pick from a year ago Clayton Jenny. The junior point guard was second in the Rock in assists a year ago at 4.4 a game.
Senior center Nick Spang (6-8) returns for the Crimson Tide, along with seniors Brian Rusch, Peyton Fox and Skylar Gullickson and junior Drew Hanson.
“It starts with defense for us,” coach Fox said. “That’s been our calling card and will continue to be.
“And a big thing for us to build on is the fact that these boys know how to win. They’ve done it in football, golf and baseball, and that’s important because it allows you to play with more confidence.”
Brodhead, Clinton, Whitewater and Walworth Big Foot will likely struggle for wins against the top six teams but should present some entertaining matchups when they play each other.
Whitewater is led by 7-foot center Jake Martin, who was all-conference honorable mention a year ago.
Elkhorn finished second to Westosha Central in the Lakes last season and advanced to the state tournament for the first time since 1987. The Elks lost in a Division 2 state semifinal game to eventual champion Nicolet.
The Elks were hit hard by graduation but do return all-conference selections Nick Brown and Devon Davey.
The 6-5 Brown, a senior, averaged 10.7 points and 4.6 assists per game last season in earning first-team all-Southern Lakes honors.
The senior Davey was a defensive specialist who averaged 6.6 points per game.
Grant DeMez is the top returnee for Lake Geneva Badger. The senior was fourth in the Lakes in scoring average last year at 12.7 per game.
Delavan-Darien comes into the season looking to snap a 34-game losing streak. The Comets have not won since a 66-60 nonconference win over Walworth Big Foot in January of 2018.
Orfordville Parkview hopes to make its last season in the Trailways South a productive one.
The Vikings, who will move to the SWAL in all sports next year, were second in the Trailways South last season but were hit hard by graduation.
Juniors Connor Simonson and Tyler Oswald return for the Vikings, along with seniors Nevin Crane and Zac Unseth. Senior Max Kundert is back after missing last season with a knee injury.
“We’re going to be a little shorter than we have been but quicker, too,” Parkview coach Mike Striegl said. “The key for us is that we can’t take plays off. We have to hard on each end on every play.
“If we can get some consistent outside shooting, I think we’re going to be OK. I like the camaraderie thus far, and I thought we did some good things in our scrimmage.”