If you think third-ranked and once-beaten Curie is too good to be true, you'll be interested to learn that coach Mike Oliver predicts his team is about to get better and even better.
"This is the best team I have had, better than last year's (26-3) team," said Oliver, in his 16th season at the Southwest Side school. "We have 10 seniors who have won 100 games and lost only five in four years. As sophomores, they won the city title. They know how to win.
"We have experience at every position. We have size and speed. Our big guy (6-foot-9, 230-pound sophomore Cliff Alexander) complements our guards. We have good shooting. Our kids enjoy playing with each other. They don't get rattled much. They take success in stride."
Despite the intimidating presence of Alexander, who ranks as the No. 6 player in the class of 2014 nationally according to recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com, Oliver insists there isn't a superstar in the lineup, probably because the easy-going Alexander doesn't treat himself as a superstar.
"You can't think that you can beat Curie if you stop Alexander," Oliver said. "He respects his role as a rebounder, our inside presence, someone to control the paint. Our kids don't mind sharing the ball. Our second five can easily be our starting five."
If that isn't enough, the Condors added more depth and talent last week when 6-foot-3 guard Joseph Stamps, described by Oliver as "one of the best sophomores in the state," regained his eligibility. And Iowa-bound football star Maurice Fleming will rejoin the squad within the next week or two.
Stamps, who already has scholarship offers from DePaul and Ball State, is an outstanding scorer. He scored 53 points in an AAU game last summer. Fleming, who missed the football season with a torn ACL, is a 6-foot-1 senior who will back up point guard Jabreel Jackson.
"I feel good about how things are shaping up," Oliver said.
Curie carried a 13-1 record into Monday's game against North Chicago and high-scoring Aaron Simpson at Whitney Young. The Condors will host Harper on Tuesday and Lindblom on Thursday, then play at Whitney Young on Sunday in a matchup of two of the Public League's premier teams.
Last week, they overwhelmed King 88-43 as Alexander had 17 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks and Devin Foster added 14 points, Malcolm Hill-Bey and Marcellus Davis each had 11.
Their only loss was to top-ranked and unbeaten Simeon 45-28 in the championship game of the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. On the positive side, Curie only trailed 20-17 at halftime. On the negative side, the Condors managed only four points in the fourth quarter. And Alexander missed eight free throws in a row.
"We took a lot out of that game," Oliver said. "We know we can play with them. It was our second game of the day. We're encouraged that we saw them early. We know we have a lot of work to do to beat those type of teams, what it takes to win the state title. We have to work hard to get on their level.
"We have to continue to get better on defense, to accept our roles, not get big-headed, not to let the rankings get to our heads. We must continue to strive to be No. 1 at the end of the year, not early in the year. We want to be sure that we haven't peaked too early."
Alexander averages 12 points and nine rebounds per game. But the team leader, according to Oliver, is 6-foot-3 senior Devin Foster (17 ppg, 7 rpg). Other starters are 5-foot-10 senior point guard Jabreel Jackson (8 ppg, 7 assists, 2 steals), 6-foot-5 senior Thomas Smith (7 ppg) and 6-foot-1 senior Joshua Baston (6 ppg).
There is plenty of punch coming off the bench with 5-foot-10 senior Malcolm Hill-Bey (12 ppg), a transfer from Mount Carmel, 6-foot-6 junior Lavonta Jones and 6-foot-1 junior Marcellus Davis, the team's best shooter.
And now Oliver has to make room for Stamps and Fleming. It's a pleasant problem to have.
"These kids don't care who scores baskets. They just want to win," the coach said. "I just tell them to stick within their system. That's what winners do, believe in their system. I'm trying to get my kids to do that, to play their roles to the best of their ability."
For example, Oliver is looking for more leadership from Jackson, whom he calls "one of the best point guards in the city." Jackson has heard his coach's message loud and clear.
"It took us a few games to understand our roles, to understand what we have to do to win," Jackson said. "For me, I know I can score and make assists. But coach wants me to be more vocal and a leader on the court. Last year, I was more of a shooter. I wasn't used to passing, having the ball in my hands. As the point guard, I have to run the team and tell everybody what they have to do.
"By nature, I'm not a vocal person. I'm more of a laid-back kind of guy. That won't get it, the coach tells me. I have to take control, let things cruise. In our first game, against Gary (Indiana) Bowman, we were losing. Coach said I needed to step up and I didn't. We won the game but I didn't encourage my teammates. Coach pulled me aside after the game and let me know what my role is. I should be the coach on the court, he told me. Ever since, I've tried to be more of a leader. I get in their face if they aren't doing what they are supposed to be doing."
Foster believes Curie should have won the city title last year, that it lacked the experience and maturity that this team has. "We're playing like a family, like we are brothers. My role is to be a leader. I like to pass. I'd rather pass than score," he said.
Meanwhile, college recruiters keep trying to persuade Alexander to play football. They project him as an offensive left tackle. He played football as a freshman but wanted to concentrate on basketball. "Basketball is my strong point, what I am good at right now," he said.
Alexander also sees a bright future in basketball--for himself and for his team. "We can go somewhere and do things that we haven't done before. We can make history, like getting to the final at Pontiac. We have a lot of talent. We don't look at the rankings. We just want to win the last game of the season. That's the most important thing," he said.