Oswego is 8-1, the best start in school history, and will carry a eight-game winning streak into Thursday's game against New Trier in the second round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
In fact, coach Kevin Schnable was so convinced that his team would be very good this season that he deliberately bulked up his schedule with opponents that would challenge his Panthers every step of the way.
A Thanksgiving tournament victory over highly rated Proviso East, last year's Class 4A runner-up, confirmed Schnable's preseason evaluation of his squad. At Proviso West, Oswego has a chance to change the minds of any doubters.
"I won't sandbag you. We have talent," Schnable said. "But talent isn't enough. As seniors, there is maturity and experience. And adding to the talent is playing tough and together, the right way at both ends of the court. They are unselfish and share the ball. All five guys on the floor do a job on defense and get after it."
Schnable, in his 15th year at Oswego, said he doesn't want to take anything away from his 26-7 team that finished second in the Class 3A tournament in 2009 or his 24-7 team that lost to Peoria Richwoods in the supersectional in 2010. But...
"Potentially, this team could be as good or better than those teams," he said. "I knew this could be our best team so I adjusted the schedule to test us. We passed the test by beating Proviso East in overtime. The Proviso West tournament will give us a good idea of how good we are."
Oswego opened with a 66-35 rout of Lincoln Park as Miles Simelton scored 21 points. But tougher tests lay ahead. "Proviso West is a measuring stick for us, a test to show how good we are. We get a chance to match up against some of the best teams in the state, to see what we can do against them," Simelton said.
"The coach has a lot of faith in us. He put us against a really good schedule. Four kids on our team have played travel basketball for a long time. We've been playing against kids from Simeon and Proviso East and Whitney Young since eighth grade. We aren't intimidated by them. We know how they play and what we need to do to compete against them."
Against Lincoln Park, Simelton scored 14 of his 21 points in the first half as Oswego built a 43-18 lead. But teammate Elliott McGaughy was even hotter. He converted 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, all in the first half. He also had six assists, four rebounds and three steals. Jack Kwiatkowski contributed 10 points and five rebounds.
"This is the best team as of Dec. 22 we've ever had," said Schnable, an Oswego graduate of 1992. "Time will tell if this group becomes and develops into our best ever. We won't know until March when we review our season and summarize it.
"The 2009 team was talented but also had intangibles of toughness and togetherness. They settled into their roles perfectly, played the game the right way and didn't care about credit, just winning. All five starters went on to play eight college basketball or football.
"Our current team is a bit more talented but what I really like is that we're senior dominated and battle tested. We're still working on the development of what it takes to win basketball games and championships that will take our program to the next level. If we get this group to where the 2009 group was in terms of believing, competing and playing for the right reasons, then we could have something special."
Winning hasn't come easy at Oswego. The Panthers made their first appearance in the state finals in 1974 under coach Steve Goers, who went on to become one of the winningest coaches in state history at Rockford Boylan. After Goers left, however, Oswego won only one regional title before Schnable's 2009 squad became the school's first team in over 30 years to win more than 20 games in a season.
But the Panthers have something going. They won 101 games in the last five years. And they played in the regional championship in four of the last five years, winning two of them. Last year's team finished 18-11, losing in the regional final.
This year's club is led by Simelton (21.4 ppg, 5 assists), a 6-foot senior point guard who is one of the best uncommitted prospects in the state, and McGaughy (16.4 PPG, 5 RPG, 5 assists), a 6-foot-2 senior. Both have played on the varsity for four years and have scored more than 1,000 points in their careers.
Simelton has scholarship offers from Chicago State, Brown, Princeton, Miami (Ohio) and California-Davis. He has a 3.4 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 24 on his ACT. He is eager to play basketball in college.
Other starters are Kwiatkowski (6 OOG, 6 RPG, 4 assists), a 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior who uses his football physicality to punish opponents on the basketball court, and 6-foot-2 senior Jamaal Richardson (2 PPG).
The fifth spot rotates between 5-foot-10 senior Danny Mangers (6.7 PPG), 6-foot-2 senior Darrion Reddick (8.4 PPG, 4 RPG) and 6-foot-4 senior Josh Oros (3.3 PPG).
"We have athletes and football players and we let them fly around and make things happen," Schnable said.
"What is the key to our success? We lack size so we try to guard inside by pressuring the outside. We play a fast pace. We force a lot more turnovers than we have committed. And we hold our own on the boards. We have held our opponents to under 60 points in the first eight games. And we're averaging 70 points per game. That's a good recipe for success."
Simelton points out that his team has made big strides since last season. He credits Richardson with being the catalyst. Richardson, another football player, didn't play basketball last year. "He is one of our best defensive players, the glue on our team," Simelton said.
But Simelton, who averaged 16 points per game last season, is the leader. He runs the team, controls the tempo, tries to get his teammates involved but never passes up a shot. In tight situations, he wants the ball in his hands. So does Schnable.
"The coach wants me to score more this year. He is expecting more scoring from me," Simelton said. "A few years ago, I was an off guard. But my production was better as a point guard. I evaluate the game as it is happening. I take what the defense gives me.
"As a potential Division I player, the coach wants me to have the same role as last year -- score and get the other players involved. But he also wants me to be the leader, the go-to player."
Simelton grew up watching the program, He got a chance to play with the 2009 team in the summer and played on the varsity as a freshman. Like Schnable, he draws similar comparisons between the 2009 and 2013 teams.
"We aren't nearly as big as the 2009 team," Simelton said. "But I do think some of the roles that they played, we have guys who fill those roles very well. I also feel we have something they didn't -- athleticism and quickness. We can go as far as we want to."
Kwiatkowski agrees. The third member of his family to play at Oswego, he describes his role as "energy, physicality, make small plays, play defense, fill up the statistics sheet with things that don't make the newspaper, doing the dirty work."
"This is our year," he said. "We want to live up to the expectations we made for ourselves. We want to exceed our goals. My brother told me: 'Keep the team close like a family. If you keep them close, no one can get through you.' This is a very close team. We have a lot of chemistry that we didn't have last year."
Kwiatkowski's brother Joe was a junior on the 2009 team. "They had a lot of senior leadership. That is everywhere on this team. There are no distractions. We have a fire underneath us and it is growing every game. Last year, we went to the regional final but we didn't live up to what we were supposed to be. This year is different," he said.
"We take every game with pride. We have pride in our defense. Sixty is our golden number this year. We know if we hold opponents to under 60 points, we will be successful. We know our fast-paced offense can score more points to win the game. The coach says we have a senior swagger to us. We have a lot of confidence. This is our time."