Khalil Small, Kevin King, Teadric Anderson and their Providence-St. Mel teammates were looking forward to this week's trip to the State Farm Classic in Bloomington as a "good test," a chance to measure themselves against the likes of state-rated Quincy Notre Dame, St. Joseph or Rockford Lutheran.
They opened in impressive fashion on Wednesday by storming to a 31-17 halftime lead and coasting to a 62-37 victory over Cissna Park. Small led a balanced attack by scoring 17 points.
But, to a man, they have circled Jan. 15 on their calendars. That is when Providence-St. Mel hosts Seton Academy in what is being described as a prelude to the Class 2A championship.
"That will be a signature game," St. Mel coach Tim Irvin said. "It will tell us how good we are."
A year ago, St. Mel finished 23-7, losing to Seton in the supersectional.
"We can't wait for the Seton game," King said. "Last year, I tried to prove as a sophomore that I can put a team on the map by being the best player I can be. But I was too young last year. I have another chance to prove it this year. I wasn't focused last year. My attitude was score, score, score. I wasn't focused on defense, the best part of my game."
Anderson said he still remembers the feeling in the locker room after the 61-51 loss to Seton. "We remember that supersectional every time we step on the floor. I remember the feeling of the seniors. I feel we owe it to pay them back. We felt we could have been a contender for the state title. But we didn't get it done because of small things," he said.
"It was a terrible feeling...loose balls, rebounds, mental breakdowns here and there. I'm the team leader. My job is easy. We're all on the same page. We all realize our goal is to win the state title. I just have to keep them motivated, to make sure we are having fun and have a love for the game."
St. Mel could be 11-0. The Knights, who handed highly rated North Chicago its only setback two weeks ago, lost to Hyde Park by two on a last-second tip and to Indiana power Indianapolis Brebeuf by four in overtime when King, who scored 19 points, was sidelined for the last six minutes with a knee injury.
"This is my best team in terms of how hard they play," said Ervin, noting that the top six players have returned. "They enjoy playing with each other. They have bought into the system in playing defense and being unselfish. We lack size so our two big kids have to play big for us. We must continue to be humble and hungry and not take anyone for granted."
The lineup features Small (20 ppg), a 6-foot-2 senior; King (18 ppg), a 6-foot-2 junior; Anderson (8 ppg, 5 assists), a 6-foot senior point guard; Anthony Mosley (9 ppg), a 6-foot-1 sophomore; and Donald Morgan (7 ppg), a 6-foot-2 senior.
There is plenty of punch off the bench with 6-foot-2 junior Bernard Lilly and the two bigs, 6-foot-4 sophomore Tyler Turner and 6-foot-4 junior Joshuan McNeal. Turner is a transfer from Fenwick. McNeal was academically ineligible last season.
"This year we are more hungry," Anderson said. "Our edge this year is defensive intensity. We preach defense this year. Everyone has stepped up on the defensive end. We're boxing out more and putting more pressure on the ball and talking more. It is a team effort."
Anderson said every player has improved in at least one facet of the game...King on offense, Anderson on defense, Mosley is more aggressive, McNeal and Morgan and Turner are boxing out more, Small is passing better.
Ervin, a 1991 graduate of St. Mel, has made quite a comeback at his alma mater. After playing for Gene Keady and graduating from Purdue in 1995, he worked at a financial company while serving as an assistant coach at St. Mel from 1995 to 2000.
He was named head coach in 2001 and took St. Mel to the Elite Eight in 2002. A year later, however, he went 0-26 and was fired. He was out of coaching for six years, then was rehired at St. Mel only 10 days before the 2009-10 season began.
"There was no bitterness over being fired," Ervin said. "I understood. It all worked out."
He has reminded his players of Tom Shields' 1985 state championship team that was led by Lowell Hamilton, Fernando Bunch and Joe Jackson. Small, King, Anderson and their teammates were born well after that glorious season but they have heard the stories of how it used to be and the way it was at the West Side school. And they want to write another chapter.
"Kids don't relate to the 1980s but they know about it," Ervin said. "They see the trophies in the trophy case. They want to restore that feeling in the school. Today, kids have a short shelf life. But they know the importance of tradition. They are excited about the progress we have made."
St. Mel's 1985 team might have been the best ever to compete at the small-school level in Illinois. Better than the unbeaten Lawrenceville teams of 1982 and 1983 with Marty Simmons? Better than the 1979 Providence team with Walter Downing? Maybe.
"We are aware of the state championship team of 1985," Anderson said.
"We want to bring back that winning tradition and the reputation we had. We have met the players. They were very good and played hard. They were dominant. We want to renew that."
King, who chose St. Mel over Whitney Young, Marshall and Crane "because it gave me a better opportunity to prove that I didn't have to go to a powerhouse school to make a name for myself and also academically prepare me of for life," learned about the 1985 team after he enrolled.
"We think about going back and doing what the 1985 team did," King said. "A lot of people hadn't thought about our basketball team for a while. Now there is a lot of support. When I was growing up on the West Side, I didn't know about St. Mel, only Marshall and Crane and Whitney Young. But now we know we can be something special.
"This team is more mature and more disciplined and more focused than last year. We have got in our minds that we really want to win state. Last year, we got caught up in the hype. We got too big-headed. But we got into the gym over the summer and worked together. We got to know each other better."
And they circled Jan. 15 on their calendars.