Yes, they are keeping score at the Joliet West Tiger Thanksgiving Classic. Yes, they are playing to win. And, yes, that’s the No. 1 goal for every basketball team in the field.
Winning is not the only reason they are playing. There still is room for proper perspective to creep into the gymnasium, and you’ll find the pleasant aroma of that ideal wafting along the sideline if you look in the direction of Joliet West coach Luke Yaklich.
The tournament also is about player and team development.
Yaklich will take the opportunity to learn as much as he can about his Tigers during four days of action to open the season, the Tiger Classic running through pool-play matchups and the championship game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. He will be looking to turn a team that was 17-10 last year into a force come February and March.
He is as much a teacher as a basketball coach.
Yaklich already knows his Tigers will come up short in at least one area—height. He only has one player on his roster noticeably taller than himself, 6-8 senior Andre Hardy. Hardy reached double-digits in rebounding in Joliet West’s 70-44 victory over Aurora Central Catholic.
A good sign.
Look for Yaklich to mix and match parts around Hardy as Hardy continues to develop his game. He was a role player as a junior.
Morris Dunnigan, a 6-2 senior and four-year starter, likely will play every position on the floor except the one he is projected to play on the next level—point guard. Dunnigan has gone on record saying he is willing to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team.
And Yaklich is all about T-E-A-M, spelled with capital letters for emphasis. One of his strengths as a coach is putting his players in a position to succeed. Another is his ability to push them to reach maximum potential. He demands only one thing, really, effort, on and off the floor.
Joliet West returns two other regulars—5-10 senior Carl Terrell and 6-2 senior Brandon McCullum. Both are three-year starters. Terrell will play the point and run the show for the Tigers, act as an extension of his coach. His job will be to keep everyone involved. McCullum will be a jack-of-all-trades player, much like Dunnigan.
Dunnigan, Terrell and McCullum give Joliet West an edge on opponents in experience. They have been around the basketball block. If you like, call them the Three Amigos. They are brothers on the court.
And know this about them: Blink and they’ll whisk right on by you in a display of speed and athleticism. The Tigers will look to turn speed into a weapon as they look to push the tempo and spring traps on all those unsuspecting or unprepared to face their full-court defense.
Yaklich believes Joliet West can parlay its strengths into a 20-win season even with the non-conference schedule beefed up to include games vs. Thornton and Marian Catholic. And, don’t forget, the Tigers’ annual trek to the Pontiac Holiday Tournament over the Christmas break is sure to test their mettle.
“Expectations are always high,” he said. “We want to maximize our potential by the end of the year. We feel we’ve got some incredible senior leadership. We’ve got some guys that have a lot of experience. And we have some talented basketball players.
“So, we’re going to see how far that can take us and how we can grow together as a group over the course of the season.”
Tim Smith scored 12 points in Joliet West’s opener. He was one of three players to reach double figures. Another good sign.
“We’re looking for consistency of habits,” Yaklich said. “So, what habits have we practiced for the first two weeks? How consistent are they when we turn on the lights and actually play a game?”
“Absolutely,” Yaklich said of whether he can learn a lot about his team in the first week. “Bobby Knight said it best, ‘The stats indict. And film convicts.’ When you can put some stats to something and you can put some film and video to the things you’re trying to correct as a coach, then that obviously transfers over to more attention to detail in practice.”
Practice is the place where championship teams are made. Games are where lessons are learned.
“We can get our chemistry together,” Terrell said. “Then, we can work on our rotations, too. We’ve got to get our defensive rotations right because we’re short. We’re a short team. But if we pick it up and play defense we can play with anybody in the state.”
Dunnigan has made improvements in all facets of his game under Yacklich. He will depart a more polished player and more well-rounded individual.
“I just really grew,” he said. “I worked on my ball-handling. In college, that’s what they need me to do—I’m short up there. I’m kind of tall here. But I’m short up there.”