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Curie's Cliff Alexander moves along the base line past Morgan Park's Lamont Walker. | Patrick Gleason/For Sun-Times Media
When the 2013-2014 season kicks off in November, Curie coach Mike Oliver faces a special breed of expectations as coach of the team that returns Cliff Alexander.
These are expectations Simeon and Whitney Young are accustomed to dealing with. Now it's Curie's turn.
With the star power of Alexander comes elevated hopes from some demanding city basketball fans waiting for Curie to show it's prepared to take the final championship step. Sure, Curie has won a whole lot of games under Oliver in the past two decades. However, never in that time has there been a preseason buzz quite like what's building for the Condors this offseason.
Oliver is anxiously awaiting it all this winter -- yes, bring on those expectations -- as he and his team know it's put up or shut up time. This is a program that has been a consistent winner, but has yet to win a city championship in February or a sectional title in March. Oliver doesn't dismiss what's at stake or what this team is capable of this season.
After receiving a punch to the gut when Wayne Blackshear transferred out of Curie midway through his junior season a few years back (How many coaches lose a McDonald's All-American midway through their career?), Oliver is living in the moment and embracing the expectations.
"We talk about that," says Oliver of his team getting over the hump and taking advantage of the moment. "We talk about that this is the year to do it, this is our opportunity. We have done everything but win a city championship. Really, anything less than winning a city championship this year will be a disappointment. That is just how we look at it this year."
Then there is the minefield of the sectional Curie is always placed in, which includes both Simeon and Whitney Young, along with up-and-coming St. Rita.
But Oliver says there are no more excuses. With the returning talent, which includes one of the nation's most dominant individual talents, Curie is a legitimate threat to break through.
"We can't say we are young," Oliver points out. "We have seven seniors. This is the year we should do it and meet all of our expectations. We can play with anyone. We finally have that superstar, and we have pieces around him."
Yes, the superstar, the 6-9 difference-making Alexander, is primed and ready to go. Anyone who watched Alexander last winter but hasn't seen him play since, won't recognize him in comparison to what he was as a player last winter. He's more than a prized prospect and specimen; he's a dominant player who's improving, it seems, by the day.
Oliver has a couple of potentially potent offensive weapons on the perimeter in senior Joseph Stamps and promising junior Joshua Stamps, who both have varsity experience. Plus, sophomore point guard Devin Gage is one of the better prospects in the Class of 2016.
Oliver believes Joseph Stamps, who has had an embattled career, is poised to put together a senior season worth talking about.
"Joseph has matured," says Oliver. "He understands this is it for him. Next year is now for him. He took care of his responsibilities, and in return I am going to be giving him more responsibility. We expect big things from him. Joseph is capable of being one of the best scoring guards in the city."
While Alexander is clearly the star, and the Stamps brothers are prepared to be consistent scorers on the wing, the key may be the development of Gage at the point guard position.
"He doesn't have to carry us," Oliver points out of his young point guard. "But he must be a complete point guard and be someone who despite only being a sophomore can be a leader. When it comes time for the city playoffs, you have to have good guard play. That's the key."
Adding depth behind Gage at point guard will be Marcus Gathling, a 5-10 senior who transferred in from Foreman. Oliver is excited about how vocal and tough Gathling is as a lead guard.
"We have the right pieces," says Oliver, whose team will face an upgraded schedule that includes a showdown with St. Rita and trips to the Marshall County Hoopfest and the Chicago Elite Classic in early December. "We'll be ready no matter what the expectations are."
Team Rose Shootout • Curie High School • Dec. 1
• Gordon Tech vs. Von Steuben @ 11:00 a.m.
• North Lawndale vs. East St. Louis @ 12:30 p.m.
• Providence St. Mel vs. Farragut @ 2:00 p.m.
• Morton vs. Homewood-Flossmoor @ 3:00 p.m.
• St. Rita vs. Curie @ 5:00 p.m.