Ben Niemann, Sycamore, senior forward
Niemann led the Spartans with 16 points and 14 rebounds in a big nonconference victory at Burlington Central on Tuesday.
Although lacking height compared to the prototypical center, Niemann's strength and toughness often allows the Iowa football commit to hold opposing big men in check.
WHAT TO WATCH
Sycamore at Kaneland, 7 p.m. Friday
The second matchup between the two best teams in the NI Big 12 East will be the showcase game of a boys-girls double-header.
DeKalb at Rochelle, 4:30 p.m. Saturday
The Barbs head to Rochelle for the second of back-to-back NI Big 12 East road games.
1. Sycamore (14-3, 4-0 Northern Illinois Big 12 East) – Clear-cut best team in the area
2. Indian Creek (11-5, 5-0 Little Ten) – T'wolves continue to roll in Little Ten
3. Genoa-Kingston (13-6, 5-1 BNC East) – Great defensive effort against Rockford Christian
4. Kaneland (9-6, 2-2 NI Big 12) – Loss to Yorkville means conference title hopes are slipping away
5. DeKalb (7-13, 0-3 NI Big 12) – Barbs struggling to close games in conference play
6. Hinckley-Big Rock (5-12, 2-3 LTC) – Royals trying to gain momentum before LTC tournament.
7. Hiawatha (1-9, 0-4 LTC) – Hawks on a mid-season slide
Last year Jake Winters split time at point guard with David Compher as a junior, helping Sycamore to its first regional championship in 10 years.
Now in 2014, Winters is benefitting from last year's experience as the full-time starter.
"Every minute those juniors are on the floor, it's a huge step up from sophomore basketball," Sycamore coach Andrew Stacy said. "Getting as much experience as he did, getting able to play half the game and starting a handful of games for us. They're able to understand what we're trying to do offensively and defensively."
On a team loaded with experienced seniors and blessed with a deep bench, Winters has provided a steady hand at the point and possesses a knack for making the right passes in most situations.
Stacy said reserve Daniel Evans, who gets a fair share of minutes when Winters is out, has done a good job of pushing Winters in practice, replicating a similar dynamic between Compher and Winters last year.
"[Winters] is a smart kid. He's a basketball junkie. He knows what we want and he does a great job running our offense and getting the ball to our scorers," Stacy said. "What's really improved for him is his defense. His decision-making has really improved."
Lucca's leadership: Genoa-Kingston's coaching staff told sophomore point guard Tommy Lucca a story about Derrick Rose only scoring one point in the state championship game his senior year.
After G-K's offense had struggled for a couple weeks, the Cogs regrouped with a solid effort against Rockford Christian and Lucca was at the forefront. The team's leading scorer didn't record a point until the fourth quarter and dished out seven assists in the win.
"I think he was a true floor general [Tuesday]. I think he got his teammates involved," G-K coach Corey Jenkins said. "I think he directed well out there. He was a true floor leader."
With many teams now focused on getting the ball out of Lucca's hands and forcing others to beat them on the offensive end, Lucca will have to keep making good decisions on when to defer and when to score.
"We all know he's our go-to guy. In the crunch situation we want him to have the ball," Jenkins said. "Guys were making good reads as far as diving and Tommy seemed to find the open guy. It was a pretty collective effort."
VIEWS: Player of the Year race still wide open.
One of the questions we're asked most often is how we determine our Player of the Year winners in various sports. While we seek input from area coaches after the season ends, much of it comes from our staff's personal observations during all the games we cover. Team success also play a part.
So as the regular season comes into its final month, here are my top 3 candidates for Player of the Year right now, listed in alphabetical order.
Keep in mind that this is not a final list of candidates, just a show of where players stand as of now.
Garrison Govig: The 6-foot-9 senior center for Indian Creek probably has the most double-doubles in the area. Playing against Class 1A teams that often have trouble matching up against his size, Govig is not only an offensive threat, but also a defensive force.
The Timberwolves are undefeated in the Little Ten and could be on their way to winning that elusive conference title.
Tommy Lucca: On any given night, the Genoa-Kingston sophomore point guard can put up 20-plus points. Lucca is perhaps the most explosive scorer in the area.
The Cogs are tied atop the Big Northern Conference East standings and a conference title would go a long way in helping his candidacy.
Devin Mottet: The Sycamore senior forward is a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches. Mottet has the ability to post up inside, but can also play out on the wing and bury 3-pointers.
Mottet may not lead the Spartans in scoring or rebounding every night and his game often isn't flashy, but at the end of most games his stat sheet is filled.
The Spartans are the best team in the area and Mottet is one of the big reasons.
• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @RossJacobson.