CHICAGO HEIGHTS | The Marian Catholic boys basketball team had just finished a two-hour practice. After gulping their sports drinks, the players wiped sweat from their brows and headed out.
Ki-Jana Crawford stopped in the hallway outside the team's locker room and talked with 8-year-old Casey Taylor, son of Spartans coach Mike Taylor. The younger Taylor was sitting on a bench and eating a bag of Fritos. Crawford kidded with him and Taylor smiled back.
A few minutes ago it was all business, now there was a certain looseness about the players. Taylor appeared to share his snack, but Crawford just laughed and said "No thanks."
Crawford didn't expect anything and that sums up the way he and his teammates feel about the season, which starts tonight when the Times No. 1 Spartans take on T.F. South at the Chicago Heights Classic.
"We know there is a target on our backs, and we do not expect anything to be handed to us," Crawford said. "Last year was last year."
Each of the other four returning starters -- Kentucky recruit and 2012-13 Times Player of Year Tyler Ulis, T.J. Parham, John Oliver and Josh Cohn agreed with their teammate. The Spartans set a program record with 29 wins last year, winning the McDipper tournament as well as a regional and the program's first sectional. Marian fell 68-49 to Edwardsville in the Class 4A Illinois State Super-Sectional.
Coach Taylor said he and assistant coach Kevin Kelly talked to the players about not putting the cart before the horse.
"With 10 seniors on the team, you have that kind of leadership, but we told them about not paying attention if everyone is telling them how good they are," Taylor said. "They know what they are capable of doing, but this is a new year.
"With that said, we are excited about this year and and optimistic."
Ulis said they are taking the season seriously, but also are not too full of themselves.
"We heard people say we're not as good as last year," Ulis said. "We just don't pay any attention to how good or how bad people say we are going to be.
"We come out, and we are serious about practice. We have one goal and that is to get to state."
Cohn said that individual statistics are not as important Ulis' goal.
"We didn't get it donel, and we know we have to get better," Cohn said. "We played together in the summer, AAU ball and the fact we are close is a good thing."
The teammates are friends off the court.
"We are like brothers," Cohn said. "We are family and that is true. We hang together."
Crawford jumped in, as did Parham with a response.
"If you saw us playing against each other, you wouldn't think we were teammates," Crawford said. "It gets pretty competitive.
Said Parham: "We get at it with each other, but at the end of the day, we are brothers."
Taylor said that is one of the advantages of this group.
"They know how to win and they do go hard against each other," Taylor said. "The one thing with this group is they are focused and they have to be.
"With our schedule, you can't have a night off."
The Spartans will also play prep powerhouse Etiwanda (Calif.) at the UIC Pavilion on Dec. 7.
Ulis will be a four-year starter, while Oliver, Cohn and Crawford will be three-year starters. Parham started in early December when he became eligible after his transfer.
There is no doubt when teams try to stop Marian, they look to stop Ulis first. His teammates say what make Ulis special is while he averaged 21.9 points per game, he never failed to distribute the ball or play defense as his 4.8 assists and 2.8 steal per game indicate.
"Tyler gets us all involved, but when he needs to, Tyler shoots," Oliver said. "He knows how to take over a game and it might be by hitting an open man or just going to the basket.
"Tyler is a leader."
Ulis said it is a team thing and he likes the idea of the team having depth.
"You cannot just focus on me because everyone on this team is capable of having a big night," Ulis said. "That's the great thing; we all play together."