LINCOLN - Advancing to last year's Elite Eight surprised everyone around this basketball hotbed, including Lincoln High School's players.
So did the beginning of this season.
"We were counting on last year a little bit. We said, 'We're good. We got to state and only lost two players. We can just walk in and win,' " said senior point guard Curt Courtwright. "We found out real quickly that we've got to get focused."
The Railsplitters got off to a 3-3 start as players adjusted to different roles. Then they got focused. While Lincoln isn't the 3-point shooting machine it has been the past couple years, the Railers again find themselves believing a return trip to Peoria's Carver Arena for the Class AA State Tournament isn't out of the question.
Lincoln won its fourth straight Central State Eight Conference championship while rolling to a 23-7 record. The Railers are the No. 3 seed in the Champaign Centennial Sectional and meet University High in a Lincoln Regional semifinal game at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
"We're playing the best we've played all season, but I think we still have another level," said Lincoln senior guard Jacob Carey.
Lincoln lost its two leading scorers from last season's 31-5 squad in John Harmsen and David Pickering. The Railers picked up a transfer from Pennsylvania in 6-5 Josh Sutton, but when practice began valuable sixth-man Chris Gossett decided not to come out for the team.
Things were definitely different.
"We were still feeling each other out as a team, knowing our specific duties and how we were going to play together," said Carey. "That was the major problem. Once we got going as a team and found out who's going to shoot the ball we started playing a lot better."
Gossett had a change of heart and asked if he could return. Coach Neil Alexander put it up to a team vote and Gossett was allowed back. He began playing again during the Collinsville Holiday Tournament.
With Sutton settling in and Gossett becoming a valuable reserve again, Lincoln has hit its stride since Jan. 1. The Railers have won 14 of 16 games, with the only losses coming to Alton in overtime during the Chatham Glenwood Tournament championship game and a one-point setback at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin.
"Gossett does make a difference," said Alexander. "He could have been a starter last year, but he likes coming off the bench. He feels more comfortable doing that."
Lincoln still relies on its suffocating 1-2-2 ball-press defense, allowing an area-low 42.1 points per game and forcing 20.6 turnovers. But the Railers aren't shooting the 3-ball as well, making 31.8 percent beyond the arc.
"We don't have as good of shooters as what we've had, but I think we have better scorers," said Alexander. "I'm not saying we can't shoot it, but we score in different ways than we have the past two or three years. We get it inside, take it to the hole, pull-up. We're a little more multi-dimensional."
Junior guard Brandon Farmer is Lincoln's leading scorer with a 15.0 average. Junior forward Matt Schick contributes 11.1 points, while Carey adds 10.3 and Gossett 8.3.
It would be a mistake to leave Lincoln with clear looks outside the arc. Carey has made 67 3-pointers, with Farmer (52) and Schick (46) also threats to shoot anytime.
Courtwright won't score much (2.9 points), but that's just fine with Alexander.
"He's a perfect point guard for our system. All he wants to do is win," said the Lincoln coach. "He competes and plays hard and gets the ball to people who shoot it and he plays great defense. He's a hard-nosed kid."
Alexander believes Sutton (3.8 points, 2.2 rebounds) will be much more comfortable next season when he understands the system better. It probably didn't take Sutton long, though, to realize Lincoln wears down opponents with its defense.
"Mainly our game is putting pressure on the other team's offense, make them turn the ball over and capitalize on their turnovers," said Courtwright.
"Our defense gets into people and wants to get after it as a team and flow as one," said Carey.
Carey insists this won't be a successful season unless Lincoln can at least make it to Redbird Arena for the ISU Super-Sectional on March 14. Courtwright agrees, saying the postseason "is most of your season."
However, Alexander doesn't believe the Railers should judge their season solely on what happens from here on out.
"I know they want to go back (to state), but you have to be realistic. There's a lot of good teams out there," said Alexander. "We got some breaks last year. You have to have breaks, not only your team but other teams getting upset because of matchups. There's a lot of different things that go into it."