By Joe Henricksen
The Simeon basketball program has been a fixture in Illinois high school hoops since the early 1980s. The late Bob Hambric, a legendary coach for 24 years, built a powerhouse that averaged 26 wins a season in the 1980s and captured a state title in 1984. Robert Smith took over in 2004 and, with the help of superstar Derrick Rose, has elevated the program to another level.
Now Simeon may have its best team in school history. Yes, the Hoops Report believes that — on paper — Simeon is better than the Derrick Rose-led Simeon team in 2007. There is more depth, more size and clearly more college basketball prospects and overall talent. While that 33-2 team in 2006-2007 was certainly special, it didn’t have the overwhelming talent this group has. But the greatness of Rose clearly lifted that team and covered up weaknesses and made everyone better.
This Simeon team is just plain better. State champion a year ago, even better this year. Some would say that’s unfair. The Hoops Report says, “That’s just Simeon.” This group still has to go out and earn it and prove it can be among the all-time great teams. The Hoops Report provides 20 reasons to like Simeon as it tries to win a second consecutive state championship and fourth in six years.
1. Rob Smith. Since Simeon elevated its status in the last decade, players have come and gone. But the one constant with Simeon has been coach Rob Smith, who is the pulse of the program.
2. Jabari Parker. There could be an argument made that Parker, who is just a sophomore, is the best college prospect in the state of Illinois — regardless of class — not named Anthony Davis. This kid just gets it, while also possessing a skill package and size at 6-7 that simply makes him special. He’s a Paul Pierce clone who puts winning and getting better before everything else on the floor.
3. History. Simeon is drenched in history. There isn’t a program in Illinois right now with a better combination of recent and past history. Yes, there were the Bob Hambric years over the 1980s and 1990s that included 500-plus wins, a state title in 1984, multiple trips to the Elite Eight and big names in the program like Ben Wilson, Deon Thomas and Nick Anderson. But think about the staggering success Simeon has had under Robert Smith. In the last six years Simeon has gone 168-33 with three state titles and a second-place finish.
4. Seniors. There isn’t a high-major player in the group, but a half dozen seniors in this program have gained valuable varsity experience. The veteran group of Darien Walker, Rashawn McElrath, Ahman Fells, Tywon Pinckney, Kevin Hunter and Terrell Green have already been through a state title run as juniors.
5. Depth. Simeon’s second team would be a preseason Top 25 team. The only program in the state of Illinois that can match the depth Simeon has to offer is Whitney Young. No one else comes close. Simeon can go 12 deep.
6. Size. The previous Simeon juggernauts, including last year’s state title team, wasn’t blessed with enormous size. While Simeon has had an inside presence on the block with those teams (i.e. Tim Flowers), they didn’t have the overall size and length of this one. Even the Derrick Rose-led teams didn’t have a lot of height. But Parker is 6-7, Steve Taylor is 6-7, Ahman Fells is 6-6 and Rashawn McElrath is 6-6. That is great size and length.
7. Talent at every position. Yes, it’s a loaded team. But it’s also a team loaded at every position with various strengths.
8. Improved point guard play. Simeon won a state championship a year ago without a truly experienced point guard. Inexperience and youth are no longer an issue at the point guard position as the combination of junior Jelani Neely and senior Tywon Pinckney have gained big-game experience.
9. Ability to play different ways. Simeon has always been known as the one city team that can handle playing at a slower pace. At times it’s almost a negative for the Wolverines, who have let teams stick around as Simeon chose to slow the tempo offensively or stay content in their zone. The fact is, however, Simeon doesn’t freak out when the pace of a game changes.
10. A defensive stopper. When Darien Walker, Simeon’s 6-2 strong-bodied guard, puts his mind to it he can be a difference-making defender on the perimeter. He is strong, physical and brings toughness.
11. Well prepared. The Simeon schedule is loaded again, with dates set with the No. 2 team (Whitney Young), No. 3 team (De La Salle) and No. 4 team (Morgan Park) in the Hoops Report’s preseason Top 25. Simeon plays in arguably the state’s toughest conference and travels to Pontiac for the holidays to get a different vibe, feel and style of basketball. Simeon is always prepared for March having played different styles and in different atmospheres.
12. Improved players. There are several players that have made significant jumps from a year ago, including the improved play of the senior duo of Darien Walker and Ahman Fells. Both Walker and Fells are clearly two steps ahead of where they were a year ago. Plus, the big-named young talent, like Jabari Parker and Steve Taylor, are a year older, wiser and better.
13. Role players abound. Sure Simeon has the big names in young stars like Parker and Taylor, the top-rated prospects in their respective classes. But we’re talking players no one talks about that will provide big plays this season. Keep an eye on guard Terrell Green, who could evolve into the ultimate role guy this season.
14. Versatility. When a coach has Parker at his disposal he can go a lot of different ways. Parker can literally play all five positions on the floor if he needs to. Simeon can go big with Parker in the backcourt, create mismatches, play in the halfcourt or get out and put pressure on opponents. Simeon has the ability to go 12 deep if it wants with a combination of Rob Smith’s choosing: experience, youth, size, athleticism or quickness.
15. Discipline. Aside from some of the great talent Simeon has had over the years, an underrated part of the success has been the discipline this program has instilled into each one of its teams. The Wolverines typically don’t force up poor shots and are religious with their defensive assignments in the halfcourt.
16. They just play. Watch Simeon over and over again and you appreciate the nature in which they go about things. There are rarely pouty looks, few quick or ill-advised shots, hardly ever a lack of hustle. Part of it is the fact Smith has the respect of his players, while also having the ability to go immediately to his bench and find a quality replacement.
17. Stability. In a little over 30 years Simeon has had just two coaches in Bob Hambric and Robert Smith. And Smith is a Hambric protégé, keeping many of the same values and principles in the program. This is an underrated value and strength in any program at any level and in any sport.
18. Cool uniforms. Each year Simeon is one of the best-dressed teams in the state. Hey, there are some bad high school uniforms out there. Style counts for something.
19. Commitment to excellence. The program consistently aspires for the top, not settling for average of even being just good.
20. Swagger and confidence. Simeon plays with a confidence that doesn’t boil over to cockiness. There is a little bit of an aura surrounding the program, with the history, the recent state titles and of course the legend of Derrick Rose growing by the day while starring for the Bulls.
So what’s not to like? How could things possibly go awry?
If anyone wants to nitpick it could say Simeon may lack terrific perimeter shooting. However, Walker is much improved from the perimeter, Parker has range out to the three-point line and sophomore Kendrick Nunn, while a little inexperienced, can certainly fill a role with his perimeter shooting.
And of course players are going to have to be accepting of their roles with so much talent within the program. But that’s where Simeon has differed from other great teams. The players in this program, when it’s all said and done, typically do settle into their roles and have their eyes on the prize: a state championship.
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