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Evan Gilyard passes the ball at practice. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

O’Brien: New-look Simeon still a threat

SHARE O’Brien: New-look Simeon still a threat
SHARE O’Brien: New-look Simeon still a threat

Simeon didn’t have a player sign with a high-major college on Wednesday, an extreme rarity in Robert Smith’s 13-year tenure as head coach. There also isn’t a transfer on this season’s squad and there isn’t a traditional big man. It will be a very new-look Wolverines in 2016-17.

“I like this group,” Smith said. “They don’t have all the expectations the other groups had. They can be more relaxed at the beginning of the season. They don’t have all that on their back. They still think they are going to win city and state, which is our goal every time we start the season.”

It would be a mistake to focus on what Simeon doesn’t have this season. The team is loaded with talent. Senior Evan Gilyard signed with UTEP. He’s the type of standout point guard that leads teams to state titles.

“I believe I can lead the team to the state championship,” Gilyard said. “We can accomplish everything with this group.”

Gilyard is battle-tested and has a knack for stepping up and dominating in clutch moments.

“If you look back, we had really good players the past few years but other teams throughout Illinois had great point guards and they won state titles,” Smith said. “We have that [this season], which is good.”

The Wolverines are guard heavy, always a major plus in high school basketball. Junior Kezo Brown is totally healthy again and had an excellent summer.

“He’s healthy physically and mentally, that’s half the battle,” Smith said. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger. I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen so far.”

Sophomore guard Kejuan Clements was a major contributor as a freshman, he will take on a much larger role. Gilyard, Clements and Brown are all fast and dynamic.

Talen Horton-Tucker, a 6-5 junior, is Simeon’s most highly-regarded prospect. He’s a difficult player to describe. He has a great motor and good ball-handling skills, but resembles a football defensive end far more than the usual high school basketball star. That makes him a matchup nightmare for opponents.

Junior Messiah Jones, a 6-5 forward, will be the other big. He’s an excellent rebounder with a nose for the ball. The bench is strong. Senior Madison Lowery will provide some muscle in the post and junior Kenny Pittman is the team’s top shooter.

“Although we are smaller, we are athletic,” Lowery said. “Messiah and I have big bodies and can jump and Talen has a 7-2 wingspan, that will help tremendously.”

The collection of smaller, quick players leads to an obvious question: Will Smith let them run?

Every preseason for the past few years Smith has said he expects his team to run more and play less half-court offense. Then a couple games into the season he pulls back and reverts to the familiar style he played in at Simeon under coach Bob Hambric. It’s a slow-tempo offense that ideally runs through the post. Simeon has been hugely successful playing the style, so it’s difficult to blame Smith for trusting it.

“I know every year I say how fast we are going to play,” Smith said. “But I think with this team we are definitely going to have to play fast because we have three point guards on the floor at all times. It will be a challenge for me to do some different stuff as a coach.”

Simon opens the season on Dec. 3 against Washington, DC powerhouse Gonzaga in the Chicago Elite Classic at UIC.

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