This was supposed to be a season with no truly great team in the Chicago area, a “different” type of season where so many teams could speak legitimately of titles.
The always loaded Pontiac Holiday Tournament was as deep and wide open as ever when the seeds came out. No one would be able to run through the rugged Red-South/Central unbeaten. The city was up for grabs. State title contenders were aplenty.
Curie’s city title game win Sunday over Morgan Park, which moved its record to 29-1 on the season without a single loss to an in-state team, ends that narrative. Coach Mike Oliver’s Condors have actually brought back normalcy or what we’ve been accustomed to over the years –– a legitimate powerhouse.
It wasn’t supposed to be, but we do have a legitimate powerhouse; it’s just not headlined by an Okafor, a Brunson, a Big Cliff of Jabari.
We do have a team that’s clearly stands alone at the top in the Chicago area, one that’s run roughshod in winning the state’s best holiday tournament, best conference and capturing a Public League championship; it just doesn’t feature multiple Division I players like a Young, Simeon or Morgan Park of the past.
Yes, normalcy. A legitimate powerhouse. It’s just that no one really noticed or recognized it until now. Even Oliver wasn’t so sure.
“I really wasn’t sure about this team when the season started,” says Oliver. “There were a lot of questions. I certainly didn’t expect to have the record we have.”
All season long we talked about how Belleville West was the team to beat in Class 4A, that the city was deep and wide open. And as Curie piled up wins and moved up to No. 1 in the rankings, we all thought it would eventually succumb to some ranked team. But it never happened.
Curie beat Morgan Park twice, including once on the road by 32 points. The Condors beat both Simeon and Class 2A state title contender Orr twice. They’ve knocked off Bogan, New Trier and Bloom.
They beat East St. Louis from the southern part of the state and they’ve gone out of state for wins, beating 24-win Raleigh-Egypt out of Memphis, the No. 5 ranked team in Tennessee, and Eduprize, a 25-1 team ranked No. 4 in Arizona.
The lone loss came by just six points to the No. 5 ranked team in the country, 29-0 Salesian College Prep out of California.
The reason the Condors have been as overlooked as a No. 1 team can possibly be overlooked is they don’t look like world-beaters. Even their star, Kansas State recruit DaJuan Gordon, is an understated one, though his 28-point city championship showing Sunday night kind of dispels that.
There is obviously terrific talent in place, headlined by Gordon and supported by underrated point guard Trevon Hamilton and emerging junior Ramean Hinton. But this team is different. It’s even different from Curie’s 2015-16 state championship team or the extremely talented team of 2013-14, led by Cliff Alexander, that went off the rails late in the season due to off-the-court issues.
This Curie team seems to have its own DNA, with an old school approach and mind-set. Toughness. Togetherness. Sharing the ball. Consistency. Playing within themselves. They will grind it out defensively and pop you with just enough offense. All the coach-speak that sometimes is taken for granted.
“How close this team has become and how they have bought into being one unit,” says Oliver of what he sees as the biggest surprise over the course of the season. “They really have bought into the defensive end.”
Gordon is a legit star. The 6-4 wing has played big this season in the most important moments and produced at a high level and in an inflappable efficient way. But while Gordon is the recognized name, it’s been Hamilton who has set the tone with all the intangibles while being relatively ignored or at least under-appreciated.
“Trevon Hamilton became that guy everyone believes in, who they all trust and respect,” says Oliver of his four-year varsity player.
Thus, Hamilton is one of those rare players for any coach, an easy player to coach with no maintenance required.
This sounds like a coronation column –– and to a degree it is, though it’s a Public League and a 2018-2019 regular-season coronation. Curie can enjoy it for another week.
But starting next week the Condors now have a target and bulls-eye on their back, because this is without question the team to beat in what will be the toughest road to Peoria.
Curie is the top-seeded team in the Proviso West Sectional. Uber-talented and highly-ranked Young is the No. 2 seed and will be playing in a gym it’s very familiar with from playing in the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
Then if it can get by a deep sectional field, the likes of Simeon, Bloom or Marian Catholic could be waiting for Curie in the Evanston Super.
If Curie is playing in Peoria and is two wins from a second state championship in program history four weeks from now, Oliver’s boys will have earned it.
Oliver would surely have liked to be able to play the disrespect card a little longer. But there is a different feel about this team today, heading into March, then there was at any point this season because of the three-plus months of heavy lifting the Condors have put in. We have our powerhouse team. Come and get them.