It’s time to fully appreciate top-ranked Glenbard West

Glenbard West is a No. 1 that probably should receive more applause for what it is.

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Glenbard West’s Ryan Renfro (45) and Caden Pierce (3) embrace after winning the game against Young.

Glenbard West’s Ryan Renfro (45) and Caden Pierce (3) embrace after winning the game against Young.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Glenbard West has been No. 1 since the season started and remains there. The Hilltoppers are a known commodity in high school basketball. 

The star of the team, Braden Huff, signed with a college basketball giant. Huff is headed to Gonzaga next year and is arguably the state’s best college prospect. 

And there are others headed to Division I programs, including Huff’s running mate, Princeton recruit Caden Pierce. 

But you can’t get past the feeling this is still, collectively, a questioned and oddly overlooked unbeaten, top-ranked team — at least historically as far as unbeaten, top-ranked teams in late January go.

The easy takeaway for me from the When Sides Collide Shootout this past weekend is that Glenbard West is indeed No. 1. But it’s a No. 1 that should probably be more applauded for what it is. 

The talent and size, highlighted by Huff, has been discussed. Throughout this season the 1-3-1 zone the Hilltoppers throw at opponents with their tremendous length and the variations they simply slide into has been nearly impossible for teams to attack. And it starts with a menacing Pierce, a long, athletic and active 6-5 defensive savant at the top of it. 

The complete domination on the floor should count for something. 

They’ve beaten 16 teams by 20-plus points with their starters sitting most fourth quarters, including 11 wins over teams that have been ranked this season.

They beat No. 12 Rolling Meadows by 18 points and No. 16 Lyons twice by a combined 69 points. They beat No. 14 Larkin by 21 and No. 8 Young by 15. They own wins over No. 2 Glenbrook South and No. 6 Hillcrest.

The 22-0 Hilltoppers have dominated.

With Huff, coach Jason Opoka has a star he can do — and does — so much with. Huff can handle it and beat big men off the dribble. He can take smaller defenders inside. He can draw attention, even double teams, and make others around him better and more effective with his uncanny passing and vision. Glenbard West can exploit mismatches in a way others aren’t able to do. 

But this team has so much more than an impenetrable defense, multiple Division I players and a high-major recruit who happens to also be a 6-11 difference-maker. The Hilltoppers have so many intangibles that go with the aforementioned strengths. 

Why people dismiss — or maybe just don’t appreciate? — the importance of “championship characteristics” is maybe why there is debate by some if this unbeaten team is No. 1 and, more importantly, whether it will ever vacate the spot or be there in the end? 

The chemistry, continuity and unselfishness this team plays with is a total blast to watch. This is top-of-the-line stuff. There are no jigsaw pieces to make a puzzle; they already fit. 

There is outstanding ball movement, something you simply don’t see all that often, and a group that plays together. There doesn’t seem to even be a hint of a single bad apple on this team. Even better, there doesn’t appear to be someone who doesn’t have an exact understanding of his role in the team’s hierarchy. 

You have to applaud players like Paxton Warden and Ryan Renfro. Warden, who is committed to Illinois as a walk-on, and Army recruit Renfro, are ultimate dirty work guys. They provide the nitty-gritty plays — come up with loose balls, provide some physicality, rebound, tip a rebound to a teammate, keep the ball alive and provide scoring in a pinch. 

Then there is the point differential. All season long it’s been a little eye-opening, including easy, double-digit wins over ranked teams. 

They’ve beaten 16 teams by 20-plus points with their starters sitting most fourth quarters. They beat No. 12 Rolling Meadows by 18 points and No. 16 Lyons twice by a combined 69 points. They beat No. 14 Larkin by 21 and No. 8 Young by 15. They own wins over No. 2 Glenbrook South and No. 6 Hillcrest.

Is Glenbard West unbeatable? Well, so far, yes. But the answer is no. This is high school basketball and as good as the Hilltoppers are right now, this team can lose in March. Adversity will arrive sooner or later. 

Can they run the table? Sure. Though that hasn’t been done by a big school state champion since King in 1993. 

However, through Jan. 23 of this 2021-22 season there is no debate. Glenbard West is No. 1, the best team in the state. However, being No. 1 as you approach the end of January doesn’t mean anything tangible.

There is talk of Glenbard West not having a traditional point guard, which is hardly an issue with the versatile Huff, Pierce and Bobby Durkin all being able to handle the ball enough to get them into their offense. 

There is definitely a lack of depth that can’t be hidden. But that has yet to impact the Hilltoppers, particularly because of how it plays. 

Big tests remain. Glenbard West will be an overwhelming sectional favorite and penciled in by everyone to be playing in Champaign this March. With that comes a lot of pressure, particularly for a team that has never done it before. The program has certainly been building towards this moment with this particular group, but it missed out on getting a taste of any meaningful run last season with no state tournament played.

But without those big-game experiences and chances to raise regional and sectional plaques to its fans last season, it’s certainly left a very talented and experienced team hungry. And, honestly, they all could use a little more love. 

A player who doesn’t get a whole lot of love? Pierce. And by “a whole lot,” I basically mean “none.” At least for a key player on a top-ranked team headed to play Division I basketball. 

Maybe it’s because he plays with a Gonzaga recruit. Maybe it’s because he signed with an Ivy League school for that combination of academics and basketball rather than a more basketball-minded mid-major college program. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t put up significant scoring numbers.

Pierce’s impact is felt in so many ways as a 6-5 do-it-all who, as already noted, is absolutely destructive defensively. He showed that all spring and summer playing man-to-man, guarding anyone at any position, while with the Illinois Wolves on the AAU scene. Now he’s doing it on top of that vaunted 1-3-1 with so many steals, deflections and simply making opposing team’s offenses so dysfunctional. 

Pierce had his best game of the year, stepping up when the lights were bright in Saturday’s win over Young. He was assertive offensively, scoring 25 points in a variety of ways, while still impacting the game in his typical way. He’s the player who college coaches watch, no matter the level, and say, “Man, I love that kid and how he plays.”

Pierce is an Ivy League recruiting steal. 

Following his de-commitment from Army, Durkin is one of the better uncommitted prospects in the senior class. Whether that ends up at the Division II level or low-major Division I level remains to be seen. But the 6-6 Durkin is a legitimate space-the-floor shooter who plays with a creative craftiness and who needs a college home. 

Huff was labeled as a star in the making and bonafide high-major prospect by the City/Suburban Hoops Report as far back as the winter of his sophomore year. It took quite some time for many to both see him and warm up to him as he developed his body and his ultra-skilled game came together. 

Anyone who knows Huff will unequivocally tell you he’s the rare kid who isn’t bothered by the lack of national attention. He’s not ranked in ESPN’s top 100. Rivals has him as a three-star prospect and not even in its top 150 while 247sports has him at 95th in the country.

Come on. It’s laughable. You simply don’t find players at his size with his all-around skill level, footwork and basketball instincts.

So many high-level players, their parents and their club coaches are consumed with all the national garbage of rankings. Not Huff. Maybe it’s an added good chip on the shoulder, but he gives zero indication that any of it impacts him by how he plays. The kid goes about his business and plays completely unselfish basketball while making his team better. 

Nonetheless, despite being arguably the best player and prospect in the senior class, he’s without question one of the more underrated Illinois high school players nationally of the past 25 years. You simply don’t find players at his size with his skill level, footwork and basketball instincts. 

And it’s not as if he hasn’t been seen or recognized. Huff played with the Illinois Wolves on the Under Armour circuit. That didn’t seem to matter a single bit in the national rankings. He had several high-major offers and ultimately chose powerhouse Gonzaga, which whether fair, unfair or just plain stupid, typically elevates the national ranking of a player.

Whether it’s Huff’s indefensible national ranking, under-appreciated Pierce, unsigned Durkin, overlooked glue guys War den and Renfro or the lack of understanding of just how good this team really is, Glenbard West has to like this: It’s a definitive No. 1 team with still plenty to prove.

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