What made Glenbard West memorable

A look at the Hilltoppers’ special season.

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Glenbard West poses with the trophy after winning the game against Young.

Glenbard West poses with the trophy after winning the game against Young.

Kirsten Stickey/For the Sun-Times

There were plenty of people in the high school basketball world that believed Glenbard West was the best team in the state as far back as last June.

Then there were others who doubted, maybe questioned and needed to see it to believe it. Even throughout the first month or two of the season there were some detractors, almost a missing appreciation for how good this team was.

Maybe it’s because it was Glenbard West, traditionally a basketball program you just don’t elevate to elite status — ever.

Just past the midway point of the season, right when Glenbard West dismantled Young in the When Sides Collide Shootout in January, the conversation turned. The Hilltopper machine and hype took off.

But there were indicators very early how special it could be, starting with an unselfish 6-11 star who was being recruited by national power Gonzaga and the Big Ten.

This was also a team that looked really good if you watched it last season, one that likely would have been playing in Champaign in 2021 if not for Covid wiping out the state tournament. And it added to that team with the arrival of transfer Bobby Durkin, a scholarship-type player, from Hinsdale South.

There was also abnormal size, the difference-making type that you rarely ever see in high school basketball.

There were other early barometers many failed to recognize with this team. They were that good, clearly the No. 1 team, if you just paid attention.

But over the course of the season the Hilltoppers lived up to the expectations of being the preseason No. 1 team. They not only lived up to it but thrived in every instance, whether it was a dominating point differential or shining in all of their big-stage moments.

Even the one loss on the season, a crushing buzzer-beating defeat to national power Sierra Canyon out of California, didn’t alter the plan or lessen the buzz surrounding this team.

But nothing compared to the show and clinic Glenbard West put on in the Class 4A state championships game Saturday in Champaign. Quite honestly, you couldn’t have asked for a more exceptionally played game than what the top-ranked Hilltoppers gave the audience in its 56-34 rout over Young.

With all that being said, here are five lasting memories from a 37-1 state champion Glenbard West basketball team.

The underrated star: Braden Huff

Braden Huff is an anomaly. Just as the definition says, the 6-11 Huff is something that deviates from what is standard, normal or expected. You just don’t see players at his size do what he can do, especially at this young age.

And it’s precisely why Huff was recruited and signed by Gonzaga, a program that has flourished with those exact, type of players in their specially-crafted system of ultra-skilled big men.

For those who had not seen him prior to the State Finals in Champaign this past weekend, he put it all on display –– the skill of handling, passing and shooting the basketball.

In a state where there have been far more overrated players nationally than overlooked ones over the decades, Huff is the complete opposite. He’s one of the more underrated players nationally this state has ever seen.

Huff didn’t even get the ridiculous but often standard treatment of a rankings bump after a player commits to a Duke, Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga.

In fact, according to Rivals, Huff is a three-star prospect and not even ranked among the top 150 players in the country. That right there is whatever comes just after laughable.

While still sadly listed as a three-star prospect, he at least checks in at No. 95 — still too low — in 247Sports’ national rankings.

And what makes Huff even more special? He could care less about the national rankings. You can just tell by how he talks and, more importantly, how he plays.

There was never this constant bravado and talk about having a “chip on his shoulder” or “proving doubters wrong” or “being disrespected,” the typical quotes from the players who feel they’ve been slighted and who are caught up in all the wrong things.

And he could have played way more selfishly, both with his high school team and Illinois Wolves club team, if he wanted bigger numbers and more notoriety from afar. But he remained the ultimate team player and an extremely efficient one.

In two wins this past weekend he was 16 of 26 from the field (61%), including 5 of 8 from three (62%) and dished out eight assists.

The game-altering 1-3-1 and Caden Pierce atop of it

The average fan can appreciate a fine-tuned offense or a team that puts points on the board quickly while playing at a breakneck pace. Those basketball team strengths are so identifiable, easy to see.

The individual stars, the players who dominate and often in an electric way while topping the recruiting lists and rankings, are what excite so many and who many fans come to see.

But defense? That’s usually a different level of appreciation.

What coach Jason Opoka did with this 1-3-1 defense was remarkable. The adjustments he made within the 1-3-1 that the majority of people didn’t even notice, was equally impressive.

Glenbard West’s team makeup, specifically the gargantuan size and rangy length all five starters possessed, screamed 1-3-1 possibilities. But those five — and their coach — were so smart and intelligent within it.

For Opoka, it allowed him to play a very short bench, keeping his players fresh, both in games and throughout a long season. And by sliding players who picked up quick fouls in a game to different spots within the 1-3-1, he was able to protect certain players and keep them out of foul trouble.

There are many teams over the years who have been recognized for great defense. But with this defensive team, the more and more you watched, it became tangible to see. Fans could actually see the mass confusion it caused, the indecision guards played with against it and the deflating impact it had on opposing teams.

The Hilltoppers constantly made opponents react to it rather than allowing a team to dictate the action or flow on offense. The passing lanes were all distorted.

This isn’t your ordinary zone; it started with ball pressure and showed both fake traps and traps with undeniable team defensive help.

Watching the technique and execution of Glenbard West 1-3-1 with multiple coverages, trapping options, preventing penetration and skip passes while actually generating offense was a thing of beauty. And the players truly seemed to relish in it and love playing it.

But Caden Pierce at the top of the zone was difference-making. A truly effective 1-3-1 has to possess an impactful player with the right attributes as the chaser atop the zone. Pierce was all that and then some.

Pierce’s length goes on for days. So, too, did his energy. The versatile 6-6 Pierce brought athleticism, great anticipation, basketball smarts and a constant running motor. All of that led to endless disruption for opponents –– game after game, possession after possession –– including steals, deflections, harassment and an intimidation factor.

The bottom line: Glenbard West’s 1-3-1 defense was a consistent force, absolutely suffocating and one of the best defenses we’ve seen in state history.

The big transfer: Bobby Durkin

So much of the homegrown talk and kids playing together at an early age and fulfilling their dreams of a state title were certainly true about the boys from Glen Ellyn. That’s reason No. 137 why fans were pulled in by the season this team put together.

But we also can’t forget the huge addition of Bobby Durkin, who transferred in over the summer from Hinsdale South. Plenty of past teams, whether it was recent Belleville West state title teams or Public League powers from the city, have been criticized for winning state championships with impactful transfers.

Durkin’s family moved to Glen Ellyn as a bonafide college prospect, whether that played out as a scholarship player at the Division I or Division II level. That’s a jolt for any high school program.

The 6-6 shooter played so well in Glenbard West’s big games, including a record-breaking performance in the state semifinal game win over Bolingbrook when he drained seven three-pointers en route to a game-high 30 points.

Durkin was a much-needed, space-the-floor shooter for the Hilltoppers. The crafty perimeter player was also an added ball handler for a team without a traditional point guard and brought even more size and length.

He found his place over the first month of the season with this team and flourished, playing unselfishly while fitting in quickly.

While the players off Opoka’s bench who played minimal minutes all season did the job they were asked to do, Glenbard West’s biggest question mark was depth. Now imagine that depth and starting five without Durkin on the roster.

The team-driven unselfishness

More or less, virtually all championship teams play unselfishly. It’s a big part of why they are champions. There really aren’t any real stats to back this up.

But Glenbard West seemed to take it to another level, though. And it’s why this team was so likable.

There was a complete buy-in from everyone involved, and it truly started well before this season began when no one was even paying attention. There were no big personalities — at least from the outside looking in.

It’s a lot easier for a team and a head coach when the established, veteran stars who received all the Division I interest and high player rankings set the tone. That’s what Huff and Pierce did. They were humble and unselfish. And that trickles down throughout a program and makes a team better just through osmosis.

But it would have been easy for a player or two to be annoyed with the arrival of Durkin, taking up 32 minutes and shots they otherwise might have had.

While Huff was garnering all the high-major attention, jealousy could have reared its ugly head.

Paxton Warden and Ryan Renfro didn’t have to be so accommodating in accepting their roles on this team. They ran with it, playing with some feisty vigor and toughness along the way and doing so much of the dirty work.

As the headlines and hype developed and became more than a typical high school team ever receives, it would have also been easy for this team to lose its way. Even for a short stretch or small moment. That never seemed to come close to happening and always staying level-headed.

This team was laser-focused and consumed with what mattered: winning. And sharing with each other the rewards.

Between the balanced offense and the 1-3-1 defense, Opoka incorporated every player on the floor. They all mattered so much to make it all function to the point where they were a dominant 37-1 team. They were tremendous teammates.

A community rallying around a team

Winning brings out fans. But what specifically transpired in Glen Ellyn this past season with its community and fan base’s support will be remembered.

Much of the rabidness and excitement has been well documented. But the truth is the community latched on to this team early and filled gyms all winter long. The popularity was undeniable.

This is the type of passion you see on a smaller scale in tiny, rural communities across the state; but it’s atypical in a suburban town in a major metropolitan area.

There was a cult-like following of the Glenbrook North team back during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons that captured a similar essence. But even that was different than what we saw with Glenbard West. That was generally to see the “Boy Wonder,” Jon Scheyer, and consisted of plenty of basketball fans well outside Northbrook.

Glenbard West not only filled its own gym but arrived early and took over the Benet gymnasium at the When Sides Collide Shootout matchup with Young in January.

The instant sellout at Wintrust Arena for the Sierra Canyon matchup in February is the stuff of legend as far as fandom stories go.

They traveled in the thousands to Champaign this past weekend.

Local bars and eateries in Glen Ellyn flipped Glenbard West games on and piped in sound of the games that were played on television.

Autograph lines for Glenbard West players actually became a thing. Little kids in the community collected Topps basketball cards of their favorite Hilltoppers and had them signed.

The fan base became obsessive on social media, even overbearing at times, revving up more and more as the stakes were raised. Always in fun, yet also reminiscent of an annoying “Blue Blood” college basketball fan base. The passion seemed to ignite overnight.

The term “magical season” is thrown around loosely. But for this town, high school and basketball program, which has never been accustomed to winning at a high level, it couldn’t be thrown around enough.

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