Scott Phillips

Simeon impresses national audience in loss to No. 1 Montverde Academy

Simeon impresses national audience in loss to No. 1 Montverde Academy

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Through the first few months of the high school basketball season, Simeon has clearly been the best team in Illinois.

The Wolverines are undefeated against in-state competition, they've defeated city rivals like Morgan Park and Curie by double digits and they've been No. 1 in the NBC Sports Chicago Preps Power Rankings for over a month.

Although Simeon is clearly the cream of the crop in Illinois, they've also impressed national basketball analysts around the country by playing one of the toughest national schedules of any public school. The Wolverines have already played games in Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Massachusetts. Twice, the Wolverines took the No. 1 team in the country to the brink, including a tightly-contested 62-60 loss to undefeated Montverde Academy on Saturday night at the annual Spalding Hoophall Classic.

Even though the Wolverines lost to Montverde in front of a sold-out crowd at Springfield College, Simeon made a strong impression on everyone at the Hoophall. Undersized compared to other teams in the national rankings, the Wolverines are competing against the nation's best thanks to a ferocious defense and a relentless competitive drive.

"They really got into us defensively. They really did a great job defensively. That was the best team we've played, defensively, this year," Montverde head coach Kevin Boyle said about Simeon.

"They've played five teams in the [national] top five and they're 2-3. They could easily be 4-1."

What makes Simeon's rise in the national rankings unique is the lack of size that head coach Robert Smith has at his disposal this season. Other teams in the national rankings generally have a dominant post player who can command double teams and manhandle opponents on the interior. The Wolverines rely on 6-foot-5 players like Talen Horton-Tucker, Messiah Jones and Bakari Simmons as the team's tallest regular rotation players. And all three of those players are ideally suited to play on the wing as opposed to battling on the interior.

USA Today national high school basketball reporter Jim Halley currently has the Wolverines at No. 11 in his national rankings. Halley stressed that Simeon is one of his only ranked teams that doesn't feature significant size.

"It's very uncommon because what happens is, you can be really good and beat a bunch of teams but then you run into a team that has a depth of guys who are 6'10", 6'11"," Halley said. "Like La Lumiere, Findlay Prep, they all have three or four guys that are 6'10" and above so you can't defend that easily when your tallest guy is 6'7". That's a major mismatch. So that is a problem for teams like Simeon who don't have a lot of size." 

Even without a traditional post presence, Simeon has remained competitive, or even beaten, top national opponents with five-star centers. It feels weird that the Wolverines have played Memphis East High School and five-star junior center James Wiseman twice this season (and conference rival Morgan Park only once) but Simeon earned a 1-1 split with the nationally-ranked squad, beating Memphis East in their own city with a five-point win last week.

The revenge game against Memphis East saw Horton-Tucker make a huge national statement as he went for 24 points and nine rebounds against a bigger and more athletic team. After that game, Rivals.com elevated Horton-Tucker to the No. 31 overall prospect in the national Class of 2018, putting the Iowa State commit firmly in the discussion as a potential McDonald's All-American this spring.

"It was great because it was this big crowd, probably 3,500 to 4,000 people. Chicago vs. Memphis. Two hard-playing squads. Deep, lots of athletes, and he came out and finished three threes right in a row -- just banged them right off the bat," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi said of Horton-Tucker's performance. "Then he had this monster block on a dunk attempt. And it's funny; it's almost like he turned the crowd in favor of Simeon. It was fun because he definitely put a charge in the building and it's always fun to see an out-of-town guy win over the local crowd." 

National prestige aside, Smith is happy that his team has been able to compete with some of the biggest names in high school basketball. Montverde features Duke commit R.J. Barrett, considered by some to be the No. 1 senior high school basketball prospect. Memphis East features Wiseman, who has also been ranked as the No. 1 player in the junior class.

Simeon knows that if they can defend and compete against teams and players of that caliber that they'll be prepared to face anyone in the state of Illinois.

"It's done wonders for us because we're not going to see teams this big and this athletic and this skilled," Smith said. "We just wanted to make sure we could guard these guys so when we went back home we'd guard the guys we needed to. This is what we wanted to do. Come out and play a national schedule.

"I don't think that anybody else might have thought that [this team would be this good nationally] but the guys that we have are warriors. Those guys, they just want to fight. They're not going to give up."

Simeon looks like the team to beat in Illinois over the next several months but Smith warned that the Wolverines still have room to grow. Although Simeon has received high praise for their defensive capabilities, the team's offense is still learning to gel after the addition of talented transfers like Xavier Pinson and Zion Young this offseason.

Pinson, in particular, is starting to play with a lot of confidence as the senior picked up a scholarship offer from Georgetown and head coach Patrick Ewing following Simeon's loss to Montverde. Ewing watched as Pinson brought the Hoophall crowd to its feet with a massive dunk as the guard is becoming more of a force with the ball in his hands. 

"I still don't think we're doing a great job of moving the basketball offensively yet -- which is good. We don't want to peak too early," Smith said.

"Getting them to trust each other [is the final step]. When you have two new guys, who are really impacting the game, they're trying not to step on toes. And with the new guys, the other guys have to trust them because they don't know them well enough yet when they give them the ball. I think the trust part is starting to come."

Losing to Montverde wasn't an easy thing for Simeon to handle. When you have a chance to topple the No. 1 team in the country and come up short at the buzzer it isn't something that's quickly forgotten. Even though the loss to Montverde won't mean much in the grand scheme of things, the Wolverines are still hungry to knock off every opponent they face.

But beating national opponents was never the main goal for the Wolverines this season. Smith is convinced that the national schedule has been the best approach for preparing his team for the postseason.

Simeon can't hang their heads too long after Saturday's loss with another big game coming up on Monday against a top-ten team in Fenwick. The Wolverines might be finished with most of their national schedule, but the local schedule that lies ahead will also feature a number of daunting challenges. 

"We've learned that we can compete with any team in the country. You know, we just want them to understand and shake this one off. They're very upset because they're competitors and they want to win every game," Smith said. "But, you know, this is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal was not to beat Montverde. The ultimate goal is a city and state championship. So it's just making sure that these guys are focused and preparing for Monday's game." 

Two ranked matchups highlight High School Lites

hs_lites_nbcs_basketball_social_media.jpg

Two ranked matchups highlight High School Lites

High School Lites has a great show this week as we have two matchups between ranked matchups and a number of other enticing games involving top 25 teams. 

Be sure to catch an all new edition of High School Lites Friday at 11 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago. 

Thursday

Kenwood at No. 3 Curie, 5:00 p.m. -- These former Red-Central rivals matchup for the only guaranteed time this season in a battle in the Public League Red South-Central. Curie (13-2, 4-0) is coming off of a good win over Bogan as they continue to fight for the conference title with Simeon. Junior Marquise Walker is playing very well lately for the Condors. Kenwood (7-5, 3-2) dropped a game to Simeon earlier this week as they have a tough week in conference play facing two top-three teams. The Broncos are also dangerous enough to make this a tight game.

No. 13 Marist at No. 11 Marian Catholic, 7:00 p.m. -- Key game in the East Suburban Catholic Conference as Marist heads to Marian Catholic. The No. 11 Spartans (12-2, 1-1) have won five consecutive games since losing to Lincoln Park in the Hinsdale Central Holiday Classic. The No. 13 RedHawks (16-1, 2-0) placed third at Centralia as they've won three straight games of their own. With the ESCC being such a tight race, this could wind up being a key game in deciding the winner of the league. 

Friday

Schaumburg at Palatine, 6:00 p.m. -- Palatine tries to stay with the top teams in the Mid-Suburban West as they host Schaumburg. The Pirates (11-6, 3-1) fell to Buffalo Grove in a crossover last week as they try to stick with Barrington atop the MSL West. Schaumburg (5-13, 1-3) hasn't had a great start but they did knock off Hersey for a double-digit win last week. 

Westinghouse at No. 10 Lincoln Park, 6:30 p.m. -- The Public League Red North/West is one of the toughest leagues in the area as Westinghouse heads to Lincoln Park. The Lions (12-4, 4-1) just picked up a big win against North Lawndale as they've recently knocked off some quality opponents. Westinghouse (4-12, 0-4) is trying to end a recent losing streak and earn a conference win as the Warriors have played a really tough schedule so far this season. 

No. 12 DePaul Prep at No. 17 Loyola, 7:00 p.m. -- An important game in the Catholic League Blue involving two of the top teams. Loyola Academy (14-2, 2-1) is hot lately after winning a holiday tournament in Naples and beating St. Viator earlier this week. DePaul Prep (14-3, 2-0) earned a win on the road at St. Rita last week while also taking down Lindblom earlier this week. 

West Aurora at South Elgin, 7:00 p.m. -- The top two teams in the Upstate Eight Valley matchup in this one as West Aurora travels to South Elgin. The Storm (10-3, 2-1) are coming off of a solid showing at DeKalb during Holiday Tournament time as they also held off East Aurora for a conference win last week. West Aurora (10-4, 3-0) has picked up wins over West Chicago and DeKalb since losing to some top teams like Curie and Bloomington at Pontiac. These teams will play again on Feb. 16.

No. 14 Evanston at  New Trier, 7:30 p.m. -- One of the area's best rivalries also doubles as an important Central Suburban South game. New Trier (10-2, 4-0) just knocked off previously-unbeaten conference leader Niles North earlier this week as the Trevians are playing with a ton of confidence. Evanston (12-3, 3-1) rallied to win its final two games at Centralia before beating Niles West last week. 

No. 24 Naperville Central at Naperville North, 7:30 p.m. -- This crosstown rivalry has huge DuPage Valley Conference implications. The No. 24 Redhawks (11-2, 4-1) are coming off of a recent hot stretch that includes wins over Wheaton-Warrenville South and taking the DeKalb Tournament title. Naperville North (13-1, 5-0) only has a loss to Batavia this season as the Huskies are on top of the DVC at the moment. 

Viewers’ Choice Game of the Week

North Shore at Francis Parker, 6 p.m. -- Our Viewers' Choice Game of the Week heads to Lincoln Park for this Independent School League matchup. Francis Parker (3-8, 1-2) has a busy week with conference games on back-to-back nights. North Shore (6-5, 2-2) dropped a tough one-point decision to Northridge on Wednesday as they look to remain in the conference picture.

Preps Power Rankings adds two new teams this week

Preps Power Rankings adds two new teams this week

The Preps Power Rankings don't have a lot of changes this week since the high school season was slow after the holiday tournaments. Some teams had off while others only played one game. Many teams traveled out of state to play opponents from all over the country.

Although most of the rankings remain the same, a few teams fell to unranked opponents, so we see two new teams enter the mix this week.

1. Simeon (12-2, 3-0) (1) -- The Wolverines earned an impressive national victory against Memphis East, a team Simeon lost to in December. Conference games and national opponents have Simeon with a busy week ahead as they play Kenwood, Hyde Park and No. 1 national Montverde Academy. 

2. Orr (12-2, 4-0) (2) -- Another quality win for the Spartans as they beat St. Joseph by double-digits. Orr has a crazy week as they host Uplift and Whitney Young before playing Detroit English Village in Michigan. 

3. Curie (12-2, 3-0) (3) -- The Condors picked up two out-of-state wins over Missouri and Michigan opponents as Curie is starting off 2018 in a positive manner. Bogan and Kenwood loom on the conference schedule for the Condors this week. 

4. Niles North (13-0, 3-0) (4) -- Niles North had the week off as they try to stay undefeated. The Vikings take on a tough conference opponent in Maine South before hosting Deerfield. 

5. Whitney Young (13-4, 3-1) (5) -- Tough loss against Hamilton (TN) for the Dolphins as they traveled to Memphis. Whitney Young will get some Public League Red North-West games this week as they face Von Steuben and Orr. 

6. Morgan Park (10-6, 2-2) (6) -- The Mustangs lost to Chaminade (MO) over the weekend at an out-of-state shootout. Morgan Park has two conference battles this week against Hyde Park and Vocational.  

7. Oak Park-River Forest (10-2, 3-0) (7) -- Overtime win against York for OPRF this week as they start the year with a win. The Huskies have a conference matchup with Downers North before playing in the Wheaton Warrenville South tournament over the weekend.

8. Fenwick (12-4, 3-0) (8) -- The Friars won against De La Salle in conference play as they remain unbeaten in the Catholic League. Fenwick gets another strong opponent in conference play this week when they face St. Joseph. 

9. Bolingbrook (11-2, 2-0) (9) -- Needing overtime to take down Sandburg, Bolingbrook outlasted the Eagles for a conference win. The Raiders go on the road to face Stagg for another league game this week. 

10. Lincoln Park (11-4, 3-1) (11) -- The Lions had the week off as the jump back into Public League play during the week. North Lawndale will be a major test while Westinghouse is another tough game. 

11. Marian Catholic (11-2, 1-1) (12) -- Marian Catholic barely got past Rock Island for a solid win as the Spartans have won some tight games recently. This is a big week for Marian Catholic as they face Richards and Marist before heading to Iowa for a game at Dubuque (IA).

12. DePaul Prep (13-3, 2-0) (13) -- Huge win for DePaul Prep as they got revenge on St. Rita while also beating St. Francis. DePaul Prep faces Lindblom, Loyola Academy and Riverside-Brookfield during a busy week. 

13. Marist (15-1, 2-0) (15) -- Easy win over Harlan as Marist is already up to 15 wins on the season. Marist gets two games this week, including an ESCC battle with Marian Catholic that should be a good one. 

14. Evanston (12-3, 3-1) (16) -- The Wildkits picked up a double-figure win over Niles West in conference play this week. Evanston has one of its biggest games of the season against New Trier during the week. 

15. North Lawndale (11-2, 2-1) (17) -- North Lawndale had the week off as they get ready to restart Public League play this week. The Phoenix play Lincoln Park and Von Steuben this week. 

16. Uplift (9-5, 3-1) (18) -- The Titans had the week off as they prepare for a big conference games against Orr and Farragut. Uplift is still searching for a marquee Public League win this season. 

17. Loyola (13-2, 2-1) (19) -- After winning in Florida, the Ramblers earned wins over Mount Carmel and Lakes. Loyola has some tough games this week, including St. Viator, DePaul Prep and Mather.

18. Hillcrest (13-4, 5-0) (20) -- Solid week for Hillcrest as they picked up double-digit wins against Argo and John Glenn (MI). The Hawks will try to remain unbeaten in the South Suburban with games against Shepard and Oak Lawn this week.

19. St. Rita (9-8, 1-1) (10) -- The Mustangs fell at home to DePaul Prep as the Rams got revenge from the Hinsdale Central Holiday Classic game. St. Rita travels to Pennsylvania next week for multiple games over the weekend.

20. Libertyville (8-5, 3-1) (21) -- Libertyville had the week off as they prepare to face Carmel and Mundelein during the week. Senior Drew Peterson remains in the thick of the Player of the Year race. 

21. Joliet Central (12-2, 5-0) (22) -- Blowout win for the Steelmen as they ran past Plainfield South. Joliet Central has two more Southwest Prairie games this week against Plainfield North and Oswego.

22. Brother Rice (11-6, 1-2) (24) -- Picking up a Catholic League win this week, Brother Rice held off St. Ignatius. This week, the Crusaders hit the road to face Mount Carmel in another conference clash. 

23. Batavia (13-3, 4-1) (25) -- Two wins for Batavia during the week, including a thrilling buzzer-beater to knock off St. Charles East. The Bulldogs get three games this week, including two games Saturday against South Elgin and host Rockford Jefferson.

24. Naperville Central (11-2, 4-1) (NR) -- With only 10 wins all of last season, the Redhawks are now up to 11 this season as this balanced group is playing with a lot of confidence. Winning the DeKalb Holiday Tournament and knocking off previously-ranked Wheaton Warrenville South has been an impressive stretch. 

25. Jacobs (12-2, 4-0) (NR) -- The Golden Eagles enter the top 25 after a great stretch that includes winning their own Hinkle Holiday Classic. Not only is Jacobs running through the Fox Valley but they have double-digit wins over solid Mid-Suburban teams like Palatine and Barrington.