Preps Talk

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, 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," 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." 

Belleville West's Class 4A title serves as historic passing of the torch between Chicagoland and downstate

Belleville West's Class 4A title serves as historic passing of the torch between Chicagoland and downstate

PEORIA -- Belleville West finished an undefeated IHSA boys basketball campaign on Saturday night by capturing the Class 4A state title with a memorable 60-56 overtime win over defending champion Whitney Young.

An intense back-and-forth contest that delighted fans at Carver Arena, the Maroons held off the Dolphins as junior forward and Mr. Basketball candidate E.J. Liddell finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

The state title matchup between the St. Louis metro powerhouse and the Chicago Public League superpower somehow lived up to the immense hype. But perhaps more important than the game itself was the significance of the outcome. Saturday's win for Belleville West also served as an important passing of the torch.

For the first time since Shaun Livingston and Peoria High went back-to-back in 2003 and 2004, the largest IHSA boys basketball state title won't be going home to a team from the Chicagoland area.

Class 4A has been dominated by Chicago-area teams every year since four-class basketball came into existence during the 2007-08 season. And after Livingston and Peoria's two-year run, Jon Scheyer (Glenbrook North) and Derrick Rose (Simeon) swept through Peoria and won three straight titles to close out the two-class basketball era in Illinois.

For the last 13 years, the biggest, and most important, state title in basketball-crazy Illinois has gone to a team from the Chicagoland area. A legendary run of talents from the area saw players like Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Jalen Brunson win state championships.

Liddell and Belleville West knocking off a Public League powerhouse, and defending state champion, for a state title is a significant moment in IHSA basketball history. It's the first time the Class 4A boys basketball state title is going somewhere besides the Chicagoland area.

While Class 3A has seen some memorable state title runs from teams outside of Chicago like Belleville Althoff and Rock Island, the more-depleted Class 3A field is generally considered an afterthought for many Illinois high school basketball fans.

By going undefeated against IHSA competition this season and beating a team like Whitney Young for a state title, Belleville West established legitimate credibility that should be respected all over the state. Chicago area high school fans can be fickle about downstate teams and their stars. None of those doubts should be apparent for Belleville West after the way they dominated the 2017-18 season.

Since Liddell is only a junior, and many of the Maroons' top players are also returning, it also sets up the possibility that Belleville West is the favorite for the Class 4A state title entering the 2018-19 season. Things have dramatically changed in the world of high school basketball. Transfers can change anything overnight. But given the return of Liddell, and the loss of only three seniors, the Maroons could have staying power next year as well.

It sets up for a fascinating offseason and an intriguing subplot for Class 4A next season as everyone will be chasing Liddell and Belleville West. And if Liddell pulls off the win and beats Simeon's Talen Horton-Tucker and Morgan Park's Ayo Dosunmu for Mr. Basketball in Illinois then the pressure will be that much greater.

The Chicago Public League will still be the epicenter of high school boys basketball in Illinois next season. Orr and Morgan Park are coming off of back-to-back state titles. Whitney Young just missed joining them. Simeon was nationally ranked nearly all season. Curie remains an imposing threat only two years removed from its own Class 4A state title. There's a depth and quality of teams in the Public League that is unmatched anywhere else in the state.

But, for right now, that Public League's depth doesn't mean a thing. It's an afterthought. Because the Class 4A state title in Illinois high school basketball is heading south to Belleville. And it might not be leaving there for another year or two.

Morgan Park claims back-to-back Class 3A state titles with win over Southeast

Morgan Park claims back-to-back Class 3A state titles with win over Southeast

PEORIA -- Morgan Park head coach Nick Irvin brought his entire team with him to the press conference podium after claiming a second consecutive IHSA Class 3A state championship.

Irvin and the Mustangs have claimed four boys basketball state titles over the past six years. The quotable Irvin is usually only flanked by his starting five.

Even though Morgan Park had a clear star and leader in senior guard and Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu, the Mustangs needed every member of their roster to make it back to Peoria during an injury-ravaged season.

Morgan Park needed its reinforcements to make it back to the state finals. Dosunmu took care of the rest. The Illinois commit led Morgan Park's back-to-back quest with a Class 3A state title game record 28 points as the Mustangs earned a 71-56 win over Springfield Southeast on Saturday afternoon.

Although Morgan Park won a Class 3A title with Dosunmu on the roster last season, the Illinois commit wasn't able to play much during the final weekend in the state tournament after suffering a injury to his right foot that forced him to be on crutches for most of the weekend.

This time in Peoria, a healthy Dosunmu carried Morgan Park with an impressive game in front of his future head coach, Brad Underwood. Dosunmu's eight-point flurry to end the third quarter -- including a half-court buzzer-beater -- lifted the Mustangs to a 54-45 advantage entering the fourth quarter. From there, Morgan Park maintained a comfortable advantage as Dosunmu and his teammates held off the feisty Spartans.

"I told myself, once I got hurt, that it felt good for my team to win it. But I wanted to come back and be apart of it and actually be on the court," Dosunmu said.

"I just wanted to come back and redeem myself after getting hurt last year. I knew what I could do. I think I stopped the haters from saying that I couldn't win the big game."

Dosunmu did the heavy lifting for Morgan Park in the state title game. But the Mustangs needed all hands on deck during a tumultuous regular season. Morgan Park was viewed in the preseason as one of the major forces in the Chicago Public League. Injuries to seniors like Dosunmu and big man Tamell Pearson, a UAB commit, meant that the Mustangs had to change all of their plans.

Dosunmu missed 10 games with injury this season. Pearson only played in four games the entire season after multiple surgeries on his eye. That meant others like senior Cam Burrell and sophomores Adam Miller and Marcus Watson had to step up their play.

Morgan Park didn't make a lot of noise during conference play in the Public League Red South/Central. They were eliminated during the quarterfinals of the Public League Playoffs by Whitney Young. Morgan Park hadn't lost this much since Irvin's first season on the job 10 years ago.

But there was still the hope that a healthy Morgan Park could figure things out and make another run at a Class 3A state title. Once Dosunmu got rolling, the Mustangs gained a new confidence to claim another trophy.

"Absolutely, the toughest one," Irvin said of the title run. "At the end of the day I knew these guys were loyal to me. I knew they'd run through a brick wall for me. And I just had to get myself level-headed. I'm used to winning and beating everybody -- or close to it. Taking tough losses was a bit of an adjustment."

Morgan Park winning another title this season is a testament to how talented, and deep, the Mustangs have been the last two seasons. Even with teams not at full strength during the state playoffs the past two years, Morgan Park still managed to win back-to-back titles.

With five trips to Peoria in six seasons, and a roster still filled with young talent, Morgan Park should remain a major contender for years to come -- even with Burrell, Dosunmu, Pearson and the senior class moving on to the next level.

Miller has the look of a potential Player of the Year candidate. Watson played with a ton of confidence down the stretch. More promising young players are also in the pipeline in the rest of the program.

“Three-peat. Three-peat; that’s the goal,” Irvin said. “We’re going to come back home to Peoria next season — hopefully. I’m gonna be on Marcus, and Adam and Kyel (Grover) and just see what we can.”