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."