By Joe Henricksen
Ho-hum, just another night in the Chicago Public League.
All eyes will be on the Whitney Young-Simeon showdown Saturday night, featuring the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the most recent issue of the City/Suburban Hoops Report. But more than Saturday's showdown is the fact these two programs have set the bar for prep basketball in the city and state. They should be easy to recognize. These are the two programs who offer it all in terms of success, tradition, current talent, big-named players of the past, high-profile coaches, expectations every season and style.
History and tradition
This is where it starts. We're not talking a couple of up-and-coming, hot new programs. While Simeon's history and tradition is greater and longer, Whitney Young became a basketball giant under George Stanton in the 1990s. Stanton's teams went 60-3 in back-to-back seasons in the late 1990s, including a state championship team in 1998 that is considered one of the better teams of all-time.
But there really is no argument that Simeon has stood the test of time more than any other basketball program in Illinois. There are dips and valleys in every program when you're talking three decades. Not at Simeon. The legendary and late Bob Hambric took over the program in 1980, went 27-2 in his first season and never looked back. Want some ridiculous numbers? How about this: Since 1980 Simeon has never won fewer than 17 games in a season and has won 20 or more games in 24 of the last 29 years.
Whitney Young is the defending Class 4A state champs and, under coach Tyrone Slaughter, the Dolphins are on pace for a fifth-straight 20-plus win season and ranked No. 1 in the state. Simeon has made three trips to Peoria in the last five years, including back-to-back state titles in 2006 and 2007. All Smith did in his first five years was go 142-24. Simeon has been a nationally-recognized high school program for decades. Now Whitney Young is as well.
Again, Simeon's stable is deeper, with the legend of the great Ben Wilson, current NBA star and hometown hero Derrick Rose and the likes of Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas, Mario Bailey, Bryant Notree, Bobby Simmons and countless others in between. Since the great 1998 Whitney Young team, which included current NBA player Quentin Richardson, Dennis Gates and Cordell Henry, the Dolphins have produced a number of Division I players. And, they did have a kid named Jordan lead them to a state title last year.
Maybe it comes with the territory, but Simeon coach Robert Smith and Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter are probably the two highest-profile coaches in Illinois right now. Smith always puts the program above himself, understanding and recognizing what Hambric did before him and appreciating the Simeon way. He has pride in Simeon. The sharp and articulate Slaughter recognized the opportunity at Whitney Young, where he could take a program to another level and that would coincide with the academic prowess the school is noted for.
Depending on your projections as an evaluator, the varsity rosters of these two teams include as many as 14 or 15 Division I prospects. Whitney Young's senior trio of Anthony Johnson (Purdue), Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and J.R. Reynolds (Rice) are already signed, as well as Simeon's Brandon Spearman (Dayton). But it's the young talent in the ... well, that's next ...
Regardless of the talent you see on the floor Saturday night, there is a lot more coming through the pipeline. The younger classes are absolutely loaded at both schools, which includes two of the most highly-regarded freshmen in the country--Simeon's Jabari Parker and Whitney Young's Tommy Hamilton. Both sport numerous high-major offers and are already key pieces for the top two teams in Illinois.
The all-important style points. The two programs are flat-out pretty cool, with sweet-looking, stylish uniforms and warm-ups, personality and fun and creative scheduling. Simeon going from playing in Madison Square Garden a few years ago to being a regular visitor at Pontiac over the holidays? Cool. Whitney Young's traveling roadshow last season, stretching across the country with a stop in Hawaii? Cool. The two teams getting together again this Saturday? Really cool. There is just a bit of an aura about these two programs when they are in the gym that others don't have.
So now, finally, these two programs hook up again after too long of a layoff. As the Hoops Report notes in the issue that went out to subscribers this week, this could be the first of three matchups between these two powerhouses this season: Round I Saturday night, followed by the Public League playoffs in February and a potential for-all-the-marbles battle in Peoria in March. Maybe, just maybe, Simeon-Young can evolve into a rivalry we haven't seen in the city since the great King-Simeon rivalry of the 1980s.
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