By Joe Henricksen
Simeon as the underdog? Simeon as the team with something to prove? Simeon with labels like unheralded attached to it? It's rare, if ever, when coach Robert Smith's Simeon basketball program is in the position it was in over the past three weeks.
As the calendar turned to March, no one was predicting a trip to Peoria for Simeon. And no one imagined this particular Simeon team winning it all. In the Hoops Report state tournament preview issue, seven different avid basketball observers and analysts threw their picks for Peoria on paper. There wasn't a single one that even had Simeon getting to Peoria. The Hoops Report did predict seven of the eight teams correctly. The one missing team? Simeon.
First, the reasons why.
Simeon had a difficult time winning key games throughout the regular season. There was the highly-anticipated loss to Whitney Young Dec. 19. After reaching the final at Pontiac, Simeon fell to top-ranked Waukegan in the championship game. There was a low point in late January with back-to-back Red-South losses to Vocational and Bogan, which included Smith becoming so frustrated with what he was seeing he didn't even coach his team in the Bogan defeat.
Then there were the late-season losses. There was the tough loss early in the CPS Playoffs to Morgan Park, followed up by what Smith labeled "an embarrassing loss and effort" to De La Salle in the final regular season game of the year. Simeon was blown out, 64-46, in a state tournament tune-up in the City-Suburban Showdown at UIC. In the basketball lexicon, this is one of those "don't try this at home" warning labels if you're a coach trying to find the right way to make a strong tournament push.
Through it all, though, there should have always remained a glimmer of hope, even if the flicker was nearly extinguished. After all, despite the nine regular-season losses, this was the No. 3 team in the City/Suburban Hoops Report preseason rankings back in November. And it is Simeon. This is a program that won more games than any other over the last decade and has now started this new decade with a bang.
The light turned on. Senior Brandon Spearman stepped up and became an aggressive difference-maker. Smith finally was able to get this particular group to buy into the Simeon way. The Wolverines then went on to win their first three state tournament games by an average victory margin of 25 points. They took care of Mt. Carmel in the sectional final and then stunned Benet Academy with a come-from-behind, double overtime victory in the supersectional.
Perhaps no state champion in history has peaked later in the season than this Simeon team. The Wolverines were on life support. They not only made a state tournament run, the Wolverines went on to win the whole darn thing, capturing their third state title in five years, along with a second-place finish in 2008.
This title, though, was particularly special. This was unexpected. This came without a star named Derrick Rose on the floor. This came against another Chicago Public League rival. This came with legendary coach Bob Hambric, who made Simeon basketball, proudly looking down on his program. Hambric, who led Simeon to its first state championship in 1984, passed away last August after a long battle with cancer.
That first state title in 1984 marked the arrival of Simeon as a basketball giant. The following two titles in 2006 and 2007 were geared around a star player in Rose. This championship centers around its coach, Robert Smith.
The Hoops Report has sang the praises of Simeon coach Robert Smith a number of times. He doesn't need any validation. Sure, he had the presence of Derrick Rose his first three years on the job, maximizing that luxury by winning 94 games and two state titles in three years, but Simeon came right back the first year without Derrick Rose and played for a state title. Simeon fell to Marshall in the 2008 title game, finishing second, but proved the program is bigger than a player. And now Smith has yet another state championship.