By Joe Henricksen
You know when you're just a week or two from the start of the season -- any season -- and you're reading the season previews in the newspapers, buying preseason issues of magazines on the newsstands and debating with your sports friends who will win it all? And then you read and hear from those that go against the grain and pick against the obvious just to avoid choosing the same team as everyone else and the team that won last year? The ones who want to add a little shock value to their picks?
While we're still in July, in the heart of the club basketball scene, people who aren't picking Simeon as the No. 1 team heading into the 2010-2011 high school basketball season are not using logic.
Yes, it's hard to repeat. Just ask Whitney Young, which fell just short of a repeat last March when the Dolphins lost in the state title game after capturing the 2009 state championship. But the last repeat state champion in Illinois? Simeon in 2006 and 2007.
And yes, Brandon Spearman was an alpha dog this past March and will be missed. The 6-3 wing put the Wolverines on his shoulders, came up huge in the state tournament run and is off to Dayton this fall. But alpha dogs come and go at Simeon, with super sophomore Jabari Parker -- while still evolving into that type of go-to player -- poised to become the special talent we've grown accustomed to at Simeon.
The Hoops Report, as well as many others, have seen enough of Simeon this summer -- and its individual players on various club teams -- to realize what is in place at 8147 S. Vincennes. That realization came not too long after Simeon knocked off Whitney Young in last year's state championship.
The Hoops Report remembers just a couple of hours after last year's state title game, mingling with fans, referees, coaches and the participating teams in the team hotel. The celebration was brewing and the basketball discussion was live, with the Hoops Report telling the Simeon coaching staff, "You know you're going to be better next year." While the staff didn't say much, choosing instead to relish in what the Wolverines just accomplished in Carver Arena a couple of hours earlier, there were wide smiles on their faces. They knew the potential that was returning.
And since that late March evening four months ago the Hoops Report has been asked over and over again, "Who will be No. 1 next year? Who has the best team heading into next season?" As more time passes and more evaluations are made, it becomes clearer and more emphatic: Simeon.
Yes, Simeon is primed and ready for yet another run. Coach Robert Smith will be gunning for his fifth state trophy in seven years, with state titles in 2006, 2007 and 2010, along with a second-place finish in 2008. This much is certain in comparing next year's team to the great Simeon teams of the past: this group will be the deepest in talent of all of those teams. Smith can and will likely go 10 or 11 deep -- and that's a quality 10 or 11 deep. Talk about competitive practices!
There are always potential pitfalls for any return champ. After winning it's easy to slip into a more selfish mode. Kids want more recognition, names in the paper and on the internet and more playing time. Avoiding pettiness and remaining focused are typically always more difficult the second time around. Will the hunger still exist for a group that tasted it all in March? Instead of repeating, teams can start imploding.
But at Simeon it's about diverting their respective games to win as a group. For months last year it didn't appear the "Simeon way" was going to happen, yet when the calendar turned March we saw it materialize. Smith and his staff, which watched the Wolverines lose nine regular-season games -- albeit against a top-notch schedule -- would have liked to have seen the "Simeon way" transpire earlier than March. But better late than never worked in the end. A great coach can only do so much; the star can go a long way in keeping everyone in line and providing the peer leadership. And then, hopefully, the roster is filled with character kids who want to buy in.
So the "Simeon way" is already in place, which is a start. No player is bigger than the program. And players know their coach isn't going to put up with anything that is going to jeopardize success. Plus, Smith has enough talent and bodies in the program to threaten minutes and roles if someone is not on the same page as the rest.
For starters, the biggest name in the program -- Jabari Parker -- has a unique persona about him. The scintillating sophomore who had high-major offers at a ridiculously young age, is all about winning. The 6-7 Parker, among the top five players nationally in the Class of 2013 and the No. 1 sophomore in lllinois, brings so much to the table: size, skill, basketball I.Q. and versatility. The final hurdle Parker will make as a high school player is becoming a dominant figure and evolving into a leader, which should develop naturally as he matures as a player and gains experience.
There are three other super young talents in the program who have blossomed this summer and are set to emerge this winter. Big man Steve Taylor, a 6-7 junior, is one of the most improved players in the Class of 2012 and among the top five prospects in the class. He rebounds, runs the floor and has shown the ability to face up and knock down shots. Taylor has been impressive. Junior point guard Jelani Neely gained valuable experience a year ago and is becoming the much-needed poised point guard, while 6-1 sophomore Kendrick Nunn has the look of a future star. Nunn is regarded as one of the top five sophomores in a loaded Class of 2014.
There are a host of seniors who have played in big moments and offer different strengths. There is 6-2 Darien Walker, a multi-faceted off-the-ball guard who will defend, knock down shots and bring toughness. There are a pair veterans in guard Tywon Pinckney and 6-6 Rashawn McElrath, two others who have played impact minutes and are willing to defend and do a little of the dirty work. There is emerging Ahman Fells, a 6-6 long athlete with tremendous upside after working so hard to get on the floor. There are three seniors -- athletic Sondale Connor, 6-5 blue-collar Kevin Hunter and guard Terrell Green -- who have waited their time after playing small roles.
Simeon has all the important elements in place and will enter the season with a bulls-eye on its back. We're talking a coach who has been through it all in seven seasons and certainly has his fingerprints all over the program. We're talking a program that is used to the attention it will receive. We're talking a ridiculous abundance of talent and depth (a potential 9 or 10 Division I prospects?). We're talking experience, size, guard play and, of course, confidence from having done it a year ago. The Hoops Report couldn't begin to tell you where teams will be ranked in its preseason issue in November, but it can tell you who will be No. 1: Simeon.