By Joe Henricksen
When it comes to the most successful high school basketball programs with the best talent walking the hallways over the past few years in the state of Illinois, Simeon and Whitney Young top the list. These two prep basketball giants, which squared off for the Class 4A state title last March, will meet in a "Game of the Year" type matchup again during the regular season this winter.
Simeon and Whitney Young will likely enter the season in November as the Hoops Report's No. 1 and No. 2 teams in its preseason rankings. And the the date of Jan. 29 will be circled by both programs and high school basketball fans. The location of the much-anticipated January matchup-- this is Simeon's turn to host the game -- has not yet been determined. The hope is for the game to be played at a bigger venue, with Chicago State and UIC as possibilities.
The two powers met last December at Whitney Young in the regular season, with Whitney Young claiming a 62-55 win over Simeon behind Sam Thompson's 17 points and 14 rebounds. The two met again on the final night of the season in Peoria, with Simeon preventing Whitney Young from winning back-to-back titles with a 51-36 championship game win.
"When you look at the rosters, we both have several of the top players in the state, nationally ranked players with many players who will go on and play college basketball," says Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter. "It should be a great matchup once again."
Adds Simeon coach Robert Smith, "It only fits that we play each other. Our programs do mirror each other in a lot of ways. In the past we continued to miss one another in the CPS playoffs and in the state playoffs, so why not go ahead and schedule the game?"
What is developing is a legit, healthy and extended rivalry in the state of Illinois between two elite programs. When it comes to Illinois prep basketball superpowers, there have truly only been two rivalries that come to mind -- King vs. Simeon in the 1980s and Peoria Manual vs. Thornton in the 1990s -- when talking about the best of the best playing one another over a period of more than just one or two years.
We take a stroll down memory lane ...
We may never see a rivalry like Simeon-King in the 1980s ever again. These were Chicago Public League rivals with high-profile coaches and all-state talent while scratching and clawing for the right to play in the Elite Eight and for both city and state supremacy. And the rivalry of two elite powers facing one another extended over several years. While the two teams didn't meet during the 1984-85 season, the future rivalry was building due to the success of the two programs. Simeon and King finished the 1984-85 regular season ranked, No. 2 and No. 3 respectively, with the future brimming with talent.
The following four years both Simeon and King became the two elite national programs and met in some of the most highly anticipated showdowns in state history. The two would square off in the Chicago Public League playoffs in each of the next four years, including three of those all-for-the-marbles city title games.
In 1986 Simeon entered the city championship unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state. King, ranked No. 3 in the state, knocked off the Wolverines 49-46 and headed to Champaign and the Elite Eight. The two highly-ranked foes met again in the 1987 city semifinals, with King claiming a thrilling 59-57 win.
In 1988 it was Simeon's turn, with the Deon Thomas-led Wolverines beating King 66-59 in the Public League final to get back to Champaign. And in a monster 1989 clash, it was star Jamie Brandon and No. 3 ranked King beating unbeaten and top-ranked Simeon 67-57.
The Peoria Manual-Thornton rivalry was a little different. These two programs were more than 100 miles apart, but the showdowns between these two giants were the most memorable and anticipated of the 1990s. Think Lakers-Celtics back in the 1980s, with the East Coast vs. West Coast mentality (downstate vs. Chicago area) and the two powers rarely facing one another. Everyone across the state kept their fingers crossed that the two would collide each year in March. And they didn't disappoint.
Over a three-year period Peoria Manual and Thornton, which both featured an abundance of individual talent and big-named stars (Frank Williams, Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin, Antwaan Randle El, Napoleon Harris, Erik Herring and Melvin Ely to name a few), would meet three times -- in the 1995 and 1996 state championship games and in a 1997 state semifinal matchup.
Thornton did everything a program could do over a three-year period -- except beat an Illinois high school basketball dynasty in Peoria Manual. Coach Rocky Hill's Thornton teams went an amazing 93-4 in those three seasons, with three of the four losses coming to Peoria Manual.
We now digress back to the budding present day rivalry ...
Simeon. Whitney Young. The last two Class 4A state champions in Illinois. And the Hoops Report's top two teams in the upcoming season's preseason rankings.
Under Smith, Simeon has gone a ridiculous 167-34 in the past six years, with three state titles and a state runner-up finish. In the five years Slaughter has been in charge at Whitney Young, the Dolphins have won 20-plus games each season, including 75-21 in the last three years with a state title in 2009 and state runner-up finish a year ago. The other commonality is the fact both Simeon and Whitney Young have played grueling schedules during those years, playing both national powers around the country and high-profile games here in Illinois.
And to top it off, the men in charge may be extremely competitive, but there is a certain level of respect for each others program that has grown over the years.
"With Simeon it's been about having a tradition and maintaining that tradition for decades," says Slaughter of the Simeon program he admits he has tried to emulate his program after. "A lot of programs have come and gone in that time, but with Simeon it's a program that has sustained that success over time. We have had our moments here at Whitney Young. We have tried to piggyback off what they do as a program, what we have seen from them as a program.
"I do think respect helps make you a better program in that you emulate someone who is at the top and you try to enhance it. It's really foolish not to respect what they have accomplished. You have to give credit where credit is due."
Smith is appreciative of the respect Slaughter and Whitney Young have shown his program.
"It's refreshing to have someone in that position, as a peer, understand what we've done and what it takes," says Smith of Slaughter's acknowledgment. "That type of respect is refreshing, and I think some forget that we need more of that. We need more coaches, particularly some of the younger coaches coming up, to get back to respecting the game, giving credit where credit is due."
Smith is also not afraid to praise how far Slaughter's program has come.
"Ty [Slaughter] has done a great job getting Whitney Young to another level," says Smith. "When I took over at Simeon I wanted to get the program back to the national level. And I think he has put Young on a national level. We definitely respect the program they have and the success they've had."
But all the kind words and praise takes a back seat to the competitive side of both coaches. Championships get the juices flowing -- and Smith, Slaughter and both their programs want them. And to get them the other will be one of the big obstacles.
Simeon has a realistic chance of capturing the next two or three state championships in Illinois, which would put the program in some rare company. But standing in the way with young talent will be a loaded Whitney Young program.
"We can respect all the teams we play but we don't fear them," Slaughter points out. "You can compete and also respect a team or basketball program."
Another round of a budding competitive rivalry with two top teams will resume this winter -- and possibly in Peoria on the final weekend of the season.
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