After taking in the Simeon-Whitney Young showdown Saturday night at Chicago State, you left thinking this was the first episode of what will likely be a three-part TV mini-series.
There were storylines (i.e. two of the nation's top players, Jahlil Okafor and Jabari Parker, squaring off) and drama (Simeon coach Rob Smith suspended and sitting courtside, across from the Wolverines bench) that made this late January battle attention-grabbing. But it will all be magnified even more if -- likely when -- these two clash in February to decide the Chicago Public League champ (Part II) and again in March to decide the Argo Sectional championship (the thrilling Part III finale).
That's how talented these two teams are in this 2012-2013 season.
If you were going to get Simeon, you should have done it before late January; the Wolverines are so much better than they were two months ago, a month ago, or even 10 days ago. And despite the loss Saturday night to Simeon, Whitney Young's talent, size and early résumé shows it remains Simeon and Whitney Young's state title to lose in Class 4A.
It was hyped and billed as the "Game of the Year," and deservingly so. It's been quite some time since there has been that much high level talent on the floor together in this state. The overall quality of play didn't match a couple of the other past "Games of the Year," such as the fantastic Whitney Young-Fenwick matchup in 1998 or the Simeon-Benet Academy showdown in 2011, which the Hoops Report highlighted in this blog last week. Those two memorable games were played at such an extremely high level on those particular nights, it's always going to be difficult to match and compare.
Nonetheless, there were plenty of highlights and so much to take from a game featuring the two most talented teams in Illinois.
Simeon backcourt gets it done: The end result was pretty simple, really, in this Simeon win over Whitney Young: The Simeon zone shut down Young's star and go-to man; the Dolphins' perimeter attack didn't make them pay; and the Simeon backcourt was outstanding.
The tandem of Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate were difference-makers for Simeon. Both finished with 12 points, but it was more about their presence and making plays when the Wolverines needed them most that impressed.
Tate made arguably the biggest individual play of the game, driving to the basket with confidence for a layup that extended the Simeon lead to three points in the final minute. And the Tate-to-Nunn alley-oop dunks, both in their finesse and highlight-reel fashion, are becoming a thing of beauty.
Nunn is back: Kendrick Nunn, partly due to a couple of nagging injuries in November and December, was in a bit of a funk at one point this season. But over the past couple of weeks his play has risen, which has coincided with Simeon's improved play.
The 6-1 guard registered 21 points and 9 rebounds in a big win over Oak Hill Academy. He scored 19 in a recent win over Bogan. More importantly, he's back to making plays with his athleticism, some of the highlight variety and some that are simply under-the-radar. He's defending, rebounding and added five assists against Whitney Young.
While sitting courtside with Illinois coach John Groce and assistant Paris Parham, you could feel and hear a sense of pride and satisfaction as they watched two future Illini guards in Tate and Nunn produce and handle themselves the way they did in a big-game atmosphere and with the stakes so high.
Star of the game: While the two big names, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, were held in check, it was a time to shine for Whitney Young's L.J. Peak. The 6-4 sophomore, who has been the Hoops Report's No. 4 ranked player in the Class of 2014, put on a special run in the third quarter that showed every dimension of his game.
Peak, a tough, strong, athletic perimeter threat, knocked down a couple of 3-pointers, hit a short pull-up jumper, got to the rim off the dribble, took contact and finished, and made a couple of big defensive plays that led to easy baskets.
The transfer from South Carolina certainly opened the eyes of Chicago area basketball fans with his performance against Simeon.
Attacking the zone: Simeon's zone was effective, a collapsing but active defense swarmed around Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor. That alone slowed up Whitney Young's inside-out attack. But the next time Whitney Young and Simeon meet, the zone will be staring the Dolphins in the face again. And they're simply going to have to knock down shots to loosen the thing up.
Thus far, Whitney Young has been an effective, but not great, three-point shooting team. The Dolphins have been a respectable 33-34 percent from the three-point line this season. But it's not as if they put up a whole lot, nor should they with the most dominating high school big man on the planet on the block.
But the three-point shooting of Paul White (21 of 46 on the season from the 3-point line), L.J. Peak (14 of 43), Miles Reynolds (18 of 43) and Ausar Madison (5 of 17) could be the difference between winning and losing to Simeon the next time they meet with a whole lot more on the line.
Vegas odds: For all you gamblers out there, Super Bowl week is the time for proposition bets. You can wager on what team, the Ravens or 49ers, crosses the 50-yard line first. You can bet on the first team to enter the red zone, or what player scores the first TD, or the length of the Super Bowl's National Anthem. There are odds on who wins the Super Bowl MVP.
But if there was a proposition bet on whether either Simeon's Jabari Parker or Young's Jahlil Okafor would score in double-figures, wouldn't EVERYONE put a little money on that happening? At least ONE of them?
Parker hit a 3-pointer early in the first quarter and didn't score again until a couple of fourth quarter baskets, finishing with seven points. Okafor completed two three-point plays in the opening quarter but scored just one basket the rest of the way to finish with eight points.
The interim: The Indianapolis Colts didn't miss a beat when Bruce Arians filled in as interim head coach. Now Leonard Thomas, Simeon's interim coach, is 3-0 with one game remaining as he fills in for suspended coach Rob Smith.
There is continuity and familiarity with this Simeon coaching staff, along with a whole lot of trust among the assistants and the boss. You can see the comfort level of various staff members on that Simeon bench who have stepped up in Smith's absence during these games. Don't underestimate the value in that during this stretch, which has now included a big win over Bogan in Red-South play and knocking off mighty Whitney Young.
Selfishly speaking: Although the idea of Whitney Young and Simeon meeting up in a packed high school gym in March in a win-or-go-home situation is so darn tantalizing and exciting, you can't help but wish the buildup would lead to at least a potential matchup between these two -- in Peoria. It's too bad that it won't as Argo High School would host the biggest postseason game of the year if it transpires as expected.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport