By Joe Henricksen

Simeon, Morgan Park and all things Peoria

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We are now six years into four-class basketball in Illinois and, unfortunately for me -- no, thousands of people -- it's not going anywhere.

One area of prep hoops the four-class system has impacted is our chance to compare and contrast, even debate, the past and present when it comes to all-time great teams. Heck, some can't even agree on the best team in Illinois this year due to the fact 4A champ Simeon and 3A champ Morgan Park split this season and didn't play for all the marbles in March.

The Hoops Report, however, believes this year's Simeon team -- not Morgan Park, not last year's Simeon team, not the 2009 Whitney Young team -- is the best of all the state champions in this four-class system era, dating back to 2008.

Remember, it's not about Simeon's full body of work from November to March; there just isn't any way around admitting Simeon was slow out of the gate and a shell of what it would become. It's about how they finished, how it played when it mattered most. This Simeon team in March was not the one we watched in November, December, January, maybe not even February.

Those that saw Simeon in Pontiac, or in Red-South play, or on any of their national televised games or in the city playoffs, saw a different Simeon team in March. This team passed the eye test of a nationally-ranked state champion.

The Simeon team that beat a loaded Whitney Young by 17 points in the sectional championship was absolutely dominant. That team on display that night left you saying, "Wow."

That win over Young, along with taking care of business this past weekend in Peoria in rather convincing fashion against two solid teams, was enough.

"With all that went on this season -- and a lot of it was blown a little out of proportion -- this title was the most rewarding of the four," says Simeon coach Robert Smith. "This championship was just refreshing."

The most notable change, the biggest reason for Simeon's rise to the dominance level so late in the season is pretty simple: Jabari Parker's health. Any dominant team you think of has that superstar, the matchup nightmare who by just his mere presence makes everyone around him better. Simeon had it in name only the first three months of the season, due to Parker's slow comeback from his summer foot injury.

Parker was never close to 100 percent, his normal comfort level on the court or his impactful self until late February and into March.

Starting with the best player in Peoria conversation, here are some thoughts from this past weekend in Peoria ...

➥ No surprise here, but the best player in Peoria was the 6-8 senior All-American, Jabari Parker. He wasn't just terrific in Peoria, he was the Parker everyone expected and hoped for all season. He averaged 22.4 and 10 rebounds a game in the five wins leading up to Peoria, where he then scored 40 points and grabbed 23 rebounds in wins over Proviso East and Stevenson.

Everyone benefited -- aside from the seven foes Simeon knocked off on its run -- from being able to see the real Jabari Parker for a few weeks during his final high school basketball season. This is a kid that entered high school with enormous expectations, lived up to them and did everything the right way throughout his illustrious prep career.

➥ The unsung hero for Simeon? Depending on the night, it was either Kendall Pollard or Russell Woods. On championship night, it was Woods, who didn't put up big numbers all season. In essence, he was a role player. But all season long the 6-7 senior provided a presence for Simeon inside. And in 27 minutes against Stevenson, Woods scored 14 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and, once again, was a presence around the basket defensively.

➥ Goodness, did Morgan Park bring the heat all season long. I tweeted during the matchup with Cahokia that it resembled a bunch of terriers with a pit bull mindset. Coach Nick Irvin's team just brought it every night out. The Mustangs did three things well all season long: play together, pressure opponents and play hard. While Morgan Park's road to Peoria was as soft as any in recent memory, it didn't play around. This team didn't shy away when push came to shove in big moments. They didn't retreat. They didn't get too cautious. They just constantly got after it.

➥ What a brilliant high school career Billy Garrett, Jr. put together in his four years at Morgan Park. His old school game is refreshing, particularly with how he can play it while still playing in his team's frenetic style and pace. Hopefully DePaul can figure out a way to put some pieces around Garrett, because that's how he will really flourish at the collegiate level.

➥ Dayton, you got yourself a big recruiting steal in Simeon's Kendall Pollard. The 6-5 senior is going to be a heck of a player for coach Archie Miller. Tough, strong, more athletic than you think and a defensive presence with intangibles, Pollard is the type of player you win with. As his offensive game evolves, particularly his perimeter jumper, he's going to become such a valued, versatile weapon at the college level.

Proviso East fell short to mighty Simeon in back-to-back seasons, but what a two-year run coach Donnie Boyce, star Sterling Brown and the rest of the Pirates experienced. The powerhouse out of Maywood, with so much history and tradition, brought home two more state trophies to the trophy case and piled up 61 wins over two seasons. If you're counting, that's an impressive seven state trophies for Proviso East following this years fourth-place finish.

➥ This may not be much of an earth-shattering prediction, but Sterling Brown is going to have a stellar career for coach Larry Brown at SMU. He just brings too much to the table in terms of versatility and isn't afraid of big games or key moments.

➥ What a terrific job Jim Molinari has done at Western Illinois, one of the truly difficult college basketball coaching jobs. He led the Leathernecks to 18 wins last season and a 22-8 record this year. The reason I bring up the WIU coach is the simple fact he has, for his level, a recruiting gem coming in with Edwardsville's Garret Covington. The 6-5 senior, who averaged 18.4 points a game and knocked down over 100 three-pointers on the season, is a big recruiting coup for Molinari.

➥ Any more doubters out there when it comes to Stevenson's Jalen Brunson being one of the elite talents in the state? This point guard is special and, as he showed again, is the most polished and productive sophomore in the state.

Keenan Minor led Cahokia in scoring this year with nearly 20 points a game. Darius Austin, a 6-6 junior, is the team's top prospect. But the Hoops Report came away very impressed with the talent and potential of junior C.J. Rivers. He has terrific size for a combo guard, a solid feel and is a certain Division I prospect.

➥ Reason No. 178 why four-class basketball is bad: two third-place games. Now a quarter of the games played in Peoria -- two of the eight -- are of the consolation variety, games hardly played at full-throttle. I don't blame the teams. There is just a natural intensity letdown after riding that high of winning in March and falling in the state semifinals the day before.

➥ We seed all the sectionals. Why can't we seed beyond the sectional -- or at least the final four teams playing in Peoria? If we're not going to get the best teams to Peoria because of geography, can we at least seed the teams that make it?

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on March 18, 2013 7:32 AM.

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