First impressions can be misleading and downright confounding. Like a first date, first chapter, first course, first bite, first pitch or first down.
That's how I felt after watching Simeon's basketball team dismantle Gary (Ind.) Lew Wallace last Thursday night on ESPN.
One game doesn't make a season or a reputation. But I have to admit that I was blown away by Simeon's performance. Honestly, it brought back memories of Thornridge 1972, the best team in state history.
I have to bite my tongue when I say that. I've never put another team in Thornridge's class, not even Quincy 1981 or Collinsville 1961 or Marshall 1958 or Simeon 2007 or Lyons 1953 or Evanston 1968 or Peoria Manual 1997 or Whitney Young 1998.
Is Coach Robert Smith's current squad that good?
Well, is Simeon is the No. 13 team in the nation, as one survey reports, I want to see the teams that are rated ahead of them. Maybe the Spurs and the Lakers. This Simeon team--the one I saw the other night--is better than the Derrick Rose/Tim Flowers team for one very good reason.
As Thornridge coach Ron Ferguson noted about his unbeaten 1972 powerhouse, the one that didn't allow any one of 33 opponents to come within 14 points, every member of the starting lineup could handle the ball under pressure, even 6-7 center Boyd Batts, who was every bit as athletic at teammates Quinn Buckner and Greg Rose. This Simeon team has that rare attribute.
Led by top-rated junior Steve Taylor and highly touted sophomores Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn, the Wolverines have athleticism, depth, speed and defense. Despite their abundance of youth, they are unselfish, execute with drill-like precision and are fundamentally sound. They get up and down the floor in rapid-fire fashion.
Experience? Many of them played on last year's state championship team. Complacency? Smith keeps everyone on their toes and their heads into the game by playing two lineups, like two lines in a hockey game, keeping everyone fresh and focused on the game.
Simeon could be tested at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. Peoria Manual might be the best team outside of the Chicago area. And this could be the best Peoria Manual team since the 1990s of Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams. Warren, Waukegan and unbeaten Curie also are in the field.
The thing that strikes me about this Simeon team is, despite the celebrity of Parker, Taylor and Nunn, there doesn't seem to be a dominant player on the floor, certainly no one who has the ability to singlehandedly carry a team like Derrick Rose. But there are so many gifted and talented players on the roster, all of whom make contributions to the team's success. Smith's envious job is to keep everybody involved and happy.
Thornridge 1972 was a different team. The starting lineup rarely left the floor while the outcome of the game was in doubt. Buckner, Batts and Rose were the stars but point guard Mike Bonczyk earned All-State recognition for his playmaking skills and Ernie Dunn was an unsung hero. Their all-for-one and one-for-all teamwork on offense and in applying the Falcons' intimidating and suffocating zone press was straight out of an instruction manual.
This Simeon team is different, too. Most great teams were led by one or two dominant players--Jim Brewer, Bob Lackey and Farrel Jones, Rose and Flowers, Ted Caiazza, Ron Bontemps and Johnny Orr, Brian Sloan, Owen Brown and Marcus Washington, George Wilson and M.C. Thompson, Jim Ard and LaMarr Thomas, Bruce Douglas and Michael Payne, Bogie Redmon and Fred Riddle, Marcus Liberty and Levertis Robinson, Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton--but the signature attribute of Smith's 2010-11 squad is quality depth.
Taylor is the top-rated player in the class of 2012, which is below average by virtually every recruiting analyst's standards, certainly not as good as 2011 and 2103 and not even to be mentioned in the same breath as the gold standards of 1979 and 1998.
Parker is the top-rated player in the class of 2013 in the Chicago area and one of the top five in the class nationally. The son of former Farragut, Texas A&M and NBA star Sonny Parker, he continues to develop into an all-around performer. Nunn, a superb three-point shooter, is making a national reputation for himself.
Smith, a disciple of the late Simeon coach Bob Hambric, has held tight to his mentor's strict disciplinary rules on and off the court while giving his players more freedom on the floor. They really seem to be enjoying themselves. They don't seem to be feeling the pressure of their lofty ranking and expectations.
I questioned Rose's ability as a junior, to the point where I didn't believe he was one of the top five players in the nation as others had anointed him. But he proved as a senior that he was every bit the No. 1 player in the NBA draft that he became. And I had to make room for him--move over Quinn Buckner--alongside George Wilson, Cazzie Russell, Isiah Thomas and Kevin Garnett as one of the top five players I have ever seen.
It is too early to determine if Jabari Parker will be good enough to earn a spot with Rose and that elite company. But the current Simeon team? In a class with Thornridge 1972? Let's wait to see if the Wolverines are as good in March as they were the other day at Chicago State.