Everybody is asking the same question: Can anyone derail Simeon's bid for a third Class 4A championship in a row and fifth state title in the last eight years?
But consider this: Simeon is coming off its first Public League championship since 2007. Could the Wolverines be emotionally drained? It wouldn't be the first time a city school peaked for the Public League playoff, then was psychologically worn out for the state finals.
It happened to top-ranked Phillips in 1977. The Wildcats beat second-rated Westinghouse and Mark Aguirre and Eddie Johnson before 12,000 in the city final at the International Amphitheater, then lost to St. Laurence and Kevin Boyle and Jim Stack in the state quarterfinals.
In 1994, Westinghouse upset top-ranked King for the Public League title 59-58, then lost to eventual state champion Peoria Manual in the quarterfinals.
In 1995, top-ranked Farragut with Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields won the city title, then lost to Thornton in the state quarterfinals.
Simeon is on a mission. Smith is seeking a fifth state title, most in state history, one more than East St. Louis Lincoln's Bennie Lewis and Lawrenceville's Ron Felling.
Smith's other goal was to make history, to be universally recognized as the greatest team in state history, better than Thornridge's 1972 team of Quinn Buckner, Boyd Batts, Mike Bonczyk and Greg Rose that won two state titles and 58 games in a row.
Simeon (26-1), whose only loss was a 75-50 decision to Fendlay Prep of Henderson, Nevada, the top-rated prep school in the country, boasts arguably the No. 1 player in the nation regardless of class in 6-foot-8 junior Jabari Parker. Smith rates Parker as the best player he has coached, even better than Derrick Rose.
But Parker isn't a one-man wrecking crew. He is surrounded by 6-foot-8 Steve Taylor, who is committed to Marquette, 6-foot-2 junior Kendrick Nunn and senior point guard Jelani Neely, who runs the show in what Smith describes as "the Simeon way."
"We are moving in the right direction," Smith said. "But we still haven't put four quarters together. It would be scary when we do. But I like what we do on defense and we're sharing the ball on offense. Neely controls the game. And Jabari doesn't have to score 30 for us to win."
But Simeon's anticipated trip to Peoria could be a bumpy ride. The Wolverines are top-seeded in what shapes up as the most competitive sectional tournament in the state. The field at Argo includes Curie, whose only two losses this season were to Simeon, in the championship games of the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and the Public League playoff, Bogan, Whitney Young, St. Rita and De La Salle.
Curie coach Mike Oliver rates his current 24-2 squad better than last year's 26-3 finisher. The Condors are senior-laden with 6-foot-3 Devin Foster, point guard Jabreel Jackson, guard Malcolm Hill-Bey and 6-foot-5 Thomas Smith surrounding highly rated 6-foot-9, 230-pound sophomore Cliff Alexander.
Bogan, which lost to Curie 50-47 in the Public League semifinals, is anxious to turn the tables. Coach Arthur Goodwin counts on point guard Ronnell Buckner, 6-foot-3 DeVaughn Johnson, 6-foot-1 Kendall Wesley, 6-foot-5 Dante Jackson and 6-foot-5 Devonte Smith.
Whitney Young is healthy for the first time this season. Coach Tyrone Slaughter has tested his players against one of the most competitive coast-to-coast schedules in the country, most of it without 6-foot-9 junior Tommy Hamilton. Now Hamilton is due to return with 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor and 6-foot-9 Paul White, two of the top-rated sophomores in the nation. Slaughter hopes to get more consistency and leadership from sophomore point guard Miles Reynolds.
St. Rita (15-10), led by 6-foot-2 senior Tony Hicks, the Catholic League's player of the year, also has played a tough schedule filled with out-of-state opponents. Hicks is averaging 26 points per game.
De La Salle has faded in recent weeks but coach Tom White still has the makings of a team that can compete with anyone. He has plenty of talent with 6-foot-8 junior Alex Foster, 6-foot-9 junior Gavin schilling, 6-foot-4 junior Alvin Ellis and 5-foot-8 junior Marcus White.
Proviso East (26-0), another school with a glorious tradition, is the most likely threat to end Simeon's streak. The Pirates are unbeaten and could meet Simeon in the Class 4A final. Interestingly, they also are seeking a fifth state championship in school history, the first since 1992.
First-year coach Donnie Boyce, who collaborated on Proviso East's 1991 state championship team with Sherrell Ford and Michael Finley, has a star-studded lineup featuring St. Louis-bound guard Keith Carter, 6-foot-4 junior Sterling Brown and guards Paris Burns and Paris Lee.
Other contenders are Plainfield East, Downers Grove South, West Aurora, Warren, St. Viator, Rockford Auburn, Huntley, Elgin, Collinsville, Edwardsville, Normal Community, Belleville East, Rock Island, Moline, Bloom, Andrew and New Trier.
Plainfield East, in only its third season after starting 9-16 and 15-13, has emerged as a state power with a 25-1 record. Coach Brandon Adkins has a deep and talented squad led by 6-foot-9 Brian Bennett, guard Dee Brown, 6-foot-3 Austin Robinson and 6-foot-3 Myles Walters.
Downers Grove South was 25-4 and lost to Glenbard East in the sectional last year. The Mustangs have lost to Proviso East twice and to Plainfield East but coach Jay Baum believes 6-foot-3 Jerron Wilbut and 6-foot-2 Jamall Millison form one of the most potent duos in the state. He also relies on the leadership of point guard Danny Spinnuza.
West Aurora coach Gordon Kerkman, who has won over 725 games in 36 years, has put together another contending team after finishing 14-12 and 13-16 in the last two years. This year's team is led by 6-foot-3 senior Juwan Starks, who is averaging 22 points per game.
Warren coach Chuck Ramsey is retiring after this season and his last team hopes to give him a state tournament experience that he will always remember, even more than his second-place finish in 1999 and last year's second-place finish. Returnees from last year's 31-4 squad are 6-foot-8 Darius Paul, 6-foot-4 JoVaughn Gaines and 6-foot-9 Nathan Boothe.
St. Viator has played under the radar all season but first-year coach Mike Howland thinks his club could surprise with 6-foot-3 Kevin Walsh, point guard D.J. Morris, 6-foot-3 sophomore Ore Arogundade and 6-foot-5 Chris Myjak. Their pressure man-to-man defense and up-tempo offense have been effective for most of the season.
Rockford Auburn was 26-5 last year and lost to Glenbard East in the supersectional. This year, coach Bryan Ott's team is 26-2 and has won 17 in a row since losing to Proviso East in the semifinals of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. Auburn is led by one of the state's premier players, Wichita State-bound point guard Fred Van Vleet, who averages 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds per game.
Huntley (24-3), the No. 2 seed in the Dundee-Crown sectional behind Rockford Auburn, was 25-5 last year and lost to Rockford Auburn in the sectional final. Coach Marty Manning thinks this team could be better with point guard Troy Miller, 6-foot-3 Justin Frederick and 6-foot-6 sophomore Amanze Egekeze, one of best young prospects in the state.
Elgin (23-3) relies on 6-foot-4 Kory Brown, who averages nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. He is his team's tallest player and also initiates the offense from the point guard position. Last year, the Maroons lost to Huntley in the sectional.
Collinsville (23-5), which had suffered through five losing seasons in seven years before coach Darin Lee's arrival from Nashville, has undergone a resurgence and old-timers are recalling the glory days of former coach Vergil Fletcher. Lee counts on guards Daryn Foster and Jaris Wellmaker and 6-foot-5 JVaughn Williams.
Edwardsville has lost to Collinsville twice but coach Mike Waldo, in his 24th year, relies on one of the best players in school history, 6-foot-5 junior Tre Harris, who averages 18 points and 10 rebounds per game. Another standout is 6-foot-5 junior Garrett Covington (18 ppg).
Normal Community was 27-8 and finished fourth in the state last year. Coach Dave Witzig admits this year's club isn't as good. He lost 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-6 post players. This year, he relies on three guards--Illinois State-bound Anthony Beane (17 ppg), Chase Robbins (12 ppg) and Callen Boddie (9 ppg). To be effective in the state tournament, 6-foot-7 junior Trevor Seibing has to be a presence.
Belleville East has lost eight times to rated teams, including Collinsville by one point. But coach Ray Hoffman's team has beaten O'Fallon twice and East St. Louis. The Lancers are led by Illinois-bound Malcolm Hill, a 6-foot-6 guard who is averaging 23 points per game. He scored 43 in last Friday's 78-67 victory over Granite City. "He is the best player I have seen this year," Hoffman said.
Don't overlook fast-finishing Belleville West, which is only 15-11 but stunned Collinsville 54-51 last Friday. Kendall Smith sparked the Maroons, scoring 13 of his 20 points in the second half to overcome a nine-point halftime deficit. Nick Van Osdale scored 12, Michael Schmidt 11.
Moline (22-8) is seeded No. 1 in the regional ahead of Rock Island but coach Ryan Webber's team lost to Rock Island and Lincoln two weeks ago. Webber, 31, was Sigel's assistant in 2003 and was hired at Moline when only 27. He has overcome adversity. No. 2 scorer Jamaree Atwater returned last Friday after missing 24 games. His best player, 6-foot-2 senior Anthony Lindauer (23.5 ppg), has returned from a five-game suspension. Another contributor is 6-foot-1 senior Kenny Wages (15 ppg).
Rock Island is only 15-11 but has won five of its last six games. Coach Thom Sigel lost eight of nine players from last year's 30-3 state championship team but has built another contender. The Rocks are led by 6-foot-8 senior Denzel McCauley and 6-foot-4 senior Marquel Beasley.
Bloom (23-3) is reliving its glory days of the 1970s under coach Jasper Williams, whose team is top-seeded at the Lockport sectional ahead of Andrew, Homewood-Flossmoor, Crete-Monee and Thornwood. He relies on point guard Donald Moore, guard L.J. Johnson, 6-foot-5 junior Johnny Griffin and 6-foot-2 senior Henry Hicks.
Andrew, which lost a last-second two-point decision to Thornwood last Tuesday, spoiling its bid for a first-ever conference title, hopes to bounce back behind 6-foot-6 junior Jubril Adekoya and his brother, 6-foot-3 senior Jawad Adekoya.
New Trier, the favorite in the Glenbrook South sectional, relies on 6-foot-7 Dartmouth-bound Connor Boehm, point guard David Bragiel and 6-foot-4 Austin Angel. The Trevians are seeking their first trip to Peoria since finishing fourth in 2002. Boehm had 32 points and 14 rebounds as New Trier outlasted Niles North 93-84 in overtime last Wednesday.