Smith, Simeon have history in their sights

Smith, Simeon have history in their sights
March 12, 2013, 11:15 pm
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Simeon coach Robert Smith has a lot on his plate as he sets the table for what he hopes will be his last trip to the Class 4A finals in Peoria.

By winning a fourth state championship in a row, matching Peoria Manual's unprecedented achievement in 1994-97, Smith will become the only coach in state history to win five state titles and four in a row.

[RELATED: Proviso East's victory sets up rematch with Simeon]

He also will leave a legacy that his mentor, the late Bob Hambric, would be proud -- a nine-year record of 261-40, a winning percentage of .867, best in state history.

Former King coach Landon Cox, who won three state titles in 1986, 1990 and 1993, is second on the all-time list with a winning percentage of .850 (503-89 from 1980 to 2001).

Champaign's Harry Combes, who went on to become an outstanding coach at the University of Illinois, is third with an .847 winning percentage (254-46 from 1938 to 1947).

Hambric, who won a state title in 1984, is 11th on the all-time list with a winning percentage of .804 (528-129 from 1980 to 2003).

For the last two years, Smith has been weighing his options. He made no secret of his desire to coach at the college level. At first, he thought his high school record was good enough to earn a head coaching position. But he learned that he has to pay his dues, as any other coach, by starting as an assistant. Resigned to that fact, Smith is anxious to see what the market has to offer.

"He could be an outstanding college coach down the road but it has to be the right fit -- it cannot be just anywhere," said recruiting analyst Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "We are not sure he is ready for a high major college coaching job because we don't know how much he is in tune with the national recruiting landscape, which is a must at that level.

"However, he would be outstanding at a place such as Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois, Chicago State, Loyola or Illinois-Chicago where he could focus more on local recruiting and bench coaching."

Why has Smith been so successful?

"Because he gets every player, ranging from the best all the way to the last man off the bench, to buy into the team concept. He gets them to understand that it is not about the individual but rather about the overall success of the team and that the one goal that overrides everything else is winning a state championship," Roy Schmidt said.

"The biggest compliment that can be rendered to Smith is that players want to play for him and they all respect him. Today, where high school basketball is so much about a me, myself and I mentality, that is really saying something. At Simeon, there are no egos. Even Jabari Parker puts his ego aside and sacrifices part of his game for the common good."

Smith wants to go out in style, of course. And he has never been better prepared for the task. His 2012-13 squad is healthy for the first time and playing up to preseason expectations. If critics had any doubts, last week's 69-51 thrashing of Public League playoff champion Whitney Young in the sectional final at Argo erased them all.

Since losing to Morgan Park 54-53 in the semifinals of the Public League playoff, Simeon has won its state tournament assignments by margins of 36, 35, 35, 18 and nine points.

[MORE: Best of state high school tournament]

The Wolverines were pressed in Tuesday night's 63-54 victory over New Trier in the Class 4A supersectional at Chicago State, holding off the Trevians' late flurry that cut their deficit to four points in the fourth quarter. Jabari Parker finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds while Kendrick Nunn scored 17 points.

It set up Friday night's semifinal duel with Proviso East in a rematch of last year's state final which Simeon won 50-48.

It took some time for Simeon to get its act together this season. Parker was sidelined for 10 weeks after fracturing a foot in the summer. Russell Woods, a 6-foot-8 transfer from Leo, had to acclimate himself to Smith's system. Jaylon Tate, a transfer from De La Salle, had to learn to play the point guard position as Jelani Neely had done a year ago. Kendall Pollard, a 6-foot-5 senior, was a newcomer to the starting lineup.

It all didn't come together as early as anticipated so Simeon's ultimate goal of winning a national championship was scuttled before they won another Pontiac Holiday Tournament title. But the Wolverines have recovered.

"We have five seniors who want to make history," Smith said.

Parker, who tuned up for the state finals with 29 points and 13 rebounds against Whitney Young and 23 points and 10 rebounds against New Trier, is committed to Duke. Tate and backcourt mate Kendrick Nunn will play at Illinois. Woods is undecided. Pollard is committed to Dayton. And sixth man D.J. Williams, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, already has an offer from DePaul.

Parker's late-season surge may be enough to enable him to become Illinois' Mr. Basketball for the second year in a row. Since the award was first presented in 1981, no player has ever won more than once. He is the fourth recipient from Simeon, following Nick Anderson (1986), Deon Thomas (1989) and Derrick Rose (2007).

"This isn't about me or Jabari or Kendrick. It's about everyone on the Simeon basketball team," Smith said. "I've never been around a group of kids who understand where we are and where we want to go. Our leaders are so good and unselfish. All they want to do is win. It is the most mature group I've coached. They think we can't lose. They don't want to be the team that didn't win it."