Robert Smith’s answer came without hesitation.
“There are no NBA players on this team,” the Chicago Simeon boys basketball coach said during the Wednesday IHSA teleconference when asked how this team is different from those of the recent past.
The Wolverines (28-3) have won six state titles under Smith since 2005, finished second once and were third last season. The norm has been to have a Derrick Rose or a Jabari Parker leading the way.
Not this time.
However, that does not make the task facing Bolingbrook (29-1) any easier in Friday’s 7:15 p.m. Class 4A state semifinal at Carver Arena in Peoria.
“We still have a good team, and we still play Simeon basketball,” Smith said.
Perhaps because of the missing future NBA type, the Wolverines were not as highly regarded early on as many of their previous teams. But when they opened the season on a 17-game winning streak, the respect returned.
“When we won 16 or 17 in a row, people’s eyes started to light up,” Smith said. “The reason these kids have been successful is they have put in the work they needed to do to get to this point. Not that our other teams didn’t, but these kids really have worked hard.
“They played [No. 1-ranked] Edwardsville in the supersectional. They were hearing how good Edwardsville is, and they are good. But these kids take a lot of things personally when other people don’t think they’re as good as they think they are.”
The Wolverines, who ousted Edwardsville 76-64, no doubt have heard plenty about Bolingbrook. The Raiders were ranked No. 1 until suffering their only loss of the season, 65-64, and they are the highest-ranked team entering the semifinals. Simeon is second among the Final Four on that list, not that Chicago Young (25-5) or Fremd (30-0) are slouches.
All signs point to an entertaining Bolingbrook-Simeon semifinal between two teams that enjoy an uptempo game.
“We can play different styles,” said Bolingbrook coach Rob Brost, who earned his 200th career victory in 10 seasons at Bolingbrook in Tuesday’s 83-57 supersectional win over Naperville North. “We can play in the 50s, but we don’t prefer that. We like games in the 80s.
“Of course, now we are in elite, elite, elite company.”
At the time of the teleconference, Brost said he himself had not yet watched much film on Simeon, but he did mention 6-foot-5 junior forward Talen Horton-Tucker.
“That kid can do almost whatever he wants with his bulk,” Brost said.
“Talen is not Jabari Parker,” Smith said, “but he has a game like Jabari’s. He a matchup problem. He can takes bigs to the perimeter and shoot it, and he posts up smaller guys.
“We let him play point guard in the fourth quarter, in certain situations. That’s something we started toward the end of the year. We want the ball in his hands in certain situations.”
Evan Gilyard, who moved to point guard for the Chicago city playoffs, leads Simeon with a 16-point average. His biggest asset, Smith said, is he has “the heart of a lion.”
Gilyard will face serious pressure against Bolingbrook, regardless of how the Raiders decide to defend the Wolverines. Bolingbrook normally plays man-to-man defense in the half-court and most of the Raiders can defend multiple positions on the floor.
With the way Bolingbrook attacks on offense – be it off a fast-break after a turnover, a break off a long outlet pass after a defensive rebound or in the half-court game – the Raiders have built a balanced scoring attack.
Nebraaska-bound Nana Akenten, an Associated Press Class 4A first-team all-stater, is averaging 14.7 points and is shooting 45.4 percent from 3-point range on 64 of 141. Malik Binns averages 13.4, Kaleb Thornton 12.7, sophomore Joseph Yesufu 10.1 and sophomore Tyler Cochran 8.7. Binns averages 7.2 rebounds, Akenten 5.8 and Cochran 5.5.
“All five of our starters have scored more than 20 points multiple times,” Brost noted. “Nana is an all-state type player who is averaging 15 and could easily be averaging 25. The best part about him is he is a good teammate who really cares about the other guys. Of course, I could say that about the other guys, too. They all care about each other.”
Cochran had been the first man off the bench early in the season as 6-4 senior Trevor Ross was in the starting lineup. But Ross suffered an injury at Christmas and has missed the second half of the season, and Cochran became a starter. That did not severely weaken the Raiders’ bench, however, because 6-7 Brandon Lawani and guard Isaiah Clemmons have stepped up, and guard Demari Grant and 6-6 Cameron Harris have contributed as well.
“Tyler [Cochran] and Trevor [Ross] are two different players,” Brost said. “Trevor was our best on-ball defender against the toughest wing. Tyler provides more of a scoring punch. Trevor was such a calming influence that we miss him as a leadership piece.”
Ross will be with the Raiders on the bench, however. And the cast Brost has available has been plenty good all season.
“Everybody knows about Nana [Akenten] and Malik [Binns], but we have three guards in Thornton, Yesufu and Cochran who are very, very good,” he said. “To be starting two sophomores on this team, that’s refreshing from a coaching standpoint.”