Morgan Park-Simeon ready for big stage

Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin has spent more time disliking Simeon than doing almost anything else in his 32 years.

He was first taught by his older brothers to hate Simeon long before he even understood why. He went on to develop his own distaste for the school when he began playing against the Wolverines at Carver. One of his greatest basketball prep memories was scoring 25 points in three quarters of play during a 35-point win over Simeon.

"I wanted to ice up early," Irvin said, laughing loudly.

Years later, as an older, mature head coach, Irvin still has that same deep desire to put Simeon in its place. Irvin has even come to calling the game "The Battle for Vincennes" as the two South Side schools are less than five miles apart on Vincennes Avenue.

On Saturday, Irvin and Morgan Park will resume their rivalry with Simeon at Chicago State at 7:30 p.m. The game will be shown on ESPN3.com and ESPNChicago.com.

"My brothers battled with Simeon," said Irvin, whose team is 13-1 overall and 5-0 in the Red South. "It just carried down to me. That's how it was. You got to beat Simeon."

There's no doubt Irvin has played up the game. He's been talking about it for months. On the other hand, Simeon coach Robert Smith hasn't gotten involved in the war of words and downplayed it.

"It's another conference game," said Smith, whose team is 14-0 and 6-0 in the Red South. "It's another game. It's not that big to me. It's a rivalry. Of course, it is. We want to win. It's not life or death or another make-or-break game for us. We want to win it just to be in a good position for the city and state playoffs."

Irvin and Smith may have their different positions because of where their teams stand.

Simeon is the team to beat in the state. The Wolverines are the defending Class 4A state champions, began this season the area's No. 1-ranked team, have won their first 14 games and now have moved up to No. 8 in the country by ESPN RISE.

Morgan Park is the hunter. The Mustangs have put together a solid resume over the last two seasons. They avenged a regular-season loss to Simeon last year with a win over the Wolverines in the Public League playoffs and went on to become city champions. But overall, Morgan Park hasn't achieved what Simeon has with numerous city and state titles.

"When you hear Simeon, you hear the big names," Irvin said. "Simeon's name has been out there for a while."

Those big names of Simeon's past include Derrick Rose, Ben Wilson, Nick Anderson and Bobby Simmons. And today, sophomore Jabari Parker carries on the tradition.

Parker, a 6-7 forward, is ESPN's No. 6-ranked player in the Class of 2013. Parker has the size of a forward, the vision of a point guard, the outside touch of a shooting guard and the interior game of a post player. He's more or less the complete package and has drawn offers from Duke and nearly every other top school in the country. He's Illinois' top target.

"I'm just impressed by his growth," Smith said. "How much more mature he's got as a basketball player and individual. Of course, his willingness to win now is what makes him stand out. He gives up points, rebounds and minutes for us to win. He's averaging 15-16 points while only playing 17-18 minutes a game. Imagine if he had 25 minutes a game.

"By far, he's the best player in the state. He can do just so much. Anthony Davis is close to that. He can do many things. Wayne [Blackshear] is a great athlete and great player. But with the IQ and things people don't see, there can't be a better player in the state than him in any class."

Of course, Irvin disagrees. Irvin touts his own star 6-foot-5 guard Wayne Blackshear, a Louisville recruit and ESPN's No. 18 player in the Class of 2011, as the state's premier player.

"I love Jabari," Irvin said. "Jabari Parker is probably one of the best ballplayers in the state of Illinois. But until Wayne leaves, the torch hasn't been passed. Wayne is the best player in the state of Illinois regardless of class.

"He's a leader. He gets his team involved. It's not about Wayne getting 40 points. It's not about Wayne getting 20 rebounds. He's about winning. He wants to win a state championship, so he can be mentioned with the best names out of the city of Chicago. That's his focus and goal. He's been doing that."

Blackshear and Parker will be the marquee players on the court Saturday, but they won't be the only Div. I-caliber players. Simeon has a roster full of them, and it's why Smith goes with a 10-player rotation. Morgan Park possesses sophomore sensation guards Markee Williams and Billy Garrett Jr. and UIC recruit sharpshooter Jerome Brown.

The game was originally scheduled to be played at Morgan Park earlier this month, but was moved to Chicago State to allow for more fans to attend. Last year's game at Simeon packed a crowd Smith hadn't even seen the size of during Rose's playing days.

Saturday promises to be another wild one, and while Irvin has talked a lot about wanting to badly beat Simeon, he has no bad blood against his rival. It's all in good fun.

"I definitely enjoy it," Irvin said. "It's just a fun rivalry. It's nothing you want to argue and go fight about. It's going to be a game that everyone wants to see. It's just fun for the kids. The kids have been battling since they were in grammar school. It's good for the community, the fans, the reporters, everyone."