“Every team’s goal is to be No. 1,” said Parker, a junior swingman at Simeon (Chicago). “So it’s something that we’re used to at this point. We’ve had to deal with it all year.”
Still, when facing a team whose fall from grace included four straight losses and a 32-spot plunge in the rankings, Parker knows the focus and motivation will be at an immeasurable high.
“Miller Grove (Lithonia, Ga.) will be the toughest test of the season,” said Parker, the top-ranked player in the ESPNU 60. “They have a great team across the board. It will be a war.”
The game was originally billed as the battle for the top spot, but Miller Grove, which began the season ranked No. 2, suffered a four-game skid, including losses to No. 2 Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), Riverside Academy (Reserve, La.), No. 24 Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) and No. 33 Lake Wales (Lake Wales, Fla.).
That dropped the Wolverines to No. 34 in the current rankings.
“Obviously, we’re not happy with dropping those games, but we’re not dwelling on it at all,” said Miller Grove coach Sharman White. “It’s behind us. We’re 100 percent focused on what we’ve got to do to beat Simeon. We’re hungry to get back on track, and what better way than against the No. 1 team in the country?”
And therein lies the key factor that concerns Simeon coach Robert Smith.
Even though every team wants to prove itself against the country’s No. 1 squad, none of those teams can say they were ranked No. 2 just 22 days ago.
“You look at them on paper and they’re definitely good enough to be No. 1,” Smith said of Miller Grove. “They’ve had a tough schedule and we know that they’re going to be ready to beat us. We need challenges like this.”
Simeon got its biggest challenge of the season on Dec. 30, pulling out a 48-47 nail-biter over Peoria Manual (Peoria, Ill.) in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament semifinals.
Parker scored 21 points, including the team’s last nine, and grabbed 12 rebounds. The Chi-Town Wolverines came up with big stops in the final two minutes to sneak away with the win.
It’s just the kind of victory Smith said his team needed headed into the Miller Grove game.
“I loved that we got that test,” Smith said. “It wasn’t something we were used to, but in the end we found a way to pull out the win. You’ve got to know how to win when you’re not clicking on all cylinders, and that’s something we accomplished with that win.”
In order to have a similar result against Miller Grove, Parker said the key is to stop Tony Parker, Miller Grove’s dominant power forward who’s averaging 18 points and 14 rebounds a game.
“We’ve got to keep him off of the offensive glass and deny the ball really well against Tony,” Jabari Parker said. “I played against him on the AAU circuit and watched him play enough to know that once he catches the ball in the paint it’s an automatic two points. So we’ve really got to key in on him.”
White has similar concerns with Jabari Parker, who’s pumping in 25 points and 11 rebounds a game, but stops short of saying his team’s defensive focus will be solely on him.
“They’ve got too many weapons with Steve Taylor and the other guys,” White said. “I feel like that hurt us in the game against Bishop Gorman. We keyed in on Shabazz Muhammad and let the role players have career nights. We will play smart defense and be aware of all of their players.”
Added Jabari Parker: “It will come down to execution on both ends. I think this will be one of those games that we’ll have to be almost flawless in our execution in order to win. So that’s what we plan to do.”