Bears

Auburn seeks second trip to state finals

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Auburn seeks second trip to state finals

It took more than a year for high school basketball fans and the media to finally figure out how to spell Fred Van Vleet's last name. Van Vleet, not Van Fleet. In fact, some people still get it wrong. It must be a typo, right? It can't be Van Vleet. It must be Van Fleet, right?

Maybe if Rockford Auburn advances to the finals of the Class 4A tournament in Peoria -- for the second time in school history--everybody will get it right. Once and for all. Fred Van Vleet.

The 6-foot point guard, who is committed to Wichita State, scored 26 points to lead Rockford Auburn to a 66-46 rout of Machesney Park Harlem on Tuesday night in the regional semifinal.

To win the Dundee-Crown sectional and advance to the supersectional at DeKalb, coach Bryan Ott's team likely will have to eliminate Huntley and Elgin, then could face highly rated Warren to earn a spot in the Elite Eight, a daunting task indeed.

It hasn't been easy for Rockford Auburn to get out of its own regional in the past. Legendary coach Dolph Stanley produced the only state qualifier in 1963. His 28-3 team, which was ranked No. 2 in the state, lost in the state quarterfinals. And the school always had to contend with West Rockford and East Rockford and Rockford Boylan and Rockton Hononegah.

In his 13th year at Auburn, Ott has been building for this moment. Last year, his 26-5 team lost to Glenbard East in the supersectional. Three years ago, his 21-5 squad lost to St. Charles North in the sectional semifinal.

This year's team is 27-2 and has won 18 in a row. Its only losses were to Rockton Hononegah by three points in December and to unbeaten and second-ranked Proviso East 75-56 in the semifinals of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"We're better than last year," Ott said. "We have one more year of experience with Van Vleet, who is a great player. We start five seniors, three of whom started last year. We pressure full-court and we get out I transition and finish."

Van Vleet is averaging 21 points, seven assists and seven rebounds per game. He is one of the most underrated players in the state and the undisputed leader of a team that most observers overlook in the rush to heap praise on Class 4A powers Simeon and Proviso East.

"He is a coach on the floor, a dynamic ball-handler," Ott said. "His floor vision is second to none. He is a great passer and he does a great job of quarterbacking our man-to-man full-court and half-court defense, which requires a lot of talk."

Van Vleet is backed up by 6-foot senior LaMark Foote (14 ppg), 6-foot-2 senior Jaylin Marshall (10 ppg, 8 rpg) and 5-foot-10 senior Elijah Smith (12 ppg).

Smith, who didn't play much as a junior, has come on strong to become another offensive threat in Auburn's four-guard offense. Marshall is the team's tallest starter and very athletic.

"Lack of size hasn't been a problem for us," Ott said. "We haven't faced any opponents with great size, teams with players who are 6-foot-6 or taller. If we face Warren (in the supersectional), they would be the tallest team we've faced."

Auburn averages 75 points per game but Ott is more concerned with his team's consistency on defense. "For us, we need to be consistent on defense. There are times when we are a shutdown team, then disappear for a quarter and give up silly shots. We aren't as consistent on defense as we were last year," the coach said.

As Auburn attempts to go deeper into the tournament, Ott also is calling upon Marshall and Smith to take more pressure off Van Vleet on offense.

"Marshall has to produce inside. He has to be a threat inside no matter who we are facing," Ott said. "And Smith has to average in double figures so opponents can't double up on Van Vleet and not respect anyone else."

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

John Fox on Friday sought to clarify some comments he made earlier in the week about Tarik Cohen that seemed to follow some spurious logic. Here’s what Fox said on Wednesday when asked if he’d like to see Cohen be more involved in the offensive game plan:

“You’re looking at one game,” Fox said, referencing Cohen only playing 13 of 60 snaps against the Green Bay Packers. “Sometimes the defense dictates who gets the ball. I think from a running standpoint it was a game where we didn’t run the ball very effectively. I think we only ran it 17 times. I believe Jordan Howard, being the fifth leading rusher in the league, probably commanded most of that. I think he had 15 carries. 

“It’s a situation where we’d like to get him more touches, but it just didn’t materialize that well on that day. But I’d remind people that he’s pretty high up there in both punt returns, he’s our leading receiver with 29 catches, so it’s not like we don’t know who he is.”

There were some clear holes to poke in that line of reasoning, since the question wasn’t about Cohen’s touches, but his snap count. Cohen creates matchup problems when he’s on the field for opposing defenses, who can be caught having to double-team him (thus leaving a player uncovered, i.e. Kendall Wright) or matching up a linebacker against him (a positive for the Bears). The ball doesn’t have to be thrown Cohen’s way for his impact to be made, especially if he’s on the field at the same time as Howard. 

“They don’t know who’s getting the ball, really, and they don’t know how to defend it properly,” Howard said. “… It definitely can dictate matchups.”

There are certain scenarios in which the Bears don’t feel comfortable having Cohen on the field, like in third-and-long and two-minute drills, where Benny Cunningham’s veteran experience and pass protection skills are valued. It may be harder to create a mismatch or draw a double team with Cohen against a nickel package. It's easier to justify leaving a 5-foot-6 running back on the sidelines in those situations. 

But if the Bears need Cohen to be their best playmaker, as offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last month, they need to find a way for him to be on the field more than a shade over one in every five plays. As Fox explained it on Friday, though, it’s more about finding the right spots for Cohen, not allowing opposing defenses to dictate when he’s on the field. 

“We have Tarik Cohen out there, we're talking about touches, not play time, we're talking about touches so if they double or triple cover him odds are the ball is not going to him, in fact we'd probably prefer it didn’t,” Fox said. “So what I meant by dictating where the ball goes, that's more related to touches than it is play time. I just want to make sure I clarify that. So it's not so much that they dictate personnel to you. Now if it's in a nickel defense they have a certain package they run that may create a bad matchup for you, that might dictate what personnel group you have out there not just as it relates to Tarik Cohen but to your offense in general. You don't want to create a bad matchup for your own team. I hope that makes sense.”

There’s another wrinkle here, though, that should be addressed: Loggains said this week that defenses rarely stick to the tendencies they show on film when Cohen is on the field. That’s not only a problem for Cohen, but it’s a problem for Mitchell Trubisky, who hasn’t always had success against defensive looks he hasn’t seen on film before. And if the Bears are trying to minimize the curveballs Trubisky sees, not having Cohen on the field for a high volume of plays would be one way to solve that. 

This is also where the Bears’ lack of offensive weapons factors in. Darren Sproles, who Cohen will inexorably be linked to, didn’t play much as a rookie — but that was on a San Diego Chargers team that had LaDanian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates putting up big numbers. There were other options on that team; the Bears have a productive Howard and a possibly-emerging Dontrelle Inman, but not much else. 

So as long as Cohen receives only a handful of snaps on a team with a paucity of playmakers, this will continue to be a topic of discussion. Though if you’re looking more at the future of the franchise instead of the short-term payoffs, that we’re having a discussion about a fourth-round pick not being used enough is a good thing. 

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

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USA TODAY

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

The goals came in bunches for the Blackhawks in their Oct. 5 season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the Blackhawks, it was a nice memory, albeit one that seems far away given they went from scoring at will through their first two games to not being able to buy a goal for a sizeable stretch.

As for the Penguins, well, you figure their memoires of that game means they’ll be more than a little ticked off when the Blackhawks arrive on Saturday night.

“We’ve been on the wrong side of a few losses like that,” Patrick Sharp said. “You certainly remember them more than other losses.”

This is kind of/sort of about the Penguins, who in the first meeting were clearly tired not only from two Stanley Cup runs but also from their season opener/banner raising the prior night. But it’s more about the Blackhawks who, after a lengthy scoring drought, are starting to get their offense going again (15 goals in their last three games).

And while they’d like to shore up their defense – they blew a 4-1 lead vs. New Jersey and just about did it again vs. the New York Rangers – overall they’re trending in the right direction. And just as they face the team against whom they played their best game of the season.

“I’m sure [the Penguins] will be excited about playing us and making things better. They’re playing well, winning some games. For [us], we’re looking for more consistency in our game with the puck and we’re generating some offense,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I still think it has some ways to improve. That was one night, whether it was the quality of the plays we made or [what], we seemed like we had the puck a lot and did some good things with it. We haven’t seen much of that lately so I think that maybe we can recapture a little bit of that with the puck as well.”

In the past three games the Blackhawks haven’t just reignited their offense, they’ve regained their confidence. Their lines are finding some chemistry. As frustrating as their scoring drought was, they’re hoping it’s behind them.

“At some point in the season I feel like every team goes through it, either in the beginning, the middle or toward the end. You just don’t want to have it right at the end of the season,” Ryan Hartman said. “You can look at it in in a positive way. Hopefully we got that part over with and now we’re just coming in confident and hopefully we put the puck in the net.”

The Blackhawks got off to a hot goal-scoring start against the Penguins by doing the right things: shooting, pouncing on rebounds, getting traffic in front of the net and capitalizing. As they head into their 20th game of the season, the Blackhawks are finally getting back to what worked so well in Game 1.

“Things dried up for a bit but I think we have a good rotation going here with the lines; the chemistry’s starting to fill in a little bit. Some guys are stepping up. [Artem] Anisimov had a big night and Brinsky’s [Alex DeBrincat] playing great. It’s good to see those guys step up. It makes you want to be that next guy who’s called up to step up in the next game,” Patrick Kane said. “It’s good to see some goals go into the net. More important, it’s good to see some wins. But we’re playing the right way and hopefully this will trend in the right direction for us.”