Blackhawks

Breese Central's Brandon Book is a big-timer

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Breese Central's Brandon Book is a big-timer

Every once in a while, while observing the small-school basketball tournaments, you see a player who has what it takes to compete at the mid-major or even the major Division I level in college.

Breese Central's Brandon Book is one of those players.

Whether he is as good or better than some of the small-school standouts of the past -- Lawrenceville's Jay Shidler and Marty Simmons, Normal University's Jim Crews, Eldorado's Mike Duff, Cairo's Tyrone Nesby, McLeansboro's Brian Sloan, Providence-St. Mel's Lowell Hamilton, St. Anne's Jack Sikma, Leo's Andre Brown, St. Martin de Porres' Jerry Gee, Providence's Walter Downing, Springfield Calvary's Rennie Clemons -- remains to be seen.

But Book, a 6-foot-6 senior, clearly was the best player on the court last weekend in Peoria. If there was an MVP in the Class 2A tournament, it was Book.

Breese Central coach Stan Eagleson knew it, too.

"We always feel we have the best player on the floor," Eagleson said before the tournament began. "When he is on his game, he is as good as anyone the other team can put on the floor. He can post up but he also is a leading perimeter shooter."

The leading scorer in school history, Book (21 ppg, 9 rpg) is being recruited by Southern Indiana, Arkansas State, Millikin and Southwest Illinois College. The list of suitors should increase significantly in the wake of his sensational performance in the state finals.

Book had 24 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks as top-ranked Breese Central dispatched second-rated Seton Academy 57-47 in the semifinals.

He scored 19 of his 28 points in the second half and grabbed 11 rebounds as Breese Central won its 18th game in a row and completed a 34-1 season by edging Normal University High 53-47 for the Class 2A championship.

"I knew I had to come here and play as hard as I can," Book said. "Winning the state championship sends chills down my spine."

Playing against a Normal U-High team led by highly touted sophomore Keita Bates-Diop, Book converted two successive three-point shots and two free throws to give Breese Central a 34-28 lead after three quarters.

Normal U-High, which annually plays one of the toughest schedules of any small school in the state, fell behind by 10 but closed within two on two occasions in the last minute. But Book made a basket and Nick Grapperhaus made four free throws in the last eight seconds to seal the victory.

"He struggled early," Eagleson said about Book, who shot 3-of-12 in the first half. "Then he put us on his back."

Class 1A basketball to a large degree and Class 2A basketball to a lesser extent are acquired tastes, like girls basketball. The viewer must understand it is a different game, athletically and fundamentally. Limited athleticism, no slam dunks, no crossover dribbles, everyone playing below the rim, few if any major college recruits.

But once you accept the fact that this isn't Kentucky vs. Kansas or Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson or Simeon vs. Proviso East, you can be entertained by watching a game straight out of a coach's playbook, filled with X's and O's rather than dribble penetration and blocked shots and tomahawk dunks and up-tempo, up-and-down action that more resembles a Stanley Cup hockey game.

Book provided that type of entertainment and excitement last weekend. So did his team, which played in-your-face man-to-man defense against Seton and Normal U-High. Against a quicker Seton team, the Cougars disrupted Seton's offense and didn't allow a single fast-break basket. Against taller Normal U-High, they prevented the Pioneers and Bates-Diop from dominating on the boards.

Eagleson is one of the winningest coaches in state history. He has won 586 games in 30 years, including 30-3, 30-5, 30-3 and 34-1 in the last seasons. His team was fourth in 2010. Last year's team lost in the supersectional. The only blemish on this year's record was a loss to Kirkwood Vianney, a St. Louis suburban power.

"Since 1996, we have had a nice run of good basketball players and good basketball players with good size, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 kids who can play," Eagleson said. "Going into this season, I felt this team was potentially the best I have had. It has a lot of kids with good basketball sense."

The Class 1A final was entertaining, too. Woodlawn, which had eliminated top-ranked Mounds Meridian for the second year in a row in the supersectional, trounced North Shore Country Day 62-44 in the semifinals, then rallied to edge Carrollton 48-45 for the title.

No, it wasn't like watching someone cut grass. A.J. Webb made a three-pointer with 16 seconds left to overcome a one-point deficit and Christian Hollenkamp made two free throws with two seconds left to clinch the victory as Woodlawn closed out with a 5-0 run.

Gabe Owens was an effective three-point shooting threat and Webb was a lockdown defender and clutch performer for Woodlawn. Carrollton's Joey Coonrod, a three-sport star who pitched his school to a state championship last year, also stood out. Coonrad had 16 points and 17 rebounds in the final.

Only one complaint: While television announcers Lee Hall and Dave Bernhard and color commentators Greg Starrick, Camron Smith and Matt Rodewald were informed and informative, Starrick closed with a tiresome comment stolen from Dick Vitale that always sends chills down my spine.

"Both teams were well-coached," said Starrick, a former Marion star who was one of the most prolific scorers in state history.

Have you ever heard a radio or TV analyst refer to a team -- high school, college or professional -- as poorly coached?

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

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USA TODAY

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."