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CSN to follow Simeon's quest for three-peat

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CSN to follow Simeon's quest for three-peat

This winter, CSNChicago.com will be providing exclusive coverage of the Simeon Career Academy boys varsity basketball team, ranked No. 1 in the nation by some media outlets.

The Wolverines, back-to-back defending state champions are the flagship program of Chicago high school basketball and have a rich history that includes consecutive state titles in 2006 and 2007, when they were led by point guard Derrick Rose.

This season, they have the No. 1 player in the nation again, junior Jabari Parker, but it's far from a one-man gang. Coach Robert Smith's squad also features Marquette-bound forward Steve Taylor, the top-ranked senior in the state, top-50 nationally-ranked junior guard Kendrick Nunn, junior transfer Jaylon Tate, a point guard ranked among the top 100 players in his class, and senior floor general Jaleni Neely.

While those are the main characters CSNChicago.com will be focusing on, the Simeon "family" is an equal-opportunity group, so such role players as junior starting forward Kendall Pollard, junior reserve point guard Lawrence Neely, backup senior guard Reggie Norris and two freshmen who are quietly touted as the future of the program -- wings Brandon Hutton and Dennis "D.J." Williams, who will play on both the sophomore and varsity teams -- will also receive attention.

Rose (when he pops up at his old school, which is something he's prone to do), the entire coaching staff and parents of the players, including Robert "Sonny" Parker, the father of Jabari and a former NBA player, will share time in the spotlight as well.

For now, however, here's some background on some of the key figures. Simeon opens its season Saturday night, with a game against south suburban power Hillcrest at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

THE SUPERSTAR: JABARI PARKER

Parker is the consensus top-ranked player in the nation in the junior class and arguably the best high school player in the country, regardless of class. Recruited by virtually every top-tier college in the country, he is remarkably humble and plays a team-first style of basketball. Tremendously skilled, he combines superb athleticism, strength down low, unselfish passing, accurate perimeter shooting and explosive slashing ability.

THE SENIOR LEADER: STEVE TAYLOR

Taylor is the only player in Illinois to rank among the top 100 seniors in the country. Signed with Marquette in the fall. A 6-foot-8 forward, he is just as capable of knocking down a deep three as he is to throw down a dunk in traffic, forming a deadly inside-outside duo with Parker.

THE FLOOR GENERAL: JALENI NEELY

Neely is a four-year varsity player who split minutes at his position the past two seasons, only to suffer a devastating ACL injury in the summer. Hoping to return to the linuep by the season opener, Neely is viewed by Coach Smith as one of the team's most indispensable pieces because of his knowledge of the game. A true, pass-first point guard, Neely's modest scoring average is outweighed by his playmaking ability and mistake-free style of play.

THE MICROWAVE: KENDRICK NUNN

Nunn, who committed and de-committed from Texas A&M this fall, wasn't a starter last season, but is viewed as one of the most explosive scorers around. An elite athlete with deep range and a fearless style of play, the southpaw shooting guard is highly coveted by a wide variety of colleges. His penchant for making big plays makes him the most exciting player to watch on the roster, a sentiment privately seconded by his idol, Rose.
THE TRANSFER: JAYLON TATE

Tate left De La Salle, a Catholic league power, to join forces with the Wolverines, but don't accuse him of hopping on the bandwagon for the personal benefits. Already a coveted prospect receiving attention from a long list of college programs, Tate is an athletic and gifted point guard, but must quickly catch on to a new system. Although he wasn't the only star at his previous school, it might be a difficult adjustment for Tate initially.

THE ARCHITECT: ROBERT SMITH

Smith is a low-key coach who blends being a disciplinarian and nurturing his players, a successful approach that has led to four state championships in less than 10 seasons. The Simeon graduate inherited the program from his own former coach, the late, legendary Bob Hambric, and it hasn't missed a beat in his hands. Ably aided by a coaching staff consisting of former players, the Wolverines' program is a well-oiled machine with a family atmosphere.

THE ALUMNI: DERRICK ROSE

The youngest MVP in NBA history. Instead of rehashing Rose's accomplishments -- two state championships, McDonald's All-American, 2007 Mr. Illinois Basketball -- during his time on 81st and Vincennes, here's a quote from the Bulls point guard from after his workout at the school Monday night:

"I've been coming up here a couple of times to work out. You already know they have great talent, a couple of players they already have on their team -- I don't need to mention their name, but the star of the nation; you already know who that is: Jabari -- and I think Rob and everybody, his coaching staff, has been doing a good job with coaching their team."

THE OBSERVER: SONNY PARKER

A former NBA player with the Golden State Warriors, the elder Parker himself is a Chicago high school legend from his exploits at Farragut (also Kevin Garnett's alma mater) on the West Side. Ironically, Parker tutored more than a few of his sons current teammates in his capacity of the head of the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation, a basketball program that includes weekend clinics, AAU competition before high school and competitive summer leagues. Parker and wife, Lola, are a constant, but not overbearing presence at Simeon.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jon Graff, Matt Buckman and Scott Changnon rattle off their main takeaways from the weekend’s Cubs Convention, including the funniest moments and how the players engaged with fans and each other throughout the three days at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

Plus, which players — besides Kyle Schwarber — made the most of the offseason and are primed for a breakout in 2018? The crew gives its take, with options including Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ and Jason Heyward.

Take a listen below:

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

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USA TODAY

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

Circling back around from the playoffs to the Bears, or at least to the Bears using the current postseason as a bit of a prism, magnifying glass, measuring stick, all of the above:

The ultimate question, obviously meaningfully unanswerable for perhaps another 10 or 11 months, revolves around expectations that were ushered in along with Matt Nagy and the rest of his coaching staff. One early guess is that there’ll be an inevitable positive bump in the record, the only true measuring stick. Depending on changes in practices, strength training, luck, whatever, Nagy might fare better than John Fox simply by virtue of having a presumably healthier roster — pick any three Bears who were injured during the 2017 season: Leonard Floyd, Cameron Meredith, Eric Kush, Kyle Long, Pernell McPhee, Mitch Unrein, Kevin White and Willie Young — and a broken-in Mitch Trubisky from the get-go.

This is far from a given, however. Far, far from a given for the Bears. Of the 10 coaches hired in the 50 years since George Halas stopped, only Fox, Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt improved on the winning percentage of their immediate predecessor. All dipped, save for Jack Pardee, who in 1975 equaled the 4-10 finish of Abe Gibron before him. And Pardee was getting Walter Payton in that year’s draft, so things started looking up in a hurry.

And maybe that should be the expectation for Nagy, who projects to get some or all of Fox’s wounded back, plus a draft class beginning with No. 8 overall.

Better Bears record in 2018? Maybe, but ...

The Bears are perhaps something of an anomaly (imagine that) in the near constant of incoming coaches failing to improve matters in their first years. One of the more memorable aspects of this writer’s first year on the Bears beat (1992) — besides the obvious pyrotechnics of Mike Ditka’s epic final season — was the startling turnarounds effected by first-year (and first-time) NFL coaches that year, with several teams on the Bears’ schedule that year, meaning there were chances to study those in depth.

Consider: Bill Cowher took the Steelers from 7-9 to 11-5, Dennis Green took the Vikings from 8-8 to 11-5, Mike Holmgren took the Packers from 4-12 to 11-5, Bobby Ross took the Chargers from 4-12 to 11-5, and Dave Shula took the Bengals from 3-13 to 5-11.

The Bears played all but the Chargers that year, losing twice to Green, once to Holmgren and defeating the Cowher and Shula teams. Holmgren’s Packers didn’t make the playoffs, but he had to make an in-season quarterback change, which worked out pretty well long-term (Brett Favre).

Bears coaching-change history notwithstanding, the Nagy bar should be well above the five wins of Fox’s 2017. Nagy is a first-time head coach, but none of Cowher, Green, Holmgren, Ross or Shula had ever been NFL head coaches previously, either. Green and Ross had been college head coaches, albeit Green with a losing record and Ross barely .500 in those tenures.

And those coaches were taking over in the last year before the advent of free agency, which began in 1993. The Bears “landed” Anthony Blaylock and Craig Heyward. The Vikings secured Jack Del Rio. The Packers, Reggie White.

Odd years coming

Expectations vs. results will be interesting to observe in quite a few places this season. In some spots, the situation wasn’t completely broken but they “fixed” it anyway, in the dubious tradition of the Bears axing Lovie Smith after consecutive seasons of 11-5, 8-8 and 10-6 — two more wins (29) than Fox and Marc Trestman had combined (27) over the next five years.

Sometimes that sort of thing can work out. Phil Jackson did get the Michael Jordan Bulls to the next level that Doug Collins hadn’t. And Joe Maddon got the Cubs over the Rick Renteria hump, though adding Kris Bryant, Dexter Fowler and Jon Lester probably helped, too. Fox got the Broncos into a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning, but Gary Kubiak won one with Manning. Fox’s Broncos went against the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, one of the top 10 defenses of all time, while Kubiak had the good fortune of instead having one of the all-time great defenses in 2015.

But back to current NFL case studies:

— The Lions fired Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 season, his third winning year out of four there, two of those going to the playoffs.

— The Titans concluded their playoff year with the exit of Mike Mularkey, his reward for a second straight 9-7 that reversed four straight losing years under others.

— Chuck Pagano had five .500-or-better seasons with the Colts, didn’t have Andrew Luck all year, and was fired two years after going 5-3 with Matt Hasselbeck filling in for Luck.

What the expectations are in those venues is their business, just as it was when Phil Emery launched Smith in a fashion similar to the Titans with Mularkey. Smith didn’t reach the 2012 playoffs but would have been fired for anything short of a Super Bowl appearance, as Mularkey was for only winning one playoff game with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback.

All of which makes the Nagy/Pace Era more than a little intriguing. Nagy takes over a team with a No. 2-overall quarterback, as Mularkey did with Mariota. Some of Mularkey’s undoing traced to failing to maximize Mariota with an offense suited to how his quarterback plays his best, and force-fitting a player into a scheme is high-risk at best.

That doesn’t really apply in the case of a conservatively wired Fox, who directed that the offense be kept under ball-security control with a rookie quarterback. Fox and Dowell Loggains arguably were as constrained by Trubisky as he was by them.

But Nick Foles flourished with the Eagles under Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson, struggling a bit under Jeff Fisher. Case Keenum, a teammate of Foles when the Rams played in St. Louis, was so-so under the defense-based Fisher with the Rams, yet went supernova this year under the defense-based Mike Zimmer with the Vikings, which speaks to the value of the right coordinator irrespective of the head coach’s offensive or defensive background.

In the end Nagy’s achievements will be player-based. They always are. What he can do with what he’s got and given, via draft, free agency or whatever, vs. the successes and non-successes of others in his situation, is the work in progress now.