Bears

Farragut and Nelson hope for a Final Four appearance

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Farragut and Nelson hope for a Final Four appearance

It was sometime early in the school year when a fellow teacher approached an unsuspecting William "Wolf" Nelson in the hallway at Farragut and said: "Wolf, you're 3A now."

Nelson couldn't have been more surprised--and overjoyed--if he had just learned that Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields had been granted another year of eligibility.

"I was totally in the dark," he said. "I had to check it out. He was right. I was shocked. We've always been a big (4A) school before. But now we are 14 students short of being Class 4A.

"I called all the coaches and players and said: 'We've been to the Elite Eight three times before. If everything falls into place, we may have a chance to get to the Final Four again.' I look at the teams in Class 3A and feel we have a good chance to win state."

Translated, that means Simeon is in Class 4A. So are Proviso East, Curie, Warren, Andrew, Plainfield East, Bogan, New Trier and most of the highly rated schools in the state this side of Peoria Manual, Peoria Central and Springfield Lanphier.

In 1995, Farragut was the pre-tournament favorite with Garnett, Fields and Michael Wright. But the Admirals lost to Thornton in the state quarterfinals and finished 28-2.

In 2004, Farragut finished 29-4 behind Ollie Bailey, again losing in the state quarterfinals.

Last year, D.J. Tolliver led the Admirals to a 24-5 record. But they lost to eventual state champion Simeon in the state quarterfinals.

Despite returning only one starter, Nelson believes this year's squad "can be as good or better than last year's team." In fact, he was so optimistic that he deliberately arranged for the most competitive schedule of his 21-year career to prepare his inexperienced players for the Public League Red-West and state tournament grind.

The Admirals are 12-7 but have won seven in a row after beating highly rated Seton 50-45 on Sunday at North Park. Going into the city playoff, Nelson is confident that his team has what it takes to seriously contend for the Class 3A title. Nobody can say they aren't battle-tested.

"I'm having a ball with my team this year, more fun than ever. When you do the unexpected, it makes it fun," Nelson said. "There have been a lot of teachable moments. I set up a tough schedule, the toughest I could. I decided these guys need to learn and understand what it takes to play at a high level of basketball.

"With only one starter back, no one expected much from this team. I didn't want to wait around. I wanted to step up the learning curve, let them learn lessons sooner than later. I didn't want to beat weak teams. I wanted them to play against the best right away, to know where they are right way. My plan is working."

Farragut's schedule reads like a "who's who" of the elite programs in the Chicago area--and even Indiana. It includes Simeon, De La Salle, St. Ignatius, Hillcrest, Harlan, Seton, La Lumiere, Bowman Prep and Red-West rivals Crane, Marshall, Orr and Whitney Young. What? He couldn't schedule Kentucky or the Chicago Bulls?

"This team has a lot of potential," Nelson said. "I had a good feel about this team early on. We lost to Simeon by seven. And we have lost to other big-time teams but not by much. This team can be as good as last year's team."

The strength of this team? The Admirals have one outstanding player in 6-foot-7 senior Rashaun Stimage, a lockdown inside defender in 6-foot-5 David Scott and the best three-point shooter that Nelson has ever coached in 5-foot-9 senior point guard Lavell Boyd.

"We also have quickness, toughness and senior leadership. All the pieces are together," the coach said.

Stimage, who averages 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game and recently recorded a triple-double in a game against Hillcrest, is described by Nelson as "the best senior in the state," better than Simeon's more celebrated Steve Taylor.

"He is more versatile than Taylor. He doesn't get as much recognition as he deserves. He is one of the best players I have coached," said Nelson, who ranks Stimage behind Garnett, Fields, Wright, Bailey and Tolliver on his All-Nelson team.

Scott (7 ppg, 13 rpg) defends the opponent's toughest big man. Boyd (14 ppg, 3 assists), who scored 27 points in a recent victory over Raby, is a superb three-point marksman.

"In posting a triple double (16 points, 12 rebounds, 13 blocks) against Hillcrest, Stimage once again proved why he is one of the top two unsigned prospects (along with Downers Grove South's Jerron Wilbut) in the class of 2012 in Illinois," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.

"Not overlooking Stimage's performance, another player who is just as integral a part of what Farragut does is Lavell Boyd, who is your typical tough-minded floor leader from Chicago's West Side. Boyd plays his tail off from start to finish and is quite disruptive defensively. He doesn't do anything in spectacular fashion but he has shown that he can run an offense and score points in transition."

But Nelson wants to see more defense from his guards. "The guards aren't as tough on defense this year as last year. They have trouble shutting down the other team's best guards. We can shut down the bigs. But our guards have to step up for us to make this run," he said.

Other starters are 6-foot-5 senior Deonta Terrell (13 ppg), the great nephew of former world heavyweight boxing champion Ernie Terrell, and 5-foot-10 senior John Carter (8 ppg, 4 assists).

The bench is headed by 6-foot-3 sophomore Ashawn Jones (5 ppg), 6-foot-6 sophomore Sire Carroll (5 ppg), 5-foot-10 freshman Ernest Johnson (3 ppg) and 5-foot-9 freshman Joshua Adams (3 ppg).

Against Seton, Stimage had 19 points, six rebounds and six blocks, Boyd scored 12 points and Scott had nine points and 21 rebounds.

"We have to sacrifice in order to win," Nelson said. "The test for them is not to play for individual glory but they have to play for the team. Statistics don't mean anything at this point. They can't be selfish. If I see them playing together and doing what I tell them, we'll be successful."

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?