Bears

Fleming sets pace for Stevenson

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Fleming sets pace for Stevenson

When Mike Fleming was in seventh grade, Stevenson's basketball team was 27-7 and finished fourth in the Class AA tournament. He attended a lot of games, including the Elite Eight finals in Peoria.

It was a wonderful and eye-opening experience. He enjoyed watching Stevenson's Jong Lee, Kevin Stineman and Dylan Richter and even got an up-close-and-personal view of a young Simeon star named Derrick Rose.

"It never crossed my mind that Stevenson basketball wasn't as big as football or baseball," Fleming said. "As I got into the program, playing as a freshman and sophomore, I could see it wasn't that big. Not a lot of people showed up unless it was Warren or Libertyville or a playoff game."

Times have changed. Stevenson is 8-1 after overwhelming Streamwood 60-36 on Tuesday in the opening round of the Wheeling Holiday Tournament.

The Patriots have defeated highly rated Warren and previously unbeaten Libertyville and lost only to newly crowned Elgin Holiday Tournament champion Elgin in overtime.

Against Streamwood, Fleming converted four three-point shots and
finished with 19 points and five assists. Colby Cashew added 13 points.

"We have potential to be better than the 27-7 team," coach Pat Ambrose said. "We have a young team. We have a freshman starter and a freshman coming off the bench. And we have a sophomore who plays starter minutes. We are a work in progress. But the talent is there. We can be as good as the 2007 team if we keep on moving forward and improving."

Fleming agrees. The 6-foot senior guard is the team leader and its leading scorer (18 ppg). He also is the smartest guy in the locker room with a 29 ACT and a 4.1 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale in advanced placement courses. He wants to major in economics and play basketball in college, maybe at Colgate or Bucknell or Princeton or Cornell.

"This year is so much different than last year," Fleming said. "Last year, we were 15-13. Some guys were figuring out what their roles were and wanted to have a different role instead of doing what they had to do for the team to be successful.

"But everybody is buying into it this year. Everybody has the same mindset. Everybody wants to play basketball. In the past, the mindset was mixed. This year, everybody is close on and off the floor. Everybody enjoys playing with each other. And everybody knows their role."

Fleming is joined in the starting lineup by 6-6 senior Colby Cashaw (8 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-foot freshman guard Jalen Brunson (7 ppg, 6 assists), 6-3 junior Andy Stemple (4 ppg) and 6-6 senior Chandler Simon or 6-1 sophomore Matt Morrissey. Another valuable contributor is 6-2 freshman Connor Cashaw, Colby's brother.

Brunson, son of Chicago Bulls assistant coach and former Temple and 10-year NBA player Rick Brunson, is a prototypical point guard. He scored 22 points against Libertyville. Morrissey, son of former Chicago Bears star Jim Morrissey, is a late addition from the football team.

"Brunson has great potential," Ambrose said. "He is a piece to our puzzle right now. He isn't a star player but he gets oohs and aahs from the crowd because of the moves he makes. But he fits into our team concept."

Ambrose, 43, is in his 14th year as head coach at the Lincolnshire high school. A 1987 graduate of Naperville North, he was mentored by several outstanding high school coaches--Naperville North's Dick Whitaker, Proviso West's Mark Schneider and Hoffman Estates' Bill Wandro. When he applied at Stevenson, Warren's Chuck Ramsey put in a good word for him.

"I didn't know much about Stevenson," Ambrose said. "I knew it had untapped potential in basketball. I knew it was more known for football and baseball because of past success. But I didn't think we couldn't win there. We had to get everybody on the same page, get the kids working in the same direction, straighten out the feeder program, get more kids interested in basketball, let them see Stevenson basketball in a better light."

To relate to the kids, he put together a crack staff. Assistant Brent Mork has been with him for the last four years. Paul Swan has been coaching basketball at Stevenson for 43 years. A member of the Lake County Hall of Fame, Swan has been a volunteer varsity assistant for the last six years.

Ambrose was disappointed with last year's 15-13 team, which lost to Mundelein in the regional semifinal for the third time. "We should have been better. We had more talent than we showed, eight seniors who didn't put it all together. We didn't do a good job from A to Z, offense or defense," he said.

But this year's team could be better. "I keep telling the kids: 'The future is in front of you. The past is history. The future is a mystery.' I keep asking them what we can do today to make ourselves better," the coach said.

"Coach Ambrose is known for his sayings and quotes. He has so many of them. All of them relate to the team," Fleming said. "He says this a lot and puts in on the board: 'Play hard, play smart, play together.' That's his No. 1 saying."

Fleming has been in the program for four years and he has heard all of Ambrose's sayings. And he sees changes that he likes, things he never saw before, like a student cheering section. "It won't be long before somebody comes up with a name for them," he said.

But the most fun is on the floor. Fleming scored 27 points against Elgin and Zion-Benton and 16 in Stevenson's victory over Warren. The fever is catching on among the students and the community.

"This year, we have had success and we have talent. The gym has been packed for every game," Fleming said. "It is cool to have some big games. It is awesome to do it in front of family and friends.

"It excites me. It is rare to see two freshmen (Dunson and Connor Cashaw) with such raw talent. It is awesome to play with young guys who can come in and play in varsity games and have an impact. I didn't expected them to be as good as they are. It helps our team that much more.

"We will surprise a lot of people. I think a lot people, even after our Warren win, still doubted us. They thought it was lucky or a fluke. But I hope, after our Libertyville win, that people will realize we are a very talented team, that we are definitely for real. People should recognize that and not take us lightly. It would be a dream to play Simeon in the Class 4A final."

Has the coach got a saying for that?

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?