Blackhawks

Have you heard? Immaculate Conception is 16-2

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Have you heard? Immaculate Conception is 16-2

John Cheng is an Asian-American who loves to compete in sports but has never forgotten that academics are most important.

"Sports are fun unless you are good enough to be a professional," he said. "But good grades will carry you into the future."

Cheng enrolled at Immaculate Conception in Elmhurst, located four blocks from his home, because it is a Catholic school and his parents wanted him to obtain a Catholic education and learn about the church.

Then came grades. He has a 3.83 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale in honors classes and wants to major in finance or business in college.

Then came sports. He wants to play basketball in college. It is his favorite sport and he has been playing the game since second grade. He played football in elementary school, golf as a freshman and sophomore and baseball for all four years.

But playing basketball at IC wasn't a priority. He was aware that the program wasn't very good. Last year's team was 12-16. The Knights' won regional championships in 2007 and 2008, their first in over 20 years, but have produced only two winning teams since 1985.

"I didn't think much about the basketball program when I was a
freshman," Cheng said. "I just wanted to play. Now I want to be the one (of a
team) to win a conference title for the first time and go as far in the
state tournament as we can go.

"Being on the varsity, it becomes more serious. You think more about what you want to do in the postseason, to be the first one to go far in the state playoff. As sophomores, we were 23-4 and were conference champions. We felt we could do it at the varsity level.

"But we took a step back last year. We underachieved. We had a tough schedule. We found out a lot about ourselves. Our team chemistry was weak. Some kids didn't get along with each other. But this year is different. The kids get along. We're good friends. Everybody shares the ball. We push each other.

"Some people are surprised by our record. But we expected it. We went into the season knowing we could have a pretty good record. We are quick and fast break a lot. We aren't tall or big but we're quick. We like to push the ball up the court and keep our opponents off balance."

IC won its first 12 games before losing to Nazareth. Last week, the Knights' trounced Lisle 66-48, Walther Lutheran 69-47 and Luther North 48-30. On Tuesday, however, they lost to Aurora Christian (13-4) by a 73-39 margin. They'll meet Elgin St. Edward on Thursday, then host Montini on Jan. 27.

Even coach Darren Howard is surprised by his team's success. "I thought we'd be good. I knew I had a solid group. They were 23-4 as sophomores. But they are playing better than I thought they would. They have great chemistry, no egos and they practice hard," he said.

"A huge part is they are basketball kids. At a small school, you get athletes who play multiple sports. Usually you have football players who also play basketball. But this year I have basketball players. Every year they program and the numbers have gotten better and the kids take basketball more seriously."

In his 12th year, Howard hasn't known much success. Despite two regional titles, his first 11 teams won only 38 percent (118-193) of their games. IC was 1-25 and 1-26 in the years prior to Howard's arrival.

"Basketball fell off the map. IC has been a football school with (former coach) Jack Lewis. I was the fourth basketball coach in four years when I got the job," Howard said. "Now we have consistency and stability. We finally are at the breaking-through point where we will be good for a few years."

Cheng also sees the light at the end of the tunnel. "We have a lot of basketball players. Most of us don't play fall sports. We have a lot of time to work on our game. Our team chemistry is strong. We get along very well," he said.

Cheng, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard, is the team leader. He averages 15 points, 4.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. Brian Harvey, a 6-foot-2 senior (14.2 ppg, 8 rpg), had 20 points and 14 rebounds against Lisle. Demetrius Carr, a 6-foot-2 junior (15.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.5 assists), is a transfer from St. Joseph. Dan Ribando (8.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is a 6-foot-4 senior. Jason Dunn (3 ppg, 2.5 rpg) is a 5-foot-10 senior.

They are supported by 6-foot-1 junior Adam Muellers (4 ppg, 3 rpg) and
6-foot-4 senior Mike Lestina (3.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg).

"We have nine seniors but only one returning starter (Harvey). We play good man-to-man defense. Our kids like to play defense. And it's hard to find kids who like to play defense. But our biggest strength is team chemistry. There is no in-fighting. Our kids get along. And that's very rare," the coach said.

A Weber graduate of 1983, Howard played for Jim Harrington. He coached all levels at Fenton for seven years before coming to Immaculate Conception in 2000. He also serves as the school's athletic director.

"We are much better in the open court than the half-court at the moment," Howard said. "If teams take away our fast break, we must do better in the half-court. Depth could be an issue if two of our top three players get into foul trouble. And lack of size (his tallest player is 6-4) can be a problem if we play somebody big. Nazareth has a seven-foot, 280-pound freshman who had 20 points and seven rebounds against us.

"But balance is our strength. We don't care who scores points. We haven't won a conference title since 1967 and we've never won a sectional. Those are huge goals for us."

In 2007, IC lost to North Lawndale in the sectional final, the farthest the school has ever been in the state tournament. North Lawndale went on to finish second in the state. In 2008, the Knights' lost to St. Anne in the sectional semifinal as St. Anne went on to win the Class 1A championship.

"We are taking baby steps to this point," Howard said. "It takes time to build a program and change an attitude. The administration has given me time to do it. On paper, last year's 12-16 record doesn't look like a good season but it was a significant building block.

"We usually had one or two good players each season but they were football kids who also played basketball. But each year we get more basketball-minded kids. Basketball kids play basketball twothirds of the year while football kids are in the weight room and playing 7-on-7. Football is their first priority.

"Now these kids are more basketball-minded. They go to shooting camps and point guard and big man camps and play AAU in the spring, summer and fall. At the end of the year, you look for what kind of experience the kids had. Every year it has grown more and more to the point where 60 kids came out for basketball this year. We had to make cuts for the first time. People see the improvement. It is more than just a win-loss record. These kids expect to win this year."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.