Houston gives Hope plenty of hope


Houston gives Hope plenty of hope

When Illinois-bound point guard Jalen James made the startling decision
to transfer to La Lumiere Academy in LaPorte, Indiana, for the second
semester, nearly everybody wrote off Chicago's Hope Academy as the favorite
to win the Class 1A championship.

Everybody except coach Mike Edwards and his players. The Eagles are
17-2, including a victory over highly rated Marshall and losses to highly
rated Huntley and St. Ignatius. They defeated Lake Forest Academy 77-71 in
double overtime on Tuesday. They'll play at Ida Crown on Thursday and at St.
Benedict on Friday.

"It was disappointing that James left. In our view, it wasn't in his
best interest. All the tools were here for him to succeed with us. He just
needed to do extra work in class," Edwards said. "How good is he? He
definitely can play point guard in the Big 10.

"But we were deep to start with, nine or 10 deep. Against Class 1A
competition, we still have a big lineup. We still can win the state
championship if our kids do what they are supposed to do. We have an
unselfish, diverse and athletic team. And we play disciplined ball."

With James gone, Edwards predicts that some of his other talented
players will get their props, particularly 6-foot-5 senior Alex Houston, who
scored 36 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a victory over Carver shortly
after James left for Indiana.

"He is starting to get college looks," Edwards said. "Most college
coaches came to see Jalen and now Alex is getting looks, mostly from
Division II and III schools. But I think he can play at the Division I
level. He is very athletic and active on the boards. And he is our leading
percentage shooter from three-point range."

But Edwards reminds that Hope Academy isn't a one-trick pony. Houston
averages 12 points per game. Colin Blaydes (10 ppg, 8 rpg), a 6-foot-5
senior, is a shot blocker and defensive energy. Torrance Johnson, a
6-foot-6, 225-pound senior, averages 14 points and eight rebounds. Tyrone
Smith, a 6-foot-1 senior, and Carson Hughes, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, each
average eight points.

In Tuesday's victory over Lake Forest Academy, Johnson scored 27 points
while Smith had 26.

The chief reserves are 5-foot-7 senior Andre Thomas and 5-foot-8 junior
Armando Sacluti, a pair of reliable defenders.

They remember how close they came a year ago. The Eagles were 20-11 and
lost to Newark in the sectional final. Newark went on to win the Class 1A

"We hoped last year would be our year but we knew Newark was an amazing
team," Edwards said.

But this is this year and there is even more optimism, even without
James. "Everyone felt (the transfer) was coming. I've known him for eight
years. He's still like a brother. It was a decision for him. He did what was
best for him. It cut his ties with us but the show still goes on," Houston

"Regardless of who is there, we have 12 guys who are willing to work
hard. Jalen was our floor leader but the seniors have done a good job of
keeping everything together. Thomas and Smith and Hughes have to take charge
on the floor now and they are doing it very well.

"When James left, our team was doing good. We felt it was time for
everybody to step up. We felt confident. We still feel we can win the Class
1A title. Our confidence never went away. Our senior leadership and our
senior guards have stepped up and taken it up a notch."

Houston enrolled at University of Chicago's charter school as a
freshman, then transferred to Hope Academy because most of his friends went
there. "I knew the players growing up and in AAU. I felt comfortable with
them. I liked what was going on at Hope," he said.

"I like the teachers. They always help the students. They go out of
their way. They even have Saturday school for kids as long as you are
willing to put the work in. It is a small and close atmosphere."

Like his coach, Houston feels he can play in Division I. He has had
overtures from Kishwaukee College, Benedictine University, Valparaiso and
Cleveland State. His dream school always has been Texas because of Kevin

Most of all, however, he believes Hope Academy deserves more respect.
"It bothers me a lot that we aren't ranked because we are in Class 1A. We
have competed in all of our games. We've beaten some big schools that are
rated. Tell (the evaluators) to see us play. We have high fliers like me and
Blaydes. We play basketball as it should be played," he said.

In his previous four years, Edwards has guided Hope Academy to 16-13,
20-7 and 20-11 records. Jalen James isn't the only outstanding player he has
lost. Willie Conner transferred to Crane. But Edwards reminds that James was
an outstanding point guard but not a dominant offensive player. He averaged
13 points, five assists and three rebounds.

"When James left, I told the other kids that they had to make up 13
points," Edwards said. "I asked them: 'What other school in Class 1A is
quick enough to press us even without Jalen here?' There isn't. We have a
lot of balance. Seven different kids have scored over 18 points in a game
this year.

"Alex Houston has done a great job of stepping up with his leadership.
He has matured and taken on James' role. He knows what is at stake. They
have a chip on their shoulder. They want to be ranked. They should be
ranked. They beat Marshall and Rich South, who have been ranked. They led
Huntley by 16 points in the second quarter.

"We have athletes who can play with Public League teams and the
discipline and teamwork to play with suburban teams. We have blended them
both together."

Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?


Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?

Not all that long ago, back in the seemingly promising Dave Wannstedt days, something of an annual narrative began around the Bears. All too frequently since then it has been the refrain of more offseasons than not, including last year’s. And if there is a cause for very, very sobering realism in the wake of the heady wave of free-agency signings in the first days of the new league year, it lies in what has so often transpired to put the lie to that optimism.

The mantra then, and now, has been various iterations of, “If these three (or four, or six, or 12) things work out, the Bears are gonna be good this year.” Because the reality is that all those what-ifs seldom, if ever, all come to pass, whether because of injury, mis-evaluated abilities or whatever.

Look no further than this time last offseason, just considering the offense:

If Kevin White can come back from (another) injury, if Markus Wheaton flashes his Pittsburgh speed, if Dion Sims takes that next step from a promising Miami stint, if Kyle Long is back from his lower-body issues, if Cameron Meredith comes close to those 66 catches again, if Mike Glennon has the upside that led the GM to guarantee him $18.5 million, and hey, Victor Cruz, too, if… and so on.

And exactly zero of those “if’s” came to pass, with the result that John Fox and Dowell Loggains became idiots.

The point is not to a picker of nit or sayer of nay. But the fact is that a lot of the offseason moves and player development ALL need to come down in the plus-column for the Bears to be even as good as they were back in, say, 2015, when the offense had Martellus Bennett at tight end, Alshon Jeffery at wide receiver, Eddie Royal coming in at slot receiver (with 37 catches in an injury-shortened season), Kyle Long at his Pro-Bowl best, and Jay Cutler about to have the best full season of his career. And a new (proven) head coach and defensive coordinator, and an offensive coordinator with head-coaching talent.

All those things “worked” for a team that would wobble to a 6-10 year.

Now consider 2018:

The current top two wide receivers are both – both – coming off season-ending ACL injuries;

The incoming slot receiver has never had a season as reception-productive as the one (Kendall Wright) he is replacing (59) or as many as Royal had in just nine 2015 games (37);

The new tight end has never been a starter and has fewer career catches (63) than Bennett averaged (69) in three supremely disappointing Bears seasons;

The best offensive lineman (Long) is coming off missing essentially half of each of the past two seasons with injuries, and the co-best (Sitton) is gone from an offensive line that was middle of the pack last year and has high hopes for two linemen (Hroniss Grasu, Eric Kush) who’ve been largely backups, and a third (Jordan Morgan) who missed his rookie season with an injury;

And the quarterback (Trubisky) upon whom the franchise rests, who needs to overcome any so-called sophomore jinx and improve from a rookie level (77.8 passer rating) that was barely better than Cutler’s worst NFL season (76.8).

All of which sounds negative, but it really isn’t, just a perspective. Offseasons are about hope, but realism isn’t all bad, either.

The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line


The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line

Jonathan Toews' offense usually comes in spurts. We're seeing it again right now.

But it's no coincidence his numbers have spiked since Patrick Kane joined him on the top line.

After recording another two points in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the Blackhawks captain has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in his past eight games; he had 11 points in his previous 23 games total.

Toews also reached the 20-goal mark for the 11th straight season, joining Kane and Alex Ovechkin as the only three active players to accomplish that feat to open their NHL careers.

Kane has seen his offensive production pick up, too. He has 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in his past 13 games after going five straight without one, which was his longest point drought of the season.

When the two of them are on the ice together at even strength, they control 57.9 percent of the shot attempts. It hasn't quite translated on the scoresheet (14 goals for and 17 goals against) maybe the way it should, but they are certainly spending far more time in the offensive zone than the defensive end and are generating a high volume of shots.

So yes, reuniting the dynamic duo has worked stats-wise.

But it comes at a cost:

— Vinnie Hinostroza and Nick Schmaltz haven't scored in six straight contests.

— Alex DeBrincat's season-long goal drought is up to 13 games.

— Artem Anisimov's last even-strength goal came nine games ago.

When you put Kane and Toews together, you risk losing some balance across the lineup and that's why Joel Quenneville has always been reluctant to go to that nuclear option. He prefers when opposing teams are forced to play 'Pick Your Poison.'

Ideally, you'd like to spread out the scoring, but one thing is for certain: The Blackhawks are better when Kane and Toews are each producing offensively, whether they're apart or together. 

When the wins start to dry up though — and they have — that's normally when it's time to try something different.

Perhaps more importantly, the last thing you want are those scoring droughts mentioned above to stretch even further and get inside the younger skaters' heads, then carrying it with them into the offseason.