Bears

Look out for Waukegan, St. Patrick

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Look out for Waukegan, St. Patrick

It is easy to pick the winners in the state basketball tournament, the teams that figure to go deep into the playoff, the teams that have been rated in the top 20 for most of the season.

Sure, one or two might be upset in the regional. There is always a case of a highly seeded team that is caught napping by a team that is underrated and playing its best at the end of the season, when it matters most of all.

But what about some sleepers? Teams that have lost seven or eight or nine games and are seeded near the bottom of their sectional pairing? Teams that are spoiling for an upset? Teams that boast at least one outstanding player who could emerge as a difference-maker in a big game?

Let's talk Waukegan, St. Patrick, Homewood-Flossmoor, Morgan Park and Glenbrook North.

Waukegan coach Ron Ashlaw, who guided Jereme Richmond-led teams to second and third-place finishes in the Class 4A tournament in 2009 and 2010, feels his current squad is peaking at the right time behind the stellar play of 6-foot-4 senior Akeem Springs.

Springs, a sure-fire Division I prospect, is averaging 17.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for a team that had its eight-game winning streak snapped by Morton of Cicero last week. Seeded No. 4 in the Barrington sectional, the Bulldogs have lost only three times since December and have beaten New Trier, which is the No. 1 seed in the Glenbrook South sectional.

"We have played a very tough schedule. We couldn't get over the hump early but now I feel we can be competitive with anyone," Ashlaw said. "Our kids are more cohesive. Early on, some kids thought they had to be the one rather than doing it as a team. If we continue to rebound wll and share the ball and get high-percentage shots, we can surprise some people."

Springs, a four-year varsity player who never played with his class until this season, meshes with 6-foot-5 junior DeVonte Taylor (12 ppg) and 6-foot junior point guard Jordan Johnson (10 ppg, 6 assists).

St. Patrick (15-8), which is seeded No. 3 in the Glenbrook South sectional behind New Trier and Glenbrook North, has won 10 of its last 12 games. With only one senior in the starting rotation, 18-year coach Mike Bailey believes his team is playing its best basketball of the season.

"Since Christmas, we have been very competitive. It took time to grow up and mature," Bailey said. "We got beat up at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. We were 1-2, the poorest showing we've ever had there. But we matured a bit. I could see a difference in our kids. We began to jell.

"Now we have to find out if they can deal with playoff pressure. I think they can. It's a different animal when it is a one-and-done situation. We haven't been to the Sweet Sixteen since 2002 and we haven't won a regional in three years, the longest drought of my career. That has been a point of emphasis since last summer, to re-establish ourselves in the state tournament series."

Bailey counts on 6-foot-3 junior Royale Ewing (14 ppg), 6-foot-8 senior Ismar Seferagic (12 ppg, 6 rpg) and 6-foot junior point guard Elijah Watson (9 ppg, 4 assists). Watson has emerged as a leader. Seferagic is a transfer from Canada by way of Croatia.

Homewood-Flossmoor, which hasn't won a sectional since 2006, is seeded No. 3 behind Bloom and Andrew in the Lockport sectional. Coach Jim McLaughlin's team was 23-6 last year and lost to Crete-Monee in the sectional semifinal. This year's 19-7 squad has lost to some highly rated teams, including Bloom twice, New Trier and Hillcrest.

"We're not as good as Bloom and Andrew," McLaughlin said. "But it comes down to the players. We have some seniors and some talent. Size and experience are our strengths. We hope to make a run at it. You have to have good guards to win in high school and Tyrone Sherman is having a great season. He is our leader. He runs our offense. He gets us going."

Sherman, a 5-foot-10 senior point guard, is averaging 10 points and 4.5 assists. Tim Williams and Delvon Rencher, a pair of 6-foot-6 seniors, both are averaging 10 points and six rebounds. And 6-foot-7 senior Antonio Bishop is averaging seven points and five rebounds. McLaughlin also is looking for 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior Maurius Hill (6 ppg, 5 rpg) to step up.

"We have to play harder," McLaughlin said. "We were outplayed by Bloom twice and lost in double overtime and by six points. We aren't far away."

Morgan Park, which lost to third-ranked Curie in the quarterfinals of the Public League playoff, hopes to ride 6-foot-5 junior point guard Billy Garrett Jr. as far as it can. Garrett, who is committed to DePaul, is averaging 26.5 points and 6.3 assists per game.

A year ago, coach Nick Irvin's team was 25-6 and lost to Public League champion Brooks in the sectional final. That team was led by Wayne Blackshear, who went to Louisville. "He was our go-to guy. Now Billy Garrett has taken over that role," Irvin said.

"But we aren't a one-man wrecking crew like we were with Wayne. This is more of a team effort. On any given day, someone can get 15-20 points. Garrett is our main man. We have been grooming him for times like this, when Wayne was gone. He has taken on that challenge. He is our leader. When all is said and done, he will be a NBA point guard for 15 years."

Irvin compares Garrett to former King star Imari Sawyer as an athletic, flashy point guard who can pass and score. But he also thinks Garrett is in a class with the best point guards ever produced in the Chicago area...Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway, Ronnie Lester, Maurice Cheeks.

Garrett is supported by 6-foot-9 junior Xzavier Taylor (9 ppg, 14 rpg), 6-foot-7 sophomore Josh Cunningham (13 ppg, 10 rpg) and 6-foot-4 senior Dominique Lee (8 ppg, 7 rpg, 4 assists, 4 steals).

Ironically, despite Garrett's imposing presence, Irvin describes Lee as "the glue to our team, our most valuable player, the one who guards all the tough players and gets the big rebounds and takes charges and does everything on the floor. Colleges don't know about him but winning is important so people will see him."

"One player can't win a championship. It will take five to win it," Irvin said. "We feel we can beat any team on any given day. We must play together and use everyone's talents to go deep into the tournament."

Can anybody beat Simeon? Irvin thinks so.

"Simeon is beatable," he said. "Sometimes schools play the name. We don't. Simeon's strength is offensive rebounding. You must keep them off the glass. Jabari Parker is the best player in the world. You have to know where he is at all times. But they are beatable."

Another team to watch is Glenbrook North, which crushed Waukegan in the Central Suburban championship last Wednesday.

Coach Dave Weber's team was rated among the top 20 in the Chicago area early in the season, then lost its best player, 6-foot-8 junior Andrew McAuliffe, for several weeks with a knee injury.

Now McAuliffe is back and Glenbrook North can't be taken lightly. The Spartans also feature 6-foot-4 Mark Johnson, who emerged as a big-timer scorer in McAuliffe's absence, and junior point guard Kurt Karis.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”