Bears

Morton faces early season test

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Morton faces early season test

Rocco Balcaster, the leading scorer on Morton's unbeaten and unappreciated basketball team, was trying to be objective while sizing up his team's pluses as he prepared for Friday's West Suburban Gold showdown with highly rated Downers Grove South in Cicero.

"Our team is looking pretty good even though we haven't played much competition yet," the 6-7 senior said. "Our defense is strong. In four games, we have held all of our opponents under 40 points. That's our goal: to keep opponents under 40. And we want to keep doing our thing on offense--running motion sets and getting a lot of inside baskets."

Balcaster is used to winning at Morton, which isn't the way it used to be. Today's generation doesn't relate to former coaches Norm Ziebell, who produced two state championships in the 1930s and 1940s, or Jim Vopicka, who had winning teams in the 1950s. Morton was known as a baseball school with five state titles to show for it.

But current coach Tony Martinucci had only one losing season in his first 11 years. He is closing in on 200 victories in his career. His last four teams were 24-4, 23-6, 16-10 and 18-10.

"When I got here, basketball was serious. The varsity was 24-4 and we just tried to follow them, do what they did, fill their shoes," Balcaster said. "I was tempted to go to St. Patrick but I decided to stay at Morton. I wanted to get a good education and get out of the neighborhood but I stayed because of the basketball program and my older brother Joe was on the varsity and he encouraged me to stay. I'm glad I did."

That has been the key to Martinucci's success--keeping local kids at home. A Morton graduate of 1982, he learned his trade from coaches Tom Richardson at Nazareth and Gene Pingatore at St. Joseph. After serving as Morton's freshman coach for two years, he was promoted to the varsity.

"I always heard that you can't win at Morton. We were good in baseball and coming on in soccer but we could never win in basketball, I was told," Martinucci said. "No one remembered the good years with Ziebell and Vopicka, just the lean years in the 1980s and 1990s."

The problem was the most talented athletes went to St. Joseph in Westchester or Nazareth in La Grange Park or Fenwick in Oak Park, not Morton in Berwyn-Cicero.

"I had to change the attitude and stop losing kids," Martinucci said. "And I had to build some excitement in the program."

He did that. This year, for example, he promoted promising freshman Wiesner Perez to the varsity. The recipient of a national scholarship, he could have gone to any high school. But both of his brothers who are at Morton and Wiesner chose to stay at home.

"He will be very good, the best player we have had in a long time," the coach said.

Balcaster is the leader of the senior-dominated squad, averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game. Other starters are 6-4 junior Walter Perez (17 ppg), 6-4 senior David Chatman (9 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-0 senior point guard Anthony Lewis (12 ppg, 4 assists) and 6-4 junior Rodrigo Nava (8 ppg).

Wiesner Perez, 5-10 sophomore Greg Carter and 5-10 senior Letech Lewis come off the bench.

"The bench is the key," Martinucci said. "How well will they play in big games? How well will the young kids handle the pressure in big games? Friday will be a measuring stick going into the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"This could be another 20-plus victory season. This team could be in a class with our 24-4 team. But we've toughened up the schedule. This is the toughest our conference has ever been with Proviso East, Downers Grove South, Morton and Hinsdale South. It could be the strongest conference outside the Chicago Public League."

That's the kind of challenge Balcaster and his teammates are looking forward to. The conference may be tough but they know the route through the regional, sectional and supersectional is even tougher.

"Our goal is to get Downstate," Balcaster said. "The regional and sectional are always tough and we know we will have to get past Simeon (in the supersectional) to get to Peoria."

"We have to be prepared. That's why we play about 200 games with each other in the summer. We are a big team with four starters who are 6-4 or bigger. We feel we have a rebounding edge. My role? Score the most points. Eighteen points per game is all right now. That's all the matters as long as we are winning."

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?