Bears

Sandifer has the right number for Neuqua Valley

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Sandifer has the right number for Neuqua Valley

At Neuqua Valley, it's all about the numbers. Jersey numbers, that is. Jabari Sandifer, the Wildcats' 6-foot senior point guard, has been wearing No. 24 since he was a freshman. That's because all Neuqua Valley point guards wear the same jersey.

But that isn't all. According to tradition, each position player wears the same number, year after year after year. The big man (6-foot-4 senior Pat Kenny) wears No. 55. The shooter (6-foot-5 sophomore Connor Raridon) wears No. 32. And the hustle player (6-foot-2 senior Trevor Davis) wears No. 44.

"Nobody ever asked why," Sandifer said. "It's just the way it is."

There is, however, a logical reason why Neuqua Valley is 10-0 and leading the Upstate Eight Conference's Valley Division with a 6-0 record after sweeping Bartlett and South Elgin last week.

"Our man-to-man defense helps us win games," Sandifer said. "We are aggressive, we pick up point guards full-court and press them, we shut down the opponent's best player and take away their shooters."

In last Thursday's 63-44 victory over Bartlett, Sandifer scored 18 points and 6-foot-5 junior Elijah Robertson contributed a career-high 13 points off the bench. Sandifer converted three three-point shots in the last three minutes to break it open.

In last Saturday's 74-32 rout of South Elgin, Sandifer scored 13 points, Kenny 10.

Still, the Wildcats have to get better to satisfy coach Todd Sutton, who is in his 15th season at the Naperville school. His teams won 22 or more games 10 times in a span of 12 years. "We aren't that good. We are above average. I just looked at our schedule and there is a stretch where we could go 1-7. I'm surprised to be 10-0," he said.

"We have played a decent schedule but we have had a lot of injuries and suspensions and things off the court. We have been a good defensive team so far. We have shut people down. Everyone has stepped up when called upon. But our wings need to shoot better. We need to get points in the paint. Some nights we do and some nights we don't."

But Neuqua Valley is off to its best start since 2009, when Sutton's best team was 31-2 and lost to Dundee-Crown in the supersectional. They returned three starters from last year's 18-12 squad that lost to Plainfield East by two in the sectional.

As they prepare for their Dec. 26 assignment against Geneva in the opening round of the East Aurora Holiday Tournament, Sandifer is averaging 13 points and four assists, Kenny is averaging 13 points and five rebounds, Raridon is averaging six points, Davis three.

"The coach knows we are a pretty good team. We wouldn't be 10-0 if we weren't pretty good," Sandifer said. "But that is the way the coach motivates us. He knows we are a good team but we still have a lot to improve on. We aren't where we need to be.

"Bartlett is a good team and we shut them down defensively. We shut down Lance Whitaker, their best player. So how good are we? We need to get better in small areas, mainly on offense. If Pat (Kenny) and I are off, we have to have other people contribute. We need more consistency on offense."

The offensive struggles and defensive tenacity were never more evident than in an earlier victory over Matea Valley. Neuqua Valley was limited to 38 points but won 38-36.

"This is my team," said Sandifer, who signed with Western Illinois last month. "I was an eighth grader when they were 31-2. That team had a lot more size than we do. But we have potential to be a pretty good team. We can go Downstate if we continue to improve taking care of the ball on offense, cut down on our turnovers and get better on free throws.

"I'm definitely a coach on the floor. I get on my teammates a lot if they aren't doing something right. I talk a lot on the floor, especially when they don't execute right. I want them to do well and win the game. It's nothing personal."

Western Illinois coach Jim Molinari, a former guard himself, liked what he saw when he scouted Sandifer. He made Sandifer a priority in the recruiting process, a pass-first point guard with a knack for getting the ball in position for his teammates to score.

"I was their first offer, a priority for them. It felt good to be a priority," Sandifer said. "I loved the campus and the coaching staff and the players. They offered me in July after seeing him at the Riverside-Brookfield tournament. I knew from the start that I wanted to go there."

But first there is somewhere else that Sandifer wants to go--Peoria.

"It's important to get Downstate. That's our No. 1 goal. We have never been close to going Downstate," he said. "If we keep playing hard, we can get there. I hope my teammates want it just as badly as I do."

Looking deeper to understand how John Fox still commands Bears trust through bad times

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USA TODAY

Looking deeper to understand how John Fox still commands Bears trust through bad times

I’ve always placed great stock in the drama tenet, “Action is character.” What an actor/person does in significant part defines their character, or lack of same.

Conversely, in some situations, what someone doesn’t do can be equally defining or revealing. A couple of those involving the Bears are worth noting, because they suggest things about John Fox and and his staff, and perhaps a bit of what players think of them.

Nothing stunning, just a case of when you pull the camera back for a little wider angle, a broader picture forms out of seemingly separate or isolated incidents. Fox has never lost his teams through three generally miserable seasons, those teams consistently played hard through bad times. A handful of specific situations offer some insight into perhaps why:

The Cohen conundrum

Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains came in for scalding criticism for their recent seeming under-utilization of running back Tarik Cohen. The closest either came to laying out the real reason was a reference to concerns about the rookie’s pass-protection capabilities, no small issue against Green Bay and coordinator Dom Capers’ blitz proclivities; coaches want to see Mitch Trubisky wearing a Bears uniform, not Clay Matthews.

Cohen may be the Bears’ leading receiver, but if a back can’t present the viable option of pass protection, the offense is limited even more than it already is anyway with a rookie quarterback.

Come forward a week: Overlooked in the aftermath of the loss to Detroit, in which Cohen was not part of the hurry-up offense driving for a winning or tying score, was the fact that Cohen simply didn’t know the plays well enough in that situation. Fox didn’t say so. Neither did Loggains.

Cohen did.

Asked afterwards what he wasn’t solid with, Cohen owned it: "Probably the hurry-up plays at those positions. I know certain plays at those positions, but to open up the whole playbook with me, I’ll have to learn all of those plays.”

Should he have been up to a faster speed in week 10? That’s another discussion. But like it or not, his coaches were not going to be the ones to out him.

The Howard hassle

Jordan Howard finished 2016 second to only Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott in rushing yardage. He began the year inactive for game one and lightly used in games two and three. The reason Loggains gave from the podium was that coaches didn’t really know what they had in Howard.

Yes. They did. But Loggains didn’t cite Howard for not being in shape to carry the load the offense needed. Neither did Fox.

Howard did.

“I should’ve been in better shape,” Howard said at the outset of training camp last July. “I should’ve been playing earlier if I would’ve handled what I had to do.”

Some very effective coaches have used public embarrassment for motivation; Mike Ditka assessed that he wasn’t sure Donnell Woolford could cover anybody, and Buddy Ryan summarized that “No. 55 [Otis Wilson] killed us,” for instance.

Fox and his staff don’t do that and they’ve have taken the heat for their players, which does frustrate those tasked with accurately reporting sometimes hard information.

Medical restraint

Fox’s tenure has been awash in major injuries to pivotal players. He has made points in his locker room by shielding those players and their issues whether outsiders like it or not.

That started back with Kevin White and the infamous stress fracture that Fox was accused of knowing about and lying that he didn’t. The real situation was that medical opinions (and the Bears had gotten a bunch) were divided to the point where the Bears opted against surgery until it was conclusive that the shadow on an x-ray was indeed a fracture. Fox refused to call the injury a stress fracture with the doctors so divided, and he was pilloried for it. But not in his locker room.

The organization very much needed Pro Bowl lineman Kyle Long this season for an offense that certainly wasn’t going to live on the arm of Mike Glennon. Long was testy and combative during training camp, and “honestly I’ve been champing at the bit to get back,” he conceded, “but they’ve done a good job of pulling the reins a little bit and making sure that I understand that it’s a long season.”

Small things, not necessarily connected, but as Fox’s third season winds down, what his team shows will factor into decisions on his future. The Bears right now, after the Green Bay and Detroit losses effectively ended the “hope” part of their season, are entering that dreary phase of a year when effort will be critiqued as critically as performance.

The on-field results now will say something about character, Fox’s own and the collective one he has worked to instill since January 2015.

How to watch and/or stream the IHSA football state finals this weekend

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How to watch and/or stream the IHSA football state finals this weekend

It's Thanksgiving weekend, which among other things, means the IHSA football state finals are taking place.

NBC Sports Chicago has live coverage of the finals of all eight classes and is streaming every telecast, including surrounding pre/postgame coverage, to be made available to authenticated subscribers on NBCSportsChicago.com/WatchLive and via the NBC Sports app.

Check out the action taking place in Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, beginning at 10 a.m. on Friday with the Class 1A final and concluding Saturday night with the Class 8A final and a special recap edition of High School Lites following the final game. Highlights from each of the games will be available on our website throughout the weekend.

The live streaming service is currently available to customers of Comcast/Xfinity, DIRECTV, DISH Network, AT&T U-verse, Mediacom, RCN, WOW!, Time Warner Cable and Charter among numerous other carriers.  In addition, NBC Sports Chicago is also available on numerous digital streaming services including DIRECTV NOW, Hulu, fuboTV, Sling TV, CenturyLink Stream, PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV.  For a full list of carriers and more information about NBC Sports Chicago’s live streaming service, viewers are urged to visit nbcsportschicago.com/live-faq.

Here is the full schedule for the weekend's games and broadcast coverage:

Friday, November 24

LIVE NOW: Class 1A: LENA-WINSLOW (Lena) [13-0] vs. TUSCOLA [13-0]

1:00 PM – Class 2A: GIBSON CITY-MELVIN-SIBLEY (Gibson City) [13-0] vs. MAROA-FORSYTH (Maroa) [12-1]

4:00 PM – Class 3A: IC CATHOLIC (Elmhurst) [12-1] vs. PLEASANT PLAINS [10-3]

7:00 PM – Class 4A: MORRIS [11-2] vs. ROCHESTER [13-0] (NOTE: This game will air on NBC Sports Chicago+; please visit our CHANNEL FINDER for the exact channel location in your area)

Saturday, November 25

10:00 AM – Class 5A: PHILLIPS (Chicago) [13-0] vs. DUNLAP [13-0]

1:00 PM – Class 6A: PRAIRIE RIDGE (Crystal Lake) [13-0] vs. NAZARETH ACADEMY (LaGrange Park) [12-1]

4:00 PM – Class 7A: BATAVIA [12-1] vs. LAKE ZURICH [13-0] (NOTE: This game will air on NBC Sports Chicago+; please visit our CHANNEL FINDER for the exact channel location in your area)

7:00 PM – Class 8A: LINCOLN-WAY East (Frankfort) [13-0] vs. LOYOLA ACADEMY (Wilmette) [12-1] (NOTE: This game will air on NBC Sports Chicago+; please visit our CHANNEL FINDER for the exact channel location in your area)

Further information is available at this link. Edgy Tim previewed each of the eight games here and has players to watch for the weekend.