Bears

The shame of high school, college basketball

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The shame of high school, college basketball

This is the way it is in the often seamy and corruptible world of high school and college basketball.

It was a day like any other day when the telephone rang in the office of the chief administrator of a high school in Illinois.

The callers were the school's star basketball player, his father, his AAU coach and a coach representing a major Division I program.

The athlete was struggling academically, seriously and negatively affecting his opportunity to qualify for a college scholarship, and it was broadly if not directly hinted that if the youngster's grades were changed for the positive, he would transfer to another school.

"We wouldn't do it," the administrator said. "So he transferred. It wasn't proper."

But a big-time college will welcome a big-time recruit, no more questions asked. And the AAU coach will deliver the player, just as he promised he would. All neatly tied in a bow, like a Christmas present.

Prep schools have become a cottage industry in this country. Call them "basketball factories." Oak Hill or Fendlay or Bishop Gorman or La Lumiere or Brehm or Laurinburg or Winchendon or Maine Central or Miller Grove or Brewster or Prestwood or Fork Union or South Kent or Hargrave.

A few years ago, investigations by the Washington Times and New York Times forced the NCAA to make rule changes that helped to close many so-called diploma mills. Remember Chicago's controversial Boys to Men Academy?

Under the new academic guidelines, it supposedly is more difficult for incoming athletes to put their books aside to concentrate solely on playing on organized all-star teams that travel from coast to coast and gain exposure to the leading Division I programs.

Today, athletes are required to earn at least 15 of their 16 core courses during high school before a fifth year is permitted at a prep school, thus eliminating the chances for a sham operation to skirt the rules.

Sounds good. But is it too good to be true? Is P.T. Barnum still selling his wares to unsuspecting high school athletes? Or is that what they really want, a short trip down the educational path that will lead to the NBA?

"It depends on the school," said longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com. "Most of the well-established prep schools in the Northeast and in Virginia who belong to the NEPSAC (New England Preparatory School Athletic Council) are legitimate schools, as are some of the well-established schools like Montverde.

"But there are a number of pop-up prep schools that are nothing but athletic or basketball factories. Some are online-only classroom schools. There definitely is a major potential for academic fraud.

"Unfortunately, you have to take them on a one-by-one basis to establish who is or who isn't a legitimate school. Overall, the prep school is a useful tool for seniors who come up just short academically, needing one course or time to pass a test. But they can be a real pain in the behind to legitimate schools if used to coerce or blackmail schools to give grades."

Coleman is familiar with cases where a school refused to change an athlete's grades so he transferred to another school that was more than willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure his eligibility and ability to qualify for a college scholarship.

"For a senior to go to a prep school and make up two flunked courses would take two years, as I'm not sure the NCAA allows more than one core per year if you transfer at the start of the senior season," Coleman said.

"Prep schools serve a purpose for fifth-year players in needs of short termlimited academic help to be eligible. As far as the four-year schools, some have their purpose. But, in many cases, they are just basketball factories. Each one has to be looked at based on their overall program. A number of them, like Oak Hill, have helped players to achieve academic qualification."

The growth and need for the one-year prep school outlet to qualify academically stemmed from the NCAA's refusal to allow junior college players in good standing to transfer after their first year of competition, thus opening up a can of worms that many prep schools have become.

In fact, for some unexplained reason, the NCAA is looking to make it even tougher for athletes to transfer from junior college to a four-year school. So prep schools could become an even more significant beneficiary as more players seek short-term academic relief.

Many of these teams are flat-out all-star teams. For example, highly rated Fendlay Prep of Henderson, Nevada, which defeated Simeon, the nation's top-ranked high school team, by a 75-50 margin in a nationally televised game, has no players from Nevada. But its roster includes recruits from Italy, Nigeria, Australia, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Arizona, California and Oregon.

"Rather than traditional high school teams composed of athletes from the local community, an unfortunate variation on that theme is making its presence felt in ever-increasing numbers," noted a recent article in the National High School Federation's magazine. "In the process, (they are) making a mockery of the game."

According to the NFHS, non-member, basketball-focused schools are popping up across the nation and with greater frequency. The NFHS claims they aren't education or community-based but are merely basketball factories that exist for the sole purpose of creating powerhouse teams.

"Academics have taken a backseat to excellence on the basketball court at many of these institutions, as they are not bound by the rules and regulations observed by member schools. As a result, the star 7-foot center might be failing in the classroom but shining on the court with no penalty for his academic deficiencies," the NFHS article said.

"Where does education figure into this equation? What happened to the time-honored notion of representing your hometown and high school by wearing your uniform and school colors with great pride? What happened to playing your longtime conference rival? What happened to competing for that elusive state title? And what happened to the high school experience."

Not surprisingly, Marty Hickman, executive director of the Illinois High School Association, isn't a big fan of prep schools. Fortunately, he points out, the only prep school of note in Illinois is Brehm Academy in Carbondale. Decatur Christian tried to join the elite crowd but finally opted to join the IHSA.

Hickman and other high school administrators argue that prep schools almost exclusively cater to elite basketball players and sell them a bill of goods in the form of unrealistic expectations. "It is disheartening because they don't prepare kids for anything else," he said.

"We need to continue to focus on providing good interscholastic experiences for kids. It is frustrating in other states, too, and the problem is rising in soccer. Some elite soccer players are being forced by their club programs to play only competitive club soccer and skip the high school season."

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.”