Bears

Simeon's Smith: I want the Illini job

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Simeon's Smith: I want the Illini job

After winning five IHSA state titles, more than any other coach in Illinois history, Simeon head coach Robert Smith has his eyes set on a loftier goal -- filling the recently vacated head coaching position at the University of Illinois.

Thats something I would definitely be interested in if the opportunity presented itself, said Smith on Thursday before the schools championship pep rally.

But hes not just interested. When asked if he was actively pursuing the position, the usually stone-faced Smith cracked a smile before admitting he is indeed making an effort to make it known that he wants the job. Despite winning five titles in seven years, and fostering the development (both on and off the court) of some of the most talented players in the country, there is a contingent who feels Smiths success at the high school level doesnt merit a promotion to the collegiate level.

A lot of people say youve been in high school so long, but I run this like a college already. Its not a typical high school, as you can see argued Smith. Ive coached some great kids, Ive had some talent, so I understand how to coach talent.

Some talent is a bit of an understatement. Smith won his first two titles in 2006 and 2007 with the help of future number one pick Derrick Rose. He brought in the last three with the help of the nations top junior, Jabari Parker, along with top Illinois senior and Marquette-bound Steve Taylor.

While there are plenty of arguments both for and against how Smiths high school success would translate to the next level, theres one trait he carries that few others in the country can claim as strongly as he can -- a deep and rich connection with the Chicago basketball community thats needed to keep the states best players from leaving to play college ball out of state.

The state of Illinois has produced a bevy of supremely talented players over the past several years, but few have decided to stick around. Jon Scheyer, Sherron Collins, Derrick Rose, D.J. Cooper, Anthony Davis, Iman Shumpert, Ryan Boatright, Wayne Blackshearthats just a tiny sample of the number of athletes who call the state of Illinois home, but went on to attend schools like Duke and Kentucky. Smith feels that if hes given the opportunity, he can reopen the pipeline from Chicago to Champaign and keep the states best players at home.

Youve got to have good relationships. To Smith, its that simple. You have to be able to get into the communities, not just the players and the parents. The community has to feel comfortable with you as well, so when theyre talking up Illinois, the community is talking up Illinois as well. If youre a great player, theyre saying you should go to Illinois. You dont hear that inside the communities.

Smith thinks a lack of Chicago connections is one of the likely culprits behind Shaka Smarts Illini denial. Its kind of tough when youre not from the town, you dont know the town, and you get the negative stuff from everybody else, but Im here, I see it, and I know it.

You dont have to go far to see just how vital this connection could be. Jabari Parker, who many feel is the top overall player in the country as a junior, said hes keeping a close eye on whats happening with Coach Smith and the illini.

I pay attention pretty much a lot, because that would be a future coach I would be interested in playing for. If they happen to recruit me, then I have to do my research as a player to see where I can fit in their system.

Parker went on to say that even though the Illini are currently coach-less, hes still interested in the school because representing his home state is important to him, and if Smith were to get the job, it would be special. Steve Taylor, who committed to Marquette in the fall and is regarded as one of the top senior forwards in the country, echoed Parkers comments and said he thinks Smith would be a good fit.

The University of Illinois doesnt really get kids from Chicago, said Taylor. If Coach Rob was to get that job, he would be able to bring in a lot of talent from Illinois.

Junior guard Jaylon Tate continued the praise, adding, Hes an amazing coach. Hes a good disciplinary person. Hes just a good person. Hes a real good coach. I think at any level hell be a great coach.

The discipline Tate speaks of starts simply with keeping players in a routine during an extremely rigorous season (the Wolverines played as far away as Springfield, Massachusetts), but also means Smith knows when to punish his players for violating team rules. After nine players left their shoes on the court after defeating Proviso East for the 4A title, Smith promptly suspended them for the first game of next season. In February, Smith suspended five players for two crucial games during the teams run in the Chicago Public League playoffs. He commands respect from his players, they give it to him unflinchingly, and more often than not it turns into state titles.

With his ability to keep players in line (perhaps he could have been the mentor Jereme Richmond needed) and his deep roots in the Chicago Public League, Smith at least deserves to be in the conversation for a position at Illinois in some capacity. Its unclear, however, if he would be willing to accept a position as an assistant. Either way, Smith has made it clear that he is confident he has the tools and the know-how to restore the waning Illini basketball program.

As Smith himself put it, Lets take a chance on this guy and see what could happen.

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?