Bulls

Benet's O'Mara is a 'special player'

621998.png

Benet's O'Mara is a 'special player'

There is no telling how good or even how big Sean O'Mara could be. The 6-9, 235-pound sophomore from Benet Academy in Lisle is only 16 years old and has started only 11 varsity games but he already is being touted as the No. 40 player in the nation in the class of 2014 by longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com.

"He has a chance to be a special player," Benet coach Gene Heidkamp said. "He is coming into his own. He hasn't finished growing yet."

"He has the makings of being a star," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye, "even if he is still a bit unproven."

Unproven and virtually unknown until recently. As a freshman, he sat behind Wisconsin recruit Frank Kaminsky on a 29-1 team that was ranked No. 1 in the state before losing to East Aurora and Ryan Boatright in the sectional. He experienced his combat duty working against Kaminsky in practice. He suffered bumps and bruises but learned his lessons well.

Now O'Mara is making a name for himself. He is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game and dishing out his own brand of punishment. He was named most valuable player of the Plainfield North tournament. A local newspaper selected him as player of the week. Every school in the Big Ten is making inquiries.

"It's his first time in the spotlight and he's just getting used to it," Heidkamp said. "He is handling it very well. He understands the team comes first. We knew he would be a major factor this year."

O'Mara has been playing basketball since he could walk. He played one-on-one with his mother in the driveway. He always has been taller than his classmates and his doctors tell him that he has "a bunch of room left in my growth plates."

"I am hoping for seven feet," he said. "I'd be happy with that."

Here is another piece of first-hand information about O'Mara that basketball fans who already are wondering which college he will attend would like to know: North Carolina is his dream school.

"I have family members who live there and a cousin will go there next year," he said. "I have roots there. I liked watching Tyler Hansbrough play in every game while he was there. I want to have a chance to consider them."

That said, he hasn't made any commitments. He isn't even thinking about the recruiting process. Not yet. After all, he has more than two years of high school competition remaining. He has only begun to feel what it is like to face the basket or take a shot from 15 feet.

"How do I evaluate myself?" he said. "I need to be more consistent. If I was watching myself, I don't know if I would offer me. But I have played against Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young's 6-10 star who is rated No. 2 in the class of 2014 by Coleman) in AAU and I know I can play against him.

"My coach has given me a heads-up, preparing me for college recruiting. I don't know if I'm ready for it. As a sophomore, I'm just doing the best I can do. But I want to make sure the college coaches come to see me. Hopefully, when the time comes for them to see me, I'll be ready."

O'Mara learned to play the game the hard way. "Every day in practice I got to go up against a Division I center (Kaminsky). He beat me up a lot. But I learned how to defend and cover the entire lane and how to defend the three-point shot," he said.

"I came into this season with a lot of confidence. Working against (Kaminsky) made me realize a lot of guys I will face won't be as good as Frank and it will be easier for me to work down low. I have two more years of this. I have plenty of time to get better with it (dealing with playing in the spotlight) and learning how to deal with it."

He began to realize he might have a bright future in basketball when he played with Benet's varsity during the summer before his freshman year. He got more playing time as the summer went on and found himself playing high-low with Kaminsky on occasion. "The coach thinks I can do something with this team," he said to himself.

How does O'Mara compare to Kaminsky?

"Frank played inside and could face the basket. That's why he is a good fit at Wisconsin," Heidkamp said. "O'Mara is a low post player."

"Kaminsky is more perimeter oriented. He excels at facing up and being able to knock down shots from three-point range. That is why he is ideal for (Wisconsin coach) Bo Ryan's system," the Schmidt brothers said. "O'Mara is much more of a back-to-the-basket player and more physical. They have contrasting styles but both have the ability to be very good college players.

"There are striking similarities at the same stage of their careers...stamina issues, toughness issues, incredible touch, good hands, good passing skills. O'Mara is stronger but does not run as well. His defensive mobility isn't as good as Kaminsky. But he is more developed as a post player."

One of the first colleges to recognize O'Mara's potential was Illinois. Going into his freshman year, he participated at a summer shootout in Champaign and attracted the attention of Illini assistant coach Jay Price.

"I realized they are interested in me for basketball. It was a shocker. After all, I was only a freshman in high school," O'Mara said. "But I started to hear about other AAU kids who were getting offers. It was motivation for me. I was motivated to do the same thing."

O'Mara also is motivated to lead his team to the state finals in Peoria, something that last year's powerhouse team failed to do. The Redwings are 10-1 going into Tuesday's game against St. Joseph in the opening round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

Outsiders might be surprised by Benet's early-season performance. After all, the only returning starter from a year ago, 6-5 junior Pat McInerney, broke his wrist in the opening game and won't return until January. A role player last season with Kaminsky and Dave Sobolewski taking most of the bows, McInerney is expected to be a double digit scorer this season.

"We're not surprised by being 10-1. A lot of us feel we should be 11-0. We lost to Naperville North by four points and we didn't play very well," O'Mara said. "We're waiting for McInerney to come back. We could compete with last year's team. We are able to do as much damage as they did."

In McInerney's absence, everybody has picked up the slack. Other starters are 6-foot senior point guard John Enochs (10 ppg, four assists), 6-3 senior guard Griff Hanekamp (9 ppg), 6-2 senior Joe Schuessler (6 ppg) and 6-6 senior Bobby Wehrli (8 ppg). Other contributors off the bench are 5-11 senior Nick Mankowski, 6-2 junior Jack Toner and 6-6 senior Matt Clements.

"People don't realize that these kids played against Kaminsky, Sobolewski and last year's starters every day in practice," Heidkamp said. "They played 90 practices against two kids who are in the Big Ten. It helps to elevate your game. They are better than people realize."

Heidkamp, 41, in his fourth year as head coach at Benet, already is recognized as one of the best coaches in the state. A 1988 graduate of St. Patrick, he played for the legendary Max Kurland and also coached one year with Kurland before he retired. He served as assistant to St. Patrick coach Mike Bailey for eight years, was head coach at Nazareth for three years, then returned to St. Patrick to assist Bailey for three years before landing the head coaching job at Benet.

"I knew the history," he said. "I knew it was a great school and a great opportunity. I knew the basketball tradition was very strong. I couldn't wait to accept the challenge."

He is looking forward to the challenge awaiting at Proviso West. He is eager to find out some things about his team as they prepare for the conference season and state tournament beyond.

"Last year, we went to Proviso West looking to win the tournament, which we did. This year, we're playing against a lot of athleticism and we'll find out a lot of things about our team," Heidkamp said.

"We'll find out about our ability to handle pressure, to play transition defense, to play in front of a big crowd. Will we have poise or will we get caught up in the excitement? The experience will be positive with the conference and state tournament in front of us and McInerney coming back in January. He will make us better in every facet of the game."

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

ish-smith-1020.jpg
USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

crawford-1020.jpg
AP

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

COLUMBUS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday:

1. Corey Crawford steals the show

The Blackhawks had no business winning this game. They were being outshot 28-15 through two periods, committed four penalties and gave up 18 high-danger chances in the game. 

But Crawford bailed out his team like he often has done in the past, and was zoned in from the moment the puck dropped. He finished with 37 saves on 38 shots for a save percentage of .974, picking up his first win since Dec. 17, 2017.

"Yeah, I felt good," Crawford said. "I think everyone was playing hard, rebounds, taking away sticks. That was a great effort by everyone."

"He was standing on his head for us," Patrick Kane said. "As Q would say, that’s a goalie win for us."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was vintage Crow."

2. Tic-tac-toe leads to go-ahead goal

The Blue Jackets were clearly the better team through two periods. The Blackhawks were fortunate to go into second intermission with the game still tied at 1-1.

The next goal was crucial, and they got it thanks to a Marcus Kruger redirection goal. The next one was the dagger, a beautiful give-and-go play by Brent Seabrook and Kane, who buried home a wide open net to give the Blackhawks a 3-1 lead with 4:14 left in regulation.

Was Kane expecting Seabrook to pass it back?

"No. Not a chance," Kane said laughing. "That’s his wheelhouse, coming right down there. He scores a lot of goals from that area. Saw it was like a 2-on-2, he was coming late, he jumped in the play on the first goal, did a great job, jumped in the play on that goal. Made a great pass. When I saw it come back, I just tried to stay patient, settle it down and make sure I hit the net, because I knew I had the whole open net."

3. Busy night for PK

The Blackhawks penalty kill was very busy. It was also on it's A-game, partly because their best penalty killer was Crawford.

The Blackhawks spent 6:31 of the first 40 minutes killing penalties, allowing 11 shots total on it. But most importantly, they killed off all four penalties.

"We had some tough clears, but I thought we did some good things," Quenneville said. "We withstood some extended PK zone time there and found a way to keep us in the game. Obviously that next goal was huge and that second period was a big part of them having so much zone time, keeping us in our end. We'll say, hey good job, but Crow was the best penalty killer tonight."

4. Catching up with Kane on Artemi Panarin

Kane and Panarin spent only two seasons together, but they brought Blackhawks fans out of their seats on a nightly basis and it was amazing to watch the instant on-ice chemistry they shared. And most of it was non-verbal, which made it even more impressive. They were always on the same wavelength.

"Sometimes it takes time to build some chemistry but that was one of those things where it was like, I don't want to say instant chemistry, but after one or two preseason games we kind of new that maybe something special was going to happen," Kane told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think he scored in his first game in the NHL, we had a really good game, we had the puck a lot, we sensed that this could be a fun way to play hockey."

Off the ice, Kane said Panarin would use Google translate on his phone to communicate while Kane would try using a Russian accent while saying English words.

The two of them got a chance to hang out for a little bit on Friday and Kane still keeps tabs on his former linemate.

"I always really enjoy watching him," Kane said. "If we have an off night or something, he's a really fun player to watch."