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Bennett carries weight for Plainfield East

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Bennett carries weight for Plainfield East

Brian Bennett doesn't subscribe to Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem or Slim-Fast. But his diet -- he lost 54 pounds in eight months and improved his 40-yard dash time by nine-tenths of a second and his vertical leap high enough to dunk with two hands -- ought to be endorsed by every calorie-counter who ever was tempted by a pepperoni pizza.

At 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Bennett has emerged as a difference-maker in Plainfield East's surprising but impressive run for recognition as one of the leading teams in the Chicago area. The Bengals are 6-0 after Friday's 58-39 victory over Plainfield Central. They will meet Minooka Friday before competing in the Pekin Holiday Tournament.

That's a pretty good start for a three-year-old school with an enrollment of 1,900 students that still is trying to fit the right keys in the right doors. It is the fourth high school in the fast-growing Plainfield school district that once projected five by 2012.

"Knowing how young and inexperienced we were in the last two years, when we were 9-16 and 15-13, we have made a complete 180-degree change," Bennett said. "We have nine guys from last year's team. All of us have matured and gotten serious about what we want to do, how bad we want it, how much we love the game. It's an incredible thing to see."

Bennett is an incredible thing to see. Last year, he couldn't jump over a gum wrapper. He lacked agility. He had no lateral movement. He couldn't run up and down the court for more than three minutes at a time. He was timed with a sun dial, not a stopwatch. He weighed 294 pounds.

After the season, coach Joe Callero of California Polytechnic Institute (Cal-Poly), who was recruiting Bennett, told him: "If you want to be a Division I athlete, you have to do this -- change your diet, change your game, think about your quickness at the next level, think about your mindset and think about how other bodies look at the next level."

Plainfield East coach Branden Adkins and assistant Greg Bayer also chimed in with the same message. Everybody agreed that Bennett had big-time potential -- how many teams have a 6-foot-9 player under the basket? -- but he wasn't going to show it in a 300-pound body.

"I knew I didn't have the year I wanted," Bennett said. "If I wanted it enough, I wasn't a Division I athlete at the weight I was at, maybe Division III. I had to change everything. So two weeks after the season, I put it in gear. If I took everything seriously, if I went from a big kid to a big athletic kid, I would be much better and the team would be much better."

His diet plan called for cutting out all soda pop, pie, chips, extra sweets and snacks and consuming much less ice cream. He concentrates on juice, water, more fruits and vegetables, lean meat, fish and celery. He sets one day or meal a week to "cheat" by enjoying pizza. He wasn't big on oranges at one time. Now he endorses them.

Away from the dinner table, Bennett is a workout freak. Last summer, he was in the weight room once a day for three hours. During the school day, he lifts weights two or three times a day. He began running more, sometimes three miles at a time, then working out on a treadmill and exercise bike and engaging in agility exercises.

The result is Bennett can do things he couldn't do before. His old jersey is three sizes too big. For the first time, he can dunk with both hands. He can run up and down the court without getting tired. When he lowered his 40-yard dash time from 5.8 seconds to 4.9, he began to think about being a tight end or offensive lineman on the football team.

Then he came to his senses. "It wasn't for me. Basketball is my love and my calling," he said.

"It's crazy to see how far I have come," he said. "I compare my 40-yard dash times and weight lifting and agility tests from last year. Before, I didn't have leaping ability. The biggest difference from the end of AAU to the beginning of the high school season is I noticed I didn't get tired running up and down the court. My cardio was so much better. I had better endurance. Last year, I would have been gassed."

With a new body and a new commitment and excellent academic credentials (4.75 grade-point average on 5.0 scale, 25 ACT), he accepted a scholarship offer by Cal-Poly. And he is averaging 13 points and eight rebounds for a Plainfield East team that began to turn heads when it won the St. Charles East Thanksgiving Tournament and beat highly rated Downers Grove South.

"It is a great feeling to know that all my hard work is showing," Bennett said. "It gives me more self-motivation to keep working as hard as I have been working."

Adkins likes what he sees. "He always had size and potential. But he worked hard. You can see his improvement. Now he looks like an athlete. He was slow before. But he committed himself to the weight room and diet. He set a goal to be a Division I athlete and that is what he has become," the coach said.

Adkins, 38, is a Pekin graduate of 1991. He got hooked on high school basketball when his father took him to watch Pekin games when he was seven -years-old. He saw Pekin beat Peoria Manual in four overtimes and couldn't get over how exciting the whole experience was.

"My skills didn't let me be a very good basketball player," he recalled. "I was a cerebral guy. I understood the game. I listened. I led the team in floor burns. But I couldn't shoot or pass or dribble. I was only 5-foot-6. But I wanted to stay in it. So I wanted to get into coaching."

He learned as an assistant to highly respected coach Cal Hubbard at Normal University High, who won 363 games and one state championship in 18 years. He was at Plainfield South from 2002 to 2007, then was athletic director and dean of students at Glenbard North in 2007-08 before launching the boys basketball program at Plainfield East.

"We knew this senior group was deep and special. It has size, good guards, quickness and strength. They jelled well," Adkins said. "They didn't have chemistry last year. But they set goals for themselves. They set aside individual goals for team goals. I knew these kids were different from the second day of practice. I knew they could compete."

Bennett may be the biggest but he isn't the only contributor. Dee Brown (14 points per game), a 6-foot senior guard, was the MVP of the St. Charles East tournament. Other reliable scorers are 6-foot-3 seniors Austin Robinson (13 ppg), Myles Walters (7 ppg) and Desnique Harris (4 ppg), 6-foot senior Mack Brown (8 ppg) and 6-foot-1 senior point guard Jawan Straughter.

Against Plainfield Central, Bennett had 18 points and six rebounds while Mack Brown scored 19. Dee Brown's three-point play with 23 seconds left in the third quarter gave the Bengals a 39-33 lead and sparked a 14-0 run that turned the contest into a rout.

"Different kids step up in every game," Adkins said. "Our notoriety is surprising. We like to stay under the radar. We don't talk about ratings now. It is nice because it puts Plainfield East on the map. But the ultimate goal is where we are at the end of the season."

For the time being, Adkins is eager to make his players understand the challenge that is ahead of them and what it means to be the first senior class at a school that is just beginning to make a name for itself.

"We talk about them leaving their stamp as seniors," Adkins said. "There has been a lot of talk about them since they were freshmen. They have a lot of potential. They will set the tradition for Plainfield East. Our motto is: 'Becoming a champion.' There are things you have to have in place to be a champion. Now they are listening."

Adkins cites five characteristics necessary to be a champion -- a positive attitude about anything you are trying to achieve, effort, commitment, discipline and making sacrifices along the way. And athletes must put in a lot of time to master and achieve those characteristics.

He implements his philosophy as Hubbard taught him, by building relationships with his players and knowing how to treat them, individually and as a group.

"You can't treat them all the same. You can't be a dictator," Adkins said. "You must build around the group of kids you have. Sit down and talk to them a lot...about basketball, life, family, their future. You can't coach them the same way."

Bennett and his teammates have bought into it. Although Adkins has preached a team concept, he knows there are higher expectations for him. In the end, if Plainfield East is to advance to Peoria, he knows he will punch the ticket, whether he likes it or not.

"Our first goal is to win conference. Our eyes were on it since day one but we didn't know what it would take. Now we know. And we know how hard we have to work to leave a lasting mark on the conference," he said.

"Knowing I will be the biggest guy on the court in most games means I know I have to be there on offense and defense and on the boards. I am a big part of our team's game. When the expectations I have for myself and the coach has for me are met, our team is flat out good. I can be a difference-maker."

Niklas Hjalmarsson gets standing ovation from United Center crowd in Chicago return

Niklas Hjalmarsson gets standing ovation from United Center crowd in Chicago return

Niklas Hjalmarsson played for the Blackhawks for 10 years and won three Stanley Cups with the team so his return to the United Center was a big deal.

The defenseman, now with the Arizona Coyotes, made his return to Chicago in Thursday's game. The Blackhawks had a tribute video for him during the game and the crowd gave him a standing ovation after the video.

He was teary-eyed after getting the warm reception.

Hjalmarsson was traded by the Blackhawks to the Coyotes for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin after the 2016-17 season. He played against the Blackhawks on Oct. 21 and again on Feb. 12 last season, but both games were in Arizona.

Injuries limited Hjalmarsson to 48 games last season and he missed Arizona's only trip to the United Center last season, which came in December.

Watch the video above to see Hjalmarsson's tribute and reaction.

Five observations from Bulls-Sixers: Well, at least the first quarter was good

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USA TODAY

Five observations from Bulls-Sixers: Well, at least the first quarter was good

Here are five observations from the Bulls' season-opener loss to the Sixers on Thursday night.

1. How about that first quarter?

In what could wind up being the most exciting quarter all year, the Bulls began the year with a 41-point explosion. The Bulls shot 63 percent in the quarter, at one point scoring on an absurd 11 consecutive possessions. Bobby Portis scored 13 points and hit all five shots, while Zach LaVine added 15 of his own. The ball was moving, they played quickly and caught Philadelphia out of position at times and took care of the ball. The fun times didn't last, but it wound up being the highest scoring first quarter in a Bulls season opener. It was fun. The other three quarters? Well, the first quarter was fun.

2. The defense is as bad as we thought it was

Granted, Kris Dunn is far and away the Bulls' best defender and was out while attending the birth of his baby boy. But this was still about as bad a defensive performance as the Bulls could have had, even against an offensive juggernaut like the Sixers. Communication was off almost from the start, and they always looked two steps behind. The Sixers got just about anything they wanted in transition, meaning it was a moot point that they struggled from beyond the arc. From Jabari Parker to Zach LaVine, it wasn't pretty. They're going to struggle all year long. Dunn isn't going to make enough of a difference. Shoutout to Wendell Carter's block on Ben Simmons, the lone defensive highlight of the night

3. Bobby Portis' bet is off to a good start

Portis was guilty of an ugly defensive performance, as Dario Saric posted a monster line by out-hustling his counterpart much of the night. But offensively Portis continues to shine after a great preseason. Portis, now officially in a contract year, went for 20 points and 10 rebounds and added a steal, a block and three 3-pointers in 29 minutes. Without Lauri Markkanen he's the Bulls' No. 2 scorer behind LaVine. We'll add her, too, that LaVine continued to look smooth on offense. He had 29 points on 19 shots and had seven of the Bulls' 12 free throw attempts.

4. The backup point guard job is up for grabs

Cam Payne's leash is incredibly long. He's the best option for now once Kris Dunn eventually returns, but it's probably time for Ryan Arcidiacono and Tyler Ulis to get a look. Payne finished 0-for-4 with five assists and a turnover in 22 minutes. No one was expecting Payne to match Ben Simmons stat for stat (Simmons went for his third career-triple double in four games against the Bulls). But the ball routinely stopped when it got into Payne's hands, and he didn't seem to know where to go once he pushed in transition. His speed is a positive, but once he gets to his spot he struggled to make the right play. And he's a clear negative defensively. Arcidiacono and Ulis aren't exactly Gary Payton, but they deserve looks at some point in the near future. Arcidiacono had 8 points, 4 rebounds and 8 assists in 28 minutes. That came against Philly's second unit, but he was decidely better.

5. Jabari Parker will want a do-over

Friday feels like forever ago. For all Portis did well to close the preseason, it was gone on Thursday. Parker's final line is a bit misleading because of the points he scored when the game was well out of reach. The truth was Parker's shot selection early was awful, and his defense was a real liability. It was the "cons" side of his scouting report played out on the court. There's still hope he can improve, of course, and Hoiberg will need to find the right combinations to make him successful. But we can probably rule out him at small forward if he's having trouble staying in front of power forwards.