Bears

Can Rich South get over the hump?

638622.png

Can Rich South get over the hump?

The south suburbs used to be a dominant factor in the state tournament.
Remember Thornridge, Thornton, Bloom, Lockport and Providence? No longer.
Since 1979, the south suburbs have produced only two state champions--Richards in 2008 and Seton in 2009.

Rich South is anxious to toss its hat into the ring this season. The Stars have qualified for the supersectional round only once. Fred Jacobeit's 25-5 team reached the Sweet Sixteen in 1997. Two years ago, Scot Ritter's 25-5 team lost to eventual state champion Hillcrest in the sectional final.

Those pleasant memories are few and far between. This year, Rich South is 13-4 with losses to unbeaten Metea Valley, Marist, Hope Academy and Bloom. But recent victories over Seton and Bloom have sparked enthusiasm and bolstered confidence in what lies ahead. The Stars meet district rival Rich East on Friday.

"We still are inconsistent on offense. We make bad decisions at bad times. Our guard play has been inconsistent," Ritter said. "But we have the ability to rebound well. Our strengths are rebounding, our ability to share the ball and balance. We have no one player to key on."

That has been Rich South's fatal flaw. "We never had a lot of individual talent all at once. We have had good kids here and there. But we usually have a lot of balance. Our identity is to be patient on offense, get good shots, play defense and win the rebounding battle," Ritter said.

"The question in the south suburbs is always that we have had to go through some elite teams...Thornton or Hillcrest or Bloom or Homewood-Flossmoor. Two years ago, it was my most talented team but we lost to Hillcrest in the sectional final and they went on to win state."

But this year the playing surface appears to be level. A dominant team hasn't emerged in the south suburbs. Maybe it won't. Ritter believes Rich South can go to the head of the class--if his guards become more consistent, limit their mistakes and mesh with what appears to be one of the best front lines in the area.

"Two years ago, we had a lot of good guards. Guard play dominates the game. Guards are the key to winning state championships," Ritter said. "But this year our strength is forwards. I don't know how far we can go with our inconsistency at guard."

Ritter, 40, in his 10th season as Rich South's head coach, relies on four guards in the backcourt. He starts 5-6 senior point guard Marvin Williams (six points per game, five assists) and 6-foot-2 senior Ralph Abraham (10 points per game), his best perimeter shooter. But Williams commits four or five turnovers per game.

Williams and Abraham rotate with 6-foot junior Jalen Zachary and 6-foot-2 senior Jalen McKaskel.

"Who will take charge? I'm looking for two of them to be more consistent. It is a good rotation but they need to limit their mistakes for us to be effective on offense," the coach said.

"We need to stay focused and not be satisfied with a couple of victories (over Seton and Bloom). We beat two highly rated teams and are ranked in the top 25 in the Chicago area. Newspapers are calling us. But we can't be satisfied because we can get a lot better, especially on offense."

Up front, the Stars are solid with 6-5, 208-pound senior John Ruffin (13 points, 13 rebounds per game), one of the leading rebounders in the south suburbs, 6-foot-2 senior Cedric Russell (seven points, eight rebounds per game) and 6-foot-3 senior Marquel Small (13 points, nine rebounds per game).

They get help off the bench from 6-foot-1 junior Demetri Strickland, 6-foot-1 senior Antoine Lira and 6-foot-4 senior Vernon Young, a starter a year ago who became eligible for the second semester.

Ruffin is the designated leader. As a sophomore, he came off the bench for the 25-5 sectional finalist. He recalls how that team practiced hard and wanted to be great, how it set goals, how it wanted to win more than 20 games, win the holiday tournament and win the sectional.

"This year we are doing the same thing," Ruffin said. "We are getting better and playing harder in practice. We don't have one player. Each night another player steps up. Opponents can't key on one player. They have to look out for all five. If we play hard on defense and control rebounding, we can still be in the game."

Ruffin's forte is rebounding. As a sophomore, after he transferred from Thornton Fractional South in Lansing, he learned that he could command more playing time if he demonstrated he could be productive on the boards.

"Some guys are taller than me but I'm stronger and quicker than most. And I use my heart, too. I have will and heart and just do it," he said. "Sometimes I muscle people and when they try to box me out I use a swimming technique with my arms and legs to get around the defender and get in front of him."

His personal best is 21 rebounds in a single game. The school record is 24. That is another of his goals. But the most fun he has in basketball is winning.

"We're trying to make history this year," Ruffin said. "It is my last year. It is my team. I have to be the leader. "Size hasn't been an issue with us," Ritter summed up. "What we need is consistent guard play. We need to make passes to guys to make plays. We need to make good decisions, to get us into our offense, to be patient. We stay in games because we rebound the ball and get extra possessions. We need to be smart and not turn the ball over. We don't want to get satisfied. We're decent, not great. But we can get better. We can be a tough out in the state tournament."

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

All week, reporters at Halas Hall tried to get Matt Nagy and the Bears to compare who they were during Week 1’s game against Green Bay to where they are now. And all week at Halas Hall, Matt Nagy and the Bears wouldn't bite. 

“We're both different. They're a little bit different, we're different,” Matt Nagy said. “They did a great job both as players and their coaches, so like I said yesterday, it feels like a while ago and that's why you play. You have a 16-game season and in division you get two chances. We'll just do everything we can to put it behind us and try to be better.” 

Different might be an understatement. Gone are Kyle Long and Bobby Massie. The Starting-Center-James-Daniel experiment is over, and Mike Davis is playing in the NFC South now. Adam Shaheen and Trey Burton – though the latter didn’t play in Week 1 – are on IR, too. Normally, losing two starting tight ends, a ‘starting’ running back, and the entire right side of the offensive line means you’re spending the last month of the season scouting for 2020. Instead, the Bears head to Lambeau Field on Sunday with a path to the playoffs still in front of them. 

“I just feel like we’re kind of in a rhythm now. We’re a different team,” Mitch Trubisky said. “There were some things that we had to go through in the first game and the beginning of the season that just didn’t go our way, and there’s things we definitely learned from as an offense. 

“I just feel like we have a new-found identity of what we want to do and everybody is really locked into what they have to do within their job description on the offense.” 

Perhaps the biggest difference between Week 1 and Week 15 has been the play of Trubisky, who looked like he was headed for a clipboard in 2020 before regaining his form over the last month or so. His comfortability in the offense is night and day compared to some of the struggles he went through during the first half of the season. If you ask him – which, duh, we did – he’ll tell you he’s felt the most growth off the field. 

“I just would say mental toughness, the ability to block out things on the outside,” he said. “Adversity, obviously, early in the season with people talking on the outside and then having to play through injuries and stuff, and just coming together closer as a team. My teammates having my back, that really gives me the most confidence.” 

The 14-week turnaround isn’t all about confidence, as Nagy 202 has morphed into something not expected but effective nonetheless. The running game has stabilized and they’ve found successful plays out of 4 WR sets – even if one of those receivers is Montgomery/Tarik Cohen. In Week 1? Montgomery had six rushes and the Bears ran two plays out of 10 personnel. Nagy said that he thought something clicked on Trubisky’s touchdown pass to Ben Braunecker against the Lions. 

“There's something there,” he said. “We felt it a little bit in the Chargers game, we just weren't effective in the red zone. But because we won the [Lions] game it magnifies it a little bit more … And then we just kind of started putting things together and I think over time we've just felt like it's just started to click. I don't know if it's specifically one play or not but that's probably my best guess.” 

It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the team prepares for what Nagy calls a “cat-and-mouse” game against Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who perhaps knows Trubisky better than any other opposing coordinator in the game. 

“Coach Pettine has done a great job throughout his career of being almost tendency-free,” he said. “And they’re even better now with how they deploy those guys, and it’s kind of a perfect, perfect storm of scheme and talent, and the guys on the back end help them out too.” 

The Bears are playing with a looseness that might come from essentially being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but oddly, it continues to work for them. And when you have to go play Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau with your season on the line, you don’t question what works. 

“I love it. You want to go against the best all the time,” said Akiem Hicks, who was taken off IR and will start on Sunday. “If you’re a true competitor, you want the best competition.”

Clippers coach and Chicago native Doc Rivers weighs in on Bears-Packers

Clippers coach and Chicago native Doc Rivers weighs in on Bears-Packers

With Doc Rivers, Patrick Beverly and the Los Angeles Clippers in town to face the Bulls, you knew the question was coming. Both Rivers and Beverly are from Chicago and not shy about their affection for the city. 

"Do you and Pat talk about coming to Chicago?" a reporter asked, during Rivers' pregame media scrum, Saturday night.

"We talk about Chicago, probably every single day," Rivers said with a hint of a smile. "We talk about the Bears the most."

That led to Rivers rapid-fire addressing a number of ruminations on the current state of the Bears, including his respect for head coach Matt Nagy.

"I’m a big Bears fan. A big Nagy fan. I think he’s a terrific coach," Rivers said. "I just do, every once in a while you get a feeling about someone, and I have that about him."

High praise coming from Rivers, the 13th-winningest coach in NBA history and an NBA Finals champion in 2008 with the Boston Celtics.

Now, he coaches the third-winningest team in the league in the Clippers, but he still finds time to keep up with current Chicago affairs.

"[Beverly and I] talk about everything with Chicago. We talk about the dominance of Proviso East [Rivers' high school alma mater] over Marshall [Beverly's alma mater], and every other team. He doesn’t like that conversation very much," Rivers said.

He added that he even contemplated driving down for the Bears' Week 14 matchup with the Cowboys on Thursday Night Football (the Clippers were in town for a game with Milwaukee that Friday).

And as for tomorrow's crucial division game against the Packers, Rivers made his position abundantly clear.

"Well, you know what I think," Rivers said, when asked for a prediction for the contest. "Are you kidding me?"

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.