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Class 1A state title a wide open race

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Class 1A state title a wide open race

Everybody from here to Cairo wrote off Hope Academy's chances of winning the Class 1A championship when 6-foot-3 junior point guard Jalen James, who is committed to the University of Illinois, transferred to LaLumiere, a prep school in LaPorte, Indiana, in the first week of January.

But coach Mike Edwards didn't toss in the towel. Neither did 6-foot-5 seniors Alex Houston and Colin Blaydes or 6-foot-6, 255-pound senior Torrance Johnson or 6-foot-1 senior Tyrone Smith or 5-foot-11 sophomore Carson Hughes or any of the other players that James left behind.

Last year's team was 20-11 and lost to eventual state champion Newark in the sectional final. Despite James' absence, Edwards remains optimistic that this year's squad can be every bit as good if not better.

"What Class 1A school is quick enough to press us even without James? There isn't," Edwards said. "And we have a lot of balance. Seven kids have scored over 18 points at one point this year. And Alex Houston has done a great job of stepping up with his leadership. He has taken on James' role and knows what is at stake. Our kids have a chip on their shoulders."

Houston is averaging 14 points per game. He had 36 points and 13 rebounds in a victory over Carver in January. Blaydes is averaging 10 points and eight rebounds, Johnson 14 points and eight rebounds. Smith and Hughes each average eight points per game. Andre Thomas, a 5-foot-7 senior, has moved into James' backcourt spot.

"Against Class 1A competition, we still have a big lineup," Edwards said. "We still can win the state title if our kids do what they are supposed to do. Nobody is selfish with points. They are an athletic team but they play disciplined ball. We have athletes to play with Chicago public schools and discipline and teamwork to play with suburban and Downstate teams. We have blended them both together."

Another Chicago team that could make an impact in Class 1A is St. Benedict, which lost to Hope Academy 75-70 for the Chicago Prep Conference title in January. The Bengals are seeded No. 2 behind Hope Academy in the Hope sectional. They'll meet in the regional final at Hope on Friday night.

Coach Tom Horn is optimistic. His team had a 10-point lead in the third quarter against Hope Academy. The Bengals are averaging 80 points per game and even Hope Academy didn't slow them down. "We can score with anyone. We're not afraid to match basket for basket," Horn said.

St. Benedict's leading scorers are 6-foot-1 junior guard Lamon Dawkins, who is averaging 21.5 points and three steals per game, and 6-foot-3 senior Henry Mireku , who is averaging 16.5 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game. Horn also relies on 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior Earl Briggs to clear the boards and defend under the basket.

Hope Academy ranks No. 3 in the state in Class 1A behind Mounds Meridian and Brimfield. Okawville and Madison, a pair of traditional state powers, rank 4-5 respectively.

Brimfield is 30-0 and led by three players who almost punched a ticket to Peoria in the past two years. Last year's 30-3 team lost to Orion in the sectional semifinal. Two years ago, the 29-3 team lost to Lewistown in the sectional semifinal.

Nick Unes, Dan Dwyer and Ryan Wilbur are three-year starters. The 6-foot-3 Unes averages 17 points per game, the 6-foot Dwyer averages 14 and the 6-foot-5 Wilbur averages 10.

"Potentially, this is the best team I've had," said coach Scott Carlson, who is in his 15th year at Brimfield. "Those three know what it takes and what our next step is. In each of the last two years, we graduated our best player but these three guys have progressed. We have experience, size and length for a Class 1A team."

Brimfield is averaging only 57 points per game but is allowing only 34 as opponents have trouble with Carlson's 1-3-1 zone defense. "Our defense is our edge. You don't see many 1-3-1 zone defenses. We are long and quick. And when teams get in the middle, they have a 6-foot-5 guy (Wilbur) to deal with," the coach said.

But can Brimfield get out of its own regional? Four of the top five Class 1A teams in the Peoria area are going to the Brimfield regional. One of them Elwood, a 26-4 team which has lost twice to Brimfield.

Brimfield almost didn't get out of the semifinal. The top-seeded Indians missed seven free throws in the fourth quarter but managed to oust Peoria Heights 43-42. They'll meet Elmwood in the regional final at Brimfield on Friday night.

Nick Unes converted two free throws with 3.6 seconds left to give Brimfield a 43-39 lead. Brimfield led 22-11 at halftime and 25-11 early in the third quarter.

"We have a new gymnasium and a home-court advantage. It's one of the toughest regionals in the state. If we can get out of our regional, we might have some breathing room," Carlson said. "Our kids are maturing. One thing we have more than ever before is physical strength as a team. I think that will take us a long way.

"We've taken little steps in the past. We can see where we have been. We hope to take bigger strides ahead. We just have to keep working hard at what we have been doing."

Under Center Podcast: Bears prop bets (and a bold Mitch Trubisky prediction)

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: Bears prop bets (and a bold Mitch Trubisky prediction)

JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan wonder if John Fox had a point about the Bears having the worst offseason in the NFL (1:00), then offer up some prop bets for the Bears in 2019 involving Eloy Jimenez's home runs and Khalil Mack's sacks (5:00), undrafted free agent rookies making the roster (10:00), when/if the Bears will cut a kicker during the season (12:45), running back production (16:30) and how many games Adam Shaheen will play (25:50).

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Under Center Podcast

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GM Stan Bowman: Blackhawks 'unlikely' to trade out of No. 3 overall spot

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AP

GM Stan Bowman: Blackhawks 'unlikely' to trade out of No. 3 overall spot

The 2019 NHL Draft is 48 hours away from now and the Blackhawks are slated to pick third overall for the first time since 2006 when they took Jonathan Toews. Coincidentally, that draft happened to be in Vancouver. 

The Blackhawks are sitting in a unique spot this time around.

The consensus is that Jack Hughes and Kappo Kakko will go first and second overall, respectively, which essentially puts the Blackhawks in a position where they have the first overall pick in a different draft. There's a large group of players to choose from and there doesn't appear to be much separation amongst them.

So would the Blackhawks consider trading out of the No. 3 spot if a team wants to make the jump and the Blackhawks feel good about their player being on the board a few picks back?

"That’s a tough question to answer because it's not like we have a magic formula that we’re waiting for some to call and offer us," GM Stan Bowman said on Wednesday during his pre-draft conference call. "If somebody made a really appealing offer then we’d have to consider it, but that hasn’t happened yet. If it does, then as a group we’ll talk about it. That’s one of those things where a team has to want to put together a really appealing package to move up. It’s happened before, pretty rare though. So I wouldn't say it's out of the realm, but it’s unlikely to happen."

All signs point to the Blackhawks keeping their pick at No. 3, as expected. And it sounds like they already know who it's going to be, which isn't surprising considering the Blackhawks have done extensive research on the prospects — both on and off the ice — for months now.

The Blackhawks staff met on Wednesday a group, they'll meet again on Thursday, and then one more time on Friday before the draft to finalize their list. At this point, it's more about ironing out the later rounds.

"It’s more just fine-tuning the list," Bowman said. "We have more than just one pick in the draft. We’re looking at players we think are going to be around in the second round, and then we don’t have a third-round pick right now so there’s a bit of a gap there between our 43rd and then the two picks in the fourth round. So we have to look at that and determine which players we’re going to target for those rounds. I wouldn’t say there’s anything new that's being discovered at this time of year.

"We’re not going to be cramming last minute. I think we’re going to be very comfortable with the guy we pick when we get to Friday night."

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