Bulls

Houston gives Hope plenty of hope

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Houston gives Hope plenty of hope

When Illinois-bound point guard Jalen James made the startling decision
to transfer to La Lumiere Academy in LaPorte, Indiana, for the second
semester, nearly everybody wrote off Chicago's Hope Academy as the favorite
to win the Class 1A championship.

Everybody except coach Mike Edwards and his players. The Eagles are
17-2, including a victory over highly rated Marshall and losses to highly
rated Huntley and St. Ignatius. They defeated Lake Forest Academy 77-71 in
double overtime on Tuesday. They'll play at Ida Crown on Thursday and at St.
Benedict on Friday.

"It was disappointing that James left. In our view, it wasn't in his
best interest. All the tools were here for him to succeed with us. He just
needed to do extra work in class," Edwards said. "How good is he? He
definitely can play point guard in the Big 10.

"But we were deep to start with, nine or 10 deep. Against Class 1A
competition, we still have a big lineup. We still can win the state
championship if our kids do what they are supposed to do. We have an
unselfish, diverse and athletic team. And we play disciplined ball."

With James gone, Edwards predicts that some of his other talented
players will get their props, particularly 6-foot-5 senior Alex Houston, who
scored 36 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a victory over Carver shortly
after James left for Indiana.

"He is starting to get college looks," Edwards said. "Most college
coaches came to see Jalen and now Alex is getting looks, mostly from
Division II and III schools. But I think he can play at the Division I
level. He is very athletic and active on the boards. And he is our leading
percentage shooter from three-point range."

But Edwards reminds that Hope Academy isn't a one-trick pony. Houston
averages 12 points per game. Colin Blaydes (10 ppg, 8 rpg), a 6-foot-5
senior, is a shot blocker and defensive energy. Torrance Johnson, a
6-foot-6, 225-pound senior, averages 14 points and eight rebounds. Tyrone
Smith, a 6-foot-1 senior, and Carson Hughes, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, each
average eight points.

In Tuesday's victory over Lake Forest Academy, Johnson scored 27 points
while Smith had 26.

The chief reserves are 5-foot-7 senior Andre Thomas and 5-foot-8 junior
Armando Sacluti, a pair of reliable defenders.

They remember how close they came a year ago. The Eagles were 20-11 and
lost to Newark in the sectional final. Newark went on to win the Class 1A
title.

"We hoped last year would be our year but we knew Newark was an amazing
team," Edwards said.

But this is this year and there is even more optimism, even without
James. "Everyone felt (the transfer) was coming. I've known him for eight
years. He's still like a brother. It was a decision for him. He did what was
best for him. It cut his ties with us but the show still goes on," Houston
said.

"Regardless of who is there, we have 12 guys who are willing to work
hard. Jalen was our floor leader but the seniors have done a good job of
keeping everything together. Thomas and Smith and Hughes have to take charge
on the floor now and they are doing it very well.

"When James left, our team was doing good. We felt it was time for
everybody to step up. We felt confident. We still feel we can win the Class
1A title. Our confidence never went away. Our senior leadership and our
senior guards have stepped up and taken it up a notch."

Houston enrolled at University of Chicago's charter school as a
freshman, then transferred to Hope Academy because most of his friends went
there. "I knew the players growing up and in AAU. I felt comfortable with
them. I liked what was going on at Hope," he said.

"I like the teachers. They always help the students. They go out of
their way. They even have Saturday school for kids as long as you are
willing to put the work in. It is a small and close atmosphere."

Like his coach, Houston feels he can play in Division I. He has had
overtures from Kishwaukee College, Benedictine University, Valparaiso and
Cleveland State. His dream school always has been Texas because of Kevin
Durant.

Most of all, however, he believes Hope Academy deserves more respect.
"It bothers me a lot that we aren't ranked because we are in Class 1A. We
have competed in all of our games. We've beaten some big schools that are
rated. Tell (the evaluators) to see us play. We have high fliers like me and
Blaydes. We play basketball as it should be played," he said.

In his previous four years, Edwards has guided Hope Academy to 16-13,
20-7 and 20-11 records. Jalen James isn't the only outstanding player he has
lost. Willie Conner transferred to Crane. But Edwards reminds that James was
an outstanding point guard but not a dominant offensive player. He averaged
13 points, five assists and three rebounds.

"When James left, I told the other kids that they had to make up 13
points," Edwards said. "I asked them: 'What other school in Class 1A is
quick enough to press us even without Jalen here?' There isn't. We have a
lot of balance. Seven different kids have scored over 18 points in a game
this year.

"Alex Houston has done a great job of stepping up with his leadership.
He has matured and taken on James' role. He knows what is at stake. They
have a chip on their shoulder. They want to be ranked. They should be
ranked. They beat Marshall and Rich South, who have been ranked. They led
Huntley by 16 points in the second quarter.

"We have athletes who can play with Public League teams and the
discipline and teamwork to play with suburban teams. We have blended them
both together."

Bulls observations: Zach LaVine and Coby White nearly lead epic comeback

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USA TODAY

Bulls observations: Zach LaVine and Coby White nearly lead epic comeback

After a lackluster first half, the Bulls nearly staged the comeback of the season behind 76 points from Zach LaVine and Coby White. But ultimately, the Thunder prevailed 124-122. Observations:

Daniel Gafford needs to stay out of foul trouble

Jim Boylen again stressed at shootaround this morning the importance of the Bulls defending without fouling. As a team, they entered play dead last in the NBA in opponent free throw rate, and conceded 28 charity stripe trips to the Thunder when they met on Dec. 16. 

Daniel Gafford has been among the biggest culprits in that area. Since re-entering the regular rotation (from injury) after the All-Star break, Gafford has averaged 4.8 fouls per game, including a foul-out in 16 minutes against Charlotte in his first game back. Tonight, he picked up two in the first three minutes of the game and a third early in the second quarter en route to just five first-half minutes (and 14 total). He finished the night with four personals. 

That’s a problem for a Bulls team thin on the front line and struggling defensively. In Gafford’s stead, Cristiano Felicio played 33 minutes, and though he posted an admirable six points and nine rebounds, most would agree — for the sake of both development and staying competitive — Gafford minutes are preferable. As a team, the Bulls committed 25 fouls and sent the Thunder to the line 30 times, though that was boosted by having to play the foul game late.

The sweet life of Zach and Coby rolls on

Another game, another torrid combined performance from Zach LaVine and Coby White. This one was especially fun.

LaVine poured in 41 points on 19-for-35 shooting, White a new career-high 35 points on 13-for-21 (6-for-9 from 3-point range). As the Thunder rained hellfire from long-range and otherwise picked the Bulls’ defense apart early, those two kept the team afloat on the other end. Then, they keyed a whirlwind of a comeback in the third. 

 

In that third quarter, LaVine notched 19 points on a preposterous 9-for-11 shooting; White had three timely 3-pointers — each eliciting exponentially louder roars from the United Center crowd. Play them together as many minutes as humanly possible down the stretch of the season… When they’re ‘on’ in unison, it’s downright electric.

Also worth mentioning is this is White’s third 30-point game in a row. He’s set, matched, then re-set his career-high scoring totals in each of the last three games. That type of momentum is immensely encouraging in what had been a tumultuous rookie season. 

This time, it was the Bulls’ turn for a comeback

The Thunder put on an absolute offensive clinic in the first half — canning 11 of their first 15 3-pointers, assisting on 19 of 26 made buckets and committing just five turnovers. Danilo Gallinari was en route to a career night (he had 17 points on 5-for-5 from 3 in the game’s first six-and-a-half minutes) and the Bulls’ defense again looked woefully undermanned. 

But that third quarter swung the game for a bit. The Bulls won the period 38-19 behind the aforementioned contributions from LaVine and White, and also four Oklahoma City turnovers. The hosts held the Thunder to 36.8% shooting from the field (1-for-8 from deep) in the period after they shot 63.4% in the first half.

In these teams’ first meetup of the season, the Bulls coughed up a 26-point lead late on the Thunder’s home floor. Tonight, it was their turn to flip the script — that is, until the end.

Ultimately, not a bad loss

The Thunder eventually ground out a nail-biter of a 124-122 win behind a litany of crucial plays by Chris Paul (19 points, nine assists) down the stretch. With the loss, the Bulls drop to 20-39 on the season and 1-9 in their last ten. But against a really good Thunder team — they’re now 36-22 and have won nine straight on the road — this isn’t one to hang heads about.

LaVine catching fire — and nearly pulling off a Charlotte-esque barrage in the game's final minute — another scorcher of a game from White, and clawing back after such a lackluster first half is enough to take solace in given where we are with this team. Let’s enjoy the ones we can and take the silver linings as they come.

Next up: The Knicks in New York on Saturday.

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Bears general manager Ryan Pace didn't come across as a guy willing to go down in flames with his decision to sign tight end Trey Burton back in 2018 when he met with the media at the NFL Combine on Tuesday. Instead, he confirmed the Bears will be heavily invested in the tight end market this offseason, both in free agency and the 2020 NFL draft.

"We’re looking at it in free agency and the draft," Pace said of this year's available tight ends. "It’s deep in different areas. That’s an area of focus for us, I don’t think that’s a secret. This offense, a lot of it goes through the tight end, so we’re exploring every avenue."

It's hard to envision a scenario where Pace would be willing to travel down the big-money free-agent path again, but Falcons pass-catcher Austin Hooper could be too tempting to pass up.

Atlanta confirmed on Tuesday Hooper will be allowed to test the open market, and if he ranks high enough on Pace's wish list, we could be setting up to see a $10 million per year offer. It may seem like a waste of resources to tie that much money up in the tight end position (he and Burton would cost the Bears close to $20 million in 2020), but they experienced just how limited Matt Nagy's offense is without a capable playmaker at the position. Hooper would fix that.

The cheaper alternative for Pace to upgrade at tight end would be the draft, where several quality prospects will be on the board when the Bears pick at No. 43 and No. 50 overall. Players like Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, FAU's Harrison Bryant and Notre Dame's Cole Kmet could all be available when the Bears are on the clock, and all three of them would represent a marked uptick in talent for the depth chart.

Pace is being logical and rational when it comes to his evaluation of the tight end group. It's especially impressive considering the top two options currently on the roster -- Burton and Adam Shaheen -- were hand-picked by him and cost Chicago a top-of-the-market free-agent deal and a high draft pick (second round, 2017). 

Pace has a great opportunity to right his wrongs at tight end over the next couple of months.