Preps Talk

Morgan Park's Irvin ain't bragging

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Morgan Park's Irvin ain't bragging

"It ain't bragging," former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith once said, "if you can do it."

Morgan Park basketball coach Nick Irvin ain't bragging. His team is 16-1, ranked No. 2 in the Chicago area, the early favorite to win the Class 3A championship and will challenge three-time defending Class 4A champion Simeon on Wednesday at Chicago State in a Public League Red-South showdown.

In the wake of Morgan Park's spectacular performance at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament--the Mustangs overwhelmed five opponents by an average of 26 points per game and stomped perennial power Proviso East 82-57 in the final--Irvin can be excused if he takes a few liberties with the English language.

For example:

"We can compete with any team in the country. This is the time. Now people are seeing what I envisioned for this year. But we must keep showing people who we are. We are on a mission. We can't get too satisfied with what we are doing."

"Billy Garrett Jr. and Kyle Davis are the best backcourt in the state. They do different things. It was easy to put them together. They are defense-minded, too. They could take on any backcourt back in the day."

"Garrett sacrifices his game for the benefit of the team. He just wants to win. He should be up for Player of the Year and the McDonald's All-America team. He is our anchor, our trigger, our leader, a type of player like Quinn Buckner and Sergio McClain."

"Davis (a transfer from Hyde Park) is a great all-around player, a winner, as tough as they come. He brings leadership and toughness that we needed. He takes on the challenge of guarding the best backcourt player on the other team."

"Cunningham is the best player in the Class of 2014 after (Whitney Young's) Jahlil Okafor. The difference between him and others is he plays with a motor. He never takes a play off. He is the anchor of our defense. He shows you how tough he is, that he isn't soft. He will be a pro."

"Markee Williams keeps everybody happy. He makes sure the table is set. He gets everybody in the right spot. He plays in the shadow of Garrett and Davis but the ball is in his hands when the game is on the line. He has a winning mentality."

"Lamont Walker is the toughest player in the state. He brings energy and toughness. He is a player you need on your team, a junkyard dog. He makes your team that much better when you tell him to take an opponent off his game. He is the best defensive player in the state."

"Charlie Moore is the best freshman in the state. He reminds me of Isiah Thomas with the way he is flashy with the ball. He is a great outside shooter and has led us in scoring in four games. As a senior, he will be mentioned with Derrick Rose, Imari Sawyer, Isiah Thomas and Tim Hardaway."

"At Proviso West, we won five games by an average of 26 points per game. But if we rebound better and make free throws, the margin would have been 36 points per game. There is always room for improvement."

"At this point, we are playing as well as we can. I can't imagine playing much better than this. But after our loss to Bishop Gorman, the kids came back to win their next game and the Proviso West tournament. The season isn't over, they told me, it is just beginning."

Morgan Park's five-game sweep at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament was the stuff that legends are made. The Mustangs, who are averaging 87 points per game while allowing only 41, won by an average of 26 points per game and capped their impressive run by crushing Proviso East 82-57.

"I was surprised by the Proviso East game," Irvin said. "I thought we were 10-15 points better. But 25? I told the team that they showed me something. But they have been doing it all year."

How good is Morgan Park? "They are a virtual all-star team. They are very good at all positions, strong, smart, athletic. I can't imagine a better Class 3A team. They are as good a team as I've seen in 14 years," said Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose after losing to Morgan Park 67-52 in the semifinals of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

In his fifth year, Irvin, a former All-State basketball player at Carver, is seeking to establish a program that will contend with Simeon and Whitney Young for supremacy in the city. Morgan Park won the Public League title with Wayne Blackshear in 2010 and finished 22-9 last year, losing to Hillcrest in the sectional final.

But the Mustangs have advanced beyond the sectional only four times. In 1974, they qualified for the Elite Eight. In 1975, they lost to Phillips in the Public League final. In 1976, Bill Warden's team, led by Levi Cobb, Laird Smith, Jeff Berry and Eric Bowman, won the Class AA championship. In 2001, coach Herb Ray's team finished third.

"I felt this is the team to win it all," Irvin said. "I knew coming in that we had a great backcourt with Williams, Davis and Garrett. Then add Cunningham and White and this is the time."

If anyone thought Morgan Park would suffer a letdown after Proviso West, that notion was dispelled when the Mustangs overwhelmed highly rated Normal University High and Ohio State recruit Keita Bates-Diop 81-51. Davis had 16 points and six steals, Garrett 19 points and six assists and Cunningham 11 points and seven rebounds.

Against Brooks last Wednesday, Morgan Park prevailed 93-45 as Garrett scored 13 points in three quarters, Davis had 19 and Williams 14.

"Coming into this season, this team has a different bond," Irvin said. "I could see it forming in the summer. We won every tournament we were in, all four of them. We won 50 games and lost only two. They love each other. They hang out together. They go to the movies together. They have great unity."

The starting lineup features Garrett (17.7 ppg, 7 rpg, 6 assists), a 6-foot-5 senior guard who is committed to DePaul; Davis (18 ppg, 6 rpg, 4 assists, 5 steals), a 6-foot-1 senior guard who is committed to Dayton; Cunningham (14 ppg. 11.3 rpg, 4 blocks), a 6-foot-7 junior who has offers from DePaul, Bradley, Iowa, Oklahoma and Nebraska and is attracting interest from Michigan State; Williams (10 ppg, 6 assists, 3 steals), a 5-foot-11 senior who originally enrolled at Morgan Park, started on the 2010 Public League championship team, transferred to Crane, then played only four games last season after returning to Morgan Park; and White (12 ppg, 8 rpg), a 6-foot-5 senior. Moore (9 ppg), a 5-foot-9 freshman guard, and Torry Johnson (10 ppg), a 6-foot-3 junior guard, come off the bench.

"Defense is the strength of this team. That's our main priority," said Irvin, who is ably assisted by Terry Johnson, brother Lance Irvin, Walter Woghiren and Curtis Blair. "We have always been a defensive team. That's what makes it so special. They defend man-to-man.

"On offense, we share the ball. We make plays for each other. We are unselfish. The kids love passing the ball. They play as one. We're playing good basketball but we can get better at a lot of things...free throw shooting, rebounding, even defense. To go Downstate, we must make free throws and rebound. Everyone has to rebound, not just Cunningham."

Irvin isn't worried about complacency.

"I know they will lay it on the line every night," he said. "After we won at Proviso West, I said we have two more goals to accomplish--city and state championships. We want to gear up to play our last game on March 16."

Power Rankings: #10 - Homewood-Flossmoor

Power Rankings: #10 - Homewood-Flossmoor

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Homewood-Flossmoor

Head coach: Craig Buzea

Assistant coaches: Tom Cicero, Zac Wells, Alex Pratt, Daron Williams, Eric Schreiber Jr., Bart Czachor, David James, Josh Blair, Josh Forney and Matt Ramos

How they fared in 2017: 9-2 (6-1 Southwest Suburban Conference). H-F made the 8A state playoff field, defeated Lake Park then lost to Naperville Central in second round action. 

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 vs Michigan City (IN)

Sept. 1 vs Lutheran North (MO.) at East St. Louis

Sept. 7 vs Stagg

Sept. 14 @ Bolingbrook

Sept. 21 vs Lincoln-Way West

Sept. 28 @ Lincoln-Way East

Oct. 5 @ Bradley

Oct. 12 vs Andrew

Oct. 19 vs Sandburg

[MORE: 69 Days to Kickoff - Lincoln-Way West]

Biggest storyline: Can the Vikings, now without their dynamic WR/RB Justin Hall (NIU), get back to the postseason and play deeper into November?

Names to watch this season: QB Dominick Jones and DB Wynston Russell (Oregon State)

Biggest holes to fill: The Vikings have a good number of returning starters back in 2018 (five offense, six defense). The team boasts plenty of talent. But who can step up and be the go-to guy? Who replaces Justin Hall?

EDGY's Early Take: The Vikings have become a traditional power in Chicago's south suburbs and in the overall Class 8A field. Head coach Craig Buzea is looking for a breakout season and he has the ingredients in the program. The offense will be led by junior QB Dominick Jones. He has some firepower behind him in senior RB Leon Tanna. Keep an eye senior TE Jack Schmitz as well. The defense is also talent-heavy. Look for senior DL Isaiah Coe and senior DE/OLB Charlies Brooks to help carry the load. Oregon State commit senior DB Wynston Russell is the lone returning starter in the secondary.

With Roquan Smith and others, Bears moving closer to elite defense in a hurry

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USA TODAY

With Roquan Smith and others, Bears moving closer to elite defense in a hurry

As encouraging as some elements of the 2017 season was for the Bears defense, it wasn’t enough. Ranking in the top 10 in fewest points and yards allowed left linchpins like lineman Akiem Hicks setting “top five” as a declared goal.

With what has happened within the last 13 days – from the first preseason game vs. Baltimore through the long-anticipated arrival of Roquan Smith – the Bears have had arguably seen a handful of developments that could put “elite” within reach of a defense intent on being just that.

The developments have been the play of linebackers Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving, and now topped off by the Smith addition. The reasons are obvious – a linebacker-dependent defense (as all 3-4’s inherently are) has moved to the brink of realizing impact from not one, not two, but possibly three.

None is being given a leading role in an already good defense. But what they all represent are high-speed additions in a sport where speed rules and rivals pad-level in importance. Fitts and Irving have flashed off the edges, and Smith was the No. 8 pick of the draft for his speed in getting to targets, followed of course what he does to them when he gets there.

How any change occurs remains to play out, and Vic Fangio has used rotations in his front seven’s. One scenario could be Smith easing in as part of nickel packages, where the Bears have used a 4-2 front and would have Smith and Danny Trevathan as their ILB’s. Likewise, Fitts and Irving present edge options in that package as well as in base 3-4.

Perspective, please

Understand: No criticism of any sort is directed at either of the incumbents. No knock on Nick Kwiatkoski, who has in two seasons and this training camp established himself as an NFL inside linebacker. Nor is it a diss of Sam Acho, who is a physical edge presence with some pass-rush pop. The Bears need both, REALLY need both. 

But the 1983 Bears ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed with Al Harris as part of a linebacker corps that included Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson. Jim Finks drafted Wilber Marshall in the 1984 first round and Ron Rivera in the second. Harris remained the starter but the Bears also jumped to third in points allowed with Marshall and first the two years after that.

Elite.

Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton said years later that Marshall – nicknamed “Pit Bull”by teammates – was the single best individual player on that elite defense, and the player that took things to another level entirely. And as Marshall told Hall of Fame NFL writer Rick “Goose” Gosselin, who created the special-teams ranking system used by every NFL team and now hosts "Talk of Fame Radio:”

"They had Mike [Singletary] sitting on the sidelines when I’m playing middle linebacker on third down. So I wasn’t just a rush guy, like the guys on the end that you see them go 90 percent of the time."

Sounding like a bill of particulars for Smith.

Best guess that Smith – wearing the No. 58 that Marshall wore – will have a new level of impact for a defense that just added a piece with a chance to earn the designation of “elite.”

Fitts and Irving are younger, faster options on the edge. Fitts is bigger and faster (4.69 sec. 40) than Irving, but one can never be too rich, too thin or have too many edge rushers.

And Smith, who had 6.5 sacks last season at Georgia (his only credited sacks in three seasons there), projects to be the fastest Bears linebacker with a documented 4.51-sec. time in the 40 – faster than Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and…well, you get the point.

And speed is the route to “elite.”