Bears

Naperville North's goal: "Shock Everyone"

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Naperville North's goal: "Shock Everyone"

Kyle Lindberg was one of the leading soccer players in Illinois for the last two years. The midfielder led Naperville North to fourth place in the state tournament in 2010 and to the sectional final last fall. He landed a scholarship to Illinois-Chicago.

But Lindberg has been playing basketball as long as he has been playing soccer--and almost as well. The 6-foot-2 senior is the defensive stopper on a 13-4 team that has scrapped its way to the top of the DuPage Valley League standings. Who woulda thunk it?

"I like playing both sports but I consider myself better at soccer. I have been playing at a high level for years, traveling teams and AAU," Lindberg said. "Naperville North isn't known as a basketball school. Our motivation this season is to shock everyone."

That's what coach Jeff Powers' team is doing. The Huskies haven't won a conference championship in 14 years and never have advanced beyond the Sweet Sixteen. In 14 years, coach Dick Whitaker won only one regional title. Coach Mark Lindo won two sectional titles. He was 25-4 in 1994 and 26-3 in 1998. Last year's team was 16-12, losing to highly rated Benet in the regional final in double overtime.

Naperville North, which defeated Rich Central 64-59 on Tuesday night, is used to winning close games. But the Huskies aren't overpowering, have a nasty habit of getting off to slow starts, no one is averaging more than nine points per game and their leading rebounder is 6-foot-2.

"How good are we? Good enough to be 13-4," Powers said. "We're a bunch of guards, only two forwards. We play well and hard together. We have learned how to win close games. It is surprising to everyone that we are in first place in the conference--except to the 16 kids on the team and the four coaches.

"We found out in the summer that they can play well when they play together. They share the ball and play hard on defense. On any given day, any kid can get hot. We shoot well from the three-point line and from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.

"Our kids have an edge to them. They felt everyone overlooked them. They were picked to finish sixth in an eight-team race. But they worked hard in the weight room and shot a lot on their own. They wanted to prove to everyone that they were as good as the past two teams. No one believed in them but themselves and the coaches."

What convinced them? When did they begin to open some eyes?

On Dec. 6, when they defeated Benet by four points. "They learned they can win close games. They believed in the scouting report and executed the plan," Powers said.

Also when they demonstrated they could be competitive against the best teams at the York Holiday Tournament. And when they defeated Glenbard East and West Aurora back-to-back.

"That's what really convinced them," Powers said. "They stepped up a level. They knew they could do it. They knew something neat is happening here."

Lindberg and his teammates were excited and driven by the transformation. Naperville North is known as a football school. Coach Larry McKeon, who retired in 2010, won 231 games or 76 percent of his games in 27 years and won state championships in 1992 and 2007.

Now perhaps it is basketball's turn.

"We knew we were losing a lot of players from last year. We knew we had to step up our game to be anywhere near that level. And we don't have a star player like Matt LaCosse last year," Lindberg said.

"But this team has more balance. It is unselfish, works hard and plays together. There are no egos. Personally, in the summer, I was surprised how well we played and how fast we came together. But now I'm not surprised because we are used to it. People are getting behind us."

Lindberg averages only six points per game but Powers describes him as "one of our stars, the key to the defense, our stopper, the guy who plays against the best player on the other team, the one who runs the team on offense."

Other starters are 6-foot-1 senior Matt Stacho (7 ppg, 3 rpg, 3 assists), another relentless defender who covers opposing point guards and scored 16 points in a four-point, triple overtime victory over Naperville Central; 6-foot-5 senior Mike Keane (7 ppg, 5 rpg); 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior Derek Westman (6 ppg, 8 rpg), who grabbed 12 rebounds against Naperville Central and 11 in a two-point victory over Danville; and 6-foot-2 sophomore Anthony Rehayem (4 ppg).

Powers describes Westman as "200 pounds of I'll get the ball wherever it is at." He was a guard on the sophomore team last season and also plays tennis.

Surprisingly, the team's leading scorer comes off the bench. Davis Sinikas, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, averages 9.7 points per game. An outstanding three-point shooter, he has started more than half the games but needs to improve his defense. Chris Mullin, a 5-foot-11 senior, averages seven points.

Powers, in his third season, is a 1976 graduate of Reavis. He attended George Williams College in Downers Grove but, as the oldest of six children, had to give up basketball after one year to go to work while going to class.

He coached baseball at Hinsdale Central for five years, basketball for one year at Reavis and York, then was hired as basketball coach at Timothy Christian in 1996. He resigned after 11 years and was going back to officiating, which was how he made ends meet since he was a sophomore in college, when he got a call from then York coach Al Biancalana.

He assisted Biancalana for one year, then applied for the Naperville North job when Mark Lindo retired. Was he surprised to get the job? No, because he felt he had built a good reputation at Timothy Christian. Yes, because he hadn't been a head coach for a year. In his first season, the Huskies were 20-7 and lost to West Aurora in the regional final.

"We talk about learning every day, what we have to do to get better," Powers said. "We turn the ball over too much. To win, we have to move the ball from side to side. We are notoriously slow starters. We have to get going at the start of games. I have done all kinds of pep talks. We fell behind Naperville Central 10-0 in the first four minutes and trailed Danville by seven in the first quarter. We have to work on that. We can't do that against good teams in the state tournament."

It is a tiresome clich but Lindberg reminds that the team has an attitude of taking each game as it comes and not looking too far ahead. "That's how we have succeeded so far, being humble," he said.

Lindberg points to the play of Keane, Westman and 6-foot-4 senior reserve Max Lewis under the boards. "We knew we had good shooters and ball-handlers but we are surprised that our post presence has helped us to win games," he said.

"Not many people have taken us seriously. Being picked to finish sixth in the conference motivated us. There is no pressure. We can play loose."

Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

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Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

Every team will try to scheme against what its opponent does best. Not every team does it as well as Bill Belichick consistently has in his Hall of Fame tenure as the coach of the New England Patriots. 
 
This is what Belichick is famous for, beyond the five Super Bowl trophies and historic partnership with Tom Brady. That thing your team’s offense does best? He’s going to take it away. 
 
That can create a mental challenge for an opposing coach during the week. Do you focus on doing something other than what your offense does best because Belichick is going to identify and scheme against it, or do you try to accentuate what you do best so it can’t be taken away? 
 
“That’s that whole chasing the cat’s tail thing,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “All of the sudden you start out-thinking to yourself, ‘What the heck?’ That’s the mystique, and that’s what they do. They’ve earned that over time because of the success they’ve had. 
 
“When you don’t go too crazy with that and balance it and control what you can control. Then in the end, win, lose or draw, no matter what, you at least feel good you approached it the right way, and you weren’t, ‘Oh shoot, I should have done this. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.’”
 
When Taylor Gabriel and the Atlanta Falcons faced the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, everybody on that team knew Belichick would do what he could to take Julio Jones out of the game. But that didn’t make preparations any easier. 
 
“We knew he was going to take away Julio, but we didn’t know how he was going to do it,” Gabriel said. “So it’s just just something you kind of have to adjust to when you get in the game.”
 
Jones only had four catches in that game, and the Falcons were able to quickly adjust to how he was taken away — though it wasn’t enough to keep them from a historic collapse and ultimate overtime loss. 
 
Tight end Dion Sims played New England eight times during his four years with the Miami Dolphins, and came away with a healthy respect for the scheme and the players on that defense. 
 
“They’re fundamentally sound, they got good coaching over there, a good staff,” Sims said. “You gotta be prepared because they come out and they play their ass off.” 
 
But what should give the Bears confidence they can mentally and physically beat New England’s defense?
 
1. The Patriots’ defense isn’t what it once was
 
The way Bears coaches and players have talked about New England’s defense this week has been with reverence and respect. But lately, the Patriots’ defense production hasn’t quite equalled its reputation. 
 
Maybe it started with Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs launching 42 points and over 500 yards of offense against New England in 2017’s nationally-televised season opener. Maybe Super Bowl LII, in which the Philadelphia Eagles ripped off 41 points with a backup quarterback, was another turning point. Or maybe the Patriots’ 43-40 win over the Chiefs on Sunday night, which looked more like a Big 12 game than an NFL game, further chipped away at that mystique. 
 
New England’s defense heads to Chicago ranked 18th in points allowed (24.7) and has allowed 400 or more yards of offense in four of six games this year. They’re 19th in defensive DVOA, though Pro Football Focus’ grades do peg this group fourth, behind only the Bears, Rams and Eagles. 
 
What this defense does well is take the ball away, with eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries critical in propping up a defense that isn’t good on third down (44 percent conversion rate, 25th) or in the red zone (68 percent, 26th). But as long as the Bears' ball security is better than its two-turnovers-inside-the-five-yard-line showing in Miami on Sunday, an offense that scored 48 and 28 points in its last two games should be in good shape. 
 
2. Multiple weapons
 
How Belichick schemes against a Bears offense that’s been explosive and productive in its last two weeks will be fascinating to see on Sunday. Maybe it’ll be Tarik Cohen, who Belichick said is “a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times.” Maybe it’ll be making sure Taylor Gabriel doesn’t beat them deep (“The execution on that was like 99 out of 100,” Belichick said of Mitch Trubisky’s 54-yard deep ball to Gabriel against Miami). Or maybe it’ll be dropping seven or eight guys into coverage, spying Trubisky and forcing the second-year Bears quarterback to make good decisions and fit passes into tight windows. Or maybe it’ll be something else entirely. 
 
This goes back to the guessing game, though, and it’s one the Bears can’t allow themselves to play. 
 
“I think you can spend too much time on that,” Nagy said. “I look at that and I think I've said it before, it can be kind of like chasing the cat's tail. You've got to be careful of that and when you just start worrying about what you do — and of course here or there you might so something a little bit different — but if you just start doing things different because of one coach, now you've stopped worrying about just controlling what you can control and I haven't found too much success with that.”
 
The good news for the Bears, though, is they seem to have the multitude of weapons necessary to have success against a Belichick defense. Kansas City showed it on Sunday — when the Patriots took away Kelce, Kareem Hunt racked up 185 yards from scrimmage, while Tyreek Hill gouged New England for 142 yards on seven catches with three touchdowns.
 
So if the plan is to take away Cohen, that could lead to opportunities for Gabriel, or vice versa. Or if the plan is to drop seven or eight into coverage, that would give Jordan Howard an opportunity to carve out yards on the ground.  
 
“They utilize all their players, the backs, the tight ends, the receivers, the quarterback, they all have production, so if you take one away, they just go to the next guy, and that’s hard to defend,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of options on some of those plays, which guy is going to end up with the ball based on a quarterback’s decision, if it’s a check-with me type of play, bubbles and look passes and RPOs and things like that, it’s up to the quarterback to make the right decision and Trubisky’s done a good job of that. I think all those things, they keep getting better and they’re hard to defend.”
 
3. History repeating itself
 
In Nagy’s only meeting with New England as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, his offense scored 42 points — and that’s a number that has resonated in the Bears’ locker room and practice fields this week.  
 
“You have to go into this game with confidence and know that we’re playing against a great group of guys who’ve been there, been to the Super Bowl and then they also have Tom Brady on the other side,” Sims said. “It’s important that we capitalize on everything and try to be mistake-free.” 
 
“What the defense is giving you is what the offense will take — what good offenses will do,” Gabriel said. “I feel like we have those type of minds up there in the booth and on the field with us to figure out what those guys are doing and how we want to attack it.”
 
The Bears’ offense is young, from the coach to offensive coordinator to most of the players that populate it. Beating New England, even if its defense isn’t what it used to be, would send a message around the league that the Bears are for real. Until the Patriots are dethroned in consecutive years, or even finish a season with fewer than, say, 12 wins, they’re still the Patriots.  
 
But while this team is young, it does have a handful of guys who’ve competed against New England on some of the NFL’s biggest stages. So expect guys like Gabriel, Burton and even Nagy to not allow this team to let facing the Patriots become daunting on Sunday. 
 
“It’s not difficult at all,” Gabriel said of avoiding thinking about that mystique. “Just like this team, we have the weapons to take advantage of those one-on-one matchups. I don’t care what defense you are, you’re going to have a one-on-one matchup somewhere unless you’re dropping everybody. So as long as you’re staying the pace and being confident in what you’re doing, I feel like we’ll be okay.” 

Bulls turn to Cam Payne as they take on Sixers

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USA TODAY

Bulls turn to Cam Payne as they take on Sixers

PHILADELPHIA -- The Bulls’ starting point guard missing the team’s season opener is less than ideal, but that is the dilemma Fred Hoiberg and company are faced with.

Hoiberg made the announcement during shoot around that Kris Dunn would miss the first game of his third NBA season for personal reasons, but noted that his absence is “excused.”

The Bulls will turn to Cameron Payne as they get set to play the Sixers in Philadelphia Thursday night. The 24-year-old guard out of Murray State will be tasked with running the offense against one of the better defensive teams in the league.

Because of injuries and the numbers game at guard, Payne hasn’t had a chance to show Bulls fans much since he came over from Oklahoma City in a trade that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder.

“I feel like I can be way better,” Payne said when asked about the opportunity to show what he can do. “I know I didn’t make a lot of shots but it’s really not about that. It’s about getting my team involved and make sure everyone gets the ball in their spots to contribute.”

Payne showed flashes over the last 22 games of the 2017-18 season (14 starts), shooting 42 percent from three and averaging 4.6 assists per game in that stretch. The shooting stroke didn’t show up early in the preseason for Payne.

He was better in the team’s final exhibition against Denver and has shown enough to Hoiberg to earn the starting nod. He’ll have his work cut out for him tonight.

“Obviously we’ve been working on different coverages based on having a full roster, but things like this happen,” Hoiberg said when asked what this does to his game prep. “It’s going to be electric in here. They’re going to come out and play extremely hard and extremely physical. That’s who they are and we have to be ready for that. It’s a little bit of shock and awe with (the Sixers). You have to weather that first storm and hopefully give ourselves a chance with great effort.”

After Payne, the Bulls will have Ryan Arcidiacono as the first point guard off the bench. They’ll also have the services of newcomer Tyler Ulis, who will be in uniform tonight. Hoiberg mentioned that he feels comfortable with Zach Lavine bringing the ball up as well. He also mentioned that Jabari Parker will have his hands on the ball an awful lot with the team’s second unit.

The season hasn’t even started yet and the Bulls are already missing several key players. After an impressive rookie season, Lauri Markkanen will start the season on the shelf with a high grade lateral elbow sprain. Denzel Valentine will also miss tonight’s game with an ankle injury. The team may have Cristiano Felicio, also dealing with an ankle injury, depending on his pregame workout goes.

“It’s not ideal but it is what it is,” Hoiberg said. “It happens at this level. You just have to go out and do the best job you can. It’s an opportunity for our guys to step up with two of our better players out of the lineup – really three with Denzel as a guy that can make plays in that second unit.”