Bears

Simeon 'moving in the right direction'

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Simeon 'moving in the right direction'

Jabari Parker may be the best player on Simeon's top-ranked team. Or Steve Taylor. Or Kendrick Nunn. But coach Robert Smith wants everybody to know that the Wolverines' indispensable and undisputed leader is 5-foot-10, 160-pound senior point guard Jelani Neely.

When highly rated Jaylon Tate transferred from De La Salle to Simeon last summer, many observers immediately penciled him into the starting lineup. They shook their heads in disbelief when Smith said Tate would be his team's sixth man, that Neely would remain at point guard.

"Jelani came to Simeon because it fit his way of playing," Smith said. "He is a traditional point guard. He controls the game. He is at 85 percent and that's more than most point guards. He runs the team, doesn't score, gets the ball into people's hands and knows what we have to do in situations."

Most of all, Smith said Neely "understands the game the way I want it played. He is in my head all the time, like Derrick (Rose) was here. Talent doesn't always get you the win. He isn't the most talented player but he understands Simeon basketball and no one on the team knows it better than him."

Which is why Simeon's offense struggled early when Neely was sidelined from July to Nov. 25 with a partial ACL tear. At the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, when Simeon barely got past Peoria Manual 48-47 in the semifinals, Smith juggled two guards in a vain attempt to fill Neely's leadership qualities.

Now Neely is back at almost full strength and Smith believes his team is "moving in the right direction, playing real good basketball and playing the Simeon way" as the defending two-time state champion seeks its first Chicago Public League championship since 2007.

They will meet Orr Wednesday in the semifinals at DePaul. In the other semifinal, Marshall will meet Bogan. The two winners will duel for the Public League title on Friday at Chicago State.

"It has a lot to do with Neely back," Smith said. "After our (75-50) loss to (nationally ranked) Findlay Prep on TV, our kids realized we have to go back to playing the way I want them to play. We haven't played badly since. But we still haven't put four quarters together. It would be scary when we do."

No matter how valuable Neely is to Simeon's success, however, he isn't above Smith's disciplinary rules. When he stepped over the line prior to Sunday's quarterfinal game against Marshall, he was forced to sit out with one other starter, Kendrick Nunn, and three reserves.

"Discipline is the big thing," Smith said. "You can't do anything without discipline, on and off the court, at all times, in the classroom, at home. If you are going to be successful in life, not just in basketball, you must have discipline. Doing it their way is what I won't tolerate. We have built a program to do it the Simeon way and that's the only way it will be done."

With the talent and depth at hand, Smith is calling for his players to press and apply even more pressure than in past seasons. He wants to speed up the game at both ends of the floor to take advantage of his team's athleticism. "This is a more up-tempo team than ever before in Simeon history," Smith said.

"I like what we're doing on defense. Sitting in a zone isn't cohesive to what we have. And I like that we're sharing the ball, moving the ball, not doing a lot of dribbling, moving the ball from side to side. Jabari doesn't have to score 30 points for us to win.

"Our kids have finally figured out the way to play. They are having a lot of fun. You can look at practice. They are so much more intense. They value every possession, even in practice.

"They know where we are and where we're trying to get to. If we don't win it all, it won't be a great season. We wouldn't have accomplished all of our goals."

QB Power Rankings: Brady and Rodgers stay on-brand

QB Power Rankings: Brady and Rodgers stay on-brand

A game-winning drive against the 5-0 Chiefs on Sunday night. A game-winning, coach's-job-saving drive against the 49ers on Monday night. 

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers continue to crush souls. Blake Bortles continues to inspire memes. New York's love-hate relationship with Eli Manning trudges on. 

How did your team's QB fare on this week's version of QB Power Rankings? 

You can find out right here. 

Corey Crawford expects to make season debut for Blackhawks on Thursday vs. Arizona

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USA TODAY

Corey Crawford expects to make season debut for Blackhawks on Thursday vs. Arizona

The wait is almost over.

After missing nearly 10 months with a concussion, Corey Crawford said he expects to start on Thursday when the Blackhawks take on the Arizona Coyotes at the United Center. An official decision will come following the team's morning skate.

"It feels good to be back to myself," Crawford said. "I'm feeling good, I'm feeling clear. ... It was a pretty long process. But I think the most important thing was not to rush anything. When I finally was out, it got to a point where I wasn’t in shape to play and it was time to rest and it’s unfortunate it took a lot longer than I would’ve liked. 

"It’s been long, but finally, just to get back and be practicing with the team has meant a lot. It’s good to get to this point now when you’re really close to playing. Practices have been great, been getting timing a little bit more and getting up to speed and reading shots and all that, so it'll be nice to finally get in one."

Crawford's last appearance in an NHL game was Dec. 23, 2017 against the New Jersey Devils when he allowed three goals on seven shots in 13:22 of action before getting pulled. So of course, emotions will naturally be running high, especially in front of the hometown crowd.

"I'm sure I'll be a little anxious getting into it," Crawford said. "Some nerves. But we'll see. We'll wait until the morning, but I'm definitely excited I can tell you that."

It's obviously terrific news for the Blackhawks, who have picked up eight out of a possible 10 points to start the season and are getting their two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie back between the pipes. It's been a long time coming, and Crawford is coming back into a healthy situation where the Blackhawks are in a good spot in the standings.

"It's great news, I'm sure it'll be exciting for him exciting for our team, exciting for our fans and the organization as well," Patrick Kane said. "It’s probably a good situation all around. Cam [Ward] has done a great job of playing in the net so far. Crow is really good in practice right now, so I’m sure he’s itching to get back, too. We’ve had a good start here. It’s something we want to keep going, and I’m sure him coming back on home ice, in front of our crowd, will be a fun one for him and for our team."

There's no doubting how important Crawford is the team and organization. While there may be a little bit of rust early on, the Blackhawks are expecting him to look like his old self.

"He means a lot to the team," Quenneville said. "We felt last year was a good example of how important he was and how well he was playing for us, as well. We’ve gotten off to a decent start and he was a big factor in it. We know that goaltending is such a big part of the team and your success a lot of nights depends on him and his consistency’s always been in place.

"But he looks good in the net. He’s been off for a long, long time. Is there rust? Do we expect rust? I think the way he’s competing and practicing and finding pucks, he looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. So we’re looking forward to him getting in there and getting comfortable and how he’s feeling going forward will dictate a lot of the decisions about him going back in."