Beacon News assistant sports editor gives his unique commentary on the local, regional and national sports scenes

December 2011 Archives

Happy New Year!

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Blogging operations are suspended this week.

Oh, I'm still working. We're just getting our asses totally kicked by holiday basketball tournaments. Tons of scores coming in. Tons of copy to read. Every single night this week has been like a Friday night.

Get all your news on the various local teams by visiting

Crawfordgetsgrooveback.jpgA couple weeks ago, it was fashionable to think the Blackhawks were on their way to having a goaltending controversy.

I never bought that. I think Corey Crawford is the guy.

Sure, Crawford had a rough November. His save percentage dipped to .886. His goals against average shot up above 3.00.

And, sure, it's a good thing backup Ray Emery has 9-2-2 record this year and won five straight starts recently while Crawford was receiving a "mental break."

All that said, Crawford is still the better player. He's technically more sound than Emery, he looks bigger in the net and based upon his last two performances, his confidence has returned.

He backstopped the Hawks to a 5-1 win over Montreal last Wednesday and was solid again Monday in a 4-1 win over Columbus.

The Hawks looked like they had eaten a little too much holiday turkey and ham during the first period against Columbus. They were slow and sluggish. They bumbled their way through a pair of failed power play chances. They were outshot 13-5 by one of the sorriest teams in the league.

But Crawford kept the game scoreless until the Hawks got their stuff together and erupted for three goals in the second period. Crawford made 37 stops on his way to the victory.

It's a nice luxury to have a veteran guy like Emery around. He's been one of the more pleasant surprises on the Hawks' roster this season. However, I don't believe Emery is going to be the guy who backstops you to the Stanley Cup. To me, Crawford needs to be that player.

It's imperative the Hawks keep Crawford at the top of his game moving forward.

Merry Christmas to all!

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Hee haw, hee haw!

Dankssignsextension.jpgJust three weeks ago, we heard White Sox general manager Ken Williams declare, "It is the start of a rebuilding," after he traded closer Sergio Santos to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Then came the news Wednesday that the Sox have agreed to terms with left-handed starter John Danks on a five-year, $65 million extension -- pending a physical. Is this a move consistent with a rebuilding project? Doesn't seem like it, does it?

It's not clear what direction the Sox are moving at this point. There are theories out there, so let me offer mine.

I think Williams wanted to sell off his movable assets at the winter meetings -- Danks, Carlos Quentin, Gavin Floyd, Matt Thornton, maybe even Jesse Crain -- but he couldn't find another GM willing to meet his asking price.

You see, all the guys on the list above are established big-leaguers. Some of them have more value than others, but in all cases, it would be downright silly to trade any of them for mediocre prospects. Williams stated before the winter meetings he wanted big-league ready players in return, and I think he meant that. With more and more GMs valuing (perhaps even overvaluing?) their prospects, Williams couldn't get what he wanted. So, he chose to stand pat.

I also think the Sox have gone a little bit overboard with the crying poor in the media. If they were tapped out financially, would they have been able to do this deal with Danks? My guess is not.

It's quite plausible they didn't have enough money to retain free-agent pitcher Mark Buehrle AND give Danks an extension. It's quite plausible their plan all along was to retain one and part ways with the other. If Williams had been able to trade Danks for a good package of prospects during the winter meetings, I believe he would have matched the contract the Florida Marlins gave Buehrle.

But he couldn't trade Danks for anything worthwhile, so he went to his Plan B. Namely, he let Buehrle walk and signed Danks to an extension.

It is possible the Sox are still getting ready to embark on a rebuilding plan. Maybe they see Danks as the guy they are going to build a pitching staff around as they retool over the next two or three years.

I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Quentin, Floyd, Thornton, et al., changing addresses before Opening Day. It's still December, and there's a lot of offseason left.

Right now, we're not exactly sure what the hell the Sox are doing. I'm only certain there are people out there with theories different than mine.

No shortage of news being generated today by each of Chicago's five major sports teams:

1. The Bulls signed reigning league MVP Derrick Rose to a five-year, $94.8 million extension.

2. The White Sox have agreed to terms with left-hander John Danks on a five-year deal worth $65 million.

3. The Bears announced that Josh McCown will start at quarterback Sunday at Green Bay.

4. The Cubs traded left-hander Sean Marshall to Cincinnati for a package of three players, most notably left-hander Travis Wood.

5. Corey Crawford received his first start in more than two weeks and looked strong in goal as the Blackhawks routed Montreal 5-1.

Of these five developments, I'd say all but one of them is a good thing. Can you guess which one of these things is not like the other things? Hit it, Cookie!

If you guessed No. 3, you are correct!

I know Caleb Hanie stinks and all, but does anybody really think Josh McCown gives the Bears their best chance to win on Sunday? The guy hasn't started an NFL game since October of 2007, and he wasn't even in the league a month ago.

The guess here is this upcoming Bears game won't end well.

The Bulls giving Derrick Rose an extension? Well, that's a no-brainer.

The Sox signing Danks to a deal is a pleasant surprise. So much for that rebuilding plan, huh?

I think the Cubs are smart for dealing Marshall. Anytime you can grab three players in exchange for a set-up reliever, that's a good move. Especially when you are trying to restock a barren pitching staff.

And, of course, a Blackhawks win is always a good thing.

Today, Bears fans were the only group in town without something to be happy about.

Someone should tell this chick her team is 13-1 and the favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

If she had to watch the Bears every week, she might kill everyone within a three-county radius.

JaehThomas.jpgAurora basketball fans, do you remember Jaeh Thomas?

I'll bet you do.

Back in 2000, Thomas became just the fourth freshman to start for long-time West Aurora coach Gordie Kerkman. He set the school record for scoring by a freshman. He led the Blackhawks to the state quarterfinals.

Thomas was being recruited by a couple dozen major college basketball programs, including Duke. He was invited to the prestigious Adidas ABCD camp, where he was on the same All-Star team with some dude named LeBron James. He was on the fast track to stardom. A can't-miss prospect.

"His strength and size for the point guard position, combined with his basketball IQ, made him the best player in our class at that time," said West teammate Shaun Pruitt, a future starter at the University of Illinois.

Sadly, it all came crashing down, a promising career ruined by drug use, felony convictions and other self-destructive behavior. Thomas played only a handful of college games at Florida A&M University and never got close to living the dream in the NBA.

Thomas has spent the last few years helping his famous cousin, former East High star and University of Connecticut freshman Ryan Boatright, avoid the same traps he stepped in during his playing days.

The Jaeh Thomas story is the final piece written for The Beacon-News by my friend and now former colleague Jim Owczarski. I think anyone who follows high school hoops in Aurora will enjoy reading it.

Here it is.

Illinoisplayingfornationaltitle.jpgWe would be remiss if we didn't give a shout out to the University of Illinois women's volleyball team, which advanced to the national championship game with a thrilling five-set win over USC Thursday night.

The Illini (32-4) will take on UCLA (29-6) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. The match will be televised on ESPN2.

Illinois has its fair share of players from this area on its roster -- three from Wheaton and two from Naperville.

Observers of the local volleyball scene no doubt remember former Naperville North star Colleen Ward, who is now a senior at Illinois and the best player on the Illini team. Ward was recently named first team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. She is only the fifth Illini to ever receive that honor.

Illinois will be fighting against history in Saturday's finale. UCLA has won three championships in women's volleyball, while the Illini have never advanced this far before.

Heck, it's pretty rare for any Illini team to compete for a national championship. If the women pull this off, they'll be the first national title winner at Illinois since the men's tennis team brought home a championship in 2003.

If you don't have any plans for Saturday night, this team is worth watching. I caught bits and pieces of Thursday's game on the TV at my office, and these women can play. I'll probably never be a huge volleyball fan, but even I have to say this final point from the match against USC was fun to watch:

55 total touches. The point lasts a minute and eight seconds. Good stuff.

SamHurd.jpgFormer Northern Illinois standout and current Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd was arrested Wednesday in Rosemont after allegedly telling a federal agent he wanted to buy five to 10 kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 pounds of marijuana per week for distribution in the Chicago area.

That's a lot of drugs right there, but I digress.

Whenever a situation like this unfolds, the arrested athlete's teammates are left to face the media scrutiny, and inevitably, those teammates say something that's unintentionally goofy.

For example, take this comment from Bears linebacker Lance Briggs:

"I think everyone is (shocked). Nice guy. Sam is a nice guy. Well liked, well liked in the locker room. He was a guy we were just all getting to know. You hate to see this happen to anyone. We all make mistakes, but like I said, it's just sad to see."

We all make mistakes?

I guess that's true enough. Sometimes we forget to feed the dog, or take out the garbage. Other times we neglect to respond to a friend's e-mail promptly. Every now and again, I'll make a typographical error in one of these blog entries. These are all common mistakes that any one of us could make.

And, of course, sometimes you just plumb forget that it's illegal to buy a large quantity of drugs and attempt to set up a distribution network in a major metropolitan area.

Damn, I hate it when that happens.

RiptoBulls.jpg.... Plastic Man!

OK, actually it's Richard "Rip" Hamilton behind that mask.

As has been rumored all week, the 12-year veteran will sign a two-year deal for $10 million. The Bulls will have a team option for a third year with partial guarantees on $5,150,000.

Hamilton, 33, has spent most of his career with Detroit and was the leading scorer on the Pistons' 2004 NBA championship team. He averaged 14.1 points per game last season, his lowest output since his rookie year. Hamilton has averaged 17.7 points per game over his career.

The question of the day is this: Is Hamilton enough of an upgrade at shooting guard to propel the Bulls past the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference?

Looking back at last season, there's little question the Bulls' two shooting guards -- Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver -- didn't make enough shots when point guard Derrick Rose was double-teamed. Hell, opposing teams didn't even bother to guard Bogans at times.

I don't think Hamilton is going to set the world on fire from 3-point land. He's only made 35 percent of his shots from behind the arc in his career. However, he has always had a strong midrange game, and that should be enough to force opposing defenses to honor him.

Hamilton will turn 34 in February, and injuries are a concern. He's missed 77 games over the past three years. It goes without saying this signing is a total bust if Hamilton isn't healthy and ready to go come playoff time.

If he is healthy, he's a better scoring option than either Bogans or Korver. The Bulls are a better team today than they were yesterday, without question. Good enough to beat the Heat? Jury's out.

For the Bulls to push past Miami this season, Hamilton will have to turn back the clock a few years.

Bickellstinkslately.jpgHere's the good news for Blackhawks fans: The top two lines have been firing on all cylinders for most of the season. The Hawks rank second in the NHL in goals scored and have four players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa) ranked in the top 15 of the league in scoring.

Now for the bad news: What the hell is going on with the Hawks' third line players? Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik have all been playing well below their capabilities lately.

Bolland, at minimum, has continued to make solid defensive contributions. He backchecks hard, and he's been an effective forward on the penalty kill. That said, he's a capable offensive player, too, but that part of his game has been absent. Bolland has only two goals and two assists in his last 17 games -- this coming after a hot start to the season that saw him total five goals and two assists in his first nine games.

I would say, however, that Bolland is the least of the Hawks' worries on that third line. After a good postseason a year ago, Frolik has been one of the most disappointing players this year. He's has been held off the scoresheet in 14 of his last 17 games, and his performance was so poor during Sunday night's overtime win over San Jose that he barely saw the ice in the third period. For his career, Frolik has been good for a point basically every other game (135 points in 269 career games). That's what I expect from him, but he's been woefully short this year. Only four goals and five assists in 29 games. Not good enough.

If you think Frolik has been bad, check out the numbers on Bickell (pictured). He hasn't had a point since Halloween. He's scoreless in his last 13 games and has been a healthy scratch in each of the Hawks' last five contests. Bickell is blessed with both speed and size, but he's been a no-show in far too many games this season. That's why he's been watching from the press box a lot lately. He should be embarrassed by his play. He better pick it up before GM Stan Bowman sends him on the next train out of town.

We're hearing reports that Bickell will be back in the lineup for Wednesday's game against the Minnesota Wild. Ben Smith has been sent back to Rockford, creating a spot for Bickell. He'll be skating on a line with Bolland and veteran winger Andrew Brunette.

I'll be interested to see how Bickell responds to his recent benching in Minnesota.

RamireztoBrewCrew.jpgThe Cubs have done next to nothing so far this offseason, but it occurred to me today they might be gaining ground in the National League Central just based upon the follies of their division rivals.

First, the world champion St. Louis Cardinals got weaker when manager Tony LaRussa retired and slugger and perennial MVP candidate Albert Pujols signed a 10-year deal with the Los Angels Angels of Anaheim.

Meanwhile, the defending division champion Milwaukee Brewers are almost certain to lose slugging first baseman Prince Fielder in free agency, and league MVP Ryan Braun is facing a possible 50-game suspension after a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.

Adding to Milwaukee's misery, the Brewers just gave a three-year, $36 million contract to former Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez. As we've noted on this blog before, Ramirez was part of the problem with the Cubs. He's a brutal defensive player and hits only when he feels like it. He ain't worth $12 million a year. The Cubs' front office is probably doing cartwheels to see Milwaukee panic and throw a bucket of money at a declining player like Ramirez.

Of course, nothing has really changed on the North Side. The Cubs still stink. Other than Matt Garza, they don't have any starting pitchers that are worth a damn. Until that problem gets fixed, the Cubs have a 70- to 75-win roster.

Nevertheless, the Cubs can rest comfortably knowing they probably won't have two 90-win teams in their division to contend with next season. Both Milwaukee and St. Louis appear to be coming back to the pack.

It's been real, Burls...

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Longtime White Sox star Mark Buehrle agreed to terms with the Florida Marlins Wednesday on a four-year deal worth $58 million.

Thanks for the memories, Burls!

Santostraded.jpgRemember when White Sox general manager Ken Williams said he was looking to trade veterans for major-league ready talent? Yeah, he did say that.

"So what we have to do is weigh whatever they're offering up against what our chances are for the next season," Williams said. "Because if we're going to move our valuable pieces it's going to be for major-league ready talent so they can grow with this nice nucleus in place with (Dayan) Viciedo, (Tyler) Flowers, (Alejandro) De Aza, (Brent) Morel. And we have to get (Gordon) Beckham back.

"We have a nice, young, kind of youthful movement. Those players (coming in trades) would have to fit into that. Not A-ball players, AA type. They would have to be major-league ready and potential impact players."

Well, that sure turned out to be a line of bull, didn't it? Williams traded closer Sergio Santos to the Toronto Blue Jays Tuesday in exchange for Double-A right-hander Nestor Molina, a 22-year-old prospect who is at least a year away from the big leagues.

Believe it or not, I don't have a problem with the decision to trade Santos, who totaled 30 saves for the White Sox in 2011. The South Siders are not expected to contend in 2012. They likely won't have many leads to protect, so why do you need a closer? You don't, and Santos is the kind of bullpen arm that contending teams are going to covet.

So, you should be able to get something decent in return. Instead, the Sox get nothing but a prospect. Molina has some nice peripherals. Last year, he struck out 148 and walked only 18 over 130 innings that were split between the Single-A and Double-A levels. He had a 12-3 record with a 2.21 ERA in 26 games (23 starts).

Maybe this guy will pan out for the Sox over the long haul, but given the price closers are commanding on the open market, shouldn't Williams have gotten the big-league ready talent he claimed to be seeking?

Heath Bell got $27 million over three years from Florida. Jonathan Papelbon got $50 million over four years from Philadelphia.

In September, Santos signed a three-year extension with club options for every year from 2015-17. The guaranteed part of the deal is for three years and $8.25 million. Santos will make $1 million next season, $2.75 million in 2013 and $3.75 million in 2014.

For his production level, Santos is a bargain. He should be worth more than just a Double-A prospect in a trade. Given what closers are demanding and receiving on the free-agent market, the Blue Jays got a steal. The White Sox got pantsed.

Conference "A"
Los Angeles
San Jose

Conference "B"
St. Louis

Conference "C"
Tampa Bay

Conference "D"
New Jersey
New York Islanders
New York Rangers

The NHL board of governors agreed to this plan for realignment Monday night. It still has to be approved by the NHLPA before it can be implemented.

Teams will play home-and-home series against all nonconference teams and five or six games against each of their conference foes. The top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs, with the first two rounds consisting of intraconference matchups.

I like it.

First of all, big thumbs up to playing everybody home-and-home. That isn't happening now, and it's a shame.

Also, the Blackhawks will be able to maintain longstanding rivalries with Detroit and St. Louis. There was some concern the Red Wings would head to the Eastern Conference, while the Hawks would stay in the West, thereby ruining one of the best rivalries in hockey. Don't have to worry about that now. The Hawks' road to the Stanley Cup will go through Detroit and vice versa. Good.

I also favor the idea of having the first two rounds of the playoffs being intraconference. I think that will help foster new rivalries.

Remember the old Norris Division with the Hawks, Detroit, St. Louis, Toronto and the Minnesota North Stars? There were some heated battles between those teams throughout the years because you played them in the playoffs every season. The postseason is where rivalries are born. You play the same teams year after year in the biggest games, and that brings out the passion in both the players involved and the fan bases.

I think over the long haul this is a good step for the league to make.

Haniestinksnowwhat.jpgAnyone who watched the Bears lose 10-3 to the lowly Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday is well aware now that Caleb Hanie isn't a particular good quarterback.

Hanie went a miserable 11-for-24 for 133 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions in a game that was unbearable to watch. Hanie missed a wide-open Earl Bennett on what should have been a touchdown in the second quarter and he took seven sacks. Brutal. Jay Cutler's thumb can't heal fast enough, can it?

But while we're throwing stones at Hanie, let's remember that several others on the offensive side of the ball are responsible for Sunday's loss also.

Whenever you have a backup quarterback on the field, it's all the more imperative the other 10 men out there do their jobs. That's something that did not happen Sunday for the Bears. As a matter of fact, Hanie would have thrown two touchdown tosses if it weren't for teammates who had their heads completely up their asses.

Marion Barber failed to line up on the line of scrimmage in a goal-line situation in the second quarter, causing a Hanie TD toss to be called back because of an illegal formation. The Bears ended up having to settle for three points. A mental error like that is inexcusable in the NFL.

And, of course, who can forget Roy Williams and his butter fingers on what should have been a game-tying TD late in the fourth quarter? Hanie's pass hit Williams in bad spot -- right in the hands. Alas, Williams was in traffic and wasn't willing to take a hit, so he bobbled the ball right into the hands of Kansas City safety Jon McGraw. Interception. For all intents and purposes, that was the game. The Bears never got into scoring range again.

Williams' explanation?

"When I came around the linebacker, I didn't see the ball until late. I just tried to put my hands up. There was no way I could knock it down or anything else. I had a linebacker right in my face. When I came around him, all I saw was a big brown thing coming in front of me. I just tried to stop it."

Are you freakin' kidding me, Roy? You tried to stop it? Your job is to catch the "big brown thing." That's what they pay receivers to do.

All told, there were three easy touchdowns blown by the Bear offense Sunday, and only one of them was Hanie's fault -- the misfire to Bennett. If Barber and Williams do their jobs, the Bears score two touchdowns, and that would have been more than enough to beat the Chiefs.

Instead, it's a two-game losing streak, a 7-5 record and trouble brewing on the horizon with Matt Forte joining Cutler on the sidelines. Forte has a sprained right knee -- an injury that typically requires 2-4 weeks to heal.

It goes without saying the Bears are really bad offensively without Cutler and Forte on the field.

Juicezookfails.jpgESPNChicago's Scott Powers did a nice job with his blog entry Wednesday discussing the recruiting failures of recently fired Illinois football coach Ron Zook.

Anyone who has followed the Illini program closely knows recruiting has swirled down the toilet the last three years, largely because Zook ceased to land the top in-state talent. Powers takes it a step further by providing the numbers to back up that assertion. Let's take a look at his findings, and you'll note that things started to take a turn for the worse in 2008 -- ironically the year Illinois played USC in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

2006: Zook lands three players from the ESPNU top 150, including two standouts from Chicago -- quarterback Juice Williams (pictured above) and wide receiver Chris James. Williams would lead the Illini to the aforementioned Rose Bowl appearance during his sophomore season.

2007: Zook lands an additional three players from the ESPNU top 150, most notably Simeon High School linebacker Martez Wilson. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn is also a part of this class. The two players star at Illinois for three years and are now both in the NFL.

2008: Zook fails to sign any of the top 10 players in the state of Illinois, including two of ESPNU's top 150.

2009: Zook whiffs on eight of the top 10 players in the state, including three of the four in-state players who were ranked in the ESPNU top 150. Wide receiver Terry Hawthorne is the only blue-chipper to commit to Zook, and he has gone on to have a middling Illini career as a defensive back.

2010: Illinois produces four top 150 talents and Zook fails to sign a single one. He inks only one of the state's top 10 players.

2011: See 2010. Once again, Zook whiffs on four top 150 in-state players and signs only one of the state's top 10.

2012: In perhaps the weakest recruiting year of Zook's tenure, he fails to sign any of the top 10 players in the state and just one of the top 20. Wide receiver Jason Robertson out of Lincoln-Way East High School, No. 19 on the list, is the only Illini commit. Worse yet, nine of those top 20 are committed to other Big Ten universities.

While it is true that Illinois is not Florida, Texas or California in terms of producing top-flight football talent, there are plenty of good in-state players. The next Illinois coach needs to keep those players at home.

You really can't expect to win much of anything if players from your home state are committing to other schools in your own conference. Zook was never a good sideline coach, but he recruited well during the early years of his tenure in Champaign. More recently, his recruiting pipeline has been reduced to nothing.

You have to believe that's part of the reason athletic director Mike Thomas fired him last Sunday.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2011 is the previous archive.

January 2012 is the next archive.

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