I'm taking a week's vacation. Time to detox from the long, stressful grind known as high basketball season. I will be back Monday, April 2. Blogging activities will resume that day.
March 2012 Archives
What Bears running back Matt Forte calls "disrespect" I call good business.
On Thursday, the Bears announced the signing of running back Michael Bush to a four-year deal worth $14 million, including $7 million guaranteed.
This is an excellent move. Bush rushed for 977 yards and seven touchdowns on 256 carries with the Oakland Raiders last season. He is a clear upgrade over last year's backup running back, Marion Barber. We all remember how much the offense went to pieces last year when Forte got injured. Bush is simply a better player than Barber, and this pickup gives the team a nice second option out of the backfield -- as well as insurance should Forte get hurt again.
Forte, unfortunately, doesn't see it that way. He's bitching up a storm on Twitter because the Bears put the franchise tag on him and have yet to bestow him with the lucrative long-term deal he thinks he deserves. He believes he should have gotten his money before the Bears addressed their depth at running back.
Here's the bottom line for me: the Bears went out and made themselves better today, and Forte is complaining about it. That's a me-first attitude if I've ever seen one. Last I checked, Forte is scheduled to make $7 million this season. I don't think he'll be headed to the poor house anytime soon. I have no sympathy for him whatsoever.
Running backs don't have a very long shelf life in the NFL. If you want to win, it's a good idea to have two quality backs available. The Bears fortified themselves at that position today, and I applaud them for it.
Reports indicate athletic director Mike Thomas offered to pay Smart somewhere between $2.5 million and $3 million per year, which would have more than doubled Smart's salary at VCU. When a man turns down that kind of coin, hey, he just doesn't want the job.
That's fine, and Illinois needs to move on. The problem for Thomas is he seemed to put too many eggs in the Smart basket. Nobody really knows who the Plan B and Plan C options are. Alabama coach Anthony Grant has said he is not interested. Other speculation has involved Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, Marquette coach Buzz Williams, Arizona coach Sean Miller and a cast of thousands more.
Who is the front-runner now? Damn if I know.
Here are a few things I do know:
1. Smart wasn't worth that kind of dough anyway. That's Tom Izzo money, and Shaka Smart is not Tom Izzo.
2. The University of Illinois took a major public relations hit by swinging and missing on its top candidate.
3. The pressure is intensifying on Thomas to come up with a good hire.
Remember, the UI is paying Bruce Weber almost $4 million to not coach over the next three years. That means the next hire had better be somebody better than Weber, or else Thomas is going to find his neck on the chopping block very early in his tenure.
The Blackhawks are now 8-1-1 over their last 10 games after Tuesday night's 5-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. As we all know, team captain Jonathan Toews hasn't played since Feb. 19 because of a suspected concussion, yet the Hawks have thrived recently without their best player.
How have they done it? Well, let's look at the production for the other top Hawk players over the last 10 games:
Patrick Sharp: 6 goals, 7 assists, 13 points, +7
Marian Hossa: 5 goals, 8 assists, 13 points, +2
Patrick Kane: 5 goals, 4 assists, 9 points, plus a shootout winner against St. Louis
Duncan Keith: 6 assists, +6
Brent Seabrook: 2 goals, 4 assists, +7
That will get it done.
I think we can all agree the Hawks need Toews back to be a legit Stanley Cup contender, but his absence over the last month has forced some other guys on the team to take on more responsibility. That's a positive, because early in the season Toews was carrying the team. He was a Hart Trophy candidate until he took a slash on the wrist in a Jan. 20 game against the Florida Panthers. Once Toews started dealing with injuries -- first the wrist problem and now the concussion -- the Hawks began sinking in the standings, falling all the way from the top spot in the West to sixth.
But in the last 10 games, they've made the adjustment. Their defensive play has been excellent, especially the top pairing of Keith and Seabrook. We didn't think much of the acquisition of Johnny Oduya at the time of the trade, but the beginning of this hot streak coincides with his arrival. An additional veteran presence has helped settle things down on the back end. Oduya has been proving a lot of people, including yours truly, wrong with his solid, simple style of play.
The Hawks have even figured out that it pays to get the first goal. They've outscored the opposition 7-0 in the first period over their last three wins. It's a simpler game when you play with the lead. Frankly, the Hawks have done very little of that this season. They've scored the first goal only 32 times in their 74 games. However, they seem to be reversing that trend, and now would be a nice time to do just that with the start of the playoffs just three weeks away.
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas will do whatever it takes to make Shaka Smart the school's next basketball coach, a source close to the situation told Sun-Times reporter Herb Gould.
Smart has spent the last three seasons as the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he guided the Rams to the 2011 Final Four. His 2012 VCU squad was eliminated by Indiana Saturday in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
"They're going to make damn sure they don't let (Smart) get away," the source said of Illinois.
Illinois fired coach Bruce Weber on March 9 and will pay him $3.9 million as part of a buyout over the next three years. The buyouts for Weber, fired football coach Ron Zook and fired women's basketball coach Jolette Law top the $7 million mark. Those monies are covered by the school's athletic department budget, and no state funds or individual booster contributions will be involved.
Accordingly, money will be no object in Illinois' pursuit of Smart, who could be offered a multi-year deal worth as much as $2.5 million per season. Smart signed an eight-year contract at VCU last spring worth about $1.21 million a year. The buyout would be $800,000, which Illinois would gladly pony up if it can get its man.
Smart is said to be interested in Illinois, but additional convincing will be required. The coach has a good thing going at VCU -- all of his starters return next year but one -- and he and his wife love Richmond, Va. Smart turned down offers from North Carolina State and Maryland last year, and he will assess the Illinois situation carefully before making any decision.
A source close to the Smart camp said, "He wants to make sure he doesn't pull a Dan Monson,'' referring to the successful former Gonzaga coach who floundered at Minnesota. "He doesn't want to take a big-name job and wind up saying, 'What did I do here?' He can be probably gotten, but he's going to need to be convinced.''
A key factor in Smart's decision will be whether he wants to deal with the recruiting situation in Chicago. The city is considered a gold mine for top players, but there are also problems -- shady coaches with their hands extended, players' entourages and assorted academic issues -- that the next Illinois coach will have to deal with in order to be successful.
The upside at Illinois is high, but as Weber found out, it's not the easiest job in the world. Sometime in the next week or 10 days, we'll find out whether Smart wants the challenge.
For those wondering what happened to my friend and former colleague Jim Owczarski, you can find him here.
He's been up and running for about a week at OnMilwaukee.com. He's not working at a competing publication and a couple of people have asked me about him lately, so I figured I'd fill everybody in on Jim's latest career move.
Best of luck with the new gig, Jim!
West Aurora senior Juwan Starks did a good job of summing up the Blackhawks' 62-51 loss to Proviso East Tuesday in the Hinsdale Central Class 4A Supersectional.
"We didn't capitalize on their mistakes," Starks said. "We were still in the game, but not really. It was real tough. I'm real proud of my team."
West was in the game, but there was never really much doubt Proviso East would win this thing. The undefeated Pirates (31-0) jumped out to a 17-6 lead in the first quarter -- their press forcing the Blackhawks into seven first quarter turnovers.
West Aurora fought back and got within two in the second quarter at 19-17, but Proviso East led by eight (29-21) at the break. In the second half, the Pirates' lead was never less than six, but never more than 13. That's what Starks means when he says his team was in it, but not really. The Blackhawks did not get blown out, but they did not come close to winning either.
No shame in this postseason performance for West High. They were the fourth-seed in the sectional complex, and they beat top-seeded Plainfield East and third-seeded Metea Valley to win the sectional. That's exceeding expectations. The Blackhawks finish the season with a respectable 25-6 record.
This might be the start of another good two- or three-year run for West Aurora. Sure, the Blackhawks graduate Starks, an outstanding player who leaves as the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,627 points. But seven of the top nine players on the West roster will be back next year. Sophomore guard Jontrel Walker still needs to improve his handle, but he looks prepared to take the reins as the Blackhawks' go-to scorer. Junior Jayquan Lee, the team's best perimeter defender, will also be back.
The frontcourt is in good shape with the Thomas twins -- Chandler and Spencer -- and 6-foot-5 Josh McAuley. The Thomases are grinders out there. Both are good rebounders and good defenders. McAuley seems to be the most skilled of the group. He's a pretty good passer out of the high post. If he could add about 10 or 15 pounds over the offseason, he could be a real tough post man for West High.
I think good things are ahead for Blackhawk basketball. Honestly, it's about time. This proud program went six years between regional and sectional titles. I don't expect another drought like that. Wouldn't be surprised to see West back at this same level next year.
The Bears acquired one of the best receivers in the NFL Tuesday, sending two third-round draft picks to the Miami Dolphins for Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall.
Honestly, this trade almost seems too good to be true. All it took to get a legit No. 1 receiver was two third-round picks? Really? Seriously? Why didn't the Bears do this years ago? Why was Miami so eager to part with an elite talent like Marshall?
On second thought, who the hell cares? This is a great move for the Bears. Marshall will be reunited with quarterback Jay Cutler. The two were together in Denver in 2007 and 2008. During that time, Marshall caught 206 passes for 2,590 yards and 13 touchdowns.
By way of comparison, Johnny Knox -- previously the best Bears wide receiver -- totaled 88 receptions for 1,687 yards and seven touchdowns over the last two years.
Yeah, Marshall will be by far the Bears' best receiver the minute he walks through the locker room door. His salary is reasonable for his production level, too. Marshall signed a five-year, $47 million contract in 2010. That's $9.4 million per year, which is significantly less than top free agent receiver Vincent Jackson will get on the open market.
Add in the fact that Marshall is two years younger than Jackson and already has good chemistry with Cutler and you'll see this is a steal for the Bears.
Here's the thing I like best about Marshall: He's 6-foot-4, 230 pounds. He can make a play for you in traffic. He's a big target that's useful in the red zone. He has a wide catching radius, unlike all these undersized fleas the Bears have employed at wide receiver over the last few years.
With a guy like Devin Hester, Cutler has to put the ball right on his hands or else he won't make the play. With Marshall, Cutler doesn't have to be so pinpoint. Marshall will go get the ball for you. That makes a big difference for a quarterback.
Of course, this move doesn't instantly make the Bears a Super Bowl contender. There is still much work to be done. The offensive line has at least two holes on it. Another receiver to complement Marshall wouldn't hurt. How about another pass rusher to play opposite Julius Peppers? Or another cornerback to play opposite Charles Tillman? Then, there's the revolving door the Bears have had at safety for years.
I wouldn't print any playoff tickets yet, let alone Super Bowl tickets. However, there's no arguing the acquisition of Marshall is a home run for new Bears GM Phil Emery. It's a good first move on the road back to competitiveness in the increasingly tough NFC North.
New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin recently appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row. Honestly, that might have been the worst thing for his career.
As the first American-born player of Chinese descent playing in the NBA, people seem to want Lin to be a star. Frankly, he's just not good enough. At best, he's an average NBA point guard. He can score a little bit. He's not bad at creating for his teammates, but he turns it over too much. Defensively, he's a disaster.
And because of all the media attention he's received, he's a marked man in the NBA.
Bulls point guard Derrick Rose was ready for him Monday night. The reigning MVP totaled 32 points, seven assists and six rebounds during Chicago's 104-99 win over New York, and you get the sense Rose was pissed he didn't score 50.
Lin has been getting torched repeatedly by opposing point guards during the Knicks' current six-game losing streak. Philadelphia's Lou Williams scored 28 in a Sixers' win on Sunday. Before that, Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings piled up 25 points against the Knicks. San Antonio's Tony Parker lit up New York for 32 points, and of course, Boston's Rajon Rondo had a career day against Lin -- 18 points, 20 assists, 17 rebounds. And, oh, by the way, New Jersey's Deron Williams scored 38 against the Knicks on Feb. 20.
It really isn't Lin's fault. He didn't ask ESPN or Sports Illustrated to make him into a superstar. He seems like a fairly humble guy, actually. Unfortunately for Lin, every other point guard in the league is sick of hearing about him and looking to make a statement whenever they see him.
I think it's going to be a pretty rough ride for this poor kid from here on out. His 15 minutes are up.
You have to pity these guys. They are on my fantasy team, which means they are destined to have bad years:
Alex Avila, Detroit
Albert Pujols, L.A. Angels
Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee
Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland
Alex Rodriguez, N.Y. Yankees
Kelly Johnson, Toronto
Emilio Bonifacio, Florida
Curtis Granderson, N.Y. Yankees
Adam Jones, Baltimore
Brennan Boesch, Detroit
Corey Hart, Milwaukee
Delmon Young, Detroit
Jeff Francouer, Kansas City
Carlos Quentin, San Diego
Clayton Kershaw, L.A. Dodgers
Matt Cain, San Francisco
David Price, Tampa Bay
Ricky Romero, Toronto
Ervin Santana, L.A. Angels
Jonathan Sanchez, Kansas City
Mariano Rivera, N.Y. Yankees
Jordan Walden, L.A. Angels
Joe Nathan, Texas
If you drafted any of these guys in your league, I recommend you just go ahead and drop them now. They're all doomed.
We've got ourselves an all-Aurora final Friday night at the East Aurora Class 4A Sectional. The headline on Rick Armstrong's column on the front page of the Friday Beacon-News sports section reads, "New school vs. old school," because that's literally the matchup we have.
In one corner, we have "new school" No. 3 seed Metea Valley. This is a high school so new it hasn't even hosted a graduation ceremony yet. The Mustangs (25-4) are playing for a sectional title in just their second season of varsity basketball. As you might expect, the stage is completely new for those involved in the Metea community. Without a doubt, this will be the first time they've played a basketball game that all of Aurora is talking about.
In the other corner, you've got "old school" No. 4 seed West Aurora. The Blackhawks (24-5), of course, represent one the most storied programs in the state and are guided by the legendary Gordie Kerkman -- a coach with 734 career wins, 24 regional championships, 10 sectional championships, eight state appearances and five state trophies, including the 2000 Class AA title. This stage is old hat to Kerkman, but this is the deepest tournament advancement for West since 2006. It's a whole new deal for the current crop of Blackhawk players, so in that sense they are on even ground with the upstart Mustangs.
Looking at Friday's game, we'll see how quickly West Aurora recovers from a physical victory over Plainfield East in Tuesday's sectional semifinal. Starting guard Jayquan Lee went for an MRI on his back Thursday, and starting big men Josh McAuley and Chandler Thomas also missed practice with assorted ailments. Metea's win over Downers Grove South on Wednesday was also a physical contest. The Mustangs have no injuries of note, but they do have 24 fewer hours to prepare.
Also keep an eye on West's frontcourt. I thought the 6-foot-6 McAuley had an excellent game Tuesday, holding his own against 6-9 Plainfield East big man Brian Bennett. I was surprised to read McAuley was hanging his head in the locker room after the game because he didn't score enough points. Kerkman rightfully reminded him that he had made critical contributions defensively and on the glass. McAuley, Chandler Thomas and Spencer Thomas are all juniors, and their development as a front line has been key in West's postseason surge.
Lest we forget, there's another sectional championship to watch Friday night out in Sycamore. That's where Aurora Central (12-17) will take on Rockford East (19-10) in a Class 3A matchup. We've seen this movie before -- the two teams played for a sectional title last year also, with the Chargers prevailing 85-82 in overtime. Many of the key players from last year are back on both sides, so it won't come as any surprise if these two teams battle all the way to the final horn once again.
Don't let ACC's subpar record fool you. There's little doubt the Chargers would have a better record if they hadn't lost their best player, 6-5 center Robert DeMyers, for an extended period of time with a broken fibula. DeMyers is back, and judging by his recent numbers, he's at or close to full strength. Rockford East also features a good big man in 6-6 Steven McNease, who torched Kaneland for 21 fourth-quarter points in the E-Rabs sectional win Tuesday night. If DeMyers or McNease get in foul trouble, that could be the factor that swings the game.
As always, you can visit beaconnewsonline.com/sports Friday night and Saturday morning for full coverage of both these games. If you want to see the coverage in print, be sure to pick up the Sunday edition of The Beacon-News.
Coaches always tell players and media that defense wins championships. You've heard it. I've heard it. Everyone's heard it. It's become a cliche. Thing is, like a lot of cliches it's not completely accurate.
Don't get me wrong -- defense is important. But the thing that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls in a postseason basketball game is rebounding. That's right: Rebounding wins championships. It's true at every level of basketball. Doesn't matter if we're talking about the East Aurora Class 4A Sectional or the NBA. If you can't rebound, you won't win.
Take a look at West Aurora's 58-53 overtime win over Plainfield East Tuesday night. The Blackhawks shot a miserable 25 percent from the field in the first half. You would think such poor shooting would cause them to be buried -- especially playing against the top-seeded Bengals. Not so.
West was only down seven at the half, well within striking distance. The Blackhawks made a run in the second half, got the game into overtime and pulled the upset.
Here's why: They destroyed Plainfield East on the boards. It wasn't even close. West Aurora totaled 21 offensive rebounds and enjoyed a 47-35 edge on the glass overall. Spencer Thomas (pictured) led the way with 11 boards. His twin brother, Chandler, was close behind with 10 rebounds.
That's a lot of extra possessions right there, and extra possessions mean everything in postseason play. Once the playoffs roll around, there are fewer easy baskets to be had. During the regular season, the opposing team might get lazy and you can beat them down the floor for transition buckets. Some nights, you can win just by playing harder than the other team.
Well, come postseason, everybody plays hard. That easy stuff you get during the regular season just isn't there anymore. Everybody hustles back on defense. It becomes more of a halfcourt game. Possessions are more valuable than ever. That's why rebounding is so critical in big games. Good rebounding teams get more possessions, and more possessions means more opportunities to score. More opportunities to score means more points. More points means you win. Simple game, huh?
West Aurora didn't upset Plainfield East with its dazzling shooting, although the Blackhawks did pick it up from the field in the second half. West's commitment to rebounding is the reason it will be playing for a sectional title Friday night.
I've always viewed rebounding as being similar to pitching in baseball. A team with good pitching will have a chance to win every night. If your team doesn't have any good pitchers, you better go out and find some. Same is true with rebounding. If rebounding is a strength for your basketball team, you will have a chance to win every single night. And, you will have a chance to do some damage in the postseason.
Rebound well, and you can win on a night where shots don't fall -- even against a good team. West Aurora proved it Tuesday night.
As major conference tournaments get under way this week, it seems to be consensus that Northwestern currently ranks among the "last four teams in" the field of 68 for the NCAA tournament.
Of course, all that can change -- and likely will -- based upon the outcome of the conference tournaments.
Here's why I'm skeptical about Northwestern's NCAA tournament worthiness: The Wildcats are 1-10 against the RPI top 50.
You read that right: 1-10.
Northwestern's only quality victory all season was an 81-74 homecourt triumph over then-No. 6 Michigan State on Jan. 14. To me, a team that is 18-12 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten must boast some quality wins in order to have a solid case for a tournament bid. The Wildcats just don't have those wins -- at least not yet.
Northwestern's best nonconference victory was over Seton Hall at the Charleston Classic in November. That hardly qualifies as a signature win, especially since Seton Hall is a bubble team in its own right, having closed the regular season with an embarrassing, lopsided loss to DePaul.
Here's the good news for Northwestern fans: The conference tournament provides another chance to get that much-needed high-profile win. The Wildcats, seeded seventh in the Big Ten field, play 10th-seeded Minnesota (18-13, 6-12) at 4:30 on Thursday. For Northwestern, this is the definition of must-win. The Wildcats lose that one, they're relegated to the NIT for sure.
But, if Northwestern wins, it earns a Friday date with Michigan (23-8, 13-5) -- which was one of three teams to share the Big Ten regular season championship. The Wildcats played the Wolverines tough in the regular season. Michigan won by two in overtime on Jan. 11. The Wolverines also needed overtime to prevail in Evanston on Feb. 21.
If you're the Wildcats, you have to beat Minnesota on Thursday. Then, you have to go out there Friday and beat Michigan to prove your tournament-worthy. Coming close or being competitive aren't good enough. You have to win.
Without a signature win this weekend, I can't make a case for Northwestern being in the NCAA tourney.
It's nice to see the rivalry between the Bulls and the Indiana Pacers heating up again.
The NBA regular season is long and mostly pointless. Half the teams in the league suck. There isn't a lot of parity, and there are probably only four or five teams that have a legitimate shot at winning a championship this year. Until the conference finals begin, it's hard for me to be real interested in the NBA.
But, if you have a couple teams that dislike each other the way the Bulls and Pacers do, it can provide good theater while the world waits for meaningful games to start sometime in May.
Derrick Rose was pissed at the Pacers for celebrating on the United Center floor after they beat the Bulls on Jan. 25, and he vowed revenge.
"I'll never forget how they celebrated just from winning this game," Rose told reporters after the loss in January. "I can't wait to play them again."
That day finally arrived Monday. Early on, it looked like Rose would be unable to back up his comments. He shot 1-for-9 from the floor in the first half and scored only two points. In fact, Rose, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer combined to shoot 3-for-21 over the first two quarters, and the Pacers took a 43-42 halftime lead into the locker room.
Still, I figured the Bulls would come out and bomb Indiana in the second half. There was just no way all three of those guys were gonna stink for the whole game. Indeed, Rose and Deng led a huge Bulls charge in the third quarter. Chicago outscored Indiana 33-13 and went on to a 92-72 win.
Deng recovered from the slow start to finish with 20 points and six rebounds. Rose added 13 points and nine assists.
But the real story was the Bulls bench. Reserve players tallied 25 points in the first half while Rose and the gang struggled. That kept Chicago in the game. At the end of the night, Bulls starters had scored 46 points. Led by John Lucas III (13 points) and Ronnie Brewer (12 points), Bulls reserves had also scored 46 points.
Joakim Noah totaled 17 rebounds to lead the Bulls to a dominating 60-32 edge on the boards. Chicago outscored Indiana 20-4 on second-chance points.
At the end of the game, the Bulls put little-used reserve Brian Scalabrine into the lineup. The whitest white man in the NBA scored a bucket in the final seconds, prompting an excessive demonstration on the bench from Noah, Rose and Brewer (pictured above). You knew that was coming.
The next meeting between these two teams is April 25 in Indiana. That's the second-to-last game of the regular season. It may not mean much for the standings, but you can count on an intense, physical game between two division rivals who appear to be getting under each other's skin.
Don't you wonder sometimes whether sportsblab radio intentionally puts the dumbest among us on the air just to create soundbites like this?