Alston sparks Thornwood's late-season surge

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Alston sparks Thornwood's late-season surge

Thornwood's Khapri Alston received same sage advice from his father, his uncle and his assistant coach. The 6-foot-3 senior absorbed all of it, like taking a big spoon of Castor Oil. All of a sudden, the "man in the mirror" began to resemble Superman on the basketball court.

According to coach Paul Slavich, Alston is "an unheralded, overlooked and undersized big man" who is "the glue that holds us together. If he was three or four inches taller, every Division I school would be after him. He is only 6-foot-3 but he plays like he is 6-foot-7."

Alston has been on fire in recent games. He had 26 points and 13 rebounds against Bradley, 23 points and 15 rebounds against Rich South and 17 points against Stagg. In Tuesday's 57-55 upset victory over Andrew, he scored 13 as Thornwood clinched at least a share of the SouthWest Suburban Red championship.

After being held scoreless in the first three quarters, Johnte Shannon popped in a three-point shot with 11.5 seconds to play as Thornwood claimed its first conference title since 2002. Darrell Combs led the Thunderbirds with 24 points. It was Andrew's second loss in 23 games and spoiled a bid for its first conference title.

Thornwood (19-6) can earn an undisputed crown by beating district rival Thornton on Friday night. After an 0-2 start, the Thunderbirds have come on strong against a very competitive schedule and are seeded No. 6 in the Lockport sectional with Bloom, Andrew, Homewood-Flossmoor and Crete-Monee.

"I like that we are jelling together and coming together as a team,"
said Alston, who likely will attend Northeast Community College in North Fork, Nebraska, to get his academics in order and prepare for a Division I college.

"I'm just playing my best for the team, just doing whatever I have to do for us to win. They are going to me more. If I don't have a shot, I kick it out. I get in position for rebounds. I know I have to play at a higher level because we are going into the playoff."

Alston, who is averaging 15 points and eight rebounds per game, traces his increased late-season production to "just being more aggressive."

"I knew I was playing lower, worse than I can," he said. "I know I can play better. I wasn't playing to the best of my ability. I wasn't doing everything I could. I wasn't being a leader. I had to step up for the team."

A few weeks ago, Alston's father told him that he should grab every rebound that comes off the rim. "I can do that," Khapri said.

His uncle said he was playing down to the competition, that he wasn't playing up to his potential.

And assistant coach Shawn Finnan told him to look in a mirror. "Ask yourself: Are you playing to the best of your ability? Are you looking at the man you want to be? Are you doing everything right?"

"I had a reality check," Alston said. "I started to play at a higher level. Even though most defenders are taller than me, I know I can play with anyone. I don't look at myself as being less than anyone else."

Alston is complemented by 6-foot-1 senior guard Darrell Combs (14 ppg), who has signed with Loyola, 5-foot-10 senior guard Johnte Shannon (12 ppg),
5-foot-8 senior point guard David Fuller (3 ppg, 4 assists) and 6-foot-7 senior center Ahmad Baine (4 ppg).

Coming off the bench are 5-foot-10 senior point guard Marcus Agee and 6-foot senior Justin Kennedy.

Slavich is in his second season at the South Holland school. Last year's team was 16-12 and lost to Plainfield Central by one point on a last-second shot in the regional semifinal.

But Slavich isn't a rookie. A 1986 graduate of Thornwood, he played for coach Al Holverson. He has taught and coached in the school system for 17 years. He assisted former Thornwood coaches Kevin Hayhurst and Bob Curran.
When people talk about Thornwood's tradition, he knows what they are talking about.

In 2001, Thornwood and Eddy Curry were favored to win the Class AA championship but lost to Schaumburg in the state final and finished 32-2. In 2003, Eric Gray and Maurice Montgomery led the Thunderbirds to a 27-6 record and second place. In 2006, Tre Blue and Reggie Hamilton led a 25-8 team to fourth place in the state tournament. In a period of four years, Thornwood won 25, 32, 27 and 27 games.

"We want to do what those teams did. We have the same type of team that they had. We can make a run like they did," Alston said. "What impressed me about those teams is they played together like a family. It wasn't just one player. Everybody on our team wants to accomplish what those teams did."

Slavich believes his team is good enough to win the sectional. "We have played tough competition. We had the lead at some point in every game we have lost. But it didn't work out for us. We're getting better. Our kids are coming around. They want to make a run like the old Thornwood teams. They have the tools to do it," he said.

"I've talked to them about the past, about the experience of going Downstate, what those teams did well, how they played with the lead, how they played smart, how they didn't go up and down the court like a gym class. We stress how important each possession is in playoff time. They can make a difference in winning a game. It is important to understand what the other team is trying to do."

Bears formula for beating Lions is basic

Bears formula for beating Lions is basic

Talking about what the Bears can do to defeat the Detroit Lions suddenly has a vague feel of irrelevance, since the downward spiral of the 0-3 start raises far broader questions and doubts than one game. But in point of fact, it IS about one game. More on that later.

Earlier in this week your humble and faithful narrator laid out three foundation points upon which the Bears could begin building a way out of the abyss. Nothing has changed in the meantime other than a few injury designations, and there is zero reason to dwell on those because the solution is about as simple as things can get. And they extend beyond Sunday’s game against the Lions.

“You’ve just got to keep improving,” said Brian Hoyer, the presumptive starting quarterback Sunday against Detroit and until Jay Cutler’s injured right thumb is sufficiently healed. “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. Everybody has injuries. It’s unfortunately part of the business so everybody just has to step up.

“And not only the guy himself has to step up, the guys around him have to step up. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

Which gets back to those three “turnaround” elements, because those comprise the basic formula for the Bears to overcome the Lions and themselves. Consider these the proverbial “three keys,” tailored to the immediate game at hand.

Unleash a defensive “village”

The Bears have not proved themselves capable of winning enough one-on-one matchups pretty much anywhere on the field, any side of the football. An alternative exists on defense, however: Swarm to the football, something that was axiomatic with Lovie Smith defenses but evaporated under Marc Trestman/Mel Tucker and has not developed under John Fox and Vic Fangio. It is also the only realistic way the Bears can have a dominant defensive game, which is the only realistic way the Bears can win a football game.

The Lions were never a particularly fun matchup for Chicago defenses when they had Calvin Johnson. In beating the Bears the last six times the teams met, Detroit averaged 29.3 points per game. Without Megatron the Lions are averaging 27 per game this season. Meaning: Things haven’t necessarily gotten any better since the Big Fella called it a career.

In place of Johnson, the focal point of the Detroit offense has become wideout Marvin Jones, No. 2 in the NFL in receiving yards and averaging 22.7 yards on his 18 receptions. Equally concerning: Jones has picked up first downs on 13 of those 18 catches.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

“He's made some big plays,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He's had some big ‘chunk’ plays, a 73-yarder last week, I think he had a 50-some yarder in another game. He leads the [NFC] in receiving yards and [is No. 2 in] average per catch. They've got a lot of weapons.”

The problem with that is that the Lions are predominantly a three-receiver offense, another team that will schematically force the Bears out of their base 3-4 and into nickel. The Bears intercepted a Houston Texans pass on the first possession of the season. They have not intercepted one in the 34 opponent possessions since then.

Detroit doesn’t run the football overly well (101 yards per game), but if the Bears cannot force quarterback Matthew Stafford to throw toward Jones or Golden Tate before he wants to, an undermanned secondary has no chance.

The defense no longer has a shutdown corner, even one must-account-for pass rusher or an established all-around game-changer. Jerrell Freeman is the best player on a struggling defense. The solution is a form of flash-mob flying to the football, second and third men in stripping the ball. One tackler or pass rusher has proved insufficient.

Take it on the run

It is far from any sort of exact correlation, but all six of the Bears’ wins last season came in games where they rushed more times than their opponent. A seventh win escaped them when Robbie Gould missed a kick against San Francisco. Only the Lions in Week 17 rushed fewer times than the Bears and won.

The Bears are not only among the NFL’s worst rushing teams (70 yards per game, 30th), but also its least busy, with 53 total attempts through three games. The total is mystifying because the Bears led the Texans through three quarters and the Eagles for most of two, making the reasoning that the Bears were trailing and forced to throw very difficult to understand.

The Lions allow 5.1 yards per rush, worst in the NFL. They are without top pass rusher Ziggy Ansah. If the Bears cannot run on this defense (allowing 28.3 ppg.), the issues are far deeper than feared and the philosophies and play calling of coordinator Dowell Loggains will come under even more scrutiny than they already have.

“I was pretty disappointed as well [after 15 rush attempts at Dallas],” guard Kyle Long said. “Just execution, and sometimes it’s not execution. It’s just you’ve got to beat the guy across from you and we haven’t done that enough.”

Win one play…then one drive…one quarter…one game

The Bears cannot get back to .500 Sunday afternoon. Barring a 28-point outburst, they cannot win the Detroit game in the first quarter. They led Houston and Philadelphia in first halves and lost.

To his credit, Fox has kept the target small, and simple. Because it is.

“It’s execution and it’s execution in all three phases,” Fox said. “Whether it’s the first half or the second half, they’re two equal times. And you have to put a complete game together and we have not done that through the first three games.” 

And the winner is...

“View from the Moon” erred in Dallas by going against its first impression and pick back early in the offseason, that the Bears would lose to the Cowboys, which they did. The Bears have done little to suggest that they are poised to go on any sort of upswing, but the Lions inspire not a lot to suggest that they are an NFC North power. The preseason pick stays:

Bears 17,  Lions 14

View from the Moon 2016 record: 1-2

Check out Michigan's new Jordan basketball uniforms

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Check out Michigan's new Jordan basketball uniforms

Michigan's football team grabbed all the headlines in recent months for — well, for just about everything, but specifically for becoming the first football team ever decked out in Jordan Brand uniforms. His Airness himself even showed up as an honorary captain at the Big House.

Well, don't forget that in the school's apparel deal with Nike, Michigan's basketball team also gets Jordan uniforms.

The Wolverines unveiled their new hoops unis Friday, and as one might expect, they look pretty cool.

Check them out:

In true Michigan fashion, the uniforms were unveiled at some giant party event with celebrities and whatnot.

John Beilein's team will be taking the court in these sweet duds this season.