Bell, Levin lead Oak Park's revival

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Bell, Levin lead Oak Park's revival

Ka'Darryl Bell, Gabe Levin and Alex Nesnidal have been playing basketball together since seventh grade. In fact, Bell preferred playing football and quarterback until his friends coaxed him into realizing that basketball and point guard were better choices.

"I was always athletic and I liked the aggressiveness in football," Bell said. "But I twisted my knee in the state final in the Pop Warner League and was out for four or five months. That shied me away from football. I began to concentrate on basketball.

"When I was a freshman, everybody wanted me to try out for football but I didn't want to. I love the competitiveness in football. But it requires more skill to play basketball, more than quickness. I've always been a point guard. You have to know the players on the floor."

Bell, a 6-foot-1 senior who is committed to Bradley, and Levin, a 6-foot-7 senior who likely will attend a prep school before moving on to a Division I program, are the reasons why Oak Park is in first place in the West Suburban Conference's Silver Division.

The Huskies are 14-5 going into this weekend's conference games against Proviso West and Lyons. They'll meet fast-finishing York next Tuesday. In his fourth season, coach Matt Maloney is seeking the school's first regional title since 2008 and first trip to the state finals since 1976.

"Bell and Levin are our two best players, the two best players in the conference," Maloney said. "Our other players are able to accept and embrace and willing to buy into their minor supporting roles. We have good kids with high academic ability and good leadership on and off the court. We have no off-the-court issues."

Best of all, the Huskies are healthy. Bell (13 ppg, 4 assists, 3 steals) suffered torn ligaments in his wrist and missed most of December. Now he claims he is back to 100 percent efficiency.

In his absence, Levin (20 ppg, 10 rpg, 3 assists, 3 steals) carried the team, which went 9-1 during one stretch. In recent games, he had 23 points and 11 rebounds against Evanston, 20 points and nine rebounds against Glenbard West and 32 points and 11 rebounds in last Friday's 63-62 overtime loss to Hinsdale Central.

"The coach didn't tell me to step up but my teammates told me to step up. It brought more confidence to my game. I'm just staying more aggressive," Levin said. "As a team, we are so passive, anyone can have a great game. It's just how I started to play, getting on the boards all the time and not taking any plays off."

But the loss to Hinsdale Central, even though it didn't affect their conference standing and likely won't damage their sectional seeding behind unbeaten and second-ranked Proviso East, served as a wake-up.

Afterward, 5-foot-8 junior guard Jakari Cammon was the first to get everybody's attention. "This can't happen again if we want to be great," he told his teammates.

Then Bell chimed in: "We have to take responsibility for our own actions. It wasn't one person who messed up, it was the whole team."

"I was speechless," Levin admitted. "I couldn't believe we had lost at the buzzer. By the time we got back on the bus, we were all on the same page. We learned we have to be ready to play from the tip-off."

Maloney reminded his players that they must play four consistent quarters. "There have been few games when we play consistently from start to finish. We could be dangerous if we play hard from the tip-off rather than in the second or third quarter," he said.

"We can't come out and beat Glenbard West by 27 points and then lose to Hinsdale Central," Bell said. "We never play all four quarters as a team. We can control it. We must come out and play hard from the beginning.

"Last year's teams was all over the place. They didn't know their roles. Everybody wanted to be the man and score 20 points per game. We know our roles. Everybody plays their roles. Statistics don't matter. There are no egos, no jealousy. These guys are willing to give up something to benefit the team."

There is a sign in Oak Park's locker room that motivates Bell, Levin and the other players. "How do you want to be remembered?" it says. "We want to be remembered as one of the great teams ever to come out of Oak Park. We want to go deep into the playoff," Levin said.

"The loss to Hinsdale Central will be beneficial down the road. If we have another let-up, it will be a surprise to me. We know we can't let that happen again if we want to have a great team. When our defense is on, it's hard for a team to run its plays against us."

Levin, who just turned 17, is an honor roll student and has offers from Loyola and Colgate. But he probably will attend St. Thomas More preparatory school in Oakdale, Connecticut, "because I will get another year of experience, my body will fill out and I will be more prepared to play right away at Division I."

Bell and Levin are complemented by Cammon (6 ppg), 6-foot-4 junior Alex Gustafson (5 ppg) and 6-foot-3 senior Alex Nesnidal (10 ppg). Gustafson is a defensive specialist who limited York star David Cohn to 10 points, none in the second half. Nesnidal is one of the conference's most prolific three-point shooters.

The bench features 6-foot-8 juniors Thomas Ross and Virgil Allen and 6-foot-7 junior T.K. Mattox. Maloney rotates them in an out of the lineup whenever he wants to get bigger on the floor.

Bell is anxious to make an impact at Bradley. He chose Bradley because the coaching staff has a reputation for developing players and he believes they will prepare him to play point guard in the NBA.

"And I can help rebuild the program," he said. "I want to be part of a team that brings the program back to where it once was, when it was one of the best in the country."

At the moment, however, his mindset centers around his high school team. "I have Gabe and Alex and Jakari who can score. My job is to get people open, make plays for other people. I know when I need to score. My job is to make the right decisions. If I'm open, I take the shot. But if someone else is open, I give the ball to them," he said.

Bell, Levin and Nesnidal have shared that mindset since they played at Roosevelt Middle School.

"Everybody tried out for the basketball and got really close," Levin said. "We just click. We have the same interests...basketball, video games. Everyone is on the same page."

Maloney, 36, a 1993 graduate of Oak Park, played for Al Allen, who won 391 games in 22 years but only four regional titles, the last in 2008. Maloney played on two of Allen's best teams, 25-4 in 1992 and 23-4 in 1993. Along the way, he learned some valuable lessons.

"What (Allen) did so well was put academics and citizenship above victories," Maloney said. "He taught us about being a man first. I admired his integrity and how he stuck by his principles no matter what. He'd be proud of how these kids act on and off the floor."

He enrolled at Millikin University but was injured and transferred to Dominican. At Dominican, he coached Oak Park's freshman B squad. That's when he got bit by the coaching bug.

"My original plan was to go to law school. But once I was injured in college, I realized how passionate I was about the game. When the freshman B coach resigned, I applied for the job," Maloney recalled.

He worked his way up the coaching ladder, serving three years at freshman B coach, then 10 as sophomore coach, then the varsity. His first team was 13-13. His second team was 22-6 and lost to Proviso West in the regional final. Last year's team was 10-13.

Oak Park has a glorious tradition in high school athletics dating to the early 1900s and Bob Zuppke, Glenn Thistlewaite, Glenn Holmes, George Trafton and Charlie Hoag. But that's all about football. What happened to basketball?

Harry Kinert, who coached Freeport to a state championship in 1951, came to Oak Park and guided the Huskies to fourth place in the 1954 state tournament. In 1976, Tom Meyer produced a 28-5 team that finished third in the Class AA tournament. Since then, no team has advanced beyond the sectional.

It won't be easy for Maloney to improve on that record this season. He is aware of the history.

"We have played in the toughest sectionals for the last 20 years. We've never been blessed with an easy route to state," he said. "I recall my junior year. We beat St. Joseph but lost to Proviso East by six in the sectional and they went on to win the state title. As a sophomore, we lost to Nazareth and Sean Pearson in the sectional final.

"We had some good teams that made some noise. But the sectional became so tough. Two years ago, we were 19-4 going into the sectional seeding and we got a No. 5 seed. We opened with Fenwick, an above .500 team. How's that for a first-round opponent? If we're going to be successful, Bell and Levin must play as they are capable of playing."

Big Ten preview: Can Tommy Armstrong better get the ball to Huskers' offensive weapons?

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Big Ten preview: Can Tommy Armstrong better get the ball to Huskers' offensive weapons?

Tommy Armstrong has some terrific weapons on the offensive side of the ball at Nebraska. In Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly, Armstrong — the Huskers’ fourth-year starting quarterback — has one of the best wide receiver tandems in the Big Ten.

But the question is: Can Armstrong put the ball in their hands more often than he puts it in the hands of opposing defenders?

It seems like a pretty straight-forward fix for a senior quarterback, but Armstrong’s Achilles’ heel has been accuracy. For someone as talented as Armstrong, for someone as capable as he when it comes to big, game-changing plays, getting the ball to his receivers has been a surprising struggle.

Last season, Armstrong ranked third in the Big Ten with 3,030 passing yards and 22 touchdown tosses. But his completion percentage was just 55.2 percent, which ranked 11th among conference quarterbacks, and he threw a league-high 16 interceptions, more than either of the quarterbacks at Maryland, which had the most picks thrown of any team in college football.

Maybe it comes down to leaning on his receivers a little more. In Westerkamp, he has one of the all-time best to play the position at Nebraska. Westerkamp ranks fourth on the program’s all-time receiving list. In Reilly, he has a big-play threat. Reilly caught eight passes for 30 or more yards last season.

And those two aren’t the only guys Armstrong will be throwing too, either. The return of receivers Stanley Morgan Jr. and Alonzo Moore plus tight end Cethan Carter and running back Terrell Newby mean all six of the team’s top receivers from a season ago are back. Oh, and the electrifying De’Mornay Pierson-El will be back from injury, too.

“They’re real good,” Armstrong said during the team’s media day earlier this month. “They’re talented, they’re the most talented group I’ve had since I got here. Those guys make it easier for me. They make it easier for the running backs. They give defenses trouble, and they’re going to help us a lot. It’s good that they’re all going to be healthy. They’re going to do what they do best.”

“I think that’s great for Tommy,” head coach Mike Riley said. “I think that when you have versatility that way — that’s a big factor when you have to look at a group like that defensively, especially when you have an interior that will sometimes have Cethan Carter and Jordan Westerkamp as inside receivers. Then you’re always talking defensively where you’re going to put the strength of the coverage. Are you going to roll over the top of the corners to help them because we have pretty good wide receivers? Are they going to stay inside to help the linebackers and cover those slots and the tight ends?

“I love having all those threats like that. With our style of game, utilizing those people as much as we can, really gives you balance attacking a defense, and I think the better we run the ball, the more effective we can be in getting the ball to those guys. That’s going to have to be our game. We’ll have to put it all together like that.”

Armstrong, of course, has also proven his ability to make plays by himself with his legs, and the dual-threat nature of his game is what makes him one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He was the team’s third-leading rusher last season and scored a team-high seven touchdowns on the ground. That ability makes the Huskers’ offense even that more multi-faceted and that more dangerous.

In the end, Armstrong will be judged on what he does to make sure last season’s six-win campaign was a fluke. And in the eyes of many, that means whether he’ll be able to take care of the ball and better get it to all those weapons mentioned above.

If he can, Nebraska could be right back where it historically has been: competing for a conference championship.

Patrick Reed wins Barclays, Rickie Fowler loses Ryder Cup spot

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Patrick Reed wins Barclays, Rickie Fowler loses Ryder Cup spot

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. (AP) -- Patrick Reed had a crystal trophy, a clear shot at the richest payoff in golf and a spot on the Ryder Cup team.

All he could offer Rickie Fowler was best wishes to join him at Hazeltine.

Reed picked up two victories Sunday at The Barclays. He rallied from an early two-shot deficit to win the FedEx Cup playoff opener and assure himself a clear shot at the $10 million bonus. And he secured a spot on the U.S. team at Hazeltine that will try to win back the Ryder Cup.

"Everyone's been talking about the Ryder Cup, been talking about, 'Oh, you're in the eighth spot and you're on the bubble' and all that," Reed said after his one-shot victory. "If you go and win, it takes care of everything else. ... It takes care of everything."

The way Fowler finished only leads to two weeks of uncertainty.

Fowler needed only to finish alone in third place, which was the farthest from his mind as he battled Reed at Bethpage Black.

"I wasn't trying to get a decent finish," Fowler said. "I was trying to win."

Two shots behind with four holes to play - and two shots clear of third place - Fowler missed a 4-foot par putt on the 15th hole and made double bogey on the next hole. His late meltdown sent him to a 74, a tie for seventh and kept him off the Ryder Cup team.

Reed built a big enough lead that a few sloppy mistakes over the final hour didn't matter. He made bogey on the final hole for a 1-under 70 and a one-shot victory over Sean O'Hair and Emiliano Grillo.

Fowler still could have made the Ryder Cup team with a birdie on the 18th hole. He missed another fairway and took bogey. It was the fourth time Fowler has failed to convert a 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour, though he remained optimistic.

"He just told me, 'Hey, I'm going to go get my work done. I'll see you in Minnesota,'" Reed said.

Sunday was the final day to earn eight automatic spots on the U.S. team. Fowler's late collapse allowed Zach Johnson to claim the eighth and final spot. Davis Love III still has four captain's picks over the next three weeks.

Reed, who finished at 9-under 275, wasn't the only player who felt like a big winner.

O'Hair was among five players who moved into the top 100 in the FedEx Cup, advancing to the next playoff event at the TPC Boston that starts Friday. And he made a big move, closing with a 66 to tie for second. That moved him all the way up to No. 15, assuring two more playoff events and giving O'Hair a good shot at staying in the top 30 who qualify for the finale at the Tour Championship.

Grillo birdied the final hole for a 69 and moved to No. 6.

Defending champion Jason Day struggled all week with his accuracy and had to settle for a 69, tying for fourth with Gary Woodland (69) and Adam Scott (71).

Reed had gone 55 tournaments worldwide since starting 2015 with a victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. A bogey on the par-3 third hole put him two shots behind Fowler, but not for long. Reed made three birdies on the next four holes to tie for the lead.

Even so, Reed could sense another tournament slipped away. Just seven holes into the final round, he already had missed four putts from 10 feet or closer and began to think back to other lost opportunities that kept him from winning.

That's when his caddie, brother-in-law Kessler Karain, told him to let it go and look ahead. A pair of tough par saves and a birdie at No. 12 gave Reed a two-shot lead, and he was on his way.

Fowler missed the 11th fairway and ended his streak of 55 consecutive holes without a bogey, losing the lead in the process. Reed holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the next hole for a two-shot lead, and Fowler never got any closer.

Sung Kang matched the course record with a 64 to move from No. 122 to No. 88. John Huh, Tyrone Van Aswegan and Derek Fathauer also moved into the top 100, while Shane Lowry, Peter Malnati, Robert Streb, Lucas Glover and Jonas Blixt fell out and ended their season.

The top 70 after next week advance to the third playoff event, with the top 30 going to East Lake for the Tour Championship.

With his victory, which moves Reed to No. 9 in the world ranking, Reed goes to No. 1 in the FedEx Cup. He will be assured of being in the top five who only have to win the Tour Championship to capture the $10 million prize.

Big Ten preview: After six-win season, can Huskers find normalcy under Mike Riley?

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Big Ten preview: After six-win season, can Huskers find normalcy under Mike Riley?

The change in direction at Nebraska would have been a little easier to stomach had the Huskers won more than six games last season.

Six-win seasons are hardly the norm in Lincoln and an even starker contrast to all the winning that preceded last season, when Bo Pelini led the team to seven straight nine-win campaigns. But athletics director Shawn Eichhorst was no longer comfortable with Pelini at the helm — with talk of him not winning the “right” games — firing him in favor of Mike Riley.

There are still plenty of questions surrounding Riley’s credentials for such a big-time job, but here he is heading into his second season at Nebraska. And it would seem he needs to start winning some games fast to make sure that mediocre finishes don’t become the new normal in Lincoln.

Riley’s first season wasn’t exactly a normal one, with the Huskers dealt a handful of brutal last-second losses. Hail Marys and overtimes and walk-off field goals and last-second drives accumulated with astonishing fashion, and Nebraska was at one point 3-6 with the six losses coming by a total of 23 points (and one was by 10, making the other five by a combined 13 points). That’s unusual, though Nebraska’s defense was certainly to blame in some cases. It’ll have to be better this year to avoid a repeat of some of those stunning losses.

“If you look at the numbers and what you’ll expect to need to win games, we did OK, offensively big plays. But we were bad defensively. We gave up way too many big plays,” Riley said during the team's media day earlier this month. “And oftentimes some of those times, right at the first game, was a really big play at the end of the game. I think being sounder, being able to prevent long passes and long runs. I think maybe the two main factors in winning and losing games are turnovers and big plays. Explosive plays. And it goes both ways. Not turning the ball over offensively and getting explosive plays and defensively getting some turnovers and not giving up big plays. I think those are main factors there.”

This offseason, too, has been anything but normal, featuring the tragic death of punter Sam Foltz in a car accident late last month. The team still has games to play, but much of the attention of the season will be placed on honoring Foltz. The Huskers will wear decals and play for their teammate. The athletics department set up a scholarship in Foltz’s name.

Dealing with Foltz’s death will be a challenge enough, but then there’s the far less important task of winning football games in an always loaded Big Ten. It makes for quite the job for Riley & Co. in a season where normally great improvement in the win column would have been the main focus.

Nebraska has plenty of reason to be excited on the offensive side of the ball, though, with Tommy Armstrong in his fourth season starting at quarterback. And Armstrong will be throwing to an experienced and potent pair of receivers in Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly. Terrell Newby is a quality running back. But will that be enough to turn things around in such drastic fashion? After all, all those guys were there a season ago.

There were signs of what the Huskers could do at the end of last season. Nebraska shredded Michigan State’s defense in a stunning upset victory toward season’s end, and the Huskers triumphed over UCLA in the bowl game. Those positive steps could be all the Huskers need to head into 2016 with confidence and a chance to be better.

And while Riley gets deserved questioning for never presiding over a consistent stretch of winning as a head coach, he also deserves some slack for the way many of those games ended last season. A couple seconds here, a couple seconds there, and the Huskers could have been a 10-win team.

But hey, that’s college football.

So what’s the team hungry to do, coach?

“Win. And whatever winning means — winning the games, winning championships — I think they invested a lot,” Riley said. “My hope is, and it’s an educated hope, is that they have the last part of the season with a couple really good wins in there. It kind of made them confident in what we do and also anxious to prove we can do that consistently, which we did not last year. I think with veteran leadership we have coming back, with the fact that I think there was some confidence coming out of that and some excitement about what might be, it’s allowed me to say I think this is a hungry team.”