CSN to follow Simeon's quest for three-peat

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CSN to follow Simeon's quest for three-peat

This winter, CSNChicago.com will be providing exclusive coverage of the Simeon Career Academy boys varsity basketball team, ranked No. 1 in the nation by some media outlets.

The Wolverines, back-to-back defending state champions are the flagship program of Chicago high school basketball and have a rich history that includes consecutive state titles in 2006 and 2007, when they were led by point guard Derrick Rose.

This season, they have the No. 1 player in the nation again, junior Jabari Parker, but it's far from a one-man gang. Coach Robert Smith's squad also features Marquette-bound forward Steve Taylor, the top-ranked senior in the state, top-50 nationally-ranked junior guard Kendrick Nunn, junior transfer Jaylon Tate, a point guard ranked among the top 100 players in his class, and senior floor general Jaleni Neely.

While those are the main characters CSNChicago.com will be focusing on, the Simeon "family" is an equal-opportunity group, so such role players as junior starting forward Kendall Pollard, junior reserve point guard Lawrence Neely, backup senior guard Reggie Norris and two freshmen who are quietly touted as the future of the program -- wings Brandon Hutton and Dennis "D.J." Williams, who will play on both the sophomore and varsity teams -- will also receive attention.

Rose (when he pops up at his old school, which is something he's prone to do), the entire coaching staff and parents of the players, including Robert "Sonny" Parker, the father of Jabari and a former NBA player, will share time in the spotlight as well.

For now, however, here's some background on some of the key figures. Simeon opens its season Saturday night, with a game against south suburban power Hillcrest at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

THE SUPERSTAR: JABARI PARKER

Parker is the consensus top-ranked player in the nation in the junior class and arguably the best high school player in the country, regardless of class. Recruited by virtually every top-tier college in the country, he is remarkably humble and plays a team-first style of basketball. Tremendously skilled, he combines superb athleticism, strength down low, unselfish passing, accurate perimeter shooting and explosive slashing ability.

THE SENIOR LEADER: STEVE TAYLOR

Taylor is the only player in Illinois to rank among the top 100 seniors in the country. Signed with Marquette in the fall. A 6-foot-8 forward, he is just as capable of knocking down a deep three as he is to throw down a dunk in traffic, forming a deadly inside-outside duo with Parker.

THE FLOOR GENERAL: JALENI NEELY

Neely is a four-year varsity player who split minutes at his position the past two seasons, only to suffer a devastating ACL injury in the summer. Hoping to return to the linuep by the season opener, Neely is viewed by Coach Smith as one of the team's most indispensable pieces because of his knowledge of the game. A true, pass-first point guard, Neely's modest scoring average is outweighed by his playmaking ability and mistake-free style of play.

THE MICROWAVE: KENDRICK NUNN

Nunn, who committed and de-committed from Texas A&M this fall, wasn't a starter last season, but is viewed as one of the most explosive scorers around. An elite athlete with deep range and a fearless style of play, the southpaw shooting guard is highly coveted by a wide variety of colleges. His penchant for making big plays makes him the most exciting player to watch on the roster, a sentiment privately seconded by his idol, Rose.
THE TRANSFER: JAYLON TATE

Tate left De La Salle, a Catholic league power, to join forces with the Wolverines, but don't accuse him of hopping on the bandwagon for the personal benefits. Already a coveted prospect receiving attention from a long list of college programs, Tate is an athletic and gifted point guard, but must quickly catch on to a new system. Although he wasn't the only star at his previous school, it might be a difficult adjustment for Tate initially.

THE ARCHITECT: ROBERT SMITH

Smith is a low-key coach who blends being a disciplinarian and nurturing his players, a successful approach that has led to four state championships in less than 10 seasons. The Simeon graduate inherited the program from his own former coach, the late, legendary Bob Hambric, and it hasn't missed a beat in his hands. Ably aided by a coaching staff consisting of former players, the Wolverines' program is a well-oiled machine with a family atmosphere.

THE ALUMNI: DERRICK ROSE

The youngest MVP in NBA history. Instead of rehashing Rose's accomplishments -- two state championships, McDonald's All-American, 2007 Mr. Illinois Basketball -- during his time on 81st and Vincennes, here's a quote from the Bulls point guard from after his workout at the school Monday night:

"I've been coming up here a couple of times to work out. You already know they have great talent, a couple of players they already have on their team -- I don't need to mention their name, but the star of the nation; you already know who that is: Jabari -- and I think Rob and everybody, his coaching staff, has been doing a good job with coaching their team."

THE OBSERVER: SONNY PARKER

A former NBA player with the Golden State Warriors, the elder Parker himself is a Chicago high school legend from his exploits at Farragut (also Kevin Garnett's alma mater) on the West Side. Ironically, Parker tutored more than a few of his sons current teammates in his capacity of the head of the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation, a basketball program that includes weekend clinics, AAU competition before high school and competitive summer leagues. Parker and wife, Lola, are a constant, but not overbearing presence at Simeon.

David Rundblad, Blackhawks mutually part ways

David Rundblad, Blackhawks mutually part ways

David Rundblad and the Blackhawks have mutually agreed to part ways, generalfanager.com reported on Monday.

Rundblad's contract will no longer count against the Blackhawks' cap next season.

The 25-year-old defenseman signed a two-year, $2.1 million contract with the Blackhawks prior to the 2015-16 season and held a $1.05 million cap hit. 

On July 1, Rundblad was placed on buyout waivers where the Blackhawks would have had a cap hit of $133,333 this season and $183,333 next season if he was bought out. If he cleared, it would've been $100,000.

With Rundblad's departure, the Blackhawks now have $2.54 million in cap space, according to generalfanager.com.

Rundblad played in three seasons with the Blackhawks, but could never crack the every day lineup.

In 64 games in Chicago, he had three goals and 13 assists.

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

It might be figuratively held together with chicken wire and duct tape at this point, and it hasn’t been entirely effective recently. But the White Sox bullpen can’t be criticized for a lack of effort. 

Over the last four days, White Sox relievers have had to throw 19 1/3 innings. To recap: Starter Jacob Turner only lasted 3 1/3 innings Friday against the Detroit Tigers, then Chris Sale was scratched from his start Saturday after blowing up over the team’s uniforms and earning a five-game suspension. The White Sox bullpen shouldered Johnny Wholestaff duties and threw eight innings on Saturday — right-hander Matt Albers started and pitched two of those innings despite throwing an inning in the team’s last two games — in lieu of the team’s All-Star ace. 

David Robertson, who pitched a third of an inning in relief Saturday, pitched twice on Sunday (he allowed three solo home runs to the Tigers to blow the save in his second game). Nate Jones appeared in the first three games of the Tigers series, too, totaling 2 1/3 innings. 

On Monday, both Jones and Robertson were given a much-needed rest day. So Zach Duke, Albers and Dan Jennings were called upon by manager Robin Ventura to cover seven outs against the powerful Cubs lineup. Albers blew the save, but Jennings’ strikeout of Jason Heyward with the go-ahead run on second set up Tyler Saladino’s walk-off single to net the White Sox a 5-4 win. 

“We’ve picked up a lot of innings lately,” Robertson said. “Everybody’s just giving it everything they got right now. It’s obviously, we would’ve loved to have nothing but zeros go up, but that’s not the way baseball works. We’re facing a lot of good lineups. And we’ve just hung tough and tried to at least give us a chance to win. Thankfully, we’ve been very fortunate to walk off these last three games.” 

It’s not just the volume of innings that’s taxing the bullpen, though. With three consecutive walk-off wins — the first time the White Sox have done that since Aug. 4-6, 1962 — have come plenty of high-stress pitches. Over the last week, the White Sox bullpen has the highest average leverage index in baseball, and that’s with this group shouldering the generally low-leverage early innings of Saturday’s game in place of Sale. 

“The more we work, the more proud we are of what we do,” Jennings said. 

Still, this group could probably use a breather. Without an off day until Aug. 1, though, the only way to get one is to be ruled out for a game, as Robertson and Jones were on Monday. 

“Hopefully we can rotate, I know there’s some other guys that I know might need a day so maybe hopefully Nate and Robertson are really fresh tomorrow and we can build off that,” Jennings said. “(Or) maybe we can get that eight, nine, 10-run win where we can kind of sit back and relax a little bit, hopefully.”

Manager Robin Ventura said he went with seniority in choosing who to cover Jones and Robertson’s innings Monday, which helps explain why he didn’t use 2015 first-round pick Carson Fulmer against the Cubs. Fulmer’s recent control issues — he only threw 12 of 30 pitches for strikes in blowing a lead against the Tigers on Friday — could’ve played a factor, too. 

“You’re trusting the guys who have been here,” Ventura said. “You’ve got some new faces that are out there, it would’ve been asking a lot to bring them in and put them in that.”

White Sox relievers have squandered leads in each of the team’s last four games, though: Fulmer on Friday, Jones on Saturday, Robertson on Sunday and Albers/Jennings on Monday. In addition to a short outing from Turner and no outing from Sale, the White Sox are missing right-handers Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam from a group that looked to be fairly deep earlier in the season. 

The White Sox relief corps could certainly use a day off or at the least, as Jennings said, a blowout win where some of those young arms — Fulmer, Michael Ynoa and Tommy Kahnle — could polish off some low-pressure innings. But those easy wins have been few and far between this season: The White Sox only have three wins by more than three runs since May 14. 

So if that trend continues, this group is going to have to continue to cover plenty of high-stress innings without a break, at least for the next week. 

“Obviously the bullpen the last few days had to pick up the team, and we take pride in that,” Albers said. “Especially Nate and D-Rob were down today, shoot, they’ve been pitching every day too. Everybody else started to try to pick them up. That’s what we’re here for.” 

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

Michigan tight end Jake Butt hit the nail right on the head when asked about his head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

“He’s one of a kind.”

Yes, Harbaugh is certainly unlike any other football coach. He spent the offseason firing off Twitter attacks at opposing head coaches, posting pictures taken with celebrities and starring in a rap video, shouting from behind the wheel of a bright yellow convertible parked on the 50-yard line at the Big House.

He’s demanded all the attention in the college football world since he took the job at his alma mater, and Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days was no different. It was the Jim Harbaugh Show, complete with the star wearing a block-M baseball cap to complement his suit and a sea of reporters engulfing him at a designated podium.

But with all the attention that comes from the off-the-field antics, Harbaugh has worked stunning magic in Ann Arbor. He’s been the program’s head man for a year and a half, already taking the Wolverines from a five-win group that missed out on a bowl game to a 10-win squad that was a win away from playing for a conference title.

“It’s definitely a culture shift, you can feel it through coach Harbaugh,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “You feel what he’s bringing to the program. If you want to say that’s swagger, then yeah, that’s what he’s bringing back.”

And for Harbaugh’s next trick? He’s made Michigan one of the favorites to win this year’s conference championship and a team with legitimate national championship aspirations.

“We have big hopes. We've got big dreams. We've got lofty goals. And all those are achievable. And they have to be worked for,” Harbaugh said Monday. “You can accomplish anything if the work is realized. And those things have to be earned. So we are in the position right now to work to get the things we want. That's the fact. That's the mentality. That's the attitude.”

Harbaugh does plenty of stuff off the field that separates him from the run-of-the-mill college football coach — who else has a picture with Kenny G? — but it’s his uniqueness on the field that had players buying into what he was trying to accomplish.

Harbaugh, the man with “enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” runs four-hour practices. No joke. And they sound horrible.

“Being out there for four hours? That’s like a ‘Titanic’ movie, man, being out there for four hours,” Lewis said.

But the players saw what four-hour practices led to, and it had them coming back for more. Both Lewis and Butt could’ve turned pro this offseason. But they’re back. Why?

“To win,” Lewis said. “Those four-hour practices, I know he wasn’t doing it for no reason. I knew there was a method to his madness. I saw those 10 wins. We knew that we could be something special, and once we knew that, we bought in. These four-hour practices aren’t so bad when you tally up wins. Trying to be something special, and that’s what he’s bringing back. He’s bringing something magical to Ann Arbor.”

“He doesn’t take any days off,” Butt said. “He doesn’t ask any of us to do anything he’s not willing to do himself. He kind of just forces us to be tough. When you’re out there practicing for four hours, smashing into each other, you don’t really have a choice but to be tough.”

Laugh away at Harbaugh’s zaniness and his over-the-top actions: climbing trees, recruiting at sleepovers and donning a different NFL or NBA jersey at every stop on his cross-country satellite-camp tour. But know that it’s working. Aside from the winning and the impressive turnaround he pulled in just one year at the helm, his recruiting successes have been spectacular. This season, he signed the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class — including No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary — and he currently has the fifth-ranked class for 2017.

Stuff like “Signing of the Stars” and “Who’s Got It Better Than Us?” They’re extra efforts to make the program one percent better every day.

“I think a lot of that’s big on recruiting,” Butt said. “He thinks outside of the box, and I think that’s big. A lot of us probably don’t understand the reason behind a lot of the things that he does, but I can assure you there’s a reason behind everything he does. He has a plan for everything, but he’s doing most of those things for the betterment of our team and our program.”

Off the field, Harbaugh creates one social-media-friendly headline after another. On it he’s rapidly moved Michigan from cringe-worthy underachiever to conference-title favorite.

The man with the block-M sweatshirt and the khaki pants has the Wolverines heading in a direction that could end with a shower of confetti.

Then, truly nobody will have it better than Michigan.