Houston gives Hope plenty of hope

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Houston gives Hope plenty of hope

When Illinois-bound point guard Jalen James made the startling decision
to transfer to La Lumiere Academy in LaPorte, Indiana, for the second
semester, nearly everybody wrote off Chicago's Hope Academy as the favorite
to win the Class 1A championship.

Everybody except coach Mike Edwards and his players. The Eagles are
17-2, including a victory over highly rated Marshall and losses to highly
rated Huntley and St. Ignatius. They defeated Lake Forest Academy 77-71 in
double overtime on Tuesday. They'll play at Ida Crown on Thursday and at St.
Benedict on Friday.

"It was disappointing that James left. In our view, it wasn't in his
best interest. All the tools were here for him to succeed with us. He just
needed to do extra work in class," Edwards said. "How good is he? He
definitely can play point guard in the Big 10.

"But we were deep to start with, nine or 10 deep. Against Class 1A
competition, we still have a big lineup. We still can win the state
championship if our kids do what they are supposed to do. We have an
unselfish, diverse and athletic team. And we play disciplined ball."

With James gone, Edwards predicts that some of his other talented
players will get their props, particularly 6-foot-5 senior Alex Houston, who
scored 36 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a victory over Carver shortly
after James left for Indiana.

"He is starting to get college looks," Edwards said. "Most college
coaches came to see Jalen and now Alex is getting looks, mostly from
Division II and III schools. But I think he can play at the Division I
level. He is very athletic and active on the boards. And he is our leading
percentage shooter from three-point range."

But Edwards reminds that Hope Academy isn't a one-trick pony. Houston
averages 12 points per game. Colin Blaydes (10 ppg, 8 rpg), a 6-foot-5
senior, is a shot blocker and defensive energy. Torrance Johnson, a
6-foot-6, 225-pound senior, averages 14 points and eight rebounds. Tyrone
Smith, a 6-foot-1 senior, and Carson Hughes, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, each
average eight points.

In Tuesday's victory over Lake Forest Academy, Johnson scored 27 points
while Smith had 26.

The chief reserves are 5-foot-7 senior Andre Thomas and 5-foot-8 junior
Armando Sacluti, a pair of reliable defenders.

They remember how close they came a year ago. The Eagles were 20-11 and
lost to Newark in the sectional final. Newark went on to win the Class 1A
title.

"We hoped last year would be our year but we knew Newark was an amazing
team," Edwards said.

But this is this year and there is even more optimism, even without
James. "Everyone felt (the transfer) was coming. I've known him for eight
years. He's still like a brother. It was a decision for him. He did what was
best for him. It cut his ties with us but the show still goes on," Houston
said.

"Regardless of who is there, we have 12 guys who are willing to work
hard. Jalen was our floor leader but the seniors have done a good job of
keeping everything together. Thomas and Smith and Hughes have to take charge
on the floor now and they are doing it very well.

"When James left, our team was doing good. We felt it was time for
everybody to step up. We felt confident. We still feel we can win the Class
1A title. Our confidence never went away. Our senior leadership and our
senior guards have stepped up and taken it up a notch."

Houston enrolled at University of Chicago's charter school as a
freshman, then transferred to Hope Academy because most of his friends went
there. "I knew the players growing up and in AAU. I felt comfortable with
them. I liked what was going on at Hope," he said.

"I like the teachers. They always help the students. They go out of
their way. They even have Saturday school for kids as long as you are
willing to put the work in. It is a small and close atmosphere."

Like his coach, Houston feels he can play in Division I. He has had
overtures from Kishwaukee College, Benedictine University, Valparaiso and
Cleveland State. His dream school always has been Texas because of Kevin
Durant.

Most of all, however, he believes Hope Academy deserves more respect.
"It bothers me a lot that we aren't ranked because we are in Class 1A. We
have competed in all of our games. We've beaten some big schools that are
rated. Tell (the evaluators) to see us play. We have high fliers like me and
Blaydes. We play basketball as it should be played," he said.

In his previous four years, Edwards has guided Hope Academy to 16-13,
20-7 and 20-11 records. Jalen James isn't the only outstanding player he has
lost. Willie Conner transferred to Crane. But Edwards reminds that James was
an outstanding point guard but not a dominant offensive player. He averaged
13 points, five assists and three rebounds.

"When James left, I told the other kids that they had to make up 13
points," Edwards said. "I asked them: 'What other school in Class 1A is
quick enough to press us even without Jalen here?' There isn't. We have a
lot of balance. Seven different kids have scored over 18 points in a game
this year.

"Alex Houston has done a great job of stepping up with his leadership.
He has matured and taken on James' role. He knows what is at stake. They
have a chip on their shoulder. They want to be ranked. They should be
ranked. They beat Marshall and Rich South, who have been ranked. They led
Huntley by 16 points in the second quarter.

"We have athletes who can play with Public League teams and the
discipline and teamwork to play with suburban teams. We have blended them
both together."

Pat Fitzgerald no fan of Big Ten's new nine-game schedule

Pat Fitzgerald no fan of Big Ten's new nine-game schedule

Big Ten teams will play nine conference games for the first team this season.

Pat Fitzgerald is not a fan.

“No. Not at all,” the Northwestern head football coach responded when asked Monday during Big Ten Media Days if he liked the move to the nine-game league slate. “It’s like being at home. I say ‘yes, ma’am’ at home. At work, whatever the schedule is, we’re going to go do.”

Fitzgerald revealed that Big Ten coaches had no say in the matter, the league switching from an eight-game schedule to a nine-game one, presumably with the intent of improving its teams’ chances at reaching the College Football Playoff.

Strength of schedule has been the name of the game during the Playoff’s first two seasons. The Big 12 was famously boxed out of the first final four two years back, with strength of schedule issues — including the lack of a conference championship game and Baylor’s laughable non-conference scheduling — being the main reason.

The Big Ten wanted to make sure one of its league champions isn’t punished for strength-of-schedule reasons, so forcing them to play another game against a Power Five opponent — in this case, an in-conference one — was the result.

Fitzgerald understands that, and he likes the fact that there will be more games between conference opponents. But he also sees a downside, a big one in his opinion.

“I’m a Big Ten football fan first. I’d rather see Big Ten teams play each other. I’m a fan of that. Any increase in Big Ten against Big Ten I think is positive,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously the opportunity from the network and national exposure and quality opponents, things of that nature, any time you’re in league is improved.

“But just by pure numbers, half of our league is going to have one more loss. So my concern is: That six-win team, does that become a five-win team and they get left out of a bowl game? Now I’m thinking about our (coaches’) livelihood professionally: No postseason play enough equals no more job.

“I get it. I get the big picture. I understand it. I liked eight a lot. We’ll go play nine, and we’ve got to find a way to win one more game.”

Fitzgerald even said that he would prefer a 10-game conference schedule to a nine-game one, given the imbalance in home and away games with an odd number of in-conference games.

“I may get yelled at for it, but I’d rather have it at 10, five (home games) and five (road games),” Fitzgerald said. “I think four and five, the side with five has a game advantage that not only has to do with wins total but then has to do potentially with bowl pecking order.”

But he also addressed the fact that a 10-game conference schedule would mean no more big non-conference showdowns. Games that has Northwestern has benefitted from in recent seasons — wins over Stanford and Duke in 2015, a win at Notre Dame in 2014 — would disappear off his team’s schedule and likely the schedules of other Big Ten teams, Fitzgerald argued.

“I would change my philosophy of what we’re doing (if we moved to 10 conference games),” Fitzgerald said. “The byproduct of that is your two non-league games are not going to be — for Northwestern — are probably not going to be Notre Dame and Stanford and Duke and Boston College and Syracuse. They wouldn’t be, quite frankly, if I got a vote on that. Because you’re already playing plus two (extra) Power Five games in league.”

Hector Rondon says Cubs had to take the chance and close Aroldis Chapman deal

Hector Rondon says Cubs had to take the chance and close Aroldis Chapman deal

Hector Rondon saw this coming and understood why the Cubs would target Aroldis Chapman, not letting the trade rumors dent his confidence, even if it would mean losing his job in the ninth inning.

Rondon had a big smile on his face when reporters swarmed his locker inside U.S. Cellular Field’s visiting clubhouse on Monday afternoon, wanting to get his immediate reaction after the Cubs finalized a blockbuster trade with the New York Yankees.

“Everything’s about the team,” Rondon said before a 5-4 walk-off loss to the White Sox. “I know the front office did a really good job to get Chapman. I think if you do have a chance to get that guy, you better take it."

[RELATED: How Joe Maddon plans to unleash Aroldis Chapman]

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein felt exactly the same way, weighing Chapman’s all-world talent and character concerns and giving up the organization’s best prospect (Class-A shortstop Gleyber Torres), a major-league-caliber pitcher (Adam Warren) and two minor-league outfielders (Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford) for a better chance to win the World Series this year.

“Hector’s done a phenomenal job for us and will continue to do so,” Epstein said. “The one thing I wanted to communicate to Hector was that at no point did we say we were worried about Hector Rondon (or) we need to go out and get a new closer.

“Instead, the question we asked ourselves was: How can we get even better so that we can put ourselves in a position to get to the playoffs and try to win three postseason series?

“We feel like this trade made us better because of the importance of having three or four shutdown relievers in the postseason.”

Success stories during the rebuilding years like Rondon – who gradually developed from a Rule 5 pick into a strong closer – allowed the Cubs to confidently make a game-changing trade like this. Rondon converted 18 of 22 save chances before Chapman’s arrival, posting a 1.95 ERA with 48 strikeouts and only five walks in 37 innings.

“I know I did a really good job with my role,” Rondon said. “I don’t care if we’re in the eighth or seventh (inning) – what only matters to me is to come into the game and do my job. It’s only about the win.”

White Sox: Chris Sale discusses jersey-cutting incident, suspension

White Sox: Chris Sale discusses jersey-cutting incident, suspension

One day after being handed a five-game suspension, White Sox ace Chris Sale spoke exclusively to MLB.com's Scott Merkin about the incident that led to the suspension, his desire to win with the White Sox and his future with the team.

Below are Sale's quotes from Merkin's story, which can be found here:

-- "I want to win a championship in Chicago. That's been my goal from Day 1. It has never changed. I only get more passionate about it because I know that it's not easy winning a championship. There's a lot that goes into it.

"Our main focus should be winning. I know that every single player comes in ready to win every day. I can't speak on anybody else. ... I don't think I would be traded. I don't know for sure. I don't know what they are thinking now or what's going on."

-- "Nothing else matters really. People don't talk about the guys who get paid the most. They talk about the guys with the rings and teams that won the rings. Our guys in this clubhouse deserve, in every single game, the best opportunity to go achieve that goal of winning a championship. That's why we are all here. Nothing else matters."

-- "When I saw that there was something in the way of that 100 percent winning mentality, I had an issue," Sale said. "I tried to bring it up and say, 'Hey listen, these are my thoughts and concerns,' and they got pushed away because of the business deal that was set in place. I'll never understand why we need to do something on the business side on the field that might impede us winning a game.

"[The '76 uniforms] are uncomfortable and unorthodox. I didn't want to go out there and not be at the top of my game in every aspect that I need to be in. Not only that, but I didn't want anything to alter my mechanics. ... There's a lot of different things that went into it. Looking bad had absolutely zero to do with it. Nothing."

-- "I get you have to have the business side, and if you want us to take pictures with these things, whatever. If it's going to affect the style of play or the outcome of the game, I just thought that would be a no-brainer."

And below is a list of CSN's coverage of the Sale incident:

Chris Sale's suspension 'does not move the needle' regarding his value to White Sox

Chris Sale suspended five days by White Sox

Chris Sale will start Thursday against Cubs