Proviso West adds eight more teams to holiday tournament

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Proviso West adds eight more teams to holiday tournament

Who's next? Who will be the last eight teams fill out the 32-team field for the 2012 Proviso West Holiday Tournament? Chicago Public League? Chicago Catholic League? Downstate? Out-of-state?

"We added eight suburban teams. Now we can focus on non-suburban schools...city, private, Downstate and out-of-state," said tournament director Joe Spagnolo after announcing eight new schools that marks the first expansion of the state's premier holiday basketball event since it went from eight to 16 teams in 1962, a year after it was founded by then athletic director Walt Sawosko.

"We never have had an out-of-state team, either from Indiana or Missouri or Iowa or Wisconsin. And we wouldn't invite a prep school. We like to have geographic balance. For example, in the Public League, we'd like to have two from the north, two from the south and two from the west. We have three now--Morgan Park, Von Steuben and Brooks. We like the first group of teams we have gotten."

Downers Grove South, Glenbard East, Maine South, Nazareth Academy, Oswego, St. Charles East, Stevenson and Wheaton Academy will participate in next December's inaugural six-day, 32-team event.

They will join this year's 16 teams--Proviso East, Proviso West, Benet, St. Patrick, New Trier, Brooks, Fenwick, Glenbrook North, Hillcrest, Hinsdale Central, Morgan Park, Morton, Homewood-Flossmoor, Rockford Auburn, St. Joseph and Von Steuben.

Downers Grove South and Maine South played at York last month. St. Charles East and Wheaton Academy played at Glenbard West, Oswego and Glenbard East played at Bloomington, Nazareth played at Hinsdale South and Stevenson played at Wheeling.

"We had to wait until other tournaments were over before officially making this announcement," Spagnolo said. "We didn't solicit teams. We talked in the summer that if we expanded and an opening came up, would you be interested? But we didn't want to take too many teams from any one tournament, not more than two."

Spagnolo said he received letters and inquiries from several schools over the summer. He knows some desirable schools are committed. Simeon coach Robert Smith has made it clear that his team will play at Pontiac "for as long as they will have us." De La Salle will play in Florida. And Blue Island Eisenhower is leaving Hinsdale South for Centralia.

He said the response to Proviso West's new 32-team, six-day format has been largely positive. "People like the the atmosphere and the idea of seeing different teams. We ran the idea before our workers because we made the final decision, the ones who have to take the brunt of the expansion, and we got few complaints. They are all basketball fans," Spagnolo said.

But who will he persuade to fill the last eight spots? Possibilities are Farragut, which was a great attraction in the mid-1990s when future NBA star Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields were there, St. Rita, Orr, North Chicago and Crane.

In fact, the addition of the GarnettFields team was a stroke of luck. In 1994, Collins dropped out and Proviso West was looking for a team and ended up getting Farragut at the last minute, before Garnett made his decision to transfer from South Carolina to Farragut for his senior year.

"Sometimes you get a diamond in the rough," Spagnolo said. "You don't want to move too quickly to fill the last few spots because something can open up or kids transfer at the last minute. Summer basketball has turned into free agency. There always are diamonds in the rough that come up in the summer."

He said he plans to announce a few more schools before the state tournament begins, then complete the 32-team field during the summer. He has gotten interest from out-of-state schools in the past so he isn't in a big hurry to fill the last few spots.

Meanwhile, Spagnolo has forged ahead to make preparations for the 2012 tournament. He already has filled all 183 officiating assignments for the six-day, three-officials-per-game, 61-game event.

"Traditionally, we are the first holiday tournament to announce our assignments (on Jan. 1), before anyone else," he said. "It gives other tournaments an opportunity to contract their officials."

And he is in the process of renting two wooden portable floors, portable scoreboards, NBA baskets and seating for 1,000 spectators for the 18 consolation games that will be played in the adjacent fieldhouse. All first-round and championship round games will be played in the main gym.

His biggest fear? Now that the tournament has been expanded from four to six days, there is more chance of being affected by bad weather. The tournament will start on Saturday, Dec. 22 with play continuing on Dec. 26-29 and the championship being conducted on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 31.

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

There’s no need to overreact when the injuries pile up and the Cubs lose 6-of-7 games in June, because Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are still possibly years away from their best seasons in an organization loaded with young talent.
 
Bryant and Russell have been such integral parts since debuting in April 2015 that it's hard to remember they're still around three-to-five years away from their prime. They're also in a perfect situation to keep developing, not having to worry about carrying the weight of the franchise on their shoulders, the way Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro used to feel those responsibilities.
 
The pressure is spread out among a young core, a battle-tested group of veterans and a manager that loves the spotlight. All of that can help explain why each player has avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump" that sometimes plagues second-year players in the big leagues.
 
"Last year, I thought both of them fought through some really different moments their first year up," Joe Maddon said. "And that's what it's really all about. The sophomore slump, for me, is where the league adjusts to you, and then you adjust back to the league. That's the definition."
 
Bryant currently has an OPS that’s 19 points higher than his 2015 numbers, while Russell's OPS is 23 points higher entering play Monday, and both second-year players have seen major improvement in important areas.
 
Bryant led the league with 199 strikeouts last season, but has seen his strikeout percentage drop from 30.6 percent to 23 percent this season. He's on track for about 162 strikeouts in 2016.
 
Russell, meanwhile, has experienced just an incremental decrease in strikeout percentage (from 28.5 to 27.2 percent), but he has seen a nice jump in walk rate (from 8 percent in 2015 to 11.2 percent this season). Despite drawing only one free pass in his last eight games, Russell is on track for 68 walks, which would've ranked 12th in the National League overall last season and first among shortstops. 
 
"The guys that don't adjust back quickly enough really have an extended period of negative moments," Maddon said. "I think they learned a lot last year. They made a lot of adjustments. Both of them made swing adjustments last year. And that, I think, is permitting their success this year.
 
"Addison's propensity to get big hits is unbelievable, and now he's using the whole field. He's not chasing balls out of the strike zone. Those are the adjustments he had to learn how to do last year when he was going badly, and now he's doing them.
 
"They're both going to hit a bad stretch, there's no question. But I think they're better able to handle that based on their experience from last year."
 
Bryant has settled in as one of the premier offensive threats in the game by following up his 2015 campaign (26 homers, 99 RBI) with a pace for 39 homers and 112 RBI.
 
In spring training, he said he considered 2016 an extension of his rookie season, just with a three-month break off in between. But as the regular season hit, he took that sort of thinking to another gear.
 
"I feel a lot more focused this whole year," Bryant said. "I don't know why. I don't know if it's a whole other level or just extra determination or the fact that I know we have a good team and we really want to win.
 
"I just feel really good up there. I feel like I'm having some quality at-bats. I'm doing all I can to help. I'm in a good spot."
 
Russell, meanwhile, has developed a reputation as a clutch hitter, posting a .429 average, 1.237 OPS and 23 RBI in 54 plate appearances in high-leverage situations. 
 
He's taken his game to another level at the biggest moments, not something often said about a 22-year-old with only 210 big-league games under his belt.
 
"Just a slow heart beat," Maddon said. "If you talk to the kid any time, he's always 'suavecito.' There's nothing really hurried about him. He's just got a great way about him.
 
"Again, he's going to keep getting better. Everybody's liking it when he's doing good. I'm here to tell you: He's going to get better."
 
However, Russell also just went through one of those bad stretches at the end of May/beginning of June where he hit .161 with a .569 OPS through 18 games, striking out 23 times. He felt he had gotten too passive during that span.
 
When the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Cubs at Wrigley Field last week, Russell stared at strike three right down the middle during his first trip to the plate. He instantly made a mental adjustment to be more aggressive and responded with three straight hits to close out that first game.
 
"I've been feeling good," he said. "I've been seeing the ball well. Just taking an opportunity of swinging the bat at the right moment. I felt like early on in that game, watching two balls go by that I would normally do some damage with, I kind of took it hard and realized maybe I'm letting these pitches go too frequently. 
 
"I still feel more comfortable [overall this season]. It's just a daily grind, man. You're going to go through these funks. You're going to hit balls day-to-day that don't tend to fall. You normally don't want to change anything, so my approach is just to stay the same, and I want to take my walks as well."
 
The Cubs understand this is a long season filled with adversity, injuries and losing streaks. But if Bryant and Russell cannot be considered sophomores anymore, would their maturity and advanced approaches put them at a junior level?
 
"I think so. Favorite year in high school, by far," Maddon said. "You're totally free your junior year. SATs don't matter. PSATs are OK. I got my license, among other things. It was a really good time."

Cubs ace Jake Arrieta nominated for two ESPY Awards

Cubs ace Jake Arrieta nominated for two ESPY Awards

Jake Arrieta had a 2015 season for the ages, and was rewarded for it by winning the National League Cy Young Award, becoming the fifth player in Cubs history to accomplish that feat.

He's also been nominated for a pair of ESPY awards because of it: best breakthrough athlete and best MLB player.

After struggling to find his groove in four seasons with the Baltimore Orioles (20-25, 5.46 ERA), Arrieta turned it around in Chicago, particularly in 2015 when he erupted for a 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA. 

The Cubs ace followed that up in 2016 by jumping out to a 9-0 start, and went nearly a calendar year without a loss.

He's also one of 26 pitchers in MLB history to have thrown more than one no-hitter, and did so 11 starts apart from each other.

The voting ends at 7 p.m. CT on July 13, when the ESPY Awards will take place. Cast your vote here.

Report: Pau Gasol tells Bulls he has declined option, becoming a free agent

Report: Pau Gasol tells Bulls he has declined option, becoming a free agent

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but Pau Gasol is hitting the market.

Gasol told the Bulls that he has declined his option for the 2016-17 season and will become a free agent, according to ESPN's Marc Stein.

The 35-year-old signed a three-year, $22.3 million deal with the Bulls in the summer of 2014.

In two seasons with the Bulls, he averaged 17.6 points per game and 11.4 rebounds and made an All-Star appearance.