Sam: Keep an eye on Young's Brooks, Smith

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Sam: Keep an eye on Young's Brooks, Smith

Nate Brooks and Jordan Smith couldn't be happier. Even with their peers around the city -- including some at their school -- receiving much more attention for the colleges recruiting them and their status as basketball prospects, the two seniors at Whitney Young Magnet High School in the West Loop are content.

That's because the duo recognizes that even if they don't achieve stardom in their final prep basketball campaign, they're still in great shape. Brooks, a 6-foot-5 undersized power forward with tremendous athleticism, and Smith, a versatile, 6-foot-2 combo guard, could have waited out the recruiting process until the spring and with the benefit of an expected successful season for Young, perennially one of the top hoops programs in the city and state, accepted scholarships to programs on the lower rungs of Division I college basketball.

Instead, the pair made a decision to attend the University of Chicago, one of the nation's top academic schools, which plays on the Division III level and is hardly renowned a basketball powerhouse. They made a choice for their future.

"Really, I look at I have going for me right now and I had some Division I offers, but really because I'm such a good student, too," said Brooks on why he committed to attend the Hyde Park university. "I feel that University of Chicago gives me the best opportunity to take advantage of both my skills on the classroom and my skills on the court."

Chimed in Smith: "Pretty much education. It's a great opportunity. I couldn't pass it up."

Earlier this month at the United Center, Smith and Brooks joined their teammates -- including sophomore center Jahlil Okafor, one of the nation's top prospects in his class -- at a Nike-sponsored pep rally for some of the better high school teams in the city, including Simeon Career Academy, Derrick Rose's alma mater. However, even among the likes of Okafor and Simeon junior superstar Jabari Parker, arguably the best high school player in the country, the unheralded Whitney Young duo stood out.

Brooks boasts a 4.4 grade-point average (on a weighted scale, as Young, the alma mater of First Lady Michelle Obama, offers an array of Advanced Placement courses, giving students college credits before they even hit campus) and a 31 score on the ACT, while Brooks has a 4.3 GPA -- "Smith beat me on that," he joked -- and a gaudy 32 ACT. In other words, even if they couldn't play basketball, these are two kids who could attend their prestigious future university. But don't think they're merely two kids who happen to suit up for high-level squad like Whitney Young and can't actually play.

Although neither is a starter -- playing behind the likes of Okafor, junior big man Tommy Hamilton, who is ranked among the top 50 players in his class nationally, Paul White, a 6-foot-8 talent regarded as one of the top 50 sophomores in the country, and fellow seniors Jermaine Morgan (a post player and fall Colorado State signee) and UIC-bound sharpshooter Gabriel Snider, is nothing to be ashamed of -- neither is an unfamiliar name to observers of Chicago high school basketball. Watch a Whitney Young game and you'll see two valuable contributors who could be putting up gaudy statistics for an average high school team in the city, as well as recruits who were pursued by numerous college programs.

"I had Florida A&M, Northern Illinois, annual Division II title contender Northern Kentucky and we had some Ivy League looks, but they never really offered us, so this was the best opportunity," said Smith.

Added Brooks: "I had Southern Illinois and UIC, too."

So it's not as if college coaches weren't aware of their abilities, as they often excelled on the summer AAU circuit, where their individual skills could be evaluated outside of the context of Young's loaded team. (Full disclosure: I've personally seen both of them play in outside events and for their team since they were sophomores and upon seeing them at University of Chicago's exhibition game at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I simply assumed they were recruits invited by UIC, instead of potential "U of C" recruits.)

"Phenomenal kids. Two kids who are unbelievable hard workers in the classroom and who take that hard work and transition it to the court also," gushed a Young assistant coach. "When you look at where they came from and where they are now, they're classic stories of achievers and really, that's what the Whitney Young model is, achieving and wanting to be the best."

At the University of Chicago, Brooks and Smith have a chance to be the team's focal points, something they missed out on in high school. That played a part in their decisions, but more importantly, armed with a degree from the institution, the odds that they'll be successful in life are greater than even their most talented counterparts.

"Well, of course you've got people around you doing things and you kind of want to do what they're doing, too," said Brooks. "So, of course that was something, but I still feel like the University of Chicago's a great opportunity. I'm not really losing out on anything.

But before giving them too much credit as trend-setters, it should be noted that the move isn't entirely unprecedented. University of Chicago has a freshman point guard on its roster, Royce Muskeyvalley, who in addition to having an excellent name, was the teammate of co-Illinois Mr. Basketball Chasson Randle, currently a starting guard at Stanford (not exactly a shabby academic institution itself) while attending Rock Island High School, the 2011 state champions.

"When we visited down there, we stayed with Royce and he's a really cool guy. He was telling us it's a great opportunity," said Smith of his future teammate, who also received recruiting interest at the Division I level. "He was in the same position as us. We had DI looks, but the University of Chicago, you can't pass something like that up."

Do yourself a favor sometime over the next five years: Head over to Hyde Park (easy for me to say, living in the neighborhood) and check out a University of Chicago home game. Competing in one of the top conferences in Division III, the level of basketball might surprise you, especially with a boost from at least three Division I-caliber athletes. Better yet, with NBA basketball not set to start until Christmas, watch a Whitney Young game -- I'd recommend their Dec. 23 tilt against Simeon at UIC -- to see two young men who may not be headliners on the floor just yet, but are definitely a refreshing example of what athletics should be about.

Jonathan Toews' late goal sends Blackhawks to win over Canucks

Jonathan Toews' late goal sends Blackhawks to win over Canucks

Jonathan Toews recorded a four-point night, including the game-winning goal, and Corey Crawford recorded his 200th career victory as the Blackhawks beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-2 on Sunday night.

Crawford, who had struggled in recent starts, stopped 25 of 27 shots in this one. Brian Campbell garnered his 500th career point with his primary assist on Panik's goal. Toews recorded two assists, moving ahead of Jeremy Roenick for 13th among the Blackhawks' all-time assist leaders (330).

Marian Hossa, who recorded an empty-net goal late, garnered his 400th point in a Blackhawks uniform.

The Blackhawks had one of their best first periods on Sunday night, outshooting the Canucks 18-9 and taking that 2-0 lead. Richard Panik scored his 11th goal of the season from the slot off Campbell's feed and Patrick Kane scored his 15th goal of the season.

The third wasn't nearly as good as Troy Stecher scored a power-play goal and Bo Horvat scored 46 seconds later. But Toews scored off a carom off the backboards with 1:18 remaining to regain a 3-2 lead, and Hossa’s empty-net goal sealed it.

Bad blood fueled Bears-Vikings playoff bout profiled in 'Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon'

Bad blood fueled Bears-Vikings playoff bout profiled in 'Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon'

From the high ground of hindsight, what unfolded in the Metrodome that day in 1995 was actually quite a big deal. But not for reasons that you could have really understood at the time watching the Bears stun the Minnesota Vikings 35-18 in the wild card round of the 1994 playoffs.

It was not so much the game alone. It was the overall context of the time for the Bears, before and after.

Though the 1995 season would get off to a 6-2 start for the Bears before their near-historic collapse, the Minnesota game would prove to be the high-water mark for the coaching tenure of Dave Wannstedt. This was the postseason, and the Bears looked to be going where then-president Mike McCaskey envisioned when he made the play to beat the New York Giants in securing Wannstedt, who was unquestionably the hot coaching prospect coming out of the Dallas Super Bowl pantheon after the 1992 season.

To fully grasp the situation, you need to understand the undercurrent of venom that had developed between the Bears and Vikings. Bears-Packers might have been the glitzy rivalry, but what had grown between the Bears and Vikings was true hostility, with little of the respect that the Bears and Packers had managed. The Vikings carried grudges for Pro Bowl slights going back almost to the Bears' Super Bowl win. One Bears defensive lineman remarked that his most hated opponent was Minnesota right tackle Tim Irwin, adding, "He's a guy that, if I ran over him with a car, I'd back up over him to make sure I got him." Dwayne Rudd's backpedaling taunt after an interception came a couple years later, but you get the idea.

What's easily forgotten looking back through the mists of time was the epic decision made by Wannstedt to make a quarterback change, from a quarterback he wanted in free agency to one he knew well from their time together at the University of Miami. That was every bit the turning point of the season and the real reason the playoff trip and win ever happened.

The Bears had been annihilated in their first game against the Vikings in the 1994 season — 42-14 — and something was really, really wrong, which become glaringly more evident just a few weeks later, even though the Bears were reaching a 4-2 mark under quarterback Erik Kramer, the centerpiece of an aggressive offseason foray into free agency. But the Bears then lost — badly — to the Lions and Packers, with Kramer throwing three interceptions against Detroit and two against Green Bay, the latter in only 10 pass attempts.

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I talked privately to Kramer after the Green Bay game, specifically about why it was that he was playing his absolute worst against Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota, all teams with which he was intimately familiar. My thought: You know those defenses and where their people are going to be.

Kramer shook his head: "The 'other guys' I know. It's my own guys. I don't know where they're supposed to be."

It wasn't a comment on his receivers whatsoever. It was Kramer admitting bluntly that he was not getting the West Coast scheme of coordinator Ron Turner and its timing element.

Wannstedt knew it wasn't working and made the change to Steve Walsh, who'd been the Hurricanes' quarterback under Jimmy Johnson when Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator.

That was the tipping point, and Walsh and Wannstedt are among the principals of "Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon," airing on Monday at 8 p.m. on CSN.

Anyone with any time spent in or around the NFL knows that beating a team three times in a season is incredibly difficult. The Bears had been blown out in the first Minnesota game but had pushed the Vikings to overtime in the second and would have won had Kevin Butler not missed a 40-yard field goal try.

The playoff meeting was No. 3, and after the Vikings put up a field goal in the first quarter, the Bears scored with a Lewis Tillman touchdown in the second and just pulled steadily away from the winner of the only NFL division that produced four teams with winning records.

From there it would be another decade-plus — 2006 season — before the Bears would win a playoff game.