Sandifer has the right number for Neuqua Valley

952959.png

Sandifer has the right number for Neuqua Valley

At Neuqua Valley, it's all about the numbers. Jersey numbers, that is. Jabari Sandifer, the Wildcats' 6-foot senior point guard, has been wearing No. 24 since he was a freshman. That's because all Neuqua Valley point guards wear the same jersey.

But that isn't all. According to tradition, each position player wears the same number, year after year after year. The big man (6-foot-4 senior Pat Kenny) wears No. 55. The shooter (6-foot-5 sophomore Connor Raridon) wears No. 32. And the hustle player (6-foot-2 senior Trevor Davis) wears No. 44.

"Nobody ever asked why," Sandifer said. "It's just the way it is."

There is, however, a logical reason why Neuqua Valley is 10-0 and leading the Upstate Eight Conference's Valley Division with a 6-0 record after sweeping Bartlett and South Elgin last week.

"Our man-to-man defense helps us win games," Sandifer said. "We are aggressive, we pick up point guards full-court and press them, we shut down the opponent's best player and take away their shooters."

In last Thursday's 63-44 victory over Bartlett, Sandifer scored 18 points and 6-foot-5 junior Elijah Robertson contributed a career-high 13 points off the bench. Sandifer converted three three-point shots in the last three minutes to break it open.

In last Saturday's 74-32 rout of South Elgin, Sandifer scored 13 points, Kenny 10.

Still, the Wildcats have to get better to satisfy coach Todd Sutton, who is in his 15th season at the Naperville school. His teams won 22 or more games 10 times in a span of 12 years. "We aren't that good. We are above average. I just looked at our schedule and there is a stretch where we could go 1-7. I'm surprised to be 10-0," he said.

"We have played a decent schedule but we have had a lot of injuries and suspensions and things off the court. We have been a good defensive team so far. We have shut people down. Everyone has stepped up when called upon. But our wings need to shoot better. We need to get points in the paint. Some nights we do and some nights we don't."

But Neuqua Valley is off to its best start since 2009, when Sutton's best team was 31-2 and lost to Dundee-Crown in the supersectional. They returned three starters from last year's 18-12 squad that lost to Plainfield East by two in the sectional.

As they prepare for their Dec. 26 assignment against Geneva in the opening round of the East Aurora Holiday Tournament, Sandifer is averaging 13 points and four assists, Kenny is averaging 13 points and five rebounds, Raridon is averaging six points, Davis three.

"The coach knows we are a pretty good team. We wouldn't be 10-0 if we weren't pretty good," Sandifer said. "But that is the way the coach motivates us. He knows we are a good team but we still have a lot to improve on. We aren't where we need to be.

"Bartlett is a good team and we shut them down defensively. We shut down Lance Whitaker, their best player. So how good are we? We need to get better in small areas, mainly on offense. If Pat (Kenny) and I are off, we have to have other people contribute. We need more consistency on offense."

The offensive struggles and defensive tenacity were never more evident than in an earlier victory over Matea Valley. Neuqua Valley was limited to 38 points but won 38-36.

"This is my team," said Sandifer, who signed with Western Illinois last month. "I was an eighth grader when they were 31-2. That team had a lot more size than we do. But we have potential to be a pretty good team. We can go Downstate if we continue to improve taking care of the ball on offense, cut down on our turnovers and get better on free throws.

"I'm definitely a coach on the floor. I get on my teammates a lot if they aren't doing something right. I talk a lot on the floor, especially when they don't execute right. I want them to do well and win the game. It's nothing personal."

Western Illinois coach Jim Molinari, a former guard himself, liked what he saw when he scouted Sandifer. He made Sandifer a priority in the recruiting process, a pass-first point guard with a knack for getting the ball in position for his teammates to score.

"I was their first offer, a priority for them. It felt good to be a priority," Sandifer said. "I loved the campus and the coaching staff and the players. They offered me in July after seeing him at the Riverside-Brookfield tournament. I knew from the start that I wanted to go there."

But first there is somewhere else that Sandifer wants to go--Peoria.

"It's important to get Downstate. That's our No. 1 goal. We have never been close to going Downstate," he said. "If we keep playing hard, we can get there. I hope my teammates want it just as badly as I do."

Reports: Joakim Noah likely to join Derrick Rose, sign with Knicks

Reports: Joakim Noah likely to join Derrick Rose, sign with Knicks

Multiple reports indicated that former Bulls center Joakim Noah will join Derrick Rose and sign with the New York Knicks.

Both the Washington Post and ESPN report that Noah is very likely to sign in New York, his hometown. ESPN's Marc Stein went so far as to say that other teams have already accepted that Noah is all but a done deal to sign with the Knicks.

And according to Tim Bontemps from the Washington Post, Noah's deal with the Knicks will have "a starting salary somewhere in the $18 million per year range," a large but not insane number considering the league's salary cap explosion this summer.

The Vertical's Shams Charania added that Noah will meet with Phil Jackson and the Knicks when free agency begins Friday night.

Noah would fill a void at center left by the Knicks' trade for Rose, which shipped center Robin Lopez back to Chicago. Noah averaged 4.3 points and 8.8 rebounds in 29 games last season before season-ending shoulder surgery in January. Noah spent the first nine seasons of his NBA career with the Bulls and was named Defensive Player of the Year just three short years ago.

But he fell out of grace with Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg, who opted to bring Noah off the bench for the first time in his career. It was largely assumed that both Noah and Pau Gasol would not return to a Bulls team that missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.

Teams can start negotiating with free agents on July 1, and can sign free agents beginning July 6.

James Shields earns first victory as White Sox top Twins

James Shields earns first victory as White Sox top Twins

James Shields received his first standing ovation of the season at U.S. Cellular Field as he headed to the dugout on Wednesday night.

The White Sox starter settled in after another shaky start and his offense kicked it into high gear in a 9-6 victory over the Minnesota Twins in front of 18,571. Shields limited the Twins to a leadoff solo homer in the first inning and pitched into the seventh to earn his first win for the White Sox.

Brett Lawrie, Tyler Saladino and Todd Frazier all homered for the White Sox, who had to pitch themselves out of trouble in a wild ninth to win for the sixth time in nine games. Nate Jones earned a one-out save after Matt Purke and Dan Jennings combined to allow five runs. Purke was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte after the game. A corresponding move will be announced on Thursday morning.

“(Shields) got back into a rhythm,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “I think this is the best that he looked as far as just feeling comfortable. He was getting ahead. He started really using his fastball and he located it. I think after that, there was some offspeed stuff and he got guys swinging through it. This was a nice little thing to see. I'm sure it's a breath of fresh air for him.”

For a second it looked as if another stinker was in the cards.

Two pitches into the contest, Shields trailed by a run when Eduardo Nunez ripped an 0-1 changeup for a solo homer.

Shields, who had a 21.81 ERA in his first three starts with the White Sox, two of which resulted in him being booed off the mound at home, found even more trouble. He recorded a pair of outs, but walked Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe singled him to third. But similar to his last start in Boston, Shields took another big step forward and got out of trouble.

Two innings later, Shields made his biggest pitch of the night when he induced a double play off Joe Mauer’s bat after allowing consecutive singles to start the third. Dozier’s bunt attempt resulted in a comebacker and Shields escaped unharmed.

Adam Eaton assisted Shields in a big way in the fifth inning when he easily threw out Kurt Suzuki at home. Suzuki, who started the play on first, was forced home as Nunez nearly caught him speeding into third after hitting a liner off the right-field fence.

But Shields stranded Nunez in scoring position as well as another runner in the sixth. He recorded two more outs before giving way after a Byron Buxton double.

“We know what type of pitcher he is and he went out and did what he’s supposed to do,” Eaton said. “I think the proof is in the pudding. He goes out and throws well. We hit and we are going to be pretty good.”

As he exited, Shields was showered with applause from the appreciative crowd.

He allowed a run and eight hits in 6 2/3 innings, striking out five and walking one. Shields threw strikes on 61 of 93 pitches to earn his first victory since May 12th.

“It feels good,” Shields said. “It’s something to build off of.

“It was a tough stretch. It’s nice to get off the schneid there and get a win, but I don’t really focus on that kind of stuff. I’ve been around this game for a long time. My main focus is to win games for this team right now.”

One night after they couldn’t provide for Jose Quintana, the White Sox offense went overboard for Shields. Lawrie’s opposite-field solo homer with two outs in the second inning off Ricky Nolasco tied the game at 1. J.B. Shuck then singled, stole second and scored on an RBI single by Avisail Garcia.

The White Sox never looked back as Saladino’s solo shot in the fifth made it a 3-1 game.

Frazier started a five-run sixth inning with a solo homer -- the team’s 13th consecutive solo homer. Saladino singled in a run with two outs to chase Nolasco and make it 5-1. Tim Anderson’s two-run single made it a blowout and Eaton singled him in to make it 8-1. Shuck added a sac fly in the seventh for the White Sox, who went 5-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

“It was nice,” Frazier said. “It was a little different. (Shields) got out there not worrying about anything. Gave up the homer in the first batter. Nothing really fazed him after that. He has to understand, he’s going to give up runs here and there, and just relax from whatever happens from there. He pitched an exceptional game today.”

Denzel Valentine: Bulls' versatility will 'make us so dangerous'

Denzel Valentine: Bulls' versatility will 'make us so dangerous'

The Bulls are undergoing a "retooling" in their backcourt after dealing Derrick Rose to the Knicks, drafting Denzel Valentine and attempting to re-sign E'Twaun Moore in free agency.

That, combined with Jimmy Butler, the addition of Jerian Grant and an already versatile frontcourt will give Fred Hoiberg plenty of options that Valentine believes will make the Bulls "dangerous" in 2016-17.

"I think that's going to make us so dangerous this year, is we are versatile with our guards," He said on Wednesday night's White Sox broadcast. "And in those three positions I feel like we're going to be able to guard and do a lot of things offensively and throw a lot at you when we're coming down on offense. And the defensive end, too.

"I think we're going to have a really good team this year with all that we have, and I'm glad to be part of the building year, or whatever you want to call it."

On paper the Bulls will have more versatility than a year ago. Valentine is capable of playing either wing position and can handle the ball, though he doesn't project as a point guard. Butler can play and defend four positions, and Grant is capable of playing either guard spot. Bringing back E'Twaun Moore would benefit that versatility greatly, as he's capable of playing on or off the ball.

In the frontcourt, the Bulls will need to replace Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, neither of whom provided much versatility. Robin Lopez is entrenched at center, which will give the Bulls' stretch forwards Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis more room to roam the perimeter.

Wherever Valentine plays, and however Hoiberg uses him in Year 1, the Michigan State rookie said he's ready to do what's asked of him from a franchise known for winning.

"My job is to just come in, do what I can do best and just work on my game and try to lead as best as I can," he said on SportsTalk Live (in the video above). "I'm not coming in to step on anybody's toes but I'm going to do what I can to lead and be a good teammate and try to win some games."