Second time's the charm for Ervin

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Second time's the charm for Ervin

In his second tour of duty at his alma mater, Tim Ervin has turned Providence-St. Mel into an Elite Eight qualifier. The Knights will carry a 23-7 record into Tuesday night's game against Class 2A favorite Seton Academy in the supersectional at Joliet Central.

This has been an eye-opening, record-setting season for Providence-St. Mel. The Knights have won three regionals in a row but this marks their first trip to the Elite Eight since 2002. It has been a long time since Tom Shields coached St. Mel to three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight and the state championship in 1985.

"We were the No. 1 seed in our regional but I don't think people thought we were the best team," Ervin said.

"These kids don't relate to the 1980s but they know about it. They see the trophies in the trophy case. Those things have a short shelf life. But these kids know the importance of tradition. They want to restore the feeling of the 1980s in the school."

Ervin, a St. Mel graduate of 1991, is in his third year as head coach--for the second time. He walked on at Purdue, played for Gene Keady, then assisted coach Billy Garrett at St. Mel in the late 1990s. He was head coach for three years but was fired after going 0-25.

"I was out of coaching for six years," Ervin said. "But I remained involved with the school. When coach Todd Kelly left to become an assistant at North Central College in 2009, they asked me to come back. I had no bitterness over being fired. I understood. It all worked out."

Providence-St. Mel hasn't lost since Jan. 21. Last Friday, the Knights defeated Tilden 65-52 for the sectional title. Tevin King, a 6'1" sophomore, scored 21 points and 6'1" junior Khalil Small had 15.

They have been battle-tested against such strong opponents as Marshall, Hope Academy, Corliss, Dunbar, Foreman and Lake Forest Academy. In the regional semifinal, they trailed Raby by 20 in the second quarter and rallied to win by four in overtime.

"That taught us not to take any team lightly and if we trust and believe in system, it will work out," Ervin said. "It showed me that they had grown up and they had become mature. They fought through adversity. Small got 29 points and took charge."

Ervin welcomed only one returning senior from last year's 18-10 team that lost to Aurora Christian in the sectional. But he felt this team had a chance to reach this point because it played good man-to-man defense and played hard all the time.

"What I am surprised about is how well they are playing," he admitted. "They bought into our system early, playing hard and playing defense, being a family. They are excited about how much progress we have made."

The starters are King (13.5 ppg), Small (16 ppg), 5'11" junior guard Teadric Anderson (7 ppg), 6'1" junior Donald Morgan (8 ppg) and 6'2" senior Vesper Young. Anthony Mosley (8 ppg), a 5'11" freshman, and 6'2" sophomore Bernard Lilly (4 ppg) come off the bench.

"King is a winner. He has a great personality and the other kids like him and respect him," said Ervin of the youngster who was rated as one of the best eighth grade players in the city coming out of grammar school. "He and Anderson and Small bonded well together last year. They are our team leaders. We're successful because the kids play well for each other."

Next? Cubs sweep Pirates out of PNC Park

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Next? Cubs sweep Pirates out of PNC Park

PITTSBURGH – Next? The Cubs just dominated a Pittsburgh Pirates team that’s won 280 games and made three playoff appearances across the last three seasons, showing they’re so much more than a good-looking team on paper and baseball’s goofiest clubhouse.

Joe Maddon’s “Minimalist Zany” road trip ended with Wednesday afternoon’s 6-2 win at PNC Park, the Cubs finishing off the three-game sweep before changing into the leopard pants, plaid coats and Stars and Stripes outfits required for the flight back home to Chicago and a showdown against the Washington Nationals.

The Cubs spent close to $290 million on free agents after beating the Pirates in last year’s National League wild-card game, budgeting for the natural improvement from their young players and the experience gained during that playoff run.

The Cubs outscored Pittsburgh 20-5 during what was supposed to be three tension-filled games, bumping their run differential to plus-93 for the season. Did the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals do enough to keep up in the Central? Is this really the game’s toughest division? Still see you in October?

The Cubs are getting contributions from all over their roster. Ben Zobrist – who took over right field while Jason Heyward rested his sore right wrist – blasted a three-run homer off Juan Nicasio in the third inning. Javier Baez went 3-for-5 with two RBI and put on a defensive clinic during this series. If not for Jake Arrieta’s historic run and Cy Young Award encore performance, more people would be talking about Jon Lester’s fast start, improving to 3-1 with a 1.58 ERA after 5.2 scoreless innings. 

At 20-6, the Cubs have the best record in baseball, a six-game lead over the Pirates in the division and a four-game series against the Nationals that begins Thursday night at Wrigley Field. Maybe that will create some buzz.

It means the return of Dusty Baker – no manager has pushed the Cubs farther or closer to the World Series since 1945 – and side-by-side comparisons of Boras Corp. clients Max Scherzer ($210 million guaranteed) and Arrieta (the meter is still running).   

Plus the friendly rivalry between Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant, the league’s reigning MVP and Rookie of the Year who grew up together in Las Vegas playing with and against each other.

And Jonathan Papelbon, the eccentric closer the Cubs tried to trade for last summer before the Nationals flexed their financial muscle (only to watch it sabotage their clubhouse without the buffer zone of ex-Boston Red Sox players the Cubs could have created).

“It’s just so much fun to play good teams,” Maddon said. “You get them on the field and then you look out there from the dugout: How do we stack up? What does this thing feel like? You look on TV, you read different things, but you got to actually see it.”

The rest of the baseball world is just beginning to see what this sleeping-giant franchise could become. 

Spartans land UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter

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Spartans land UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter

Tom Izzo got some help for his diminished front court Wednesday.

UNLV graduate transfer Ben Carter announced on Twitter that he will be using his final season of NCAA eligibility at Michigan State.

Carter, a 6-foot-9 forward who will be immediately eligible, played his first two seasons of college basketball at Oregon before transferring to UNLV. He sat out the 2014-15 season before averaging 8.6 points and 6.0 rebounds in 22 games for the Runnin' Rebels last season. He made seven starts and averaged 24 minutes a game before a January ACL tear ended his season.

Carter wrote an open letter published on RunRebs.com explaining his decision to transfer away from UNLV, citing the program's recent coaching change, replacing former head coach Dave Rice with Marvin Menzies.

From Carter's letter:

"I’ve dedicated my whole life to being a basketball player, and I only get one more season of college basketball to get it right. I needed a program that could give me an opportunity to achieve my dreams."

...

"When I really thought about it, I realized how I want my college career to end. I want it to end on a ladder. I want to stand on a ladder, cut down a piece of a net and look into the stands and see my father. I want to share that moment with him."

...

"This is not an easy decision, but I truly believe Michigan State is the right decision for me. During this process, I’ve gotten to know and respect Tom Izzo, and playing for one of the most legendary coaches in college basketball history will be one of the greatest experiences of my life. And with everything I’ve been through in my career, I couldn’t pass up the chance to play for a team with real national championship hopes."

Izzo and the Spartans could certainly use some help in the front court after the graduation of Matt Costello, who was an All-Big Ten selection last season, and Deyonta Davis, who is off to the NBA. While Izzo is welcoming in an eye-popping recruiting class, only one of the highly ranked foursome — 6-foot-9 Nick Ward — is a big man.

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon digs Bryce Harper’s style

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Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon digs Bryce Harper’s style

PITTSBURGH – Joe Maddon and Bryce Harper are on the same side of baseball’s culture war, even as the Cubs and Washington Nationals appear to be on a collision course toward October.   

The National League’s two best teams so far will face off on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, where Harper will be a focus throughout a four-game series overflowing with storylines.

That’s how Harper wants it, and that’s what Major League Baseball needs now, larger-than-life personalities who aren’t afraid to show some emotions and say what they actually think and try to wake up such a “tired sport.”

Harper’s line to ESPN The Magazine went viral in spring training, and it echoes when Maddon brainstorms another wacky themed road trip, trolls the St. Louis Cardinals and invites zoo animals to Wrigleyville.

So if Harper blasts a home run onto Sheffield Avenue and flips his bat in celebration, Maddon won’t have an issue with the league’s reigning MVP. The smirking Cubs manager knows it when he sees it. 

“It depends on who’s doing the bat-flipping,” Maddon said. “If you’ve played for like two weeks and you’re flipping bats, that’s how you’re going to get yourself hurt.”

Maddon rarely criticizes his own players in front of the media, but he called it a “punk move” last year when Junior Lake almost started a bench-clearing brawl at Marlins Park, flipping his bat, admiring his shot from home plate and shushing Miami’s dugout while rounding third base.   

“I just think when you’re brand new – just understand your place a little bit,” Maddon said. “That’s why I got on Junior that time. There are a lot of things that don’t bother me, (but) that was so obvious to me. He did it right in front of our dugout and he had not been playing that much. That’s why it bummed me out.

“But for the most part, I have no problem with most anything. As long as the guy plays hard, works hard, is sincere about his effort, I’m OK.”

By all accounts, that’s Harper, who’s still only 23 years old and gets similarity scores comparable to these players on his Baseball-Reference page: Frank Robinson; Mickey Mantle; Miguel Cabrera; Mike Trout; Hank Aaron; and Ken Griffey Jr.

“When he first came up, I remember watching him and he stole home on a double steal,” Maddon said. “He just ran the bases really well and hard – that was my first impression of him. I know he can hit. I know he’s got power. I know he’s got all that stuff. But I just liked the way he played.

“I have no problem with a guy enjoying playing the game. He’s got a lot of respect for the game and his place in the game. But any time a guy plays it hard, you always appreciate that. And that’s what I see with him.”

Maddon flashed back to the way Dennis Eckersley used to pump his fist after getting a big out – and his own personal history as a baby boomer raised in the 1960s and 1970s and listening to loud music and partying at his old Lafayette College fraternity house.

That’s what makes Maddon able to relate to Harper’s individual expressions, even though “Baseball’s Chosen One” was born in 1992.

“That’s the thing that we forget,” Maddon said. “That’s what’s so disappointing sometimes, growing up in the era that I did, and then you see people that are quote-unquote ‘in charge,’ and they forgot what it was like when we were a bunch of…goofballs, for lack of a better term.

“You’d like to believe that there’s a certain evolution of thinking as it moves forward. The long hair back in the day, the high stirrups, the tight uniforms, everybody has their own little shtick. So what? So what? It’s just a tendency to forget what it was like when we were growing up sometimes. I promise you I’ve not forgotten.”