St. Francis is big surprise in Class 3A

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St. Francis is big surprise in Class 3A

In his first year as head coach at Wheaton St. Francis, Bob Ward thought he had the best of all worlds. After teaching history for 35 years and coaching at Round Lake, Spring Valley, Lake Zurich and Wheaton North, he was eager to accept a coaching-only assignment for the first time.

"I retired from teaching in June but I still wanted to coach in some capacity," Ward said. "I took this job in May. It has been a revelation. I always dreamed of just coaching, not lecturing in history class. But I wasn't sure what I was walking into."

Wheaton St. Francis has a reputation as a football school. Coach Greg Purnell produced a state champion in 2008. Mike Harper had a successful basketball program for 23 years, winning five regional titles and finishing fourth in Class A in 1989. But that was the school's only sectional winner.

"They always had a good program under Mike Harper," Ward said. "But in all the scouting I did, I never saw St. Francis. We didn't play them. I only knew of one kid, Ryan Coyle, a three-year player who started last year."

But Ward wasn't sure if Coyle would be able to play this season. The 6-foot-6 senior was hampered with a lower back problem last summer. In late July, after being cleared to play, he was undercut in an AAU game and suffered a broken collarbone and a concussion.

"He was out indefinitely," Ward said. "What we heard when it first happened was that he would miss the entire year of basketball. Then he gradually got better. He was struggling in the fall when school began. But then he came around."

On Friday night, in what Ward described as "my biggest win in coaching," Coyle scored 13 points, including a game-winning three-pointer with just over a minute to play as Wheaton St. Francis stunned top-seeded Orr 39-36 for the Class 3A regional championship at Wheaton Academy.

"We have tough kids but I had followed Orr during the year knowing that they would be in our sectional," Ward said. "I saw them on Tuesday and marveled how difficult they would be to guard. They were the best team we have played all year.

"But we told our kids that we have played De La Salle, Bogan and St. Viator, all highly rated Class 4A teams. In those games, we came back and weren't intimidated."

Coyle wasn't the only starter who was missing in action during the summer. Nick Donati, a 6-foot senior point guard who played quarterback on the football team, was sidelined with a bum shoulder.

"I didn't see them in the summer," Ward said. "To their credit, they never missed a day of camp or a summer game. I had a good idea of the character of these guys who would be our leaders.

"At camp in late May, I noticed these kids took coaching pretty well and they defended well in man-to-man defense. Honestly, I wasn't optimistic or pessimistic. I didn't know how good they would be. But we won the Batavia tournament against Class 4A teams to start the year. That boded well for us. They jelled as the season went along."

Ward was further encouraged by his team's 2-2 showing at the York Holiday Tournament. We played a lot of Class 4A teams and that has helped us."

So Wheaton St. Francis will carry a 19-7 record into Tuesday night's sectional against Crane at Glenbard South.

Ward will start Coyle (16 PPG, 8 RPG), Donati (8 PPG, 4 assists, 5 RPG), 6-foot-3 senior Brian Spahn (9 PPG), 6-foot-7 senior Zach Roswold (6 PPG, 4 RPG) and Andrew Kimball (6 PPG), who missed the last two games with illness but scored 18 and 19 points in two earlier games. Kimball is due to return for Tuesday's game.

Tim Zettinger, a 6-foot-2 junior, and Jason Pisarski, a 6-foot-3 junior, provide spark off the bench.

"To keep winning, we must prepare well and maintain our confidence, as we were for Orr," Ward said. "Our kids aren't overly loose or cocky. They are playing their best basketball of the season right now."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bulls build around All-Star Jimmy Butler?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bulls build around All-Star Jimmy Butler?

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune) and Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel. Jimmy Butler is an All-Star starter. Is he a superstar now meaning the Bulls have to build around him? The guys pose that question to Bulls great Horace Grant.

The Raiders want to move to Las Vegas. If your NFL team moved, should you keep rooting for them? Plus should the Cubs help Sammy Sosa out as his Hall of Fame chances get smaller?

Check out the SportsTalk Live Podcast below.

NBA Buzz: Chris Paul hurt, the Bad Boy Warriors and some bummer draft news for the Bulls

NBA Buzz: Chris Paul hurt, the Bad Boy Warriors and some bummer draft news for the Bulls

It's become the newest trend in the NBA. Players 6-foot-10 and taller wandering out to the 3-point line to launch jump shots (or set shots), hoping to draw their defenders out of the paint.

Yes, we know the NBA has become a 3-point shooting league thanks to the long-range talents of players like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, J.J. Redick and Damian Lillard. Advanced analytics have shown coaches and front-office executives the value of that extra point from beyond the arc, and every team is working to develop 3-point shooting range with just about all the players on their rosters, including 7-foot centers.

Robin Lopez has been watching his twin brother Brook join the 3-point craze. Brook had only launched 31 shots from 3-point range in his previous eight NBA seasons, but this season he's put up 191 3s heading into play on Thursday and made 66 for a more than respectable 34.6-percent success rate.

Naturally, Robin says he can do anything his twin brother can do and told reporters it's only a matter of time before he gets the green light to shoot the 3 ball.

"It's something I've been working on this season. I don't know if it's game-ready yet, maybe that's a little more of a confidence issue. Coach Pete (Myers) has me shooting corner 3s before games. The way the NBA is going, I don't see why not. If Brook can do it, I can definitely do it."

Taj Gibson knocked down a corner 3 against the Wizards last week and said the coaching staff is encouraging him to shoot more of them in games. Gibson spent time after practice on Thursday working on his long-range shooting with assistant coach Mike Wilhelm, then told reporters, "I try to take two a game, but when you get out there, you don't really realize how far it is until you're lined up and the crowd is yelling 'shoot it, shoot it.' Your teammates are behind you. It's fun. I hopefully look forward to finally make some in the future."

Gibson added his 3-point shooting has already become a big topic of conversation around the team.

"My teammates are making little jokes about what I'm going to do when I make it. You gotta make some kind of signal or something. But one day at a time."

In case you haven't noticed, some of the best young big men in the game like Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins have made the 3-point shot a staple in their offensive arsenals. And Robin Lopez says there's no reason why centers shouldn't expand their games behind traditional low post battles.

"I think it's wonderful for the game. I think there's a real premium on skill at all positions on the court. I think that's really going to continue. You're going to have more versatile big men."

Fred Hoiberg joked with reporters he might have to call a play to get Robin a 3-point try down the line, but he understands the value of having power forwards and centers who can shoot from long range.

"It's obviously a huge part of today's game. The 3-point shot, having multiple player that can stretch the floor. Those teams are really hard to guard."

So, with the Bulls currently ranking dead last in the NBA in 3-point shooting at just under 32 percent, Hoiberg is searching for more options, even among the tallest players on his roster.

Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.

Paul's injury big trouble for Clippers

Bad news for the L.A. Clippers, who will have to get along for the next six to eight weeks without floor leader Chris Paul, who tore a ligament in his left thumb defending Russell Westbrook on Monday. Just the latest in a series of untimely injuries for Doc Rivers' team.

The good news? Paul will be healed in time for the playoffs, and the Clippers do have a deep group of veteran guards, including the aforementioned Redick, Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers. But with Blake Griffin already on the sidelines recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, the Clippers could have a tough time holding off Utah, Memphis and Oklahoma City in the race for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.

The larger question involves the direction of the franchise going forward. Under terms of the new CBA, Paul is eligible to sign a five-year contract this summer in excess of $200 million, while Griffin is also set to sign a new max deal. Will the Clippers tie up their payroll for years to come around the talented but oft-injured duo? Or are they better off cutting ties with at least one of their All Stars to keep some degree of cap flexibility going forward?

Since Rivers is the coach and president of basketball operations, that decision will largely be his to make in consultation with deep-pocketed owner Steve Ballmer.

Melo wants to stay in New York?

Speaking of franchise direction, what's next for the floundering Knicks, who've sunk to 11th place in a weak Eastern Conference?

Carmelo Anthony met with team president Phil Jackson earlier this week to clear the air about an article written by Jackson confidante Charley Rosen that suggested Anthony has perhaps outlived his usefulness in New York and that the Knicks should consider trading him. Anthony reaffirmed to Jackson he wants to stay and win in New York and that he has no intention to waive his no-trade clause.

So for now the uneasy alliance between Anthony and Jackson will continue, but the Knicks will be hamstrung by the Melo and Joakim Noah contracts for the next few years, likely preventing them from making any major moves to improve the roster.

Sixers reaping rewards of The Process

At the other end of the spectrum is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are finally starting to reap the benefits of acquiring so many high draft picks in recent years. Joel Embiid is already a star in his first NBA season, looking like he could be the league's best center in very short order. Embiid's sensational rookie campaign means the Sixers will be able to trade either Nerlens Noel or Chicago native Jahlil Okafor for a veteran backcourt player to balance out the roster.

And we still haven't seen 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, who's being brought back slowly from a broken foot suffered in a preseason game. Former general manager Sam Hinkie might not have been allowed to stay on to see "The Process" completed, but he deserves a lot of the credit for staying the course when other front-office execs would have bailed.

The Bad Boy Warriors

Who could have imagined the Golden State Warriors being mentioned in the same breath as the Bad Boy Pistons? Facing statement games this week against the Cavs and Thunder, Golden State took a page out of Bill Laimbeer's book, flattening LeBron James and Russell Westbrook with flagrant fouls. Now, James certainly embellished the hit he took from Draymond Green with one of the all-time soccer-style flops, but there's no arguing Green plays with an edge and physicality that borders on dirty.

Watching Zaza Pachulia stand over Westbrook after a deliberate smack down indicates Pachulia is more than ready to take on the enforcer role in what could be a much-anticipated third straight Finals matchup between the Warriors and Cavs. After watching tape of Wednesday night's incident, Westbrook had this to say about the team's next meeting Feb. 11 in Oklahoma City: "I'm going to get his ass back. Straight up."

Bummer draft news for Bulls

Sorry, Bulls fans. That future first-round pick Sacramento owes the Bulls (top-10 protected) from the Luol Deng trade years ago is almost certainly going to become a second-round pick this June. The Kings just went 1-6 on their longest homestand of the season, and now head out on the road for eight straight games. Even worse, they just lost their second best player, Rudy Gay, to a season-ending Achilles injury. Under the terms of the Deng trade, if the first-round pick owed to the Bulls isn't conveyed by this year's draft, it converts to a second-round pick. And after losing Gay for the season, the Kings are a lock to finish in the bottom 10.

So a chance for the Bulls to add a low lottery pick to their roster this summer just went out the window.

Stat of the week

Thanks to my friend Nick Friedell, who tweeted this gem from Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats and Information: Tuesday night's game against Dallas marked Jimmy Butler's 16th game this season with 10-plus free throws made, which ties him with Chet Walker for the 10th-most such games in a single season in franchise history. Only Michael Jordan has more games in a season with 10-plus free throws made in franchise history.

And Russell Westbrook's incredible season continues as he looks to become the first NBA player to average a triple-double since the great Oscar Robertson back in 1961-62.

NBA season leaders in triple-doubles since Westbrook's rookie season (2008-09):

Season Player Triple-doubles Total NBA triple-doubles
2008-09 LeBron James 7 30
2009-10 LeBron James 4 23
2010-11 LeBron James 4 37
2011-12 Rajon Rondo 6 18
2012-13 Rajon Rondo 5 42
2013-14 Lance Stephenson 5 46
2014-15 Russell Westbrook 11 46
2015-16 Russell Westbrook 18 75
2016-17 Russell Westbrook 21 53 (through Jan. 18)

Quote of the week

Congratulations to Jimmy Butler on being named an Eastern Conference All-Star starter for the Feb. 19 game in New Orleans. Last week, Butler told reporters he really didn't care about whether or not he made the team, saying he'd be relaxing on a beach somewhere if he wasn't selected.

That prompted this response from Taj Gibson: "He's lying, he's lying so much. You never know what you're going to get from Jimmy. I know, definitely, he wants to make the All-Star team. He's been putting in a lot work in for it."

No question about it, Taj, Butler deserves to be in the East starting lineup as he continues to rise up the rankings of the top players in the game. Now the challenge for the Bulls is finding more athletes and shooters to put around him.