Taft revives memories of the past

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Taft revives memories of the past

Kevin Siudut wasn't around at the time, of course. But Taft coach Brett Nishibayashi constantly reminds his players of the good old days, when Taft dominated the Chicago Public League's Red-North, when coach Frank Hood's teams won 21 or more games for six years in a row, when Kenny Pratt was one of the best players in the state, when Pratt and Enoch Davis and the 1992 team went 28-2 and reached the Final Four in the city playoff.

"When you look at the trophies in the case by the gym, you see what Taft used to be," said Siudut, a 6-foot-6 senior. "You see that and you think we should be doing it, too. We know Taft used to have a history where it owned the Red-North and went deep into the city playoff. We want to add to that.

"We see this season as a special opportunity. We want to make this season our own. The coach gives us quotes to us in the morning and gets our minds in the right place for practice and games. He always talks to us about what Taft used to be, about Kenny Pratt."

Siudut has a scrapbook full of his coach's quotes, about 90 of them according to his latest count. Each morning, he hands a quote to each player. If someone fails to pick up his quote, it means an extra suicide drill in practice.

"Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard," is one of Siudut's favorite quotes.

He knows what hard work is all about, on the basketball floor and in the classroom. He is an International Baccalaureate student. He has an excessive workload of challenging curriculum, beyond the Advance Placement level. He has a 3.2 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 31 on his ACT. He is interested in several Division III schools and wants to study business or accounting or financing.

"I'm a math guy. That's my thing," he said. "The IB program is a very rigorous program that gets you ready for college. It involved a lot of projects. But I also want to play basketball in college."

Siudut got bit by the basketball bug while watching Michael Jordan in his last years in the NBA. "He gave me a love for basketball. I started to play in the Biddy League, as much as I could," he said.

"I also played football, soccer and baseball when I was growing up. But I always knew basketball was my favorite sport. In basketball, anything can happen. A team that isn't supposed to win can win."

But academics always have been important, too.

"I always felt I was smart, that if I focused in school I had a lot of potential to learn," Siudut said. "The IB program kicked me in the butt, but it taught me a lot. It was tough in the beginning to adjust because it was so tough, especially with three hours of basketball practice, then three hours of homework. Now I realize how good it was for me."

Basketball has been fun, too, bouncing back from last year's 14-16 finish. Taft is 16-7 after starting 0-4. The Eagles have lost only three times since Thanksgiving and have won their first Red-North title since going to the Elite Eight of the city playoff in 2001. Awarded the No. 3 seed in the Public League tournament, they will face Jones on Wednesday in the opening round.

"We find a way to win," Nishibayashi said. "When Taft became a neighborhood school, the demographics changed. We used to get kids from the west, more athletes. Now the athletes go to Loyola, Notre Dame, St. Patrick, Lane Tech or Whitney Young. They have a lot of options. We have become the last resort in a lot of respects.

"All I am doing is being honest. When I talk to parents, I'm upfront with them. If you want to be a part of something, rebuilding a program that once was competitive in the city, I tell them, come to Taft. We are changing the culture. Kids have bought into my program. I don't want us to be a good team. I want us to be a good program.

"We were close to getting over the hump the last couple of years. But we have to learn how to win games. It is getting contagious. Now the kids believe they are supposed to win these games. I'm a big believer in hard work. All the coaches I've played for were big on working hard. If you work hard, you will get the results that you desire."

Nishibayashi, 33, a Taft graduate of 1997, played for Frank Hood. He was a 5-foot-5 guard who understood that he lacked physical tools so he had to be cerebral to be effective. He also worked for Bosko Djurkovic at Carthage College. Now he works for his father, Nick Nishibayashi, the athletic director at Taft who coached the basketball program for eight years.

"I played and worked for people who influenced me and propelled me into coaching," said Nishibayashi, who is in his fourth season after succeeding his father.

"This isn't perfect but it is very persistent. The kids believe they can win and compete. They are all blue-collar kids. Character is a big part of why we are winning. These kids feel like they are supposed to win. They play hard, play smart and play together. They believe if you play the game in the right way, you'll win more times that you don't."

Siudut, who averages eight points and eight rebounds per game, is part of the success story. Other starters are 6-foot-5 sophomore John Joyce (15 ppg), whom the coach targets as the team's only potential Division I prospect, 6-foot-5 senior Tim Reamer (16 ppg), 6-foot-2 junior guard Josh Doss (11 ppg) and 5-foot-5 senior point guard Taylor Kuehn (2 ppg, 3 assists). The sixth man is 5-foot-10 senior Pierre Pozzi (3 ppg), a foreign
exchange student from Italy.

"This team is the first time in a while that all the kids work hard on both ends of the court," Siudut said. "We have a lot of fun. Winning is a lot of fun for us. We're a very close group of guys. We play for each other and have each other's back at all times. Playing for a team like this makes you want to hustle and dive for loose balls and stop the fast break. You know there are four other guys on the court and you want to do it for them."

He sensed this would be a special team since the end of last season, when Taft lost to a good Notre Dame squad without one starter. "It sent a message. We took a lot of momentum from last year. We had a good summer in a couple of leagues against quality teams like Oak Park," he said.

"Once the school year started, I knew it would be a special year because everyone was working hard. We even started conditioning a month before the season began."

"We don't shy away from good competition," Nishibayashi said. "Three of our first five games were against Zion-Benton, Notre Dame and Evanston. I wanted to change the culture with this group, make them understand what Taft used to be, that it wasn't a doormat, that it used to own the Red-North in the 1990s.

"Taft always won when I was growing up. I watched Kenny Pratt. He was as good a player as there was in the city. His All-America stuff is in the trophy case with the team picture of the Final Four team in 1992. We want to get back to the way it was."

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

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USA TODAY

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

It's not something that's been said often over the decades, but Northwestern is one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

That's the story the standings tell, and with another week of the 2016-17 season in the books, the Wildcats sit at 5-2 in conference play, good for the second-best mark in the league.

That fifth conference win came Sunday afternoon with a 74-72 defeat of Ohio State. It was the first time Northwestern won in Columbus since 1977.

This is the first 5-2 start to Big Ten play for the Cats since 1968. So is this the first time ever the Cats get an invite to the NCAA tournament?

Of course that remains to be seen, but Chris Collins' squad sure seems to be setting itself up for inclusion in the field of 68. Sunday's win was just the latest to come away from Evanston, and in seven conference games, four of the team's five wins have come in road games, including three straight at Nebraska, Rutgers and Ohio State.

Northwestern had to find a way to win Sunday. A couple surges in the first half took the Cats from modest deficits to a lead that grew as big as eight. The halftime advantage was five, but that slipped away quickly as Northwestern shot poorly after halftime. Ice cold is a better descriptor, the Cats struggling to get their field-goal percentage above 30 percent over the final 20 minutes. It got there eventually, the team finishing shooting 32.3 percent in the second half, but it was the work from the free-throw line that made the win possible. Over the final 20 minutes, Northwestern was 14-for-16 from the charity stripe, including going 11-for-12 over the final minute and a half.

The key stretch came when a Scottie Lindsey 3-ball broke a 56-all tie with four and a half minutes to play. Ohio State countered with a bucket, but freshman point guard Isiah Brown turned in back-to-back scores of his own, the second a breakaway layup off a steal. That made it a five-point lead, and though the gap shrunk over the game's final three minutes, Northwestern's free-throw shooting allowed the Cats to hold that lead the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line. They were 12-for-23 on the game, and all but one of the attempts came in the second half, making for 10 missed free throws over the game's final 20 minutes. Northwestern committed a lot of fouls, but Ohio State couldn't capitalize, something that has to be quite painful for the Buckeyes, considering they had edges in other statistical categories. They shot 45.6 percent from the field compared to the Cats shooting 37.5 percent. Ohio State also had 16 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint. But Northwestern had 17 points off 13 Ohio State turnovers.

Lindsey finished with a game-high 21 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season. Bryant McIntosh had 17 points, and Vic Law had 10. Jae'Sean Tate scored 14 points for Ohio State, with JaQuan Lyle adding 13, Trevor Thompson scoring 11 and Cam Williams putting in 10.

The win was Northwestern's fourth straight and boosted its overall record to 16-4 to go along with the 5-2 mark in the conference. The Cats next play Nebraska on Thursday.

The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for Ohio State and dropped the Buckeyes' record to 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They next play Minnesota on Wednesday.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.

“Obviously [I want to] get back and playing the same way,” Kruger said. “First I want to get healthy and then get back playing my best and do everything I can for the team.”