Mooring puts the spin on Hillcrest

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Mooring puts the spin on Hillcrest

It all began on June 4 when Hillcrest senior basketball star Ryan Royall, the team's only all-conference returnee, was shot and killed during a disturbance following a birthday party in south suburban Lynwood.

"Our kids are playing the season for him," coach Don Houston said. "He would have been a starter, one of our best players. It is a credit to these kids that they are playing as well as they are. I'm not surprised. These kids are tough players."

Houston and his Hawks, who are 15-4 after beating Richards and Bremen last week but losing 59-53 to Farragut on Sunday, will experience another emotional moment on Tuesday when they play at Crete-Monee.

Crete-Monee's first-year coach is Tom Cappel, who won 504 games in 23 years at Hillcrest. Houston was Cappel's assistant for seven years, then succeeded his mentor five years ago. "There is a lot of love and respect for each other," Houston said.

Houston, 40, has picked up where Cappel left off. In fact, he has accomplished at least one thing that Cappel was unable to do, winning a state championship in 2010, in only his third season. Cappel reached the state quarterfinals twice but advanced no farther.

"Talent-wise, this team is as good as the state champion," Houston said. "Potentially, we could go pretty far (in the state tournament). This team has more depth and more athleticism. If they can buy into playing team basketball, they could be as good if not better.

"They have to realize the structure of the game, especially at the end. They have to execute to pull out close games at the end. They just like to play but there is more to it than that. They like to get up and down because of their athleticism. But it doesn't win all the games, especially the close ones. I keep preaching it a lot. I show them the value of execution."

Hillcrest returns some experienced hands from a 21-8 squad that lost to Morgan Park in last year's sectional semifinal. The leaders are 6-foot-2 junior Jovan Mooring (18 ppg), 6-foot-6 senior Jalen Loving (14 ppg), 6-foot-6 senior Jayone Troutman (13 ppg, 9 rpg), 6-foot-2 senior Virgil Fleming (8 ppg) and 5-foot-8 junior point guard Kyle Oden (8 ppg, 6 assists).

Houston describes Mooring as one of the best players in the class of 2013. "People don't know about him like they should. They will find out about him soon. He is getting some looks (from college recruiters), He is one of the best scorers around," the coach said.

"I am very underrated," Mooring said. "I want to play Division I in college. I know how good I am. Hopefully, people will realize it one day. I've always been a good player but haven't gotten the recognition I should have. I feel I should have been on the varsity last year but should have worked a lot harder to get there. I really improved my game over the summer."

His trademark is a spin move with a step back jump shot. "I drive left, spin back right, step back and shoot over the defender with my right hand. I have worked on it a lot. I've gotten it good this year. I started to notice that nobody could stop it," he said.

A pair of 6-foot-2 seniors, Brent Buchanan (8 ppg) and Chris Copeland (5 ppg), provide spark off the bench on offense and defense.

"These next few games will tell us if we have matured from the losses (to highly rated Bloom, Simeon and Rockford Auburn) that we suffered early in the season," Houston said. "If they can execute in the clutch and at the end of games, they will show they are ready to go to Peoria."

Mooring isn't surprised by the team's success. Although four returned from last year's squad, none of them started. But they have been together since sixth grade and were unbeaten as freshmen and sophomores. The tragic death of their teammate, Royall, has provided motivation and inspiration.

"He was the leader of the team," Mooring said. "When I heard about it, it didn't see real. We had just played together the day before. When I woke up and heard he was gone, it was a real shock. We helped each other to get through that time. It was motivation. We're doing this for him.

"We know he would be working just as hard as we would. He wasn't perfect at everything but he did all the right things. What we don't do, he did...get tip-ins, dive on the floor for loose balls, get offensive rebounds. He was a leader and great defender. All he talked about was winning state. Now we're all coming together."

Despite the losses, Houston felt his team learned some positive lessons that will benefit them as they prepare for the state tournament.

For example, the Hawks lost to top-ranked Simeon by 15 but got a chance to experience playing in a highly competitive environment. Against Bloom and Rockford Auburn (they led by 13 with five minutes left in the third quarter), they learned they have to execute at the end.

Mooring was a freshman when Hillcrest won the 2010 state championship. He played on the sophomore squad during the preliminary games and stuck around to observe the varsity. He knows what it takes to be a state champion.

"That team had a lot of heart," he said. "They never gave up. They played together, like we do. We aren't as athletic but I believe we can be a better team. We're a lot quicker than the 2010 team. It comes down to us doing it. Our defense gives us a lot of confidence against every team we play. As long as we move on defense, we can compete with anybody."

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”

Jimmy Butler trade presents more questions for futures of Nikola Mirotic, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

Jimmy Butler trade presents more questions for futures of Nikola Mirotic, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

Lauri Markkanenn will be a Chicago Bull once the trade between the Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves is finalized sometime Friday when the trade call is sent to the NBA, as he’s the first domino to fall in what could be an interesting offseason to come.

A stretch-shooting big man from Arizona who shot 42 percent from 3 last season, Markkanenn is a native of Finland who’s more of an offensive threat rather than a defender and rebounder at seven-feet tall. He averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds for Arizona and has been regarded by many scouts as the best shooter in the draft.

With the Bulls bringing up the rear in that category, one assumes he’ll add a level of versatility if he can see the floor—which brings the Bulls to some offseason decisions they’ll have to make once free agency begins and even before. Markkanenn conceivably brings Nikola Mirotic’s future into question, as Mirotic is a restricted free agent this summer and Mirotic was on the trade block by the Bulls for the better part of last season as he had an underwhelming year trying to fill the role of a stretch-shooting big man.

But officials with the Bulls say Mirotic is still a priority for the Bulls and because he’s restricted, they control the process of his free agency. Mirotic shot 41.3 percent and averaged 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds, as the Bulls still consider him an asset for the present and future as they’ll play a new style of basketball next season.

One would think Mirotic will command a salary at least around $10 million as the NBA’s salary cap will balloon to $99 million with a luxury tax line of around $119 million.

Rajon Rondo’s future has yet to be decided, as the Bulls acquired a point guard in Kris Dunn they’ve long eyed and presumably one they feel will be their future at the position.

Bulls officials stated they’ll wait until next week before making a decision on Rondo, but one wonders if they’ll go full youth movement, especially with wanting Dunn to succeed after a rocky rookie year in Minnesota and already having Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne under contract for next season.

Rondo has a $3 million buyout the Bulls can exercise that will make Rondo a free agent or they’ll pay Rondo $13.3 million next season.

[MORE: After trading Jimmy Butler, Bulls select Lauri Markkanen] 

And then there’s Dwyane Wade, who opted in to his deal of $23.8 million for next season. Wade came to Chicago for a number of reasons, notably the salary and chance to play with Butler. With Butler gone and the Bulls changing their direction of the franchise, one wonders how Wade sees himself next season and how the Bulls see Wade with their young players.

Unless Wade wants out, the Bulls are headed into the free agency period thinking he’ll be back next season, and considering the Bulls have to spend up to 90 percent of their salary cap, his money helps them keep their books afloat, even as Butler’s affordable max salary exits and the controlled rookie-scale salaries of LaVine, Dunn and Merkkanenn enter Chicago for a future unknown