Northwestern Basketball Gears Up for Spain Trip

Northwestern basketball embarks on a trip to Spain this weekend, where they will tour the country and play five exhibition games against professional European teams. Schools are only NU Media Day Photo 8:19eligible for the trip once every four years, the last one made by Northwestern was in 2010.

Collins is clearly setting the pace and the mindset for the players as they prepare for the trip, where they will face Estudiantes, Eurocolegio Casvi, UCAM Murcia II, Andorra and US Toulouges.

“I think more than anything [we’re looking forward to] the team bonding, the camaraderie, the chemistry”, said coach Chris Collins when he spoke to reporters at their practice on Wednesday. “Obviously you want to win the games, you wanna play well, you wanna try to see things about your team, but those things are secondary to what I think a trip like this can do for a team in terms of how they bond and the chemistry they have going forward”.

The biggest adjustments being made in practice as preparation for this trip involve playing with European rules, including a small ball, deeper three point line, wider lanes and a 24 second shot clock.

“Its been great to see guys up against the clock”, said Collins. “So you learn you have to push it up quicker, you have to get into your sets quicker, and then when it does get to five or six seconds on the shot clock, you can’t panic. You have to use those last few seconds to really get a good shot and I think those are gonna be huge things as we head into the college basketball season”.

Coming off a positive end to last season, the Wildcats are looking at this trip as an opportunity to build off of that success both on and off the court. The team has been spending more time together in the offseason, building their chemistry but also focusing on their games and their conditioning. There were some noticeable changes in some of the guys when they came out for practice Wednesday. Senior center Alex Olah is leaner, as are fowards Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey and point guard Bryant McIntosh. They are hoping to gain more versatility in their lineups where Law can not only be stronger in the post, but can also bring it up at times, taking some of the pressure off of McIntosh and allowing him to play off the ball at times.

Even with all of that, the success of the Wildcats this season will on their leading scorer, senior Tre Demps. Demps is coming off his best season at Northwestern and is looking to continue to improve as a player a leader, which starts with keeping the high expectations in check.

“I’m really not thinking about March”, said Demps. “If you’re thinking about March then you’re not really thinking about what it takes to get there, and what it takes to get there is buying in every single day, doing things right every single day, practicing hard, and not letting a day go by where you didn’t get better.”

Collins is very high on Demps, who he has only had for two years. He has worked hard this offseason on being more efficient in the lane, being able to finish more consistently at the hoop and improving his defense as well, a shortcoming in his game he is not afraid to address. He has matured nicely, as evidenced by his feelings about not looking too far ahead, and his eager to take on a leadership role this season along with fellow captains Alex Olah and Sanjay Lumpkin.

“He’s gotten better each year”, said Collins”. “No one works harder on their game. There’s an added maturity to him….and its nice to have that on the team. He’s obviously gonna be a big scorer for us and thats gonna be a great role, but, he’s also gonna have some ball handling duties as well, which he was anxious to add to his game and give him a chance to have the ball in his hands and bring it up a little bit, so I think you’ll see him in that role a little bit as well”.

This trip will be a great opportunity for this team to get a head start on the season, playing against international competition. It will not only benefit the players, but it’ll also benefit Collins, who is entering his third season and is really starting the settle in with this group. He knows that there will be a sense of urgency for his seniors this season, but he is quick to temper the excitement surrounding the team.

“We wanna be a team that’s talked about in March, but to do that, you can’t skip steps along the way. It’s August right now and we don’t talk about March, we talk about what we’re doing for this Spain trip. I think teams can really hurt themselves if they get too far ahead. I tell our guys all the time, to me words like “upside” and potential”, the only thing that means is you haven’t done anything. And even though its exciting to hear positive things, we have a long way to go and we have a lot to prove and I want these guys to come to the gym everyday trying to get better, not only individually but as a team.”

The team takes off on August 22nd and returns on September 1st.

 

 

Cubs Ahead of Schedule, But Fans Should Still Practice Patience

The Cubs’ 9-game win streak came to an end this weekend, after a dominant 15 strike out performance by Chris Sale in a loss to the White Sox on Sunday at U.S Cellular Field.

And this is no disrespect to the Cubs, but when I saw Sale vs. Haren, I knew the end of the road was near. Oy-Cubs

The loss ends an exciting run of games by this young Cubs team who are performing well above expectations and ahead of schedule.

The last time the Cubs won nine games in a row was in May of 2008. The fact that they are in playoff contention and winning in this fashion so late in the season is not only remarkable, but also completely unexpected. According to ESPN Stats & Info, this was their longest streak in August or later since they won 10 in a row in September, 1953.

After being swept by the Phillies at the end of July, many analysts thought this would be the beginning of the downward spiral for this young Cubs team. They had kept themselves in contention for longer than anyone expected, but lack of experience was finally going to get the best of them as the games started to matter more and more.

The Cubs didn’t see it that way.

They went on to win 16 of 19 after that series, including a 4-game sweep of the defending champion San Francisco Giants. During that stretch, Kris Bryant had a 12-game hit streak and Anthony Rizzo and Dexter Fowler both hit near .400, not to mention the hot run Kyle Schwarber has been on since his most recent call up. But it hasn’t just been the bats. In his last 10 starts, Jake Arrieta is 7-1 with a 1.23 ERA, which is 3rd best since late June. The Cubs also have the best road record in baseball at 33-25.

This is not a fluke. The Cubs really are this good. They’ll tell you themselves.

And it has been so much fun to watch, in part because you can tell it has been so much fun for them. This does not feel like a “curse-busting” team of strung-together players like we saw during the playoff runs in 2003 and ’07-’08. This does not feel like a group carrying the baggage of 109 years of losing like those teams did. This is a whole new type of Cubs team, a complete re-build of not just a roster, but a way of baseball in Chicago.

The Cubs are somehow still “quietly” sitting with the fourth best record in baseball, in part because of the quality of their own division. Two of the three teams with better records than the Cubs also reside in the Central, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the exception of the AL Central, the Cubs would be in first place in every other division in baseball. The fact that the hype machine has not completely overtaken Chicago yet is a factor I believe is helping the Cubs focus entirely on improving as a team and winning games.

As great as they are playing on the field, I would be remiss if I did not give credit to the work Joe Maddon is doing. As exciting as the Maddon hiring was prior to the start of the season, expectations were still not through the roof. Baseball managers do not add more than 3-4 wins above replacement, especially on a team with their best days still expected to be ahead of them. As much as Maddon is known for his personality and antics, his biggest role so far in Chicago has been to keep them grounded – focusing on fundamentals, not taking anything for granted and earning their way onto the field every day. So far there has been very little drama and they look like a team that belongs in the playoff race every time they come out onto the field.

But as I watch and as expectations continue to rise, I feel it is important to make a plea to Cubs fans not to forget to exercise patience in a sports world focused on results, viewing anything short of a title as a failed season.

As great as they have been, there is plenty of time to regress. We’ve seen them go through stretches where they struggle to score runs, and with a tough final 7 weeks ahead of them that will see two series’ each against the Cardinals and Pirates, it is still possible that despite their record, the Cubs could still miss the playoffs – be it by record or a loss in a play-in game.

It is important to remember, we were not supposed to be here yet this season. This is still a team with four rookies that are more or less everyday starters. We were not even supposed to see Schwarber or Addison Russell until next season. Let’s not let our history of bitterness and cynicism spoil what this team has already done. I hope as much as anyone that this continues into the playoffs, but if it doesn’t, this season was still a huge success. The Cubs are finally moving in the right direction. It is not always going to be an exponential growth, there will be setbacks, but the fans on the north side need to appreciate that they have the privilege of watching the Cubs play in games that matter in August and September. That even if they lose those games, the fact that they are happening at all is something to be grateful for.

Northwestern Basketball Names 2015-2016 Team Captains

Entering his third full season as Northwestern basketball head coach, Chris Collins has named his team captains for the 2015-2016 season – redshirt senior Tre Demps, senior Alex Olah and redshirt junior Sanjay Lumpkin. MG_2340-300x200

Last season was a mixed bag for this young but promising Wildcats team. After a strong start to the season, the team went on to lost ten straight games, before finishing off the season strong with big wins over Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana and a double overtime win over Michigan.

While the team’s overall record last season was among the bottom tier of the conference, the team has a lot to look forward to entering the season and the positive outlook starts with these three captains.

Demps was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 12.5 ppg. He was a big part of the team’s final five wins and has emerged as their most reliable scorer and one of their best perimeter shooters.

Olah was the team’s second leading scorer last season behind Demps, and led the team in rebounding. Last season was his best yet and enters his senior season as the Wildcats’ all-time leader in blocked shots.

Lumpkin emerged last season as a defensive specialist, leading the team in steals.

The Wildcats are not expected to make a huge jump in the Big Ten next season, a conference still stacked with powerhouses, but there is reason for optimism. Collins has clearly had an impact on the team both on the court and off, including recruiting. Collins agreed to an extension this off season. They will return all five starts from last season, which will allow them to build off the chemistry they began to establish at the end of last year as they hope to contend for the school’s first NCAA tournament bid.

They will play five exhibition games in Spain from August 22nd – September 1st, and will kick off the 2015-2016 season on November 13th at home against the UMass Lowell River Hawks.

Northwestern Football Preview: Offensive Line

I’m sure you’re noticing a theme running through all of these positional previews – “uncertainty”.                                                             090713Northwestern-football_2-300x200

And while there is still a lot of mystery on the other positions we’ve covered on offense, at least there are specific players we can turn to and anticipate what their role might be or what we can expect to see. But when it comes to the Northwestern offensive line, there are absolutely no guarantees.

As much as we’vr covered how important the decision at quarterback is going to be, the overall effectiveness of the position will only be as successful as the line protecting him.

For the past four seasons, the offensive line was anchored by center Brandon Vitabile. Vitabile started every game of his career at Northwestern, and even when linemen around him struggled, Vitabile was solid and reliable. Undrafted initially, Vitabile signed a free agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts in May, leaving a big hole in the middle for Northwestern this season.

It should not be understated how important the offensive line is going to be for the Wildcats this season, not only in protecting the quarterback, but in the run game as well. There is no question that they are going to depend on the ground attack early and often this season, but unless the protection up front is solid, the offense is going to have difficulty moving down the field.

Brad North is being projected right now as the starting center, Matt Frazier and Eric Olson are returning from last year, and red shirt freshmen Blake Hance and Tommy Doles will certainly have opportunities after being highly recruited, but be prepared to see a game of offensive lineman musical chairs that should extend into the first few weeks of the season.

Player to Watch – Geoff Mogus

In losing Vitabile, the Wildcats are not only losing their best and most dependable lineman, they are losing one of their leaders. A team captain in his junior and senior seasons, Vitabile was someone they could depend on to guide younger players along. The team is going to miss him well beyond the depth chart.

It should be noted that for Mogus, it is his experience that puts him in this position more than his past production as a player. And it remains to be seen whether he’ll be moved to tackle or not. Every spot on the line is open, and coach Pat Fitzgerald has said that he intends to put the best five guys out there.

His leadership will be the quality they will need to turn to most as they open practice this month, no matter what position he ends up with on the field. With so many underclassman on the line this year, Mogus will have to be the one to fill the leadership void left by Vitabile, and anchor the line for whoever is taking the snaps behind him.

Mogus has seen time at guard and tackle, but took the majority of the snaps in spring practice at left tackle, leading me to believe that is where they want to see the red shirt senior this season. In fact, as much as I built up the loss at center, left tackle is arguably a more important position on the offensive line, and a spot where they are going to want to put their best player.

The offensive line will be one of the most interesting positions to watch over the next few weeks with so many moving parts. And while Mogus is the most obvious player to watch, there is no guarantee how he’ll take to a move to tackle.

While the focus will remain on the battles at the higher profile offensive positions, its hard to feel good about an offensive line with a lack of experience both individually and as a unit.

Northwestern Football Preview: Wide Receiver

For all of the questions surrounding who will be under center for Northwestern this fall, the group of guys catching the passes may be an even more unknown group. E7T5430-300x275

The wide receivers are one of the position groups that were hurt most in the off season with the losses of their top two targets from last year, Kyle Prater and Tony Jones. And with these two gone off of a group that really struggled even with them last year, the Wildcats could be in for another very rough showing from their receivers.

With only a few returning starters and a lot of unknowns and incoming freshman, the depth chart at wide receiver may be one of the most fluid heading into camp.

Christian Jones, Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson highlight the returning starters, and with Jones and Dickerson both coming off of injuries, its hard to predict at this point what we’re going to see from them. Jones has top-receiver potential, but has struggled to stay healthy and Dickerson has the physical build for the role, but has a bad habit of dropping passes. Both will likely be thrown into bigger roles by necessity alone.

But spots are no doubt going to be up for grabs, and guys like Mike McHugh and Pierre Youngblood-Ary are going to have opportunities in camp to vie for a bigger role in the offense.

These questions are all underlined by the uncertainty at quarterback, which was covered in last week’s positional preview. Because none of these guys are proven, consistent big-play receivers, their success will live and die by the quarterback’s ability to get the ball to the right spot and make plays.

This could also play into coach Pat Fitzgerald’s decision at quarterback. With so many questions surrounding how much production they could even have through the air, he may opt to go with someone like Matt Alviti, who could keep defenses off balance with his legs when there is nothing available down field. Alviti’s ability to run could also create opportunities for receivers if he can become a threat.

While Northwestern will likely depend primarily on the running backs on offense, an ineffective passing game will hinder their ability to run the ball. If they are not able to be a threat down field and keep linebackers and defensive backs on their heels, they are going to have a very hard time moving the ball and scoring on offense. Only truly elite wide receivers are able to compensate for or overcome weak quarterbacking or offensive line play, and it doesn’t appear Northwestern has any of those on their roster as of now. The best they can hope for is a balanced attack and it is unclear if they have the personnel or the talent right now to do that.

The best they can hope for at this point is to find the best combinations in camp, and that will be on Fitz and the coaching staff. They’ll need to evaluate which quarterback has the best feel for the offense, and based on that, see which receivers find the most chemistry with that quarterback. And since the three guys competing for the quarterback job are so different, it opens the door for any one of these receivers to step into a larger role.

Player to Watch: Christian Jones

The big question is whether or not Jones will be healthy and able to return to form from two seasons ago. Jones missed all of last season with an ACL injury and has had lingering knee issues since then. Jones is #1 receiver material but it is yet to be seen if he can live up to that potential. His health will be one of, if not the most important factors when it comes to the success of the receiving corps in this offense.

In 2013, Jones led the team with 668 yards and 4 touchdowns in a season that was capped off by a 182 yard, two touchdown game in a win against Illinois in the last game of the season.

If he can get back to that kind of production, he could be a very dangerous offensive threat.

Northwestern Football Preview: Quarterback

With only eight weeks until the start of the Northwestern Wildcats’ 2015-16 football season, there are far more questions than there are answers about the roster going into this year. The offensive side of the ball saw graduating seniors Trevor Siemian, Kyle Prater and Brandon Vitabile go and there are no sure fire answers as to who is going to take those vital starting positions.

While there will be position battles all around, football teams live and die at the quarterback position. And while Siemian was never a great quarterback, he was experienced, comfortable in the system, and will not be easy to replace.

Now with Zack Oliver the only returning QB with a start under his belt, which came in the final game of the year against Illinois and saw him throw three interceptions and lose two fumbles, the position is officially up for grabs with no clear favorite in the bunch.

Vying for the position with Oliver will be 4-star recruits from the past two years,  Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson. While it is possible that coach Pat Fitzgerald will try a tandem quarterback scheme at times to start the season, ideally one of them will step up and become the consistent man under center.

Here is a bit about each player, what to expect to see from them this year and why each has a case to be the starter.

Zack Oliver:

What to expect – Oliver is most likely to be the starter when the Wildcats open the season against Stanford, though that distinction is primarily due to him being a senior who has a bit of experience coming in for the oft injured Siemian last season. But if he wants to remain the starter, he is going to have to earn it. Oliver may have the best arm strength of the three, and his familiarity with the system is a plus, but he hasn’t shown enough to make a strong enough case for himself as the regular starter. He’ll have to take care of the ball, and with Prater gone and wide receiver still being a position with as many question marks as quarterback, he won’t have a reliable weapon down field to make big plays or bail him out of poor throws. He could see three or four starts to start the year while he becomes more comfortable in that role, but that may be as far as his leash goes.

Why he should start- There is a lot to be said about a player who is a senior, familiar with the system, and has real college game experience. If he can limit his give aways, he could be a good game manager in a “run-first” offense.

Clayton Thorson: 

What to expect – On the other end of the spectrum is the least experienced of the three, Clayton Thorson. Thorson is a big bodied pocket passer who comes in at 6’4″ and 200 pounds. And for his size, his footwork is solid and he does have the ability to run the ball. At Wheaton North High School he showed that he was a good situational passer with a high football IQ. I believe Thorson has the biggest long-term upside of the three quarterbacks with the potential for the most complete, all-around game. His size and ability to take a hit makes up for some of his lack of speed, and if he earns Fitzgerald’s trust early on, could see himself starting games and taking the majority of the snaps sooner rather than later.

Why he should start – Thorson may very well give them the best combination of winning games now and investing in the future. He has all of the tools to be a very good quarterback, and with no outright starter in place and so many questions at every other position but running back, the future is now, and that means starting Thorson.

Matt Alviti: 

What to expect – If Oliver has the arm and Thorson has the size, Alviti has the speed. In fact, his quickness and ability to run the ball is the best argument for him seeing time at quarterback. While Alviti likely doesn’t have enough of an all-around game to be an every down player, he could give them flexibility to run the bootleg. Alviti may be the most exciting of the three to watch, with a reputation as a “gunslinger”, but his height is in issue as a pocket passer. And while he did not see much time last season, knowing the offense and having some experience could help him to be more confident and comfortable going into this year.

Why he should start – If Northwestern is looking to “get off the bus running”, Alviti is their guy. He can take some of the pressure off of Justin Jackson, keep defenses guessing, and being a threat to run could open things up for his receivers.

No doubt quarterback will be the position battle to watch heading into the fall. Coach Fitz will have a lot of decisions to make, but this one will be the most important. It will be interesting to see if anyone emerges as a favorite out of camp, or if this  remains a tight race heading into the first game of the season and beyond.

The Story of Midway Madness

One summer day in the dugout of Columbia College Chicago’s baseball team, Midway Madness creators Mackinley Salk and Chris Gasper saw the writing on the wall. If they wanted to do what logolong2they loved and cover sports, they were going to have to take things into their own hands.

“Not wanting to get paid nothing for years while not covering the teams we wanted to, we decided to do our own thing on our own terms,” says Salk. “We saw the sports journalism world was starting to change, so we jumped on the opportunity to do it our way. ”

They started working on the site in 2008 and finally launched MidwayMadness.com nearly three years later, a website that covers Chicago sports and offers an opportunity for young aspiring writers to hone their craft and get real-world experience writing about sports.

But it was a challenging road for Salk, who had wanted to be a baseball player coming out of Hinsdale Central High School. He spent two years at Western Michigan University. When a back injury kept him from being able to continue to play, he found broadcasting as an extracurricular activity that allowed him to follow his passion for sports. Even though this was a big transition for Salk he was no stranger to sports journalism.

“My father owns a bar (Justin’s at Southport and Roscoe) in Chicago. When I was a kid, I would be there and many sports writers hung out in there. I became friends with these people and eventually many of them encouraged me to get into the field. ”

After graduating from Columbia, he worked for WCRX, Columbia’s on-campus radio station, and lined himself up with a few broadcasting internships. But it became apparent to Salk that it was going to be a struggle making a living and also covering the teams he loved.

“Starting my own business in this field was tough. Trying to separate ourselves from the “blogs” of the world was tough. Also, dealing with media relations directors who don’t allow a level playing field was a battle. The biggest thing was just getting people to take us seriously. ”

And they did. Midway Madness was covering everything from the pro teams to Northwestern sports and the website was putting out content at an increasing rate.

But the workload and the competitive field was starting to take its toll on Salk, Gasper and the others running the site. They started to realize that it was becoming more about fighting to post recaps first than it was about their love of covering sports.

On Jan. 16, 2014, Gasper passed away after losing control of his car in Ohio on his way back from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Before he died, Gasper expressed to the group that he wanted the site to give students the same opportunity it gave him and the Midway Madness staff, to cover sports and learn how to do it right.

“Since Chris passed away, we have changed some things. It’s not about our love for sports journalism. It’s about showing young students how to do this the right way. The game is changing and with it, journalists are getting lazy. We want to make sure our students get it right and move on into the working world with a clue. ”

Since then, Midway Madness has seen a lot of its writers go on to paying jobs and careers in the industry, including Lauren Comitor, another Columbia graduate who is now the digital news editor at the Chicago Tribune.

Lauren was raised in a Chicago sports family and found her passion for journalism in high school. She started her career with an internship with TribLocal and heard about Midway Madness from the internship coordinator at Columbia. She covered Northwestern football and basketball for Midway Madness, and wrote columns on some of the pro teams as she prepared herself for a job in the real world.

“Through my experience at Midway, I focused a lot on networking,” Comitor said. “Going out and covering games and events gave me the opportunity to meet, interact with and get advice from many reporters I admired. Some of these reporters were nice enough to let me shadow them, read my stuff and even tweet it out from their accounts.”

Now Salk runs and oversees the site with fellow contributors Pat Sheehan, Jamie Bradley and Ryan Miesch, but he has transitioned into the role of “mentor”.

“It’s the coach in me,” said Salk.

The world of journalism is always changing, but Midway Madness continues to fulfill the vision Salk and Gasper hoped for – a platform for young journalists to write about the teams they love and learn the skills needed to pursue their careers.

“You really have to love it,” Salk said.

As the person who is seeing the site he created bringing so many opportunities to his writers, it’s obvious that he does.