Belinelli starting to find his comfort zone

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Belinelli starting to find his comfort zone

DEERFIELD, ILL.Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was prophetic before his teams home loss Saturday night to New Orleans. Faced with a question about backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli, Thibodeau expressed his confidence in the free-agent acquisition ability, something the hard-driving coach consistently does with the media when asked about a players struggles.
Marcos getting better and better. I think more confident, more comfortable each day. Hes gotten better, more comfortable putting the ball on the floor, making plays for people, he said. I think his defense is coming around. Hes been around a long time. Im confident that hes going to play well.
Belinelli, playing against his old team, the Hornets, responded with his best game of the young season. The native of Bologna, Italy, notched 13 pointson 4-for-10 shooting, including 2-for-6 from three-point rangebut importantly, he played with confidence and like he was sure of himself, something the team needed with starter Rip Hamilton struggling.
Although the contest ended in the Bulls first defeat of the campaign, slowly, but surely, Belinelli is starting to resemble the player the organization expected when they signed him over the summer. A shooter, no doubt, but more than that, a player capable of creating his own shot, making plays for others and offering an offensive boost off the bench, while steadily improving as a defensive player.
Throughout most of the preseason, that player wasnt present, as Belinelli himself readily admitted, his transparency being a trait most professional athletes dont have when talking about their issues on the floor. But hes worked through it and starting with a seven-point in the Bulls preseason finale win over the Pacers in South Bend, Ind., Bellinelli has started to make more overt contributions to the teams success.
He scored six points, to go along with three assists, in the season-opening win over Sacramento, then put up eight points in Fridays blowout victory against Cleveland. But Saturday, while he wasnt perfectlike many of his teammates, Belinellis play tailed off a bit in the second half of the lossBelinelli played with a looseness, freedom and aggressiveness befitting of a six-year pro revered in his home country as one of the best basketball players in recent memory.
Even though we lost one against the Hornets, I played better than the two games before, but I was so mad because we lost that game. Its part of the game, Belinelli said after Mondays practice at the Berto Center. The game against New Orleans, I scored the first layup on a two-on-one fast break, so after that, my confidence was up. So, I started to make three-point shots from the corner, a good pass for Gibson. When its like that, my confidence is up.
Yeah, I think so. I didnt score well against the Hornets, continued Belinelli, who acknowledged that he had some extra motivation in facing his former team. I can be better than that, so I just want to work every day on that and like I said before, I think its important to win games, especially now that weve got four or five home games. So, we need to take advantage of that.
I remember the first couple games of preseason, I was little bit maybe nervous or maybe not ready to play, but thats the past, so I want to be ready for the season. I want to be ready to help this team win games.
Fair or not, Belinelli was widely billed as the successor to the departed Kyle Korver, one of the NBAs elite shooters. While Belinelli has been a relatively high-percentage marksman from beyond the arc during his career, he isnt considered as automatic as Korver, though hes more athletic and possesses better ball skills.
But just as Korver had to adjust to Thibodeaus demands on the defensive end of the floor, Belinelli has also had to change his mindset. Playing for defensive-minded Hornets head coach Monty Williams in New Orleans gave him a bit of a leg up after starting his NBA career with two notoriously bad defensive squads in Golden State and Toronto, but he still has a learning curve.
Yes, sir, he answered, when asked about the Bulls high standards on that end of the court. Last year, with Monty Williams, we played good defense, I think. But I never played defense like here in Chicago. We practice it a lot, especially in training camp. It was like one hour on defense, so it was a little bit tough for me, but at the same time, everybody knows that if you want to play, youve got to play defense, so if you understand that, itll be easier.
Its not the first time for me. Ive changed a lot of teams, added the affable shooting guard, who speaks good English, but sent the assembled media at the Berto Center into gales of laughter when he misunderstood a question about the quality of Chicagos Italian food compared to where it originates, his birthplace. I just need to be ready and be focused on the parts of the game, on offense and defense. Ive started to understand all the players.
As for Thibodeau, now that Belinelli has shown signs of getting back to his old selfof course, a new element of high-intensity defense will have to be incorporated; if Korver can transform himself into a serviceable individual defender and solid as a team defender, so can Belinelli, who moves better than the current Atlanta Hawkhe can now mix in some criticism with his encouragement, though hell continue to give the newcomer every opportunity to succeed, perhaps in part to be able to keep Hamiltons minutes down, in lieu of the veterans injury-plagued campaign a year ago, as well as manufacturing some offensive firepower off the bench and a weapon to stretch opposing defenses for a team lacking multiple long-distance threats.
Its how you play within your group and so, his playmaking has been very good throughout preseason and through the regular season, and his shot will come around and it has, so each game, I think hes gotten more comfortable. Hes a good basketball player, I think his defense is improving and thats what I meant by the nights youre not shooting well, the coach explained Monday. Theres still a number of things you can do to help the team win. I thought our rebounding in the second half against New Orleans was very poor and if youre not shooting well, you certainly should rebound well and you certainly should get back in defensive transition. Those are things that you control with your effort and your concentration, so those are things youve got to take care of.
Chimed in teammate Luol Deng: Right now, hes in here shooting with Bulls assistant coach Ron Adams, known around the league as a premier shooting guru. Hes been doing a lot of that. It happens and hes going to come out of that slump or he has already, but hes a good player and he makes plays. Marcos not just a shooter. A lot of people label him as just a catch-and-shoot guy, but hes better at making plays and setting guys up, and you can see that here and there. But I think the more comfortable he gets with the plays and what were trying to do, hell do more of that.
Compounding Belinellis early woes was the fact that for the first time since he arrived in the NBA from Italy, where he experienced team success, hes on a winning team. After only sniffing the postseason oncehis debut season in New Orleans, when the Hornets took the top-seeded Lakers to six games in the first round of the 2011 playoffsthe pressure of playing a key role on a perennial playoff squad gave him some anxiousness.
Maybe, it can be a part of that, but Im not a rookie. I dont want to use that as an excuse. Thats part of the game, he revealed. This is a big team. We want to be big, we want to win. Everybody knows that. I know that, so play hard every game and just win the game.
If he maintains that mentality, hell fit right in on the Bulls. As long as his defensive effort remains consistent, thats all Thibodeau requires.

Blackhawks agree to terms with 2015 second-round pick Graham Knott

Blackhawks agree to terms with 2015 second-round pick Graham Knott

The Blackhawks have agreed to terms with forward Graham Knott on a three-year, entry-level contract, the team announced Friday.

Knott, 19, scored 12 goals and 30 assists in 68 regular-season games last season with the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League.

He also added five points in 17 postseason contests.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Knott is a power forward who makes a living around the net with his big-body presence.

He was drafted by the Blackhawks in the second round (No. 54 overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Week 5 Big Ten previews: Michigan meets Badgers in top-10 showdown

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Week 5 Big Ten previews: Michigan meets Badgers in top-10 showdown

Another week, another titanic Big Ten showdown featuring the Wisconsin Badgers.

Now up to the eighth-ranked team in the country following their dominating performance in a big win over Michigan State, the Badgers make another trip to the Great Lakes State this weekend for another battle with a top-10 team. Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines await, and though their schedule hasn't been as tough as many, they're playing as well as any team in the country right now on both sides of the ball.

It's another much-anticipated bout. But will it live up to the hype?

Here's a look at the entire Week 5 slate in the Big Ten. All games are on Saturday, Oct. 1, and as always all times are Central.

Northwestern at Iowa, 11 a.m., ESPN U

It's clear Iowa has yet to get back on track after that Week 3 loss to North Dakota State. Last weekend's win against Rutgers was an ugly one short on scoring and won thanks mostly to a fourth-quarter fumble that swung momentum and set up the game-winning score for the Hawkeyes. Iowa has to find away to get its offense cooking again after getting out-gained last week and mustering just 355 yards of offense. And that was against Rutgers. It'll be even more challenging now that No. 1 wide receiver Matt VandeBerg is sidelined for the foreseeable future. And on the defensive side of the ball, the Hawkeyes need to find a way to slow the run. They allowed 193 rush yards to Rutgers after allowing 239 to North Dakota State — and Northwestern has one of the Big Ten's best backs in Justin Jackson.

Northwestern, meanwhile, takes a trip to always-imposing Kinnick Stadium at a bad time. Just 1-3 through the season's first four games, the Cats are making mistakes left and right. Gifted two goal-line fumbles in last weekend's game against Nebraska, Northwestern couldn't do anything with them and lost by double digits. But that was just one of many screw-ups, with missed kicks, penalties, turnovers and a defense that was shredded for 556 yards shouldering plenty of the blame, too. Pat Fitzgerald vowed to get things fixed. We'll see how much progress he's made in just one week.

Rutgers at No. 2 Ohio State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

The Buckeyes finally get to open conference play following a bye week last weekend. Ohio State has looked as good as any team in the nation, and that No. 2 ranking is a good indication of that. J.T. Barrett, Curtis Samuel, Mike Weber and now Noah Brown — who you might remember had four touchdown catches against Oklahoma — form one dangerous offensive unit. But it's that defense, currently coordinated by former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano and formerly coordinated by current Rutgers head coach Chris Ash, that's making the biggest impression, ranked ninth and 14th in the country in scoring defense and total defense, respectively.

Rutgers will have to figure out how to do something against that tremendous defense, and that is made much, much harder without Janarion Grant. The Knights' top playmaker was knocked out for the season after suffering an injury last weekend against Iowa. Grant took a pass and ran 77 yards inside the Hawkeyes' five-yard line, but that was the last explosive play he made in the game and the last one he'll make this season. The offensive cabinet isn't completely bare, however. Robert Martin is currently the Big Ten's leading rusher with 358 yards in three games.

Purdue at Maryland, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

It's been quite the start for DJ Durkin at Maryland, and though his undefeated season probably won't last too deep into Big Ten play, it certainly could last past this weekend with lowly Purdue on the schedule. The Terps have quietly been one of the country's best running teams through the season's first four weeks, racking up 800 yards in three games for a 266.7-yards-per-game average that ranks 11th in the FBS. A fleet of running backs has been getting the job done, with no member of what's being described as a "five-headed monster" ranking in the top 10 in rushing in the conference.

That's not great news for the Boilermakers, who rank next to last in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing an average of 387.7 total yards each week. But there is the slightest bit of momentum in West Lafayette after last weekend's win over Nevada, Darrell Hazell's second win over a non-conference FBS opponent in 11 tries as Purdue head coach. And thankfully for the Boilers, they have a potent rushing weapon of their own. Markell Jones had just 47 yards in a loss to Cincinnati, but his 105.3 rush yards per game rank third in the Big Ten.

No. 8 Wisconsin at No. 4 Michigan, 2:30 p.m., ABC

The Badgers are banged up heading into this weekend's biggest game, there's no doubt about that. Already down linebacker Chris Orr for the season, Wisconsin this week announced that kicker Rafael Gaglianone will also miss the remainder of the campaign, and a Thursday report indicated star linebacker Vince Biegel will miss this game and some more following foot surgery. That being said, the Badgers' defense has been absolutely terrific through four games, all wins, two of which came against top-10 teams. After keeping Michigan State out of the end zone last weekend and holding the Spartans to just 75 rushing yards, Wisconsin ranks seventh in the country in scoring defense (11.8 points a game) and 12th in total defense (277 yards a game). The Badgers intercepted quarterback Tyler O'Connor three times and scored on a 66-yard fumble-return touchdown.

Thing is, Michigan's offense has been sensational so far this season. The competition hasn't been, necessarily, but that hasn't stopped quarterback Wilton Speight, an elite corps of pass-catchers and a seemingly unending stream of ball-carriers from piling up 208 points on 1,871 yards in four blowout wins. The Wolverines rank fourth in the country in scoring offense after last weekend's 49-10 pasting of Penn State. Five different running backs combined for six rushing touchdowns in that one, while Speight has nine touchdowns on the season.

Wisconsin has its own noteworthy quarterback after Alex Hornibrook impressed in his first career start against Michigan State. His stat line wasn't outrageous, but he made some mighty impressive plays, dropping passes into his receivers' hands and threading numerous needles. He also led the Badgers to an excellent 9-for-18 mark on third and fourth downs. Teamed with receivers Jazz Peavy and Robert Wheelwright and tight end Troy Fumagalli, the Wisconsin passing attack might finally be something to be reckoned with along with the Badgers' usually dominant run game, this year featuring another star in Corey Clement, who's scored five touchdowns in the three games he's played.

Finally, though, that Michigan defense has been every bit as good as Wisconsin's. In fact, the Wolverines place even higher in the national rankings when it comes to total defense, ranking 12th with 269.8 yards allowed per game. They're not too shabby in scoring defense, either, not far behind the Badgers at No. 13 with 13.8 points surrendered per game. Last weekend's effort vs. Penn State was a smothering one, Michigan allowing just 10 points on 191 total yards, forcing a pair of turnovers and sacking quarterback Trace McSorley six times. With so many playmakers on that side of the ball for the Wolverines, you wonder if the Badgers will be able to keep up on the scoreboard.

Illinois at No. 15 Nebraska, 2:30 p.m., ESPN 2

The Huskers are coming off another win and vaulted into the top 15 thanks to their perfect 4-0 record. That record is expected to move to 5-0 when they welcome in Illinois on Saturday. Nebraska continued to light it up on offense in last weekend's win, two goal-line fumbles erasing 14 points against Northwestern that would've made the score far more indicative of the way the Huskers shredded the Wildcat defense. Tommy Armstrong's fused rushing and passing numbers looked like this vs. Northwestern: 378 yards and a touchdown. That's a week after he had five total touchdowns in the win over Oregon. Along with Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, Armstrong is the class of the position in the conference.

Meanwhile, the Illini haven't played in two weeks but still have the awful taste of that blowout loss to Western Michigan lingering. After throttling an FCS opponent in their first game of the season, the Illini have been outscored, 82-33, with the defense surrendering almost 900 combined yards of offense in two losses, both coming at home. Illinois gained a shocking three rushing yards — three! — against Western Michigan. With all that pressure on Wes Lunt, it'll be tough to navigate the challenging Nebraska secondary, which has nine interceptions on the season, one off the national lead.

Minnesota at Penn State, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Gophers are flying pretty high, averaging nearly 40 points a game in their three wins. Now, wins over Oregon State, Indiana State and Colorado State do not a title contender make, but give plenty of credit to Minnesota's offense, which has looked more than just capable this season, it's been downright prolific. The Gophers are averaging 228.3 yards per game rushing, with just one Big Ten team scoring more rushing touchdowns, and that's Michigan, which scored six last weekend.

And who did those six rushing touchdowns come against? Penn State, making this week's matchup not a good one for the Nittany Lions. They looked just miserable against the Wolverines, and while the Gophers are not the Wolverines, they can provide similar challenges for a defense that has failed multiple times at stopping the run this season. Penn State was gashed for 341 rushing yards in a loss to Pitt and gave up 326 rushing yards in the loss to Michigan. It could be another headache of a day trying to slow the running back combo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brook plus quarterback Mitch Leidner.

No. 17 Michigan State at Indiana, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network

If any team could use a blowout win, it's Michigan State, which still remains a bit of an unknown a week after getting dominated on both sides of the ball by Wisconsin. Thing is, a week earlier the Spartans looked terrific in a road win at Notre Dame. The Irish haven't helped Sparty's cause, losing to Duke last weekend, and Mark Dantonio's squad has a Jekyll-and-Hyde element to it through only three games. Best way to fix that? Beat Indiana. The Spartans' defense would be the key to that after Hoosiers quarterback Richard Lagow threw five interceptions last weekend, but can that unit play well down a pair of starting linebackers? Jon Reschke will miss this week and beyond, while Riley Bullough could still be out following his surprising sit-out last weekend.

Lagow, despite the turnovers, showed last weekend that Indiana's passing attack is still as explosive as ever, passing for a school-record 496 yards in the loss to Wake Forest. The problem there is "the loss to Wake Forest," and those five picks played a big role in it. Michigan State's defense is a good one, when healthy — which it isn't expected to be this weekend — but between Lagow and his new big-play connection in Nick Westbrook and a reliable running attack with Devin Redding out of the backfield, there's no reason the Hoosiers can't score some points in this one. And Spartans quarterback Tyler O'Connor pitched three interceptions against Wisconsin, good news for an Indiana defense that's played better this season than in seasons past.