Knar turns Mundelein into a winner

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Knar turns Mundelein into a winner

Dick Knar has a history of turning hamburger into filet mignon. He once helped persuade future NBA star David Robinson to attend the Naval Academy. He turned a losing program at Northridge Prep into a sectional champion. And he is trying to do the same thing at Mundelein.

Now, with more than a few able assists from his son Robert, a 6-foot junior guard who has scored over 1,500 points in his brief career, Knar hopes to turn Mundelein into a consistent winner by achieving things that the Lake County school never has experienced before.

"This could be the best team I've coached," Knar said. "We have only two seniors. We are so young and sometimes we play like it. We lost two games in a row (to Cary Grove and Crystal Lake Central) and showed our warts. Size kills us. But we can score. If we push ourselves and rebound and defend, we can be very successful."

Mundelein will carry a 15-3 record into Friday's North Suburban Lake matchup with Stevenson. On Saturday, the Mustangs will face Antioch.

A year ago, Knar's team was 29-5 and lost to conference rival Warren by eight points in the sectional final. If Mundelein is to make history by winning its first sectional championship in school history, it is likely the Mustangs will have to go through Warren.

"We still have to beat Warren. They are the perennial power. But we don't fear them," said Robert Knar. "We know what it takes to get to the sectional. If we play defense, run our offense and accept our roles, we can get over the hump. If we beat Warren, we will know that we have arrived.

"We're getting a reputation as winners. The football team was 1-8, 2-7, 1-8 and 0-9 in the last four years. Losing started to get old. If you win, fans will come to see you. People have taken a liking to us. The students have adopted us. We don't want to have a reputation as a loser anymore."

At Northridge Prep in Niles, Dick Knar started 5-15 and 9-21 at a school that had won only eight games in eight years. In his third season, he was 21-9. In his last two years, he was 20-9 and 22-11 and won a first-ever Class A sectional title.

At Mundelein, he started 4-21 and 7-21. "Brutal" was how he described it. But he won 22 games in his third season. "I could see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. Now the goal is to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time and perhaps punch a ticket to Peoria.

If the Mustangs make the trip, Robert Knar will be the conductor. He is averaging 21 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7 assists per game. He is the fourth leading scorer in school history and is leading Lake County in assists for the third year in a row. He has scored as many as 41 points in a game.

"When you have a good point guard, you don't realize how good he is until you don't have him anymore," Dick Knar said. "We hope people will press us. Robert has only 27 turnovers in 18 games. Last year, he went seven games in a row without a turnover.

"What makes him so good is he thinks he is the best player on the floor whenever he steps on the floor. He has no fear. He can control things. He is unselfish to a fault."

Robert Knar has received interest from Stanford and Virginia but he admits he probably prefers the "homey atmosphere" of smaller schools such as Northern Iowa and Bucknell. They have offered. So have Central Michigan, Santa Clara, Illinois State and Toledo.

"I visited Stanford and it didn't scare me," he said. "But Northern Iowa or Bucknell are more my style. They are a good fit. They are on my mind the most. They give me a lot of attention. Bucknell said I am one of their top priorities.

"Mid-major and high-major doesn't matter anymore. You get great competition everywhere. The Missouri Valley is a great conference. Northern Iowa is a small school but they have proven that they can play with anyone in basketball."

But recruiting is taking a backseat to completing his junior season in style. Robert Knar teams with 6-foot-6 junior Sean O'Brien (15 ppg, 10 rpg, 52 blocks), 6-foot-4 junior Chino Ebube (10 ppg, 6 rpg), 5-foot-10 sophomore point guard Nate Williams (5 ppg) and 6-foot-1 senior Nate Brune (7 ppg, 33 three-pointers).

More firepower is provided by 5-foot-10 senior guard Jordan Wiegold (6 ppg) and 6-foot-3 junior Cliff Dunigan, who has scored 20 or more points in three games.

Robert Knar and O'Brien were guards at the lower levels. But O'Brien grew from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-6 and retained his point guard skills while developing into a shot blocker. He is a matchup nightmare for most opponents. Ebube is back after missing nine games while attending his grandmother's funeral in Nigeria.

"We need to be more consistent," the coach said. "We have to learn what level of intensity it takes to practice every day. We're working on ways to rebound better as a group. We must get our guards to go after the boards. We must rebound consistently. That's the biggest key for us."

Knar's players also see the light at the end of the tunnel. "From a standpoint of talent and athleticism, we are good. There is a maturation process we have to go through to be as good as last year. We are getting there. We are imposing our will on other teams. We feel we can get on a roll," Robert Knar said.

He cites his team's recent victory over conference rival Libertyville. "They cut our lead from 18 points to four. An inexperienced team wouldn't have won. They had momentum. But we held it together and won by 12," he said.

"We will outlast people. That's our edge, what will make the difference in tough games. We are in good condition. We have good shooting. We have multiple guys who can go for 20 points in any game. And we have a deep bench and quickness. That will enable us to outlast opponents."

Robert Knar said he and his teammates have been mapping out their goals for the 2011-12 season ever since a preseason meeting.

"The school never has gotten beyond the sectional. It was a cloud hanging over our heads," he said. "At that team meeting, we explained what it would take to get to state. Some thought they were afraid. But we said we have to do it together. It is starting to evolve now. It is catching on with the whole team. We're starting to believe. We think we can knock off Warren and Stevenson. We have the right guys to do it."

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

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USA TODAY

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the two-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem said. “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

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USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

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