Monday's Mailbag: Breaking down the Bulls

986745.png

Monday's Mailbag: Breaking down the Bulls

What's just a day off work for some and a moment of historic importance for many others is a smorgasbord of basketball on all levels, as professional, college and high school (such as Chicago's Simeon Career Academy, which beat perennial national power Oak Hill Academy of Virginia in an afternoon game taking place in Springfield, Mass., the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame) games being played and televised all over the nation for fans, hopefully with a reprieve from their jobs, to enjoy. In the NBA, the Bulls host the Lakers in the league's nightcap affair Monday on the league's Martin Luther King Day slate of games, after playing the matinee game in Memphis -- where Derrick Rose attended college--the last few seasons.
In many ways, the two teams are having opposite seasons, as the Lakers were thought to be a title contender after acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the offseason, while the Bulls were considered an afterthought by many, given Derrick's absence.
Instead, the Bulls are in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference, while the dysfunctional Lakers, struggling with injuries and on their third coach of the season, are currently out of the Western Conference playoff picture.
Regardless of what happens this season, it just goes to show that preseason predictions, supposed mindset into the psyche of locker rooms and advanced statistics can't account for what occurs on the court, as the games still have to be played. Sure, the Lakers could go on a run and get back into postseason contention and the schizophrenic Bulls could potentially take a nosedive, especially if Luol Deng misses extended time with his recent hamstring injury.
But those scenarios are unlikely. Either way, whether you've been using the day to think about Dr. King's legacy or simply choose to spend the day watching hoops, it's a time that can be used for reflection.
On to the mailbag:
Do the Bulls regret drafting Marquis Teague, or is it still too early to tell?
Terry, it's way to early to tell. First of all, let's remember that Marquis is only 19, the team's third-string point guard -- fourth on the depth chart upon Derrick's return -- and has had limited opportunities to play. The Bulls knew all of that coming into the season and when he's seen action, I'd say that he's acquitted himself fairly well for a rookie who doesn't get a lot of reps besides individual drills. Playing for Thibs, Marquis isn't allowed to make mistakes and when he's received extended minutes, he's shown flashes of his potential, especially considering that he's held his own against the likes of Boston's Rajon Rondo, Brooklyn's Deron Williams and Philadelphia's Jrue Holiday, all top-tier point guards.
At this point, I think the Bulls are at least satisfied with what they've seen, particularly when one considers that many, including myself, thought he could be relegated to the D-League after his mediocre summer-league showing. Looking ahead, the Bulls could potentially have a top-tier backup point guard and with his speed on the floor, the possibility of having him on the court with Derrick simultaneously is very intriguing, a la Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe with the Clippers.
Is it a stretch to call the Bulls the favorite in the East if a healthy Rose returns?
Jack, I'd say so. Miami is still the defending champion and although the Heat have been underwhelming at times and still need to solve their interior issues, they do have the game's top player, as well as two other All-Stars. After Miami, however, it's a bit of a toss-up, as none of the Knicks, Pacers, Nets, Hawks and Bucks are truly intimidating. In a seven-game series, I have a hard time decisively picking any of those teams to beat the Bulls as presently assembled and assuming Derrick is at least a semblance of his old self, the chemistry is still strong and they can develop more consistency, specifically at home, they have as good of a chance of anybody in the East to dethrone the Heat.
How will Kirk Hinrich's and Nate Robinson's minutes shake out when Rose returns? When he's healthy (no minutes restriction?)
Conor, only Thibs knows the answer to that question, but I'll take a guess. Honestly, I don't know if Derrick will be cleared for a heavy workload this season and I can't say if Nate will be back next season. Hypothetically though, if there's no overly restrictive minutes limit by season's end, let's pencil Derrick in for 30 a night, though I suspect it could be less. I could see Thibs utilizing Kirk and perhaps Nate in the backcourt with Derrick for short stretches, though he's not a huge fan of having two small guards on the floor together at the same time. Let's say that against teams that go small, he does that for a three-minute period, just to showcase a different look, as well as to give himself a strategic exercise for those late nights and early mornings at the Berto Center.
I'd assume that Kirk would get that handful of minutes, as well as serving as Derrick's primary backup, the role he was signed for, as many people seem to forget. I'd think that Kirk would play the bulk of the remaining 15-plus minutes per game at point guard, with Nate on the fringe of the rotation, not playing some nights and being used as a situational substitute or when the offense needs a boost.
Given the intensity of the Boston game Friday, who right now is the Bulls biggest rival?
Luke, the Celtics are definitely one of the Bulls' top rivals, given the recent history between the teams, not to mention Thibs' ties to Boston. Indiana, being so close geographically, a Central Division foe and a team that greatly desires to unseat the Bulls, is also up there. The Knicks should also be considered, as the Bulls have links to New York -- almost the entire coaching staff either worked for the Knicks or is from New York, not to mention Taj and Jo being from the Big Apple, the fact that players just get up for games at Madison Square Garden and the past battles of the Jordan-Ewing era -- and this season's matchups have been extremely competitive. However, Miami has to be the team the Bulls view as their biggest rival and I'd suspect that the Heat, if pressed, would say the same thing, at least when it comes to Eastern Conference opponents. The sting of the playoff defeat two years ago hasn't faded away yet and even since then, virtually every Bulls-Heat game has been an absolute dogfight.
What is the difference between Rose and Shumpert injuries?
@paulconner33, Derrick and Shumpert, a native of nearby Oak Park, Ill., were hurt the same day. But while they both suffered torn ACL injuries, Shumpert had his surgery 10 days before Derrick had his, something that was done to reduce the swelling before the procedure. Beyond that, however, no two injuries are exactly the same, no two players heal exactly the same way and no two medical staffs have the same approach. Also, I'm not saying the Knicks are putting Shumpert in any danger by letting him return to the floor prior to Derrick, but although the second-year guard is seen as a major part of New York's future, he's not the face of the franchise like Rose is to the Bulls. As impatient as people are to see Derrick playing again, the caution exercised by the Bulls is prudent, especially after seeing Minnesota point guard Ricky Rubio experience back spasms after he returned to action, whether his ailments were related to his surgically-repaired ACL or not.

Notre Dame fires defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder

Notre Dame fires defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder

Notre Dame fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on Sunday, ending a rocky three-year tenure in South Bend. 

Greg Hudson was named interim defensive coordinator. VanGorder is the first assistant coach fired by coach Brian Kelly at Notre Dame. 

"This is a difficult decision," Kelly said in a statement. "I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn't it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.

"It's never easy to make a change on your staff, but I'm confident in Greg's ability to lead our defense. As a former player at Notre Dame and an experienced defensive coordinator, he not only understands the expectations necessary to compete at the highest level, but he'll bring a fresh perspective to our sideline, practice field and meeting rooms."

Fitzgerald's diagnosis for 1-3 Northwestern: 'Those are the things that losers do'

Fitzgerald's diagnosis for 1-3 Northwestern: 'Those are the things that losers do'

Four games. Three losses. And Pat Fitzgerald is not happy.

Nor should he be after the way his team played in a 24-13 loss to 20th-ranked Nebraska on Saturday night in Evanston. The Wildcats have issues that perhaps shouldn't be expected to be overcome against a team has loaded with offensive firepower as the Huskers, but when Nebraska gifted Northwestern a pair of goal-line fumbles, taking 14 points off the board, it seemed like a game the Cats could have — and maybe even should have — won. It's because the offense not doing anything with those fumbles wasn't the lone mistake in the game, not by a long shot. Fitzgerald laid them all out in succession, his team's Saturday-night screw-ups: holding penalties that negated key third-down conversions, a Clayton Thorson interception in the end zone that snuffed out momentum, a missed extra point and a missed field goal by increasingly inaccurate kicker Jack Mitchell and a defense that was shredded for 556 yards of Nebraska offense.

So yeah, Fitz was not happy.

"You cannot do that and expect to win. Those are the things that losers do," the head coach said after the defeat. "And when you’re 1-3, that’s why you’re at where you’re at. When you self-inflict, when you get penalties in crunch-time situations, you throw interceptions in the red zone, you miss extra points, you miss field goals — want me to keep going? You keep adding all those things up, it ends up equaling a loss. And we’ve had three of those games.

"The young men in that locker room have got to figure out the discipline that it takes to be a winner consistently. We’ve typically been that way during my time, and for whatever reason right now we are choosing not to do that. And I’ve got to get that fixed, that’s the bottom line. We know how to win, but we can’t do the things that losers do. That’s what we’re doing right now. You are what your record says it is, and it’s not very good. We’ve got to get it fixed, and we’ve got to get it fixed in a hurry."

Saturday, the list of mistakes was long, but this style of play hasn't been limited to one week or one night. Season-opening losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State came in gut-wrenching fashion, first thanks to a Thorson fumble at the goal line and second on a walk-off field goal to an FCS opponent. All three losses have come in the friendly confines of Ryan Field, but that home-field comfort hasn't prevented Thorson from turning the ball over, play from both the offensive and defensive lines that earned press-confrerence call-outs from Fitzgerald, a banged-up secondary getting a similar tongue-lashing Saturday and a defense as a whole not playing in a fashion that mirrors the at-times dominating performances that unit turned in a year ago.

So excuse Fitzgerald if he can't pinpoint one thing that's disappointed him the most.

"I think the biggest disappointment is three losses," Fitzgerald said. "Three games that if we play the way we’re capable of, we have an opportunity to win all three. That starts and ends with me. I’m going to look hard at why we’re not playing and executing consistently. Are we asking guys to do too much? Are we thinking out there? You can make an excuse for the young guys, but if you go out with the 1s, you’re expected to perform. And if you don’t perform, you don’t deserve the right to go back out there as the 1.

"We’re four games in. There’s enough evidence on tape of who we are, and now we’re a very inconsistent football team. And that fits squarely on my shoulders. I’m not going to pout, I’m not going to feel sorry for myself. The only way I know how to fix it is to go out and do it, go out and practice it, go out and fix it."

The head coach is putting the blame on himself, but the players aren't shrinking from their responsibilities, either.

On offense, in particular, things have not gone well. Finishing drives was a particular talking point Saturday after the Cats had seven drives end in Nebraska territory, with another stopping at midfield, but coming away with just scores on just two of those drives. Northwestern reached the red zone just once but had three other drives end inside the 30-yard line — with two interceptions and a turnover on downs.

Getting close to the end zone but coming away with nothing is a fine little microcosm for the season as a whole. The three losses have been by a combined 14 points. But you don't get a win for getting close.

"We’re close, and I think as a team, looking at our three losses, we’re tired of being close," wide receiver Austin Carr said. "Offensively, we need to finish. Defensively, we need to put a whole game together. I’m telling the guys that we have to come together stronger, we can’t let this break us, we can’t let these losses ruin our whole season, we can’t throw in the towel. We’re going to focus on going 1-0, we’re going to learn from our mistakes, we’re going to look forward, we have to keep pushing.

"It’s just mental toughness. Getting deep into a drive, we have to lock it in. ... I think we had a lot of great preparation this week. Winning a Big Ten game is hard. I think we can just get tougher in the head game."

Winning in the Big Ten is hard. Unfortunately, the Cats found winning outside the Big Ten to be hard, too. Things will get tougher before they get easier. Next up is a game at Iowa, and that's followed by Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin in three of the four games after the visit to the Hawkeye State. Northwestern is still getting its feet under it, something that proved difficult against teams from the MAC and from the FCS. Doing it against Big Ten title contenders is a whole different challenge, as the Cats found out the hard way on Saturday night.

"We go out to Iowa City, we’ve got to perform. That’s going to be tough. That’s going to be an awesome environment, they’ve got unbelievable fans. It’s going to be an incredibly huge challenge for us, and if we don’t go out there with the right attitude and the right preparation, we’ll get our fannies whipped, we’ll get crushed," Fitzgerald said. "So these guys better figure it out pretty quick. They better walk out of the locker room, they better hug whoever they love, they better go to bed, then they better wake up and get ready to get their rear ends coached off this week. Because that’s what’s going to happen.

"I’m not going to sit here and I’m not going to take it and I’m not going to accept it. They better buckle it up. They better start hydrating right now. Because it’s not acceptable the way we’re playing right now. Starts and ends with me, so I’ll fix it."