NIU's amazing season could end with BCS Bowl bid

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NIU's amazing season could end with BCS Bowl bid

Notre Dame may not be the only Chicagoland team to play in a BCS Bowl game.

Northern Illinois has steadily emerged as one of the country's top teams, cracking the BCS Standings at No. 21 Sunday.

The Huskies take on No. 17 Kent State in the MAC Championship Friday night, with tipoff scheduled for 6 p.m. The game will be aired on ESPN2. The winner may have a chance at earning a bid to a BCS bowl game, which would be the first time a MAC team has earned such an honor.

"We've definitely earned national respect as a conference," NIU head coach Dave Doeren said in his press conference Monday. "And it's not like only one team had a great year. There's multitude of teams that have had big wins this year in our league over BCS teams.

"If you can win this league, that says a lot about who you are. It's a very balanced league with a lot of good football teams in it and very good coaches. It'd be deserving for the best team to get the opportunity to play or whatever BCS game they put us in."

Both NIU and Kent State are 11-1 overall and 8-0 in conference play, but it was Kent State's victory over nationally-ranked Rutgers Oct. 27 that gave the Golden Flashes the boost. The Huskies' lone loss of the year came to Iowa, a one-point game played at Soldier Field on the first weekend of the season.

"Nine teams lost that were ranked higher than us, so that really opened up some doors," Doeren said. "But none of them are worth their salt if we lose this weekend. We have to win. We put ourselves in a position to make it a real argument and now we need to finish what we started here."

Junior quarterback Jordan Lynch has accounted for most of NIU's offense, racking up 2,750 passing yards and 1,611 rushing yards to go with 39 TDs (23 passing, 16 rushing) and just 4 interceptions. The Huskies rank eighth in the FBS in rushing yards (2,940) and fourth in touchdowns (64).

With 147 rushing yards in the MAC Championship, Lynch would become the country's leading rusher, passing Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, who currently has 1,757 yards.

Senior receiver Martel Moore has provided a great go-to option for Lynch in the aerial game, catching 67 balls for 1,015 yards and 11 scores. Sophomore receiver Tommylee Lewis has added 40 catches for 474 yards and 5 TDs, and has a kickoff return touchdown to boot.

Kent State boasts the 10th-best rushing offense in the league, led by junior Dri Archer (1,337 yards, 14 TDs) and sophomore Trayion Durham (1,176 yards, 14 TDs). Archer is averaging an astonishing 9.7 yards per carry and is also the team's leading receiver with 30 catches for 458 yards and 4 TDs.

"It's not a BCS talk if you lose," Doeren said. "It's pretty simple -- if you lose this game, we don't talk about it next week. It's real easy to lock them into winning this one. The challenge to me was the week before this game and the week before Toledo. Those were the games that scared me more than these kinds of games.

"When you're playing your rival for a chance to go to the championship, and then you're playing the championship for a chance to maybe play in the BCS, there's not a lot you need to say. These guys are gonna be ready."

NBA Buzz: With trade deadline looming, Bulls' season at a crossroads

NBA Buzz: With trade deadline looming, Bulls' season at a crossroads

With an extremely difficult six-game road trip right around the corner, it's safe to say we'll have a pretty good idea about the Bulls' playoff hopes by mid February, which just happens to be right before the league's trade deadline on Feb. 23.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg says he talks about big picture issues with his players "all the time" but acknowledges the perspective from the coaching staff has to be on preparing for the next game. Still, with Atlanta playing its best basketball of the season and the Wizards also enjoying a New Year's resurgence, we're probably looking at six teams (Bulls, Hornets, Pacers, Bucks, Pistons and Knicks) battling it out for the final three playoff spots in the East.

Yes, the Bulls did go 4-2 on their last extended road trip, but they were playing much more efficiently early in the season. Now, a trip that includes games against the Thunder, Rockets, Kings, Warriors, Suns and Timberwolves looks much more daunting. Even the teams with losing records will be tough to beat, considering Sacramento will be looking for payback after last Saturday's controversial loss at the United Center, the Suns are playing very well right now led by high-scoring guards Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker and Minnesota is also starting to find its way under Tom Thibodeau.

When the Bulls hit the All-Star break on Feb. 17, front-office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman should have a clear indication of which direction to pursue. Will they be looking to add another veteran scorer off the bench for a playoff run or start trading off pieces for draft picks? I'm guessing it's more likely the latter.

Right now, Taj Gibson and Niko Mirotic look to be the most tradeable commodities. Gibson will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and it seems unlikely the Bulls will be of the mind to offer a big money, long term contract to a role-playing power forward who turns 32 in June.

With the experience of losing Pau Gasol for nothing last year still fresh in their minds, look for the Bulls to pursue trades with playoff teams trying to add another piece for the stretch run. The Toronto Raptors immediately come to mind, since they've been interested in Gibson for quite some time and look at power forward as their weakest position in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup against Cleveland. Would the Raptors be willing to give up their late first-round pick for a half season of Gibson's services? If they believe they have a legitimate shot at knocking off the Cavs this season, the answer is probably yes, especially considering their star point guard Kyle Lowry can also become a free agent at season's end.

Finding equal value for Mirotic might be a more difficult proposition, especially considering his reputation around the league has taken a hit since he came over before the 2014-15 season hailed as the best prospect in Europe. Mirotic was billed as a classic "stretch 4," but to this point, he's only shooting 34 percent for his career from 3-point range, and only 31 percent this season.

Anyone who's watched Mirotic play over the last couple months can see he's battling his confidence and that he might benefit from a fresh start with a new team. Plus, it looks like the Bulls have a ready-to-go replacement on the roster in second-round draft pick Paul Zipser, coincidentally, another European import. Add in the fact Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season's end, and you can see why the Bulls might be better off exploring trade options now rather than being faced with the choice of matching a big contract offer this summer.

As for Rajon Rondo, unless he's involved as part of a blockbuster deal, there's little chance any NBA team is going to trade for the money remaining on his $14 million contract for this season. Look for the Bulls to explore buyout talks after the trade deadline.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.

All-Star reserve picks

With the announcement of NBA All-Star reserves coming Thursday, here are my picks.

Remember the coaches from each conference will select two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild card choices from any position.

In the East, I would go with Isaiah Thomas and John Wall at guard, Paul George, Kevin Love and Joel Embiid in the frontcourt and Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker as my wild card picks. I know the East will have a point guard heavy roster, but that's the way the game is trending and Lowry and Walker are more deserving in my opinion than frontcourt players like Paul Millsap and Hassan Whiteside.

In the West, I've got Russell Westbrook and Klay Thompson as my reserve guards, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Gordon Hayward in the frontcourt and Marc Gasol and Damian Lillard as my wild card picks. Apologies to other worthy choices in the West like Draymond Green, C.J. McCollum, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, but in case you haven't noticed, Jordan is having the best season of his career (averaging 13 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks a game while shooting 69 percent from the field) and he's kept the Clippers afloat with the injuries to both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.

Boston's Thomas deserved to start All-Star Game

Back to the East, Thomas really should have been voted a starter. All he's done this season is average 29 points and six assists a game, carrying Boston to the third best record in the conference. But more impressively, the 5-foot-9 dynamo leads all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring, averaging just over 10 points during winning time.

And, one thing we know for sure, the last player selected in the 2011 draft isn't lacking for confidence. Check out these tweets from the unlikely Celtics' star:

For years now, we've been hearing about Celtics general manager Danny Ainge looking to package some of his haul of future draft picks for a veteran star (like the Bulls' Jimmy Butler). Turns out his under-the-radar deal for Thomas back in February 2015 brought the C's a big-time scorer in one of the league's smallest players.

Stats of the week

Speaking of Butler, our stats "cruncher" Chris Kamka highlights some of the accomplishments that earned Jimmy Buckets the first All-Star start of his career.

— Butler has four games with 40 or more points this season, the most by a Bulls player in a season since Michael Jordan's 12 in 1997-98.

— He is the first Bulls player with three 40-point games over a six-game span since Jordan in January 1998.

— Butler put up 52 points, 12 rebounds and six assists on Jan. 2 vs. Hornets, the first time in United Center history a player had a game with at least 50 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

— He has two career 50-plus-point games, joining Jordan (38) as the only Bulls players with more than one (including playoffs).

— Butler had a streak of 15 straight games with 20 or more points this season, the longest such streak by a Bulls player since Jordan's last 23 games with Bulls (including playoffs).

— His 9.7 free-throw attempts per game this season are the most by a Bulls player since Jordan's 9.8 per game in 1988-89.

— Butler has attempted 10 or more free throws in 24 of his 43 games this season. He attempted 20 or more free throws twice.

Butler has improved his points per game in every year of his career:

— 2011-12: 2.6 PPG
— 2012-13: 8.6 PPG
— 2013-14: 13.1 PPG
— 2014-15: 20.0 PPG
— 2015-16: 20.9 PPG
— 2016-17: 24.8 PPG

Most 40-point game in Bulls history, including playoffs:

— Michael Jordan: 203
— Bob Love: 13
— Jimmy Butler: 7
— Ben Gordon: 5
— Scottie Pippen: 5
— Reggie Theus: 5

Quote of the week

And finally, with so many trade rumors circulating around the league these days, it was refreshing to hear Pistons coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy give beat reporters some candid comments about what actually goes on between front office execs, courtesy of the Detroit News.

"These discussions happen all the time, and I love it when teams say somebody is off limits. I won't lie to my guys. There's no one in this league who is off limits," Van Gundy said. "Who's the most off-limits guy? LeBron? What if the Warriors offered Kevin Durant and Steph Curry? They wouldn't consider that? There's no deal they wouldn't consider?

"Everybody's available. I got asked a question the other day: There's a report out there that Reggie (Jackson)'s available for the right price. Everyone in the league is available for the right price. It's just for your main guys, the right price is a lot steeper and usually doesn't come around."

Interesting stuff from the always-quotable Van Gundy. But I don't think we'll have to worry about that James-for-Durant-and-Curry suggestion getting a lot of play before the deadline.

Forza Blue: Michigan to spend a week of spring practice in Rome

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USA TODAY

Forza Blue: Michigan to spend a week of spring practice in Rome

Forza Blue.

Michigan football is going to Italy. The Wolverines will spend a week of spring football practice in Rome come April, the latest in Jim Harbaugh's globetrotting efforts to expand the Michigan football brand to every corner of the Earth.

According to the school, which announce the Rome trip Monday, Michigan players will spend a week practicing as well as immersing themselves in the Italian culture, visiting historic sites and visiting orphanages and with U.S. service members.

"We were looking to provide our student-athletes with a great educational, cultural and international football experience," Harbaugh said in the announcement. "I am excited that our student-athletes will be able to take advantage of this amazing educational opportunity, be exposed to another culture and be ambassadors for the United States and the University of Michigan during our visit to Rome."

On the surface, this looks like yet another wild stunt in line with Harbaugh's satellite camp tour an offseason ago, where he seemed to hold camps in every state and wear a jersey of every NFL team.

But really this isn't much different than what college basketball programs do all the time. Programs from large conferences routinely take overseas trips to play against pro teams in foreign countries. Michigan State recently took a trip to Italy. Northwestern recently visited Spain. Illinois recently took an offseason trip to Europe.

Of course transporting a college football team across the ocean is a bit more logistically involved than a basketball team, given the roster differences, but this is something plenty of college athletic programs do on a regular basis. And it is an awesome opportunity for these student-athletes, the kind of experiences universities should be providing.

"Over the past few decades student-athletes in other sports have had the opportunity to participate in international training trips to practice and prepare for the upcoming season," Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel said in the announcement. "This is a tremendous opportunity for these young men to learn about and experience another culture, connect with the people of Italy and showcase American football internationally. The University of Michigan has always encouraged our students to gain knowledge through international experiences, and we are so glad to provide them with this opportunity."

Still, because it's Harbaugh, it's sure to draw a ton of attention. And surely that can't be viewed as a bad thing for Harbaugh and his program.