Scheelhaase ready for Illini's new spread offense

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Scheelhaase ready for Illini's new spread offense

Count quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase among the fans of Illinois new spread offense.
He rattled off qualities of new coach Tim Beckmans scheme. The up-tempo offense will spread the field and spawn opportunities for several players to make big plays. The offense is also something Scheelhaase is used to. The Illini ran aspread when he redshirted during his first year in 2009.
Now all of a sudden, things come full circle and I get that chance again, Scheelhaase said Friday at Big Ten Football Media Day at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago. Im really excited about that opportunity to run more of a high-tempo, high-octane offense that really gets the ball rolling.
Thats something all of our players really are excited about. It gets more guys a chance to make plays with the ball in their hands. It gets more guys opportunity to have one-on-ones, and that should be every playmakers dream, to have the ball one-on-one with a defensive player with the chance to score.
With the spread offense, Beckmans Toledo team in 2011 averaged 42.2 points per game, eighth in the nation. The Illini, who averaged 22.6 points last season in finishing 7-6 under former coach Ron Zook, would welcome more points.
We have a great staff, and we know that theyre going to put us in the position to make plays, center Graham Pocic said. We just have to go out there and make plays for them.
With the possibility of several players making big plays, Scheelhaase was hard pressed to name the Illinis go-to player. Scheelhaases top target in 2011, first-team all-Big Ten receiver A.J. Jenkins, has departed to the NFL.
Scheelhaase will be looking for other targets. Different players could step up each game.
Im sure there will be certain games Ryan (Lankford) has a bunch of catches and a bunch of yards, and the next game (wide receiver) Spencer (Harris) steps up and makes a lot of plays, Scheelhaase said. The next game, we go to the tight ends a whole lot.
The possibility also exists that Illinois will use two quarterbacks. At Toledo, Beckman played two quarterbacks. As of now, Scheelhaase is slated to be the third-year starter, but Reilly OToole whos more of a thrower than Scheelhaase is expected to push for playing time. Beckman said the Illini will play the quarterback whos most consistent and successful in moving the offense.
Having Nate and Reilly and Miles (Osei) back there (at quarterback), theres so much versatility between the three of them. We can do so much different stuff, Pocic said. We have the offensive staff thats willing to do a bunch of different stuff.
While trying to score more points, the Illini aim to reach their full potential, Scheelhaase said. After beginning last season 6-0, Illinois lost all their games in the second half.The Illini want to turn their talent into better results on the field. Four players from last years team went in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.
Weve had a ton of great players that have come through here in recent years. Theres a ton of talent on our team right now, Scheelhaase said. Weve just got to do the best we can at maximizing that talent and putting it all together and realizing its not oneplayer or one great athlete on the team.

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 told CSNChicago.com. “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

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