Too early in Bulls' season to push panic button

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Too early in Bulls' season to push panic button

At this early juncture of the regular season, it seems like every other team across the NBA is in panic mode. For a Bucks team feeling like they're experiencing a resurgence and has a chance to sneak up on unsuspecting foes with a new style of play, there's a Bulls squad that believes that right now, not even into the month of December yet, it's do-or-die time.

Elsewhere in the Central Division, Indiana also appears worried, with go-to scorer Danny Granger sidelined indefinitely and up-and-coming youngsters like All-Star center Roy Hibbert and swingman Paul George supposedly struggling under the weight of increased expectations.

Look at Washington, now 0-12 on the campaign, a 76ers team whose notoriously demanding fans are a step away from burning Andrew Bynum in effigy, not to mention teams out West, specifically in Los Angeles, where the Clippers' honeymoon appears to be ending after their hot start, let alone the continuous drama surrounding the Lakers, whose ongoing saga is now focused on Pau Gasol fitting into new head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense. Compared to those situations, the 6-7 Bulls, playing in a wide-open Eastern Conference, without Derrick Rose, and not even a third of the way through the season, are living on easy street.

But after such a stunning loss Monday night, a 93-92 defeat on the back end of a home-and-home with Milwaukee, somehow the sky is now falling and Tom Thibodeau, the fastest coach to 100 wins in NBA history and just two seasons removed from winning the league's Coach of the Year award, is incompetent. Nobody took the loss, in which the Bulls surrendered a 27-point lead late in the third quarter, harder than Thibodeau.

To be sure, while he won't openly admit it, he made some mistakes, such as riding his starters against an energized, confident and loose Bucks second unit, instead of perhaps making defensive substitutions to quell Milwaukee's extended run. Let's not forget that for all of Thibodeau's experience as an assistant coach, this is only his third season as a head coach and even the best of his peers--including maybe the top dog of them all, Phil Jackson, a familiar face around these parts, who coached his final game with Lakers in embarrassing fashion, as Dallas ran his team off the court in a playoff upset back in 2011--and while overall, he's already widely regarded as one of the top five coaches in the NBA (behind San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, his former boss, Chicago native Doc Rivers and arguably, one or two others, including Rick Carlisle of the Mavericks, who the Bulls host Wednesday), he'll coach the occasional strategic dud during a regular-season campaign that spans 82 games.

Observers will point to his clear lack of trust in his bench, of which he only used three players--Taj Gibson (18 minutes), Jimmy Butler (12 minutes) and Nate Robinson (10 minutes)--Monday evening. On the other hand, given that the Bulls have seven newcomers to the roster and only the aforementioned trio has truly distinguished themselves on a semi-consistent basis, one can see why Thibodeau would utilize such a short rotation.

Likely to join 19-year-old rookie Marquis Teague (more on him later) and veteran forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who doesn't possess the most sterling defensive reputation, on the nightly DNP-CD list is backup center Nazr Mohammed, who had a stellar preseason, but appears to be slowly grasping Thibodeau's defensive schemes, something that's a death knell for playing time, as well as seemingly having a more score-first mentality than the coach prefers from his experienced big men, such as Kurt Thomas, the former Bulls reserve and league's oldest player, who started Monday evening for New York.

Then, there's reserve shooting guard Marco Belinelli, who still hasn't found his shooting stroke and hasn't shown enough in other aspects of the game to earn Thibodeau's trust, leading to Butler taking his minutes in the rotation, along with backing up iron-man starter Luol Deng, he of the 47 minutes in Monday's contest.

The Bulls also have a point-guard conundrum, as Kirk Hinrich--who had his best game of the season Monday, scoring 17 points and perhaps more significantly, getting to the foul line nine times, making eight of his attempts--while he has the defensive approach and floor-general mindset Thibodeau likes, has struggled mightily with his shot and is no longer the creator off the dribble he was during his original stint with the Bulls.

Meanwhile, Robinson, whose playing time dwindled in the squad's past two outings--coinciding with his ball-security and shot-selection difficulties at the end of last week's loss at Houston, the second of two aborted comebacks he was the catalyst for during the "Circus Trip"--might be the lone Bull with the ability to create for himself, but despite his dynamic scoring ability, his shoot-first tendencies and looseness with the ball are things, that at least in the present, apparently stress out Thibodeau too much to deal with on an extended basis.

This is where Teague comes in. Judging from the way Thibodeau refused to immediately gift Butler playing time after his outstanding offseason, having a professional season under his belt and Ronnie Brewer's departure clearing a way for him to get into the rotation, it's far-fetched that the coach entrusts a teenager with running his offense, but the youngster's quickness off the bounce, surprising defensive acumen and--admittedly, based off a small sample size, the Bulls' home loss to Boston, in which he showed no fear in dueling Celtics All-Star Rajon Rondo, arguably the best active point guard in the game--poise might make sense to try, if not now, then after the team eventually gets over its current woes, as Teague can only improve with on-court experience, has more playmaking potential than Hinrich and due to his length, more defensive ability than the diminutive Robinson, let alone possessing more of a pass-first inclination.

Speaking of the aforementioned Butler, the second-year swingman's role as an energy player and defensive specialist seems secure, but while he's proven to be an adept finisher, has the ability to score off offensive rebounds, make hustle plays and thrive in transition, until he exhibits more confidence in his outside jumper, he's not a reliable scoring option, nor is he expected to be. Unfortunately, Gibson is also in that category at the moment, as he's gotten off to a slow start this season offensively and hasn't been the same defensive presence that was the primary basis for him earning a long-term contract extension.

Rip Hamilton, who scored a season-high 30 points Monday, his best outing in a Bulls uniform thus far, obviously still has something left in the tank, his inconsistent usage and the fact that he's an inferior defender to Butler--regardless of him being the Bulls' top perimeter scoring threat, Thibodeau's defensive mindset means the veteran will sometimes get the short end of the stick--puts him in night-to-night limbo, depending on how the game is going. The same goes for Carlos Boozer, as it's been throughout his tenure in Chicago, but without Rose's unique offensive talents, it's more glaring when the much-maligned power forward either isn't having a productive evening or when he's not on the floor, making his playing time even more scrutinized than it was before.

The only two players who are guaranteed locks to play heavy minutes every night are Deng and Joakim Noah, the latter of which has joined his All-Star teammate among the league leaders in minutes per game this season. However, while the two longest-tenured Bulls give a supreme effort defensively each time they step out on the floor and have been, overall consistent scorers early in the campaign, neither of them are the type that measure themselves by their point production.

That all sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in a long NBA season, things change: Thibodeau, with all of his years of experience working on sidelines in different cities, knows that players develop, perform the tasks coaches are looking for, step up during times of adversity, play their way out of slumps, jell with their teammates, work to improve various aspects of their games and simply have enough pride to rise to the occasion. Just a couple of years ago, the acclaimed "Bench Mob" appeared to be an underwhelming group--of course, now they've turned into the most celebrated second unit in basketball history--when they first came together and as time went on, morphed into one of the strengths of the squad.

Perception is reality and in no way can the Bulls' current roster be compared to last season's when evaluating players from an individual standpoint, but these players are professionals for a reason and taking into consideration the track record of Thibodeau and the core holdover players, as well as a weak division and conference, it's way too early to be pressing the panic button, even if the minutes-per-game numbers--a statistic needlessly pored over by fans, as perceived overuse of players has only become an issue in the last decade or so, with the advanced-statistic movement giving observers the opportunity to skew numbers as a way to justify performance, for better or worse--are considered alarming.

As much as Monday's loss resembled the notorious home defeat to Sacramento during current head coach Vinny Del Negro's embattled final season in Chicago, let's remember that under Thibodeau, the team's ongoing skid is the worst the team has experienced and in an NBA season in which even the league's elite experience ups and downs, not only is dropping four out of five games a relatively mild downturn, it's not like the Bulls have dug themselves a hole they can't get out of.

All of the aforementioned facts underscore the most basic truth: Chicago is spoiled. With the Michael Jordan championship era only two decades ago and Rose's emergence as a superstar coinciding with Thibodeau's instant success upon arrival, the Windy City is an impatient metropolis when it comes to hoops, as titles are the only thing that really resonate with fans.

But in a season that had low expectations dating back to May--when Rose suffered his devastating ACL injury--there's no reason to jump the gun and assume that, because of disappointing losses in the first month of the campaign, the Bulls are a lost cause, with the exception of hoping for the hometown hero's return. Give both Thibodeau and these Bulls some time to find their stride and it could very well be rewarded in a pleasantly surprising finish, making the rising controversy about something that at best, will be humorous memory and at worst, a long-forgotten issue.

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

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USA TODAY

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

There were six teams deserving of reaching the College Football Playoff this season. But there were only four spots.

But what if there were more spots?

An expansion of the Playoff field to eight teams has seemed inevitable from the day the four-team system was announced. Four more Playoff games means oodles more TV viewers, which means oodles more dollars.

And then we wouldn't be having all these arguments, either — but that's nonsense because of course we would, trying to figure out who got snubbed from the expanded bracket.

But this season's emphasis on the conference-champion debate might kick the efforts to expand the Playoff into high gear. Just take it from NCAA president Mark Emmert.

Now, technically speaking, there are 10 FBS conferences, each of which crowns a champion at the end of every football season. Emmert is obviously referring to the Power Five conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC. He might want to pick his words a bit more carefully, considering he represents the other five conferences — the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt — too, but his point remains understood.

This season has sparked a ton of controversy as the Playoff selection committee opted for the first time to include a team that did not win its conference, Ohio State, and it picked the Buckeyes over the Big Ten champs, Penn State. Plus, Big 12 champion Oklahoma was passed over in favor of non-champion Ohio State, too, actually falling behind another non-champion from the Big Ten, Michigan, in the final Playoff rankings.

With that decision brought the reasonable question of how much a conference championship should matter in getting a team into the final four and competing for a national championship.

The Playoff committee's mission is to pick the country's four best teams, and there aren't many people out there that will argue that Ohio State isn't one of the country's four best teams. But there's something to be said for winning a conference championship because if the Buckeyes can waltz into the Playoff without even playing in the Big Ten title game, why even have a conference championship game — besides, obviously, earning one more night of big-time TV money.

And so the call for an expanded Playoff bracket has reached perhaps its greatest volume in the short time the Playoff has existed. The obvious solution to Power Five conference champions continually being boxed out is to lock in five spots on the bracket for the five conference champions. Then, guarantee a spot for the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences, and you're left with two "at-large" spots that this season would've gone to Ohio State and Michigan, two of the highest-profile programs in the country sure to drive TV viewership in battles against conference-champion Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma teams. And P.J. Fleck's undefeated Western Michigan squad takes the final slot.

That's quite the field. But if you think it would've solved all this year's problems, you're wrong. Still there would've been outcry that red-hot USC didn't make the field. The Trojans are playing so well that they could very well win the whole thing, despite their three early season losses. That debate over snubs will exist forever, no matter the size of the field, something we see play out each and every season in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Also, what a damper an expanded bracket would put on the final few weeks of the regular season. Ohio State's game against Michigan, the highest-rated game of the college football season with more than 16 million people watching, would've been effectively meaningless. No matter who won or lost, both teams would've made that eight-team field, right?

Additionally, another round of Playoff football would expand the season to 16 games for some teams. That means more physical demands on student-athletes and a season cutting deep into January, which would impact their educational and time demands.

But again, an expansion of the Playoff bracket has always seemed inevitable. There's too much money to be made, and at the same time fans seem to be all about that idea. People love the postseason for good reason, and the win-or-go-home nature of the NFL playoffs make those games the most-watched sporting events of the year.

Now the NCAA president is chiming in with hopes of an expanded field. So really isn't it just a matter of time?

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

CSN's Chris Boden and Tracey Myers have the latest on the Blackhawks in the Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda Dealers.

From an injury standpoint, it's been a tough few weeks for the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks are down two key players in captain Jonathan Toews and goaltender Corey Crawford, and now may be without defenseman Brent Seabrook who sustained an upper-body injury in Tuesday's victory over the Arizona Coyotes.

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While the Blackhawks haven't had much luck on the injury front, their upcoming two opponents are in the same boat.

"You look at the New York Rangers, a very talented team, but this is what every team goes through every season. Your depth gets tested," Myers said.

Check out what else Boden and Myers had to say about the team's upcoming matchups in this week's Honda Road Ahead