Pacers, Heat opine on effects of Rose injury, Bulls' future


Pacers, Heat opine on effects of Rose injury, Bulls' future

INDIANAPOLIS--Just because the Bulls are out of the playoffs doesn't mean they're not a team on the minds of their rivals. Across the entire NBA, players felt sympathy for Chicago after Derrick Rose's devastating, season-ending torn left ACL injury at the end Game 1 of the Bulls' first-round playoff opener against Philadelphia, ultimately resulting in the top-seeded Bulls falling to the 76ers and Rose undergoing surgery, which will require him to miss between eight months to a year of action as he rehabilitates.

The team the Bulls eliminated from last year's playoffs, Indiana, and the team the Bulls were defeated by in the postseason, Miami, are perhaps the Bulls' biggest rivals and coincidentally, are currently locked into a second-round battle of their own, in which the Pacers hold a 2-1 series lead over the Heat, following Thursday night's win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. While both squads are focused on the task at hand, the NBA is a brotherhood of sorts and rivalries aside, Rose is one of the most respected players in the league, so concern was expressed for both his future and there was empathy for the Bulls as a whole, in terms of their postseason fate, though the consensus was that the team will bounce back from Rose's injury and still be competitive through his prolonged absence next season.

"That misfortune was big," Pacers veteran swingman Dahntay Jones told "You have one of the most dynamic players in the NBA going down and thats hard for them to rebound from and it was big for that series, but theyll find a way to get it together and be the force that they are."

Chimed in power forward David West: "They were the top team, basically in the NBA. Top one or two all year and you know the type of athlete and game that D-Rose has, and again, its hard sometimes to overcome that situation when you have one of the top-five guys in the world go out, especially in a playoff series, where guys can, especially defensively, lock in. Its just unfortunate that they got dealt that blow."

Heat power forward Udonis Haslem took a different tact, giving Philadelphia the benefit of the doubt, but also throwing in the fact that fellow University of Florida product Joakim Noah was also injured, suffering a severe ankle sprain in Game 3 of the first-round series.

"If Derrick was healthy, then they still would have had to get by the Sixers. Whos to say they would have still gotten by the Sixers, even if he was healthy?" wondered Haslem, whose Heat are dealing with a similar situation with All-Star Chris Bosh on the shelf after being hurt earlier in the series with the Pacers. "They also lost Noah in the playoffs, which hurt, so it could be a different series. Maybe if Noah doesn't get hurt, they still win that series."

Regardless, both teams, while not counting their eggs before they hatched, knew when the playoff seedings were set, the Bulls were a potential opponent. Indiana saw it as an opportunity to avenge last spring's postseason loss, while Miami viewed the matchup as a continuation of what has become a fierce rivalry.

"Nobody thought Derrick Rose was going to go down and we took it one series at a time, no matter who our opponent was, but in the back of our mind, yeah, we still have our memories of Chicago," Pacers swingman Paul George, who guarded Rose for much of last year's first-round series, told "Theyre always going to be a rival for us. It just seems that thats always how it makes out to be in the regular season and when you play them in the postseason, so itll be a rivalry."

Added Haslem: "You never know, but I think everybody was anticipating us to match up with the Bulls, but right now, were in a fight with the Pacers and theyre home, so its not the situation everybody envisioned."

Some observers have already written off the Bulls next season, looking at it as a semi-rebuilding year without Rose and potentially fellow All-Star Luol Deng to begin the campaign, as well as tough offseason decisions with free agents C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, not to mention backup center Omer Asik, a restricted free agent. But based on Rose's underrated supporting cast, the team's track record without him in the lineup during the regular season and Tom Thibodeau's coaching acumen, their foes don't believe it's a foregone conclusion that there will be as much slippage as one might expect.

"Its hard to say. Theyre not a bad team without him. They played a lot of this year without D-Rose," Heat point guard Mario Chalmers, who's matched up with Rose since college, when his Kansas team topped Rose's Memphis Tigers in the NCAA national-championship game, told "I still think they can contend for a title. Theyre still a great team. They have good players over there and they have a good coach, so its up to them."

Echoed Haslem: "Theyll figure it out. One thing that I know about Thibodeau, just by playing against him, is that hes a hell of a coach and hes going to have his guys prepared, and play well without him throughout the regular season."

NBA players aren't doctors, so their medical opinions should be taken with a grain of salt, but other than trained professionals in that field, they know better than anyone else how their peers might be able to recover from injuries that they themselves have endured. West is clearly a different type of player than Rose--the former All-Star is regarded as one of the better players at his position in the game, but certainly isn't a high-flying athlete--but he went through an excruciatingly long recovery process after tearing his own left ACL late last season and while he admitted that he only "turned the corner a month or so ago," he believes Rose will get through it, as it's more mind over matter, or even just hard work and heart--pointing to his chest for emphasis--something he believes Rose has plenty of.

"Well, I think as long as you dont get down on yourself, as long as you dont allow people around you to feel sorry for you, just understand that its just a bump in the road and you can get over it. Obviously the surgery and the rehab is tough. I never even wore a knee brace. Thats how far the rehab and things like that have come and hes got a good work ethic, so hell be fine. Hell get through it and hell return to himself. When youre built differently, in terms of insidenot so much physicallyyou can get through stuff like that."

So, while Chicago is still in an extended state of mourning for its favorite native son, not only do even the Bulls' biggest rivals not feel sorry for the team--though they do empathize with how the Bulls' playoff fate transpired, from a purely competitive aspect--they believe the long-lasting effects to the Bulls' run as a contender will be minimal. However, don't expect those feelings of kinship to last through next spring.

Trace McSorley the biggest star, but receivers just as amazing in Penn State's title win

Trace McSorley the biggest star, but receivers just as amazing in Penn State's title win

INDIANAPOLIS — A star was born Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

While he was good enough this season to earn All-Big Ten Second Team honors, the world finally got to meet Trace McSorley, Penn State’s sophomore quarterback who led an incredible comeback effort as the Nittany Lions were crowned Big Ten champions. He was sensational, throwing for 384 yards and four touchdowns as one big throw after another dug Penn State out of a three-touchdown hole against one of the best defenses in college football.

“The numbers and the performance speak for itself,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said of his quarterback. “He did amazing today. He did a great job leading our team. He did a great job of not getting too high, not getting too low, staying even-keeled and knowing exactly what we had to get done, and that’s exactly what we did.”

McSorley was hounded early by the Wisconsin defense, a unit boasting a terrific linebacking corps starring pass-rusher supreme T.J. Watt. Watt constantly pressured McSorley in the first half, hitting him on the first play of the game even after he handed the ball off and crunching him on a sack that turned into a fumble forced and recovered by Watt.

But McSorley didn’t waver, not when Watt took the ball away from him and not when a bad snap over his head resulted in a defensive touchdown for the Badgers. Instead, McSorley did what he’s done best all season long: hit home runs.

The celebration might irk some opponents, but McSorley’s mimed baseball swing and admiration is perfectly applicable to the way he gets this offense to explode. He pitched four touchdown passes Saturday night, the first three coming from 33, 40 and 70 yards away from the end zone. His home-run balls turned the game completely around against one of the best secondaries in the land.

The 33-yard bomb to Mike Gesicki turned a 14-0 game into a 14-7 game in the first quarter. In the second quarter, a missed tackled helped spring Saeed Blacknall on the 40-yard score. But his third touchdown pass of the day was perhaps the biggest, a 70-yard strike to Blacknall on the Lions’ first offensive play of the second half, a play Hamilton said broke the Badgers’ defense.

“I think it was after the first touchdown of the second half, the 60-yarder by Saeed. You sensed a shift in their defense,” Hamilton said. “They were hanging their heads, they were blaming other people, things like that. You kind of realized we just brought this down to 14 points, now it’s seven points, now we’ve got ‘em. We scored on the next drive, they were completely shot after that. We just had to keep going out there and worrying about ourselves, and that’s exactly what we did.”

The next drive featured a picture-perfect throw from McSorley to running back Saquon Barkley for a 18-yard touchdown, which tied the game. The next drive featured some more chunk passing plays and ended in a go-ahead touchdown run by Barkley, which gave Penn State the lead for good.

Another second-half comeback for the Lions. This one against one of the best defenses around.

“We started going a little more tempo. We felt in the last two-minute drive (in the second quarter), they didn’t handle our tempo too well. So we came out second half really wanting to push that and go as fast as we could, get them on their heels a little bit,” McSorley said. “And just felt that we had some matchups outside that we really liked and wanted to take advantage of it. They were playing a lot of man coverage, single high safeties. We just wanted to let our guys work. That was kind of our second-half game plan.”

McSorley got the award and he’ll get the headlines and the hype, but this sensational offensive performance was just as much the work of the guys McSorley was throwing to. Gesicki, Blacknall and Hamilton turned in one remarkable catch after another. Yes, McSorley was good, but it didn’t even seem to matter how well he threw it because those guys were catching everything.

“It did kind of feel like that,” McSorley said. “Even if they were covered, I felt like I could throw it up and they’d make the catch, they’d come down with it.

“It was impressive seeing those guys work 1-on-1. You’ve got complete trust in them. The biggest thing is it gave our offense confidence that we had guys on the outside that were going to go up and make those plays. I think that was a big part of why we came out in the second half and decided to throw it deep a little bit and try to take advantage of our matchups outside because of how those guys were playing. We had tremendous confidence in them. They had tremendous confidence in themselves. So I think that was a big part of it for our offense, those guys were making those kind of plays, just to trust them and let them be playmakers.”

And this is all before even really mentioning Barkley, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and star running back who made plenty of impact Saturday night, too, totaling 103 yards and two touchdowns rushing and receiving.

But it was perhaps Barkley who put it best in referencing Hamilton’s pregame mantra, a perfect expression of how far this offense has come.

In the last two seasons, with McSorley’s predecessor Christian Hackenberg under center, the Penn State offense couldn’t do a darn thing. This year, after the hiring of new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and the insertion of the more mobile McSorley — and the all-around dominance of Barkley — the Lions are an offensive juggernaut with more weapons than any defense can handle.

“DaeSean Hamilton says it before every game: If one of us eats, we all eat. If one of us balls, we all ball out. We’re playmakers, and we’ve got to step up and make plays,” Barkley said. “I think those guys made some crazy plays. Saeed two touchdowns, (Hamilton) going over people’s heads catching everything, Mike made a big play for us, sparked us, and Trace has been doing an unbelievable job getting the ball to them and trusting them.

“The wide receivers are just playing tremendous for us. In my opinion, best wide-receiver corps in the Big Ten. Might even be the best wide-receiver corps in the country.”

Penn State is the Big Ten champ, as for Playoff: 'It's on you now, the committee'

Penn State is the Big Ten champ, as for Playoff: 'It's on you now, the committee'

INDIANAPOLIS — The Nittany Lions are Big Ten champs. Does that mean they’ll get into the College Football Playoff?

In the hours leading up to Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game, the consensus answer was “no.” After all, Washington was impressive Friday night in its Pac-12 title game win over Colorado, impressive enough to look Playoff bound. Alabama and Ohio State figured to be locks. And if Clemson took care of business against Virginia Tech, then the Tigers figured to snag that last open spot. Heck, even if something crazy happened to Clemson, Michigan might have had a better chance than whichever team won the Big Ten title game.

But then the Big Ten title game happened, and Penn State’s epic comeback victory over Wisconsin — erasing a three-touchdown deficit behind the sensational efforts of Trace McSorley in a 38-31 win— has everyone asking the same question: Did the Lions do enough to make a big jump into the final four?

James Franklin had his answer.

“What I do know is we just won the toughest conference in college football. We’ve won nine straight. They say you’re allowed to overcome early setbacks? We’ve done that.

“It’s on you now, the committee.”

The truth is that Penn State has a mighty appealing resume. The Lions are winners of nine straight games, including the conference-championship bout. They have a pair of top-10 wins, including taking down the second-ranked Buckeyes. They’re playing as well as anyone in the conference and stack up with country’s finest.

It would make a lot of sense for the selection committee to put Penn State in the final four.

“These last nine weeks we’ve just continued to get better and better,” McSorley said, not advocating for a Playoff spot but providing an assessment of how far this team has come. “Coming in each week and preparing harder. Taking it one game at a time, never overlooking anything. There are a lot of times rankings and that stuff came out, there’s been a lot of noise about where (we) ranked and that sort of stuff. We just stayed focused on the next game and the next thing that was our task.

"And for us to continue to have that mindset with the ultimate goal in the background — it’s a one-game-at-a-time mentality, but we know what we’re working toward — I think it was awesome for our team. And for us to continue to come in and continue to get better each week, taking the next step, never staying the same but never falling back, always continuing to improve. It’s tremendous the improvement that we’ve made from Week 5 until now.”

But the question isn’t whether the Lions are deserving or not. They are. The question is: How do you box one of the other teams out? What exactly did Washington do to fall behind Penn State? The Huskies entered the weekend ranked fourth and put a 31-point whooping on the eighth-ranked team in the country. And what about Clemson? The third-ranked Tigers survived a scare from Virginia Tech in a high-scoring ACC title game. They won their conference championship, and now they should be eliminated?

And then there’s Michigan hanging out there at No. 5, which had the same regular-season record as Penn State and won the head-to-head matchup by 39 points.

The selection committee has a hard few hours ahead of it. Perhaps this will be 2014 all over again, when Ohio State impressed so much in the Big Ten title game that it leaped over two teams to make it into the field of four. Perhaps there wasn’t enough Penn State could do — and it did an awful lot Saturday night — to get past victorious Clemson and Washington teams, each of which has only one loss to its name.

And maybe that’s why the Lions were already practicing their gracious-loser responses after the big win Saturday. While Franklin politicked in front of a raucous bunch of Penn State fans at Lucas Oil Stadium, his players were happy just to be nominated, so to speak.

“We’ll be watching, no doubt about it. But I think the best thing about tomorrow is, regardless, we know we’re going to get another opportunity to play another game and play as a family, and I think that’s what’s most important,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “We’re just so excited. Regardless of the opportunity, it’s going to be an awesome opportunity, regardless of where it’s going to be whether it’s a Playoff or it’s a Rose Bowl or whatever bowl game. We’re going to be super excited about it.”

“You want to compete for a national championship, you want to play for a national championship, but you also can only control what you can control,” running back Saquon Barkley said. “Obviously we set ourselves to be in the Rose Bowl or the Playoff, and if we get left out we’re still playing for a Rose Bowl. … You can’t go wrong with that.”

Obviously, the alternative is pretty nice, too. Remember that Penn State wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near this position. The Lions are still working out from under the shadow of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, not to mention they play in the toughest division in college football, sharing the standings with top-ranked giants Ohio State and Michigan and last year’s conference champ Michigan State.

Making the Rose Bowl? That would be a huge deal for a program that was considered accomplished for 7-6 seasons in each of Franklin’s first two at the helm.

It would be unwise to write Penn State completely out of the Playoff picture quite yet. The selection committee will be having long conversations about the merits of the Lions versus the merits of the Huskies and Tigers and Wolverines.

Penn State’s fate at this point is truly a mystery, something that wasn’t expected when the night started.

But unexpected has kind of been a theme for the Lions this season. Maybe they’ve got one more big unexpected surprise left in them come Sunday afternoon.

“We’re going to wake up tomorrow, go back to State College, watch the selection committee do whatever they want to do, and we’re going to start preparing for whoever it is they announce who we’re playing and where we’re going,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “Obviously we can’t control where we’re going, but like we’re been saying all year, as long as we’re taking care of our business, everything else will take care of itself.”