Bulls host Thunder tonight on CSN

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Bulls host Thunder tonight on CSN

The Chicago Bulls welcome last year's Western Conference champions, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the United Center tonight as the two teams wind down their respective preseason schedules. Tip-off is 7 p.m., and you can catch all the action live on Comcast SportsNet.
The Bulls missed out on the chance to play against 2012 All-Star Kevin Love in their 92-81 win over the Timberwolves last Friday, and they won't be able to square off against the best young tandem in the NBA, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, either, as both will sit out tonight's exhibition. Thunder coach Scott Brooks said it's just a day of rest for the pair, as Oklahoma City will travel home tomorrow to close out their preseason campaign at home against the Mavericks.
Another budding star in the Oklahoma City lineup is shooting guard James Harden. The 23-year-old reigning Sixth Man of the Year is dealing with a groin injury that has held him out of three preseason contests already, although the Thunder do not feel it will hinder him once the season starts.
Harden most recently competed on the USA National Team at the 2012 Olympics, along with Westbrook and Durant. As part of Team USA's practice routine in Las Vegas, the trio went up against the USA Select Team, which included Bulls' power forward Taj Gibson.
Chicago's improving big man enjoyed his experience and got a feel for just how good he can be as an NBA forward. But Gibson and Harden have more in common than just putting on the Red, White and Blue this past summer. Both are impending restricted free agents, and must sign contract extensions by Oct. 31 to avoid hitting the open market.
Harden, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and Gibson, the No. 26 overall pick, are reportedly working toward signing before the deadline.
The Thunder are in a tight salary cap crunch after signing Durant (86 million), Westbrook (80 million) and forward Serge Ibaka (48 million) to long-term deals the last two seasons.
The Bulls are also dealing with some financial uncertainty. Gar Forman said earlier this offseason that extending Gibson was a priority, but Carlos Boozer's contract and Luol Deng's uncertain future fog up part of the Bulls' salary cap. Still, CSN Bulls Insider Aggrey Sam expects an extension to be completed before the Oct. 31 deadline.
Gibson will be able to make his case for a payday tonight, going up against one of the better defensive frontcourts in the NBA. Along with Ibaka, the league's leading shot blocker a year ago, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins will make life difficult for Gibson, Boozer and Joakim Noah in the middle. Last year the Bulls lost to the Thunder in their only matchup, with Gibson (10 points, 11 rebounds) double-doubling in the loss.
Gibson has averaged 8.4 points and 7.8 rebounds in 23.4 minutes this preseason, but is shooting just 36.2 percent from the field. He's made up for that on the defensive end, where a more aggressive Gibson has blocked 11 shots and made five steals in five games.
The Thunder have struggled defensively in the preseason, allowing 100.0 points per game and opponents to shoot almost 45 percent from the field. The Bulls have averaged 88.4 points in their five preseason games, the third lowest mark in the NBA. That average should improve against a Thunder team resting two of its five top players.
In order to do that, the Bulls will need more consistent scoring from the reserves. Nate Robinson, Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Marco Belinelli have combined to shoot 45-of-142 in the preseason (31.7 percent). While Rip Hamilton (51.1 percent) and Nazr Mohammed (51.4 percent) have played well, the Bulls will rely more on their bench this year without Rose to make up that scoring. A solid showing tonight would be a welcome sight.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

Do the Cubs have a World Series hangover?

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, NBC Sports Bay Area Giants Insider Alex Pavlovic joins CSN's Patrick Mooney to talk about the World Series hangover, how last year's playoff loss lingered in San Francisco, Johnny Cueto's quirks, the legend of Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija's ups and downs.

Plus Kelly Crull, Jeff Nelson and Tony Andracki break down the Cubs’ defensive struggles this year compared to an historic 2016 and how Ian Happ fits into the Cubs’ lineup in both the short and long term.

Listen to the latest episode below:

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

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USA TODAY

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

Caleb Swanigan, unsurprisingly, is heading to the NBA.

Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year announced Wednesday that he’ll pass up the final two seasons of his NCAA eligibility for a paying gig at the professional level, an awesome opportunity for a kid who battled obesity and homelessness to become one of the best basketball players in the country.

But Swanigan’s departure from West Lafayette means a heck of a lot to the Big Ten.

Without the league’s most dominant big man, what becomes of Purdue’s chances at winning a conference title? Similarly, with a weakened — though still strong — group of Boilermakers, what does the Big Ten race look like going into 2017-18?

First, Purdue. Matt Painter’s program is plenty healthy, and while there’s no doubt that losing Swanigan is a big deal, the Boilers got some really good news, too, Wednesday when Vincent Edwards announced he’ll be returning for his senior season. Seven-footer Isaac Haas also made the decision to return to West Lafayette, meaning the towering frontcourt hasn’t been completely decimated just because tha man called “Biggie” is gone.

Purdue will also return Carsen Edwards, who had an impressive freshman campaign, and Dakota Mathias, a terrific defender and 3-point shooter. Two more important pieces — P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline — are back, as well. And Painter will welcome in freshman Nojel Eastern, a highly touted guard from Evanston.

So the Boilers are still in very good shape. There will be a big magnifying glass on Haas, who despite his physical attributes hasn’t always found consistent on-court success. But there have been plenty of flashes of brilliance from the big man. A big step forward in his game would go a long way in easing the blow of losing Swanigan and could keep Purdue as one of the frontrunners for a conference title.

That brings us to the Big Ten race. Ever since Miles Bridges, the conference’s reigning Freshman of the Year, announced he’d be returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season, the Spartans have been the near-unanimous favorite. Only something like Swanigan deciding to stay at Purdue could’ve changed that. And with Swanigan expectedly heading to the NBA, Michigan State remains the preseason pick to win the conference crown.

Like any good year in the Big Ten, though, there will be challengers.

But Michigan State is the popular choice to win it because of Tom Izzo’s insane 2016 recruiting class is returning completely intact: Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are all back. And Izzo brings in one of the top 2017 recruits in forward Jaren Jackson.

But Sparty isn’t the only one with an impressive returning group. Purdue’s experienced roster has already been covered. Northwestern, a surprise contender in 2016-17, should be even better as Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey enter their fourth year playing together. Dererk Pardon, a shot-blocking whiz at center, is also back, as is sharp-shooter Aaron Falzon, who sat out the 2016-17 season with an injury after starting during his freshman year in 2015-16.

There will be big shoes to fill for some perennial contenders like Maryland — which must replace Melo Trimble — and Michigan, which watched eligibility run out on Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin before D.J. Wilson decided to head to the professional ranks Wednesday. But those teams have plenty of talent returning, too. The Terps will have all three of their fab freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — back for sophomore seasons, while the Wolverines have Moe Wagner back in the fold alongside Xavier Simpson and Duncan Robinson, among others.

And what of last year’s shocking contender, Minnesota? The Golden Gophers didn’t lose too much this offseason and will return almost every main player from last year’s 24-10 squad: Amir Coffey, Nate Mason, Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Eric Curry.

There are up-and-comers to think about, too, such as last year’s freshman-heavy squads at Iowa and Penn State. And could new head coaches Brad Underwood and Archie Miller make instant splashes at Illinois and Indiana, respectively?

If it sounds a little too much like the annual coach speak that “any team can win on any night” in the Big Ten, that’s because there is a good deal of truth to that oft-used phrase.

There are definitely tiers to this thing, though. Even without Swanigan, Purdue is still in one of those upper tiers. But there might be no team besides Michigan State at the very top of the heap, something underscored by Swanigan turning pro.