Bulls look to repeat last matchup with Cavs tonight on CSN

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Bulls look to repeat last matchup with Cavs tonight on CSN

After suffering through its worst offensive performance of the early season -- a 76-point effort in a loss to the Pacers last night -- the Bulls return to the spot where they enjoyed their best performance when they travel to Cleveland for a matchup with the Cavaliers tonight on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins at 6:30 with Bulls Pregame Live.

On Nov. 2, Tom Thibodeau's group traveled to Cleveland for its first road game of the year, and shot better than 63 percent from the field in a 115-86 win. Five players scored in double-digits, and four more scored 8 or 9 points in the Bulls' largest win of the season. Richard Hamilton and Carlos Boozer led the way with 19 points apiece, while Nate Robinson added 16 points off the bench.

Helping in Chicago's return to Cleveland tonight is that the Cavaliers are hurting. Point guard Kyrie Irving, who led the Cavs with 15 points in the previous matchup, is out with a broken finger, and rookie Dion Waiters, who scored 7 points in November but has improved since, is day-to-day with a sprained ankle. He is a game-time decision tonight, leaving Cleveland's backcourt thin for tonight's matchup.

Perhaps evening the playing field, however, will be Hamilton's absence. The Bulls' second-leading scorer suffered a torn plantar fascia on Saturday against Philadelphia, and will miss a week or more of action. Though Hamilton averaged 27.1 minutes per game, his numbers were missed last night as the Bulls shot just 38 percent from the field and received 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting from plug-in starter Marco Belinelli (5 points) and Jimmy Butler (4 points).

With the Bulls attempting to figure out their backcourt struggles -- starter Kirk Hinrich scored 17 points on 6-of-17 shooting the last three games -- they've relied on their frontcourt for scoring to complement leading scorer Luol Deng, namely Joakim Noah. The 6-foot-11 center has maintained his career-best pace in the scoring department (13.0 points on 10.5 field goal attempts) and he'll have his hands full against Cavs' center Anderson Varejao. The 30-year-old leads the league in rebounding (15.4 per game) and while his blocks are down he's improved his defense, which has been his calling card since he entered the league eight seasons ago. Noah had 10 points in the Nov. 2 meeting, while Varejao had his lowest rebounding total, five, in the blowout loss.

Yet Varejao has picked things up on the offensive end in Irving's and Waiters' absences, averaging 18.2 points on better than 56 percent shooting. Noah will have his hands full against the Cavs' new go-to option.

Though Varejao has improved on both ends, the Cavaliers have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league. To date, Cleveland is allowing opponents to shoot better than 48 percent from the field, the highest mark in the NBA, and 101.2 points, 25th worst in the league. If there's one team for the Bulls to get going against offensively, it's the injury-riddled Cavs.

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.

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs knock off Giants; White Sox swept in Arizona

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USA TODAY

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs knock off Giants; White Sox swept in Arizona

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