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.

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After getting another signature win at Maryland, does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

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USA TODAY

After getting another signature win at Maryland, does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

Does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

The Golden Gophers went on the road and defeated a ranked group of Maryland Terrapins on Wednesday night, and they did so in impressive fashion, scoring an 89-75 victory in College Park.

Team this win with the win at Purdue back on New Year's Day, and there's no better pair of league victories to be found.

More importantly though, the Gophers, at 9-6, are now the No. 4 team in the Big Ten standings.

It's all a part of a quality NCAA tournament resume for the Gophers, who are closer to lock status after Wednesday's win than they are to being on any sort of bubble. With mediocrity running rampant through the Big Ten this season, Richard Pitino's 21-win squad should be well on its way to an appearance in next month's Madness, which would be the program's first since he took over as head coach.

The resume looks pretty strong at this point, especially after Wednesday. Minnesota can now claim wins over Purdue, Maryland and Northwestern — all three of those conference victories coming on the road. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Gophers beat Arkansas, the Razorbacks seemingly heading to the tournament themselves. The only loss from the non-conference portion came on the road at Florida State, one of the highest-ranked teams in the country.

So it's safe to say Minnesota will go dancing.

Wednesday's 14-point beatdown of the Terps saw the Gophers shoot 50 percent from the field on the night and 54.5 percent from the field in the second half. Five players scored in double figures: Dupree McBrayer with 18, Nate Mason with 17, Akeem Springs with 16, Jordan Murphy with 15 and Amir Coffey with 13. Minnesota didn't win the rebounding battle but scored 15 points off 10 Maryland turnovers and marched to the free-throw line, going 17-for-20 from the charity stripe while Maryland was just 8-for-13 there.

The second half was a rout, the Gophers outscoring the Terps 55-40 over the final 20 minutes and rattling off two separate 9-0 runs to burst away from the No. 24 team in the country.

The overtime win at Purdue on the first day of 2017 might go down as a bigger win considering the Boilermakers are closing in on the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That win, too, came by an impressive-enough margin, 91-82. But Minnesota dominated Maryland over the final nine minutes or so and turned in a double-digit victory on the road against a team that lost to that same Purdue team on that same court by just a point two and a half weeks ago.

The Gophers are now on a six-game winning streak and are piling up wins in a fashion that's making them look like one of the Big Ten's finest. A 3-1 start to conference play that extended its overall record to 15-2 was dampened by Minnesota's five-game losing streak that featured losses to higher-echelon teams like Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland, plus road losses at Penn State and Ohio State. But since have come six straight wins. While the caliber of opponent hadn't been terribly impressive until Wednesday, the Gophers can now boast nine conference wins. Only three teams have more.

It's now worth watching how high Minnesota can climb in the Big Ten standings before the conference tournament just two weeks from now. If the season ended today, the Gophers would already be in possession of one of those highly coveted two-day byes. But Minnesota is just a game back of Maryland and just two games back of Wisconsin, who the Gophers play in the regular-season finale.

Like Pitino told his team after Wednesday's win: "No more talk about (just making) the NCAA tournament. We're talking about seeds in the NCAA tournament."