Underrated Hinrich continues to quietly impress

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Underrated Hinrich continues to quietly impress

When Kirk Hinrich rejoined the Bulls over the summer, it was a fact that he'd be expected to replace Derrick Rose as the team's starting point guard. But who knew that the veteran would also make up for the loss of Omer Asik as a shot-blocking force?

Obviously, that's a bit of stretch, but Hinrich's impact on the defensive end--he's blocked five shots in four preseason contests, impressive numbers for a 6-foot-3 guard, to go along with 1.5 steals per outing--and steadiness on offense has already earned significant praise from his new coach and teammates.

"Setting the tone for us, both offensively and defensively. Keeping us organized, recognizing what's going well, who's going well, what the defense is doing. Anytime you get the defense to overcommit in one area, to take something away, there's going to be something open on the back side. He has a good ability to read that and defensively, terrific," gushed Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. "Terrific. Multiple effort, hard on the ball and he sets the tone for your defense."

Chimed in Carlos Boozer: "I love playing with him. He has a great, great sense of the game, man. Great flow, great feel, does a great job of making plays for all of us. Great defender, he has phenomenal hands."

Backup point guard Nate Robinson has already made strides as a floor general in the exhibition slate, but Hinrich is proving to be indispensable and could be on the way to joining former and current teammate Luol Deng as member of Thibodeau's exclusive club for players who don't get much rest during games. Coupled with the fact that the backup shooting guard spot is up for grabs and it's easy to envision the versatile Hinrich playing alongside Robinson in certain situations.

But Hinrich's value as a playmaker, after years of playing off the ball--first, upon Rose's arrival in Chicago; then after being traded to Washington, which had then-rookie John Wall; and finally, in Atlanta, where All-Star swingman Joe Johnson often dominated the ball and the Hawks were grooming Jeff Teague, older brother of Bulls rookie Marquis, as the team's future point guard--has been overlooked. Not quite as proficient an outside shooter as many believe him to be--though more athletic, as witnessed by his defensive presence and forays to the rim--Hinrich's floor generalship, beyond his 6.5 assists a night in the preseason, has been more impressive in light of all the new faces he's playing with.

Though he was familiar with Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, who was only a rookie when they were paired up, as well as fellow free-agent signee Vladimir Radmanovic, who was with him in Atlanta, Hinrich has had to adjust to the preferences of new backcourt partner Rip Hamilton, a former Central Division rival in a past life, and Carlos Boozer, a fellow All-American in the high school class of 1999. Thus far, not only has he been a good fit with his new teammates, but it's clear that he and Thibodeau are cut from a similar cloth.

"From knowing them over the years, my main focus is just trying to run the team and I'm improving at that. That's it, that's my focus. I'm not really worried about anything else, except running the team and playing solid," Hinrich told CSNChicago.com. "I've got great teammates, they're fun to play with.

"I'm really enjoying it right now. For whatever reason, some places, you fit. I thought I fit in really well in Washington with the system; we just weren't very good. It's just one of those things," he continued. "I thought it was a good fit for me and that was a big reason I decided to come here."

Still, Hinrich isn't satisfied with the early returns, for himself or the team as a whole. As the preseason winds down, he expects the Bulls to ramp up their play.

"We've got a couple more preseason games to try to tighten some things up and get ready," he explained. "We've just got to keep trying to tighten everything up so we're ready when it goes up for real.

"Not playing in spurts, more consistent on both ends," added Hinrich. "It seems like in some of these preseason games, we've kind of taken our foot of the gas in the second half and we just can't do that."

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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."