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.

Illini keep NCAA tournament hopes afloat with dominant win over Nebraska

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USA TODAY

Illini keep NCAA tournament hopes afloat with dominant win over Nebraska

Illinois' last-ditch effort to reach the NCAA tournament is still alive.

The Illini won for the third straight time and the fourth time in their last five games Sunday night, using a monstrous second half to fly past the Nebraska Cornhuskers by a 73-57 score in Lincoln.

Illinois started the Big Ten season 3-8, but with this recent surge it's up to 7-9 and with two regular-season games remaining has at the very least given itself a much better position in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament and perhaps has played itself into a spot on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Defense has been the driving force throughout this recent stretch, and Sunday was no different, with Nebraska scoring just 57 points, the second straight game in which Illinois has held its opponent under 60 points.

But offense told the story Sunday, with the Illini catching fire in the second half and shooting the lights out at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Illinois shot 59.1 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes, including a stellar 8-for-13 from 3-point range. The Illini outscored the Huskers by a 43-29 margin after halftime.

All in all, Illinois shot 48.1 percent on the night and 13-for-26 from behind the 3-point line. The Illini's 73-point output was their highest since Jan. 25.

Malcolm Hill had a game-high 19 points and moved past Cory Bradford for fifth place on the program's all-time scoring list. Tracy Abrams joined Hill in double figures with 13 points. Hill and Abrams each hit four 3-pointers. Maverick Morgan scored 12 points.

Tai Webster scored 17 points for Nebraska, the only Husker in double figures on a poor offensive night. The team shot 37.5 percent from the field and went just 4-for-15 from 3-point range.

Illinois still seems like a bit of a longshot to make the NCAA tournament given its 17-12 overall record and the weakness of the Big Ten this season. But things are getting real late in the season. This surge could very well help the Illini end their three-year tournament drought and could do big things for head coach John Groce, who has had his job status talked about all season long.

Illinois' final two regular-season bouts come this week against Michigan State and at Rutgers.

How Indians regrouped and reloaded after losing unforgettable Game 7 to Cubs

How Indians regrouped and reloaded after losing unforgettable Game 7 to Cubs

MESA, Ariz. — As Major League Baseball officials responded to an unbelievably timed rain delay, Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti huddled in a suite beneath Progressive Field and recognized what he saw in Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer after nine innings in a World Series Game 7.

"(We're) trying to figure out: Hey, what's going to happen here? How long are we going to have to wait? Are we going to have to pick up this game tomorrow?" Antonetti said. "I remember the look on both Jed and Theo's faces — it was the same as mine — just like exhaustion and fatigue and angst."

Soon enough, Epstein would be standing in the visiting dugout, his black suit completely drenched, winging it through a CSN Chicago postgame show interview: "Jed's in charge. I'm going on a bender."

However Cleveland fans processed the 10th inning — at least LeBron James had already delivered the city's first major sports title since 1964 — the Indians regrouped and reloaded as one of the favorites to win the 2017 World Series.

Danny Salazar — who hadn't built himself back up to full strength by the Fall Classic — threw two scoreless innings during Sunday afternoon's 1-1 tie in front of a sellout crowd at Sloan Park in Mesa. The Indians also survived and advanced into early November without frontline starter Carlos Carrasco (broken right pinkie finger) throwing a single playoff pitch or All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley (right shoulder complications) playing beyond May.

But the Indians didn't just sit back in their comfort zone this winter and simply hope for good medical reports and assume their young core players would improve. Sensing an opportunity, Cleveland swooped in around Christmastime and made a three-year, $60 million commitment to Edwin Encarnacion, who put up 42 homers and 127 RBIs last season for the Blue Jays, weakening the team that lost the American League Championship Series.

"It certainly has a positive impact on the momentum that we established and revenue heading into the following season," Antonetti said. "But I still think beyond that, it's been a big leap of faith by our ownership to really step out beyond what may make sense, just looking at where our projections might be.

"It's really a belief in our fan base that they'll continue to support our team and build on the momentum from last year."

Cleveland already paid the price for Andrew Miller — the Yankees wanted Kyle Schwarber or Javier Baez from the Cubs as a starting point last summer — and now control the game-changing reliever for two more pennant races. The Indians also invested $6.5 million in Boone Logan — a reliever the Cubs had monitored closely — when the lefty specialist lingered on the open market until early February.

Between the future Hall of Fame manager (Terry Francona), a Cy Young Award winner (Corey Kluber), the young All-Star shortstop (Francisco Lindor) and the dude from Glenbrook North (Jason Kipnis), Cleveland has way too much talent to be consumed with what could have been in Game 7.

"Hopefully, our guys learned from all of their experiences," Antonetti said. "They went through a lot last year. But I think at the same time, we have an appreciation and realize how hard it is to win, and how hard it was to get to the postseason.

"Continuing that mindset — and remembering what helped us get there — will benefit our guys the most. They'll reflect back and realize we didn't just show up and end up in the postseason and in the World Series. We started that work on Day 1 of the offseason and Day 1 in spring training."