Bulls top Cavaliers, back in first place

957265.png

Bulls top Cavaliers, back in first place

CLEVELANDIt was more difficult than necessary, but if dragging out a seemingly inevitable, 95-85 Bulls (9-8) victory over the Cavaliers (4-15) at Quicken Loans Arena is what Marco Belinelli needed to get going, it might have been worth it. The free-agent acquisition had his best night of the season Wednesday and though the effort wasnt the 48-minute effort the team strives for, it was a nice bounce-back game after a gut-wrenching loss the previous evening at home.Starting in place of sidelined veteran Rip Hamilton for the second straight night, backup shooting guard Belinelli (23 points) was aggressive from the outsetscoring from the outside and even in the post, using his size advantage to knock down a fadeaway jumper over Cavaliers' counterpart Daniel Boobie Gibson, who was starting for injured rookie starter Dion Waitersand helped the visitors jump out to an early lead. In fact, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau apparently thought so highly of Belinellis start that he pulled a shocker: Luol Deng (22 points, seven rebounds), the leagues minutes-per-game leader, not Belinelli, came out of the game when second-year swingman Jimmy Butler checked in late in the opening period.With balanced scoring from the other startersincluding Joakim Noah (13 points, 15 rebounds) and Cleveland doppelganger Anderson Varejao (11 points, 15 rebounds) virtually canceling each other outand reserves Butler and Taj Gibson not missing a beat upon entering the contest, the Bulls, making a gaudy two-thirds of their shots and limiting their hosts to making just a third of their attempts, easily surged to a double-digit advantage. After a quarter of play, the Bulls were ahead, 27-11.While the Bulls cooled down offensively in the second periodthough Belinelli knocked down his first shot of the frame before getting a well-deserved breather after scoring 12 first-half pointsthe visitors continued to give a stout defensive effort, ensuring that the Cavaliers wouldnt get any easy opportunities. Additionally, the guests appeared to make a concerted effort to take better care of the balla bugaboo all season, as well as a slight issue in the first quarterwhich prevented Cleveland from getting out in transition, their best method of scoring without their young backcourt of reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving and the aforementioned Waiters in action.The Bulls continued to cruise, maintaining their comfortable winning margin and while they werent perfect, they generally played the mistake-free brand of basketball that Thibodeau prefers. With forwards Deng and Carlos Boozer (10 points, 12 rebounds)the latter, whose first NBA team in Cleveland, didnt exactly receive a warm receptionmaking positive offensive contributions, starting floor general Kirk Hinrich (11 points, eight assists) capably handling playmaking duties and backup point guard Nate Robinson providing his usual spark off the bench, the Bulls went into the intermission with a 45-35 lead.Cleveland made a push after the break, with Varejaos rebounding and help on the interior from second-year big man Tristan Thompson, leading the way. But the Bulls were prepared for a potential run and with Belinellis hot hand persistingat least until he picked up his fourth foul midway through the period, giving way to Butleras well as Deng starting to get going and Noahs high activity level yielding strong work on the glass against a similarly energetic opponent in Varejao, the visitors clung to their breathing room.The likes of Gibson and reserve guard Donald Sloan joined in the Cavaliers comeback effort and when rookie big man Tyler Zeller made it a two-possession contest, 64-59 in favor of the Bulls, with 1:51 to go in the third quarter, it officially became a ballgame. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were up 72-63, following Hinrich scoring the last six points of the period for the visitors.The fourth quarter started somewhat ominously, with Gibson picking up his fourth foul and Noah subsequently drawing a technical, already his fifth on the young campaign. But no matter how tenuous the Bulls control of the game appeared, they surreptitiously built up their lead, behind contributions from the likes of Deng, Noah, Robinson and of course, Belinelli, who was enjoying his best outing in a Bulls uniform.Cleveland didnt relent, however, cutting the deficit to single digits again after an Alonzo Gee triple midway through the period, but shortly afterwards, the Bulls put their foot down, outclassing their inferior foe and extending their lead to the point where it was all academic from there on out. The hosts waved the white flag, as Cavaliers head coach subbed out key starters when the contest entered its stretch run, ensuring that the Bulls got off to a positive start on their two-game, Central Division road trip.

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

nate-mason-0222.jpg
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."

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks return home to face Coyotes tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks return home to face Coyotes tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Arizona Coyotes tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Schmaltz-Toews-Panik.

There might not be a hotter line in hockey right now than the Blackhawks' trio of Nick Schmaltz, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik. They combined for five goals and five assists — highlighted by a hat trick and five-point effort from Toews — in Tuesday's 5-3 win over Minnesota, and were hot before that. Toews has 21 points in his last 12 games. Schmaltz has seven points in his last six, while Panik has nine points in his past six. Is Joel Quenneville simply riding the hot hand or could this be a line that sticks together for a while even when they inevitably cool off?

2. Can power play get going again?

The Blackhawks are 0-for-8 on the power play in their last three games after converting on six of their previous 14 attempts. They went 2-for-4 during their last meeting, which resulted in a 4-3 victory. Arizona has allowed at least a power play goal in six of their last 10 games, including three of their last four, and owns a bottom-five penalty kill unit at 77.1 percent. If that area gets going for the Blackhawks, look out. 

3. Marian Hossa's recent success vs. Arizona.

Hossa has six goals and three assists in his last six games against the Coyotes dating back to 2014-15, recording at least a point in each of those games, and helping lead the Blackhawks to a 5-0-1 record. He's scored a goal in each of those last three, and will look to continue his success against an Arizona team whose 49 points ranked second-to-last in the NHL.

4. Martin Hanzal heating up as trade deadline nears.

The 30-year-old center has five goals in his last six contests, and will be a hot commodity over the next week as the March 1 trade deadline approaches. He could be an option for the Blackhawks if they want to bolster their center depth, but it's looking more and more unlikely as the asking price will be high and there will be many bidders. Expect a tweak more than a large addition.

5. Artemi Panarin quietly heating up.

Due to the emergence of Schmaltz-Toews-Panik that has been earning all the attention, Panarin is flying under the radar as of late. He has nine points in his last eight games that's gotten lost in the shuffle, and is tied for 16th in the league in scoring. He's only three points away from re-entering the top-10. And there's a chance he could have a big night. In five career games against Arizona, the 25-year-old Russian winger has two goals and six assists. That's an average of 1.60 points per game.

- Buy tickets to tonight's game

- Check out the latest stats and standings to make sure you’re ready for action

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

- NBC Sports App FAQ: All your questions answered

- Latest on the Blackhawks: All of the most recent news and notes

- See what Blackhawks fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Blackhawks Pulse