Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Old Bulls Still the Best

I happened to be flipping through the channels recently when I stumbled upon an old Bulls game from the Michael Jordan era. These Bulls embodied everything there was to love about professional sports, especially basketball, and reminded me of a childhood where the NBA was king of the sports universe. It didn't hurt that the Bulls had the greatest athlete in history on the team.

Watching MJ made me realize that simply looking at his statistics doesn't encompass how ridiculous of a player he really was. To truly understand his level on the court, you had to watch him. Just watch him dominate, especially in the playoffs, in an era of uber-competitive basketball where hand-checking wasn't called, and you see how amazing he really was. I could go on for days on just how ridiculous he was, and certainly what it meant to the entire city of Chicago (and my childhood), but the fact remains: Michael Jordan was, and will always be, the greatest basketball player in history. No one will come close to what he did for the game, how he played the game, and the ultimate drive and motivation behind his success. Even his official NBA profile calls him the greatest of all time. Sure, there are players who are similarly athletically gifted, or win a bunch of championships. But none of them match up head to head. And really, none of those players who came after MJ, like Kobe Bryant and (not really) LeBron James, could have ever had the same impact or have developed the same style without MJ. He simply revolutionized the way basketball was played. And with the help of teammate Scottie Pippen, the Bulls owned the NBA for a solid decade. Some of MJ's accolades, which only begin to scratch the surface of what he truly accomplished:

Monday, December 26, 2011

Bulls Begin Season with Trademark Win

Derrick Rose has done it again. D Rose delivered in the clutch with a little help from Luol Deng, delivering the Bulls a thrilling last second victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. The win illustrated the Chicago Bulls in a nutshell - clutch play by Rose, stellar defense down the stretch, and a cohesiveness that underlies how incredible the Bulls have a chance to be.

Bears Show Signs of Life, But Too Little Too Late

We all knew it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Bears would show up in Green Bay, promptly get whupped, and head back to Chicago finally being eliminated from playoff contention. And really, that is exactly what happened. Aaron Rodgers was his usual self, effortlessly tossing 5 touchdowns and making Zack Bowman his personal whipping boy. But at the same time, you saw signs of life from the Bears that haven't been there since Jay Cutler and Matt Forte went down with injury. And while encouraging signs are pretty much moot at this point, it does allow us to play the armchair quarterback game and look back at what could have been.

Direction of Illini Up in Air on Eve of Conference Play

I made a mental note to myself while watching the first 25-30 minutes or so of Illinois' loss to Missouri in the annual Braggin Rights game on December 22nd to avoid writing a "sky is falling" post after the game. As luck would have it, Illinois rebounded from its horrid start to begin an epic comeback and eventually take the lead, only to collapse again in miserable, typical Illinois fashion. As I watched this happen, I realized that this game, and the onset of conference play tomorrow against Minnesota, is the perfect opportunity to assess the stance of both the program and this young team.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sky is the Limit for Bulls

We all know how special last season was. The Bulls won 62 games and Derrick Rose became a full-fledged superstar, winning the MVP. But more importantly, the Bulls were relevant again. The play of the Bulls all year had a similar uniting effect across the Chicago sports landscape that the Hawks season had a year before that. Just like the Hawks, everywhere you went were Bulls fans that had been dormant since the MJ glory years only to be reawakened by last year's Bulls team. And we'll even include the Bulls bandwagon jumpers, those fans that self-profess themselves to be the biggest Bulls fans even though they didn't live through the early post-Jordan era of Ron Mercer, Jalen Rose, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler (before he was good), and finally the beginning stages of Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, and Ben Gordon before the basketball gods were kind enough to land Rose on our doorstep in the second-luckiest draft in Bulls history. There, the Bulls landed the 1st pick in the 2008 NBA Draft after only a .17% chance of doing so going into the lottery.

Last year was close, but not enough
But even after all of that, the Bulls still flamed out last year, losing to the hated Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat exposed the Bulls deepest flaws, forcing an early exit to a otherwise-special Bulls season. Yet, regrouping for the shortened season ahead, the Bulls have a chance to eclipse even last year and come out on top. Even the Bulls we know and love from the first three-peat in the early 90s had major obstacles to overcome before they won their first title. With the elite defense the Bulls play under coach Tom Thibodeau, the addition of a scoring guard (Rip Hamilton) to shore up the scoring problems encountered last year, and a shortened season that can only benefit a deep team like the Bulls, now is as good a time as ever to challenge the Heat and make it to the NBA Finals. Doing so is going to require more of the special team effort the Bulls seemed to have last year, when there was no team in the NBA that had quite the chemistry of the Bulls. If they can match that chemistry, keep up the same intensity (which shouldn't be a problem under Thibodeau), and above all else STAY HEALTHY, I don't see a reason why the Bulls shouldn't be right up there again. Let's take a look at the 11-deep rotation the Bulls figure to run as a way of introducing the season.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Blackhawks on the Verge of Special Season

Thank God for the Hawks. With them and the Bulls, they allow us to forget about the dog and pony show going on at Halas Hall and Soldier Field every week. And although the Bulls haven't started their abbreviated season just yet, we're almost halfway through a Hawks season that has the potential to end with another parade through Chicago. Yet, that potential won't be realized unless the Hawks shore up some key problems on defense and between the pipes.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

From Hurd to Hanie, Bears Deserve an F

Well, this wasn't a good week for the bosses at Halas Hall. First came news of Sam Hurd's inner-channeling of his best Johnny Depp in Blow impression. And then came the game today - an utterly embarrassing, disgusting, and at the same time, hilariously awful performance that officially marks the end of the Bears 2011 season. It wasn't enough to lose to a Seattle Seahawks team that has been playing so well as of late. No - today was an evisceration of the Bears in every way, an indicator of the threadbare talent at every position on the roster, and proof positive that Jerry Angelo and the rest of the front office class clowns know less about developing a football team than Rick Perry seems to know about running a political campaign.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

RIP Bears.

I'm in the middle of exams so I have to keep this short. Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune nails exactly what I want to say about the Bears, but then I'll add some thoughts at the end:

The Trib's Rosenbloom on the Embarrassing Bears Flameout in Denver

We all saw or heard about what happened Sunday. Marion Barber is the latest Bear to give the Denver Tebowners fuel for the media frenzy fire when he couldn't stay in bounds to burn out the clock at the end of the fourth quarter and then fumbled in overtime to give the Broncos their latest trademark Tim Tebow win. It's just awesome turning on ESPN this week to see their latest episode of getting off to Tebow feature the Bears. Caleb Hanie was absolutely horrific and clearly doesn't belong in the NFL. And the defense? The defensive line was outstanding, including Julius Peppers, especially on the one play where Tebow tried to juke him and outrace him to the sidelines, with Pepper chasing him down the entire way. The secondary, including Craig Steltz and Chris Conte, were great in run and option coverage, which is easier for both of them because they aren't as athletic as other defensive backs and thus are more valuable in run coverage. Yet again, the pass coverage of the Bears was the biggest weakness, letting Tebow, who was terrible in three quarters, march down the field and move the ball at will in the 4th quarter. Embarrassing.

Yeah, Hanie was atrocious. Yes, he shouldn't be a starting QB, regardless of injury. But, it's really not all his fault. The Bears' receivers blow - not one of them is better than a 3 or 4, including Earl Bennett, who's only real success seems to come with Jay Cutler playing (well I guess the same could be said for all of the Bears receivers). The offensive line was putrid, but I couldn't tell if all the sacks were Hanie's fault from standing in the pocket for an eternity with the deer in headlights look, or just the bad quality of the offensive line. So, on offense, if you're keeping track, that's one terrible backup QB, multiple mediocre/average receivers, an old, stupid, and fumble-prone backup running back, and an awful offensive line. Good preparation for the season Jerry Angelo! Look at how backup Houston Texans QB TJ Yates played and tell me you couldn't have gotten someone better than Hanie. Don't go out and tell the world that our receivers are fine when they can't run correct routes (still), can't catch the ball consistently (still), and simply do not get open (still). And the offensive line? We've been over that. Thank god for the rumors of your retirement, that's the only good news Bears fans have had in weeks.

There's no point in Cutler or Matt Forte rushing back, the Bears made sure in dropping three straight games to an Oakland Raiders team that got trounced by the Packers, a HORRIBLE Kansas City Chiefs team, and a Broncos team QUARTERBACKED BY TIM TEBOW, that the playoffs are clearly out of sight now. I can't wait to watch the Bears stumble through the rest of the season and get a mediocre draft pick so they can draft another safety instead of addressing the other issues on the team. What a sad, sad end to the season. Thank god the Bulls are back.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tim Beckman: Backup Choice or Best Fit?

By now it's been well-talked about that Illinois named former Toledo Head Coach Tim Beckman as its new football coach. I would have gotten to this sooner were it not for the hell that law school finals are, but I'll give my thoughts on an interesting, and somewhat unexpected, hire. And if I accidentally use any secured transactions lingo like perfection, priority, or future advances, just know that I'm attempting to talk about Illinois football and not the subject that's been dominating my brain the last 3 days. My apologies in advance.

So what do we make of this hire? It seems like Illinois fans have taken two paths on this one - either they are excited about the new direction for the program, or feel like Beckman is an awful hire and wanted someone else. I'll try to address the latter's points before illustrating why I think that they're wrong.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hanie and the Bears? They Are Who We Thought They Are!

Good news or bad news first? Bad news? Caleb Hanie was 11/24 for 133 yards, zero touchdowns, three interceptions, and a sterling passer rating of 23.8. The Bears surrendered the only touchdown of the game on a hail mary at the end of the first half that of course ended up in the hands of Kansas City Chiefs RB/WR Dexter McCluster. Matt Forte is potentially lost for 2-4 weeks with a sprained knee. The Bears were 0-11 on third downs. More bad news? All of this resulted in a loss against a Chiefs team that had lost four games in a row, hadn't scored a touchdown in its last 45 possessions, and had a quarterback who had thrown three interceptions in each of the past two games (with the hail mary against the Bears being his first career TD pass). Oh, the good news? There was none, as the Bears (lack of) team effort essentially just cost them a playoff spot. Sure, they're still in the race, but a team that can't beat the lowly Chiefs, let alone must ONE SINGLE TOUCHDOWN, surely doesn't belong in the playoffs nor is capable of making them.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

All Aboard the Blackhawks Roller Coaster

I made it a point to look back and figure out why I hadn't been talking about the Hawks in this blog much recently. I looked back to great start to the season, the horrible loss to Vancouver and subsequent huge win against Vancouver, and a bad stretch to end the annual November circus road trip and realized that the problem is that the Hawks are maddeningly inconsistent. They are just impossible to get a read on, making it difficult to assess such an up and down season thus far.

The Hawks certainly have put out some offense.The Hawks are third in the NHL in goals per game, eleventh in power play percentage, fourth in shots per game, consistently win when leading after the first period, and are eighth in total plus/minus. And with 35 points, the Hawks do sit near the top of the standings, as they have for nearly the entire season. So, while the sky is not falling, there are certainly some issues with the Hawks that need to be addressed, for they have the ability to be a dominant team night in and night out and they simply aren't doing it.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Young Illini Talent Proving Themselves

More than any season in recent memory, the 2011-2012 season for Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini began with serious questions about who would step up to fill the void left by the outgoing senior class. Then, as the season started and Illinois picked up some very convincing early wins against the likes of Richmond and Maryland, there were still those who likened Illinois' strong start to a weak schedule. Well, with an outstanding team win over Gonzaga today, it's time to stop asking questioning the abilities of this young team and start wondering just how far they can go this season.

I sat down trying to figure out which angle to take this post, whether it be the great play of Sam Maniscalco, the emerging leadership and consistency of D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, the explosion of Meyers Leonard onto the Big Ten (and national) stage, or the great coaching we've seen from Bruce thus far this season. I couldn't figure out which way to take this article, because each one of those angles, among others, has been just as crucial as the other to explaining the hot start to the Illini season. That's when I realized that it was a good thing; we've become so used to the horrible roller coaster ride of Demetri McCamey & Co. that we can't step back to realize the amazing team effort that we're seeing from the Illini here on a game-by-game basis. We haven't seen consistent play like this from the Illini in years.

Bruce is doing an outstanding job this season
So I figure I'll start at the top and work down. I haven't been this impressed with Bruce Weber since he found a way to get Deron Williams and Dee Brown to forget about Bill Self and buy into his system. When he did, the result was a dominating season ending with a close loss to North Carolina in the 2005 National Championship game, one that Illinois should have won if not for some obviously bad officiating (I really don't care if I sound biased. If you watched the game, you know what I'm talking about). Now, I don't presume that this Illinois team is going to have that kind of success, because it almost certainly will not, but that isn't my point. The point here is that the coaching job he is doing this season is on par with the coaching job he had to flip Deron Williams and Dee Brown into his system. Bruce recognized that he wasn't going to succeed with the players he had for the past four years. McCamey had the talent but didn't have the discipline or heart, Mike Davis had some skill but was easily overmatched physically, Bill Cole had to overachieve merely to be a decent Big Ten player, and Mike Tisdale was, well, Mike Tisdale.