Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Years Weekend Recap; Hawks, Illini, Bulls, and Bears

It's New Years, so I figured that in lieu of posting some lengthy entry on one of our teams, I'd save us all the time and post one lengthy entry on all of them. This was a big sports weekend, with Hawks/Red Wings, Illinois' bowl game, an Illinois Big Ten conference basketball game, Bulls/Clippers (more like D Rose/CP3), and Mr. Irrelevant, Bears/Vikings in the last weekend of the Bears season.

Toews MVP?
I had the good fortune of making it to the Hawks/Red Wings game on Friday, and the crowd's atmosphere was appropriate considering the magnitude of the game. Granted, Hawks/Red Wings always carries an elevated sense of importance, but this year, with the two teams at the top of the Western Conference standings, the game was even more important. With the crowd fired up, both teams played a back and forth game, trading goals (including a sick Jonathan Toews penalty shot) for much of the game before the Hawks took the lead for good off a blast from Brent Seabrook. It was a great game that really illustrated what the Hawks can do when they get serviceable goaltending and defense. Toews continues continues to play at an MVP level at both ends of the ice, and every night the Hawks are able to put more playmakers on the ice than the team playing them. Like I say everytime though, the Hawks will have trouble going deep into the playoffs if they do not address the shortcomings on defense. There are plenty of teams that have dominated offensively in the regular season only to see their season flame out in the playoffs, where the ice shrinks and physical, defensively tough teams often come out on top. After Duncan Keith, Seabrook, and Nick Leddy, the depth at the blue line is horrible. Niklas Hjarmalsson is a bust, and the other guys back there aren't even worth mentioning. But really, I have faith that Hawks management will make a move, given the available cap to maneuver with at the trade deadline, and that one key piece may be all the Hawks need to bring the Cup back to Chicago.

Paul and the Illini? Just... wow.
For Illinois fans, this weekend was more bittersweet than anything. Well, actually, I would say it was more bitter because the only sweet would come from a win in the glamorous Easy Mac Bowl (or was it Mac and Cheese, or Cheesy Mac? I don't remember) over an equally-decrepit UCLA football team. Sure, the defense played well, making some big plays that led the Illini to the win. But really, who cares? The football program is a disaster, with fans, alumni, and boosters split on the Tim Beckman hire, a narrowly-averted PR disaster when the Illinois coaches almost boycotted the game in a petty and stupid contract dispute (on both ends), and most importantly, a general level of apathy from fans that should be alarming to the AD Mike Thomas. Even worse, the Illinois basketball team fails again to find any sort of consistency in a beat down against Purdue that wasn't even as close as the 15 point loss indicates. The Illini continued to forget how to play within their offense, and looked as disinterested as they could possibly be. Brandon Paul still does not realize that he is AN AWFUL THREE POINT SHOOTER, launching 7 more attempts in the loss. And really, it's something that the entire team doesn't recognize. Bruce Weber recruited slashing, attacking players who should have some shooting ability to fit into his motion offense. The only problem is, all of these players don't slash or attack the basket and suck at shooting. Go figure. All I know is that the state of major Illinois athletics right now is embarrassing.

No question D Rose is the best PG in the NBA
On a more positive note, the Bulls faced another stiff test in the young NBA season in their weekend matchup with the overhauled Los Angeles Clippers. Much of the discussion of the brief NBA season has been devoted to the new "Lob City" that was created when Chris Paul was traded to the Clippers. To be sure, Paul and new teammate Blake Griffin (an absolute stud) will be a competitor in the Western Conference all year. I personally think that they will face off with the Oklahoma City Thunder to determine who ultimately wins the conference. But from the Bulls side, you had to think that D Rose was tired of hearing all the talk about Chris Paul. Or at least I think so, because he came out and showed the NBA again who the best point guard in the league is, with 29 points, 16 assists, and 8 rebounds. Not only did he personally dominate Chris Paul, but the Bulls put down the upstart Clippers by double-digits. I will continue to say that D Rose and the Bulls have a legit shot to win the title this year. They started the season 3-1, with the only loss coming after an emotionally draining opening day win on Christmas. The Bulls have started this well even though all the games were in California, the Bulls chemistry was noticeably rusty, they weren't getting any help from the refs and several Bulls had foul trouble over the course of the trip, and they have yet to receive a cohesive effort from the entire team. When the Bulls get things rolling, watch out.

Urlacher's injury in a pointless game
Finally, the Bears ended the season with a win in a completely irrelevant that was not, however, without the typical Bears drama. While the game was already boring in and of itself, a 12 PM start on New Year's Day certainly didn't help things for anyone watching the game. What you saw was a low scoring game between two bad football teams. And really, the win was a fitting way to end the season at .500 but still expose the Bears' deep flaws. Vikings DE Jared Allen abused Bears LT J'Marcus Webb the entire game, nearly setting the NFL Record for sacks in a season. The Bears could barely manufacture any offense against a putrid Vikings defense, and the Bears defense played decently enough. Rinse, repeat; seen this before. More concerting, however, was the injury sustained by Brian Urlacher near the end of a worthless game. Let me repeat. This was a WORTHLESS game, and the heart and soul of our team went down with what looked like a serious injury at the time. Did I mention that this game meant nothing? But really, I'm glad we beat the Vikings. It was worth it. I know I'll remember this game forever. Can't wait to tell my future kids about it. I really hope that Urlacher isn't seriously injured and is all set to go next year. Lovie Smith talked about not wanting to blow up the team and start over, and that's fine with me. The only thing that should be blown up and started over anyways is the Bears front office. The offseason wish list? Fire Jerry Angelo, Fire Ted Phillips, Fire Jerry Angelo, Fire Jerry Angelo. I don't need to go into much detail as I cover the Bears shortcomings and their prospective solutions time and time again, but I just hope to god they make it happen. Upgrade the offensive line, add a good wide receiver (Vincent Jackson please!), find safeties who know how to play safety, find more cornerbacks besides Charles Tillman, and get some depth at linebacker. This is no small task, and certainly something that Jerry Angelo isn't capable of, and really I wouldn't trust him to manage my fantasy football team.

Let's hope that 2012 brings us good fortune in all of our favorite sports. 2011 wasn't terrible, but 2012 will bring us potentially championship seasons for the Bulls and Hawks, hopefully new front office leadership for the Bears, a renewed drive and focus for Illinois basketball, ANY kind of drive and focus for Illinois football, new energy and leadership under Theo Epstein for the Cubs, and with good recruiting, hopefully a resurgent season for Notre Dame (who I left out of this post because I'm still angry about the loss to FSU). Let's hope they all make 2012 a good one.