Bulls

Could there be a split national championship?

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Could there be a split national championship?

From Comcast SportsNetGLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Oklahoma State has its chance to be in the national-championship conversation. All the Cowboys need now is a little help from Alabama. Surviving a missed field goal at the end of regulation and getting a big kick of its own in overtime, No. 3 Oklahoma State opened the door for the chance at a split national championship with a wildly entertaining 41-38 win over No. 4 Stanford on Monday night. "There is nothing we can do from here," said Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, who tied the Fiesta Bowl record with three touchdown catches. "I do think we do have the best team in the nation." Oklahoma State (12-1) kept pace with Andrew Luck and the high-scoring Cardinal, getting huge performances from its two stars, Brandon Weeden and Blackmon, in their final college game. Weeden threw for 399 yards and the three touchdowns to Blackmon, who announced he's leaving for the NFL after catching eight passes for 186 yards. All that and the Cowboys' fortunes came down to two legs, those of Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson and their own Jordan Sharp. Williamson couldn't come through. The redshirt freshman missed a 35-yard field goal wide left as time expired in regulation and another from 43 yards to open overtime. Given a chip shot after Weeden hit Colton Chelf on a 24-yard pass -- initially ruled a touchdown but overturned on review -- Sharp came through, sending his 22-yard field goal through the uprights and the Cowboys charging onto the field. Should Alabama knock off top-ranked LSU in next week's BCS championship game, Oklahoma State will be right there, ready to stake its claim at being No. 1 in The Associated Press poll. "We feel like we could beat anyone in the country," Chelf said. Stanford (11-2) had its chances. The Cardinal had 590 yards of offense -- nearly 200 more than Oklahoma State -- got another stellar game from Luck before he heads to the NFL, and ran over Oklahoma State's defense behind Stepfan Taylor. They just couldn't finish it off. Luck calmly led Stanford 63 yards over the final 2:35 of regulation to set up a chance at winning its second BCS bowl game in two years. Instead, Williamson missed in regulation, again in overtime and was left sobbing in front of his locker while his coaches and teammates tried to shoulder some of the blame. "In the end, we lost, and I'm as much to blame as anyone," Luck said. Taylor ran for 177 yards and a pair of scores. Luck was his usual steady self, hitting 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. The Cardinal held Oklahoma State to 15 yards rushing on 13 carries and didn't give up the lead until the final play. Still, it wasn't enough, the Cardinal's hopes sailing wide left off the right foot of Williamson, who missed three field goals after missing three all season. "There's an old saying that adversity reveals character -- and that's not just for him, that's for all of us," Stanford coach David Shaw said. The Fiesta Bowl needed a pick-me-up game after the year it had. Last year's game was a dud on pretty much all accounts. Connecticut had trouble filling its allotment of tickets and keeping up with Oklahoma, the 48-20 rout leading to a big dip in the ratings. Not long after that, the bowl got tangled in controversy, nearly losing its BCS status following financial improprieties that were uncovered and led to the firing of executive director John Junker. This matchup figured to be the ticket to match the golden jackets worn by Fiesta Bowl officials. Oklahoma State has an electrifying offense -- second in scoring, third in total yards -- run by the 28-year-old Weeden and featuring Blackmon, the two-time Biletnikoff Award winner. The Cowboys also came in with a chip on their shoulders, believing they should have gotten a shot at the BCS title game instead of it being a rematch of the field-goal-kicking Game of the Century earlier this season between Alabama and LSU. Finishing a tantalizingly close .0086 behind the Crimson Tide in the BCS standings, Oklahoma State had plenty to prove, with booster T. Boone Pickens saying the Cowboys should get first-place votes in The Associated Press poll with a Fiesta win and a loss by LSU in the title game. Across the field was Stanford, another one-loss team that could have a legitimate beef with the BCS system. The Cardinal lost to eventual Pac-12 champion Oregon and crushed nearly everyone else with an offense that was top-15 in scoring and yardage. Stanford also has Luck, the two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up and all-but-certain No. 1 overall NFL pick, complemented by a powerful running game that's as good as any. The Fiesta Bowl had a pretty good lead-in, too: Oregon's wild, 45-38 win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Stanford had the advantage early, piling up 225 yards while going up 14-0 early in the second quarter on Luck's 53-yard touchdown pass to Ty Montgomery and Jeremy Stewart ran for a 24-yard score. With its offense stranded in the desert early, Oklahoma State got back in it quickly thanks to Blackmon. The junior caught his first pass by splitting the middle of Stanford's defense for a 43-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, then showed off his power on the next, brushing off a defender like a jacket over his shoulder before racing for a 67-yard touchdown that tied it 14-all. Two big catches, 110 yards and the offensive show was on. Taylor scored on a 4-yard run and the Cowboys answered, tying it 21-all at halftime on Weeden's first career rushing touchdown, an ugly-but-effective 2-yarder. Luck hit Zach Ertz on a 6-yard touchdown pass to open the third quarter and, after the teams traded field goals, Weeden found Blackmon on a 17-yard crossing pass that tied the game at 31. Taylor put Stanford up 38-31 with 4 minutes left, ducking behind Stanford's massive offensive line for a 1-yard touchdown. Oklahoma State answered quickly, moving 67 yards in less than two minutes to tie it on Joseph Randle's 4-yard touchdown run. The Cowboys left too much time for Luck, but Stanford's luck ran out when Williamson couldn't come through in regulation and again in overtime. Oklahoma State celebrated what they thought was a touchdown by Chelf in overtime, then did it for real after the replay and Sharp's kick. "Our team rallied. Every time we got down, they just found a way to come back," said Cowboys coach Mike Gundy, who dedicated the victory to the four people who died in the Nov. 17 plane crash that killed Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna. And now the Cowboys can watch the national title game with a rooting interest, ready to stake their claim should the cards fall right.

Robin Lopez taking demotion in stride, wants to return to Chicago

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USA TODAY

Robin Lopez taking demotion in stride, wants to return to Chicago

Only an errant punch that missed the face of Serge Ibaka prevented Robin Lopez from suiting up for the Bulls since arriving in the summer of 2016, but his availability streak will come to an abrupt end as the Bulls are sitting and Justin Holiday for the foreseeable future.

Lopez didn’t dress for the Bulls’ game against the 76ers, as he and Holiday were replaced by Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba. Although he was jovial, cracking a few jokes when meeting with the media in pregame, it was clear he was disappointed.

“It was rough for me. I get it. I understand it,” Lopez said. “I always want to be out there playing on the court. That’s what I enjoy, especially playing with these guys. But I’m excited to watch these guys give it a go from the bench.”

With the Bulls being eighth in the lottery standings, Lopez understands the long-term objectives of the organization and said the conversation with the front office went as expected.

“I think pretty much what everybody else has heard,” Lopez said. “I was pulled aside. They told me they wanted to evaluate a few other guys, a few of the young guys. So I get it.”

Starting 138 of 139 games makes his streak ending a bit tougher to stomach, especially considering he didn’t find out about his certain inactivity until right before leaving for the United Center.

“I suppose that’s a little selfish of me, but a little bit,” said Lopez of sadness concerning the streak. “I looked in my closet today and thought I would have a glut of jackets. And I only found two. I didn’t realize this was an issue until about 5 minutes before I had to leave. So I got kind of a ragtag outfit for tonight but hopefully I’ll be better prepared in the games to come.”

Not only will he be armed with better wardrobe but he’ll be bringing a positive disposition to the sidelines that made him loved amongst his teammates.

“All my teammates, whether they’ve been playing with me or sitting on the bench and not dressing, they’ve all supported me,” Lopez said. “I don’t think I’d be too good a person if I didn’t do at least the bare minimum of the same.”

Lopez represented stability and veteran leadership in a tumultuous season, a solid performer when losing was the early norm and upheaval has been constant. It was a reason the Bulls hoped he would garner some interest in the trade market but after hitting for a draft pick in the Nikola Mirotic deal, they had no such luck with Lopez.

Naturally, he was asked about the prospect of being traded over sitting as a healthy scratch.

“That’s hard for me to talk about because I don’t know what situation I could have potentially been in once I had been traded,” Lopez said. “Yeah, it’s … I want to be playing obviously, but we’ve got a great group of guys right here.”

Considering how uncertain things will be for the future, it isn’t a guarantee Lopez won’t be around for the 2018-19 season.

“Yeah. It seems like they still like me. How could they not?,” he joked.

He’s due $14.3 million next season, the last of a four-year deal he signed with the Knicks in 2015. Averaging 12.3 points and shooting 53 percent from the field, he’s productive and valuable on the floor. He’s easy to dismiss with the hoopla surrounding the youth on the roster and the way things clicked when Mirotic stepped on the floor, but seven footers like Lopez aren’t easy to find—even as the game changes.

“I’m a team player. I like to think my play is tied to how the team plays,” Lopez said. “I think we had some really great stretches. The young guys really developed and found a rhythm once we all got healthy. I think we played pretty well.”

With 25 games remaining, he’s unsure of how long his inactivity will last but it’s hard to see him missing the remainder of the season. It would be a bad look for the Bulls and the league to have a healthy player miss two whole months, and Lopez claims no knowledge about that ugly “T” word.

“I’m not familiar with military artillery,” he said.

At least he’s keeping his sense of humor.

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

GLENDALE, AZ — You don’t need a scale to see that Lucas Giolito lost some weight in the offseason. As he walks around Camelback Ranch, he just seems lighter. These pounds were shedded thanks to a certain label that has been detached from his name and his being.

“Lucas Giolito, number-one pitching prospect in baseball” is no more.

“Definitely. Big time relief. I carried that title for a while,” Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago. “It was kind of up and down. I was (ranked) 1 at one point. I dropped. I always paid attention to it a little bit moving through the minor leagues.”

Which for any young hurler is risky business. The “best pitching prospect” designation can mess with a pitcher’s psyche and derail a promising career. Giolito was walking a mental tightrope reading those rankings, but after making it back to the majors last season with the White Sox and succeeding, the moniker that seemed to follow him wherever he went has now vanished.

“Looking back on it, that stuff is pretty cool," Giolito said. "It can pump you up and make you feel good about yourself, but in the end the question is, what are you going to do at the big league level? Can you contribute to a team? I’m glad that I finally have the opportunity to do that and all that other stuff is in the rear view."

This wasn’t the case when the White Sox acquired Giolito from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton trade in December 2016. When he arrived at spring training last year, he was carrying around tons of extra baggage in his brain that was weighing him down. Questions about his ability and makeup weren’t helping as he tried living up to such high expectations.

“Yeah, I’d say especially with the trade coming off 2016 where I didn’t perform well at all that year," Giolito said. "I got traded over to a new organization, I still have this label on me of being a top pitching prospect while I’m going to a new place, I’m trying to impress people but at the same time I had a lot of things off mechanically I was trying to fix. Mentally, I was not in the best place as far as pitching went. It definitely added some extra pressure that I didn’t deal with well for a while."

How bad was it for Giolito? Here are some of the thoughts that were scrambling his brain during spring training and beyond last season.

“I saw I wasn’t throwing as hard. I was like, ’Where did my velocity go?’ Oh, it’s my mechanics. My mechanics are bad. I need to fix those,” Giolito said. “Then I’m trying to make adjustments. Why can’t I make this adjustment? It compounds. It just builds and builds and builds and can weigh on you a ton. I was 22 turning 23 later in the year. I didn’t handle it very well. I put a lot of pressure on myself to fix all these different things about my performance, my pitching and trying to do it all in one go instead of just relaxing and remembering, ‘Hey, what am I here for? Why do I play the game?’”

Still, pitching coach Don Cooper wanted to see what he had in his young prospect. So last February, he scheduled him to make his White Sox debut against the Cubs in front of a packed house in Mesa.

“It was kind of like a challenge," Giolito said. "They fill the stadium over there. I’m like, ‘Alright here we go."

Giolito gave up one run, three hits, walked one and struck out two in two innings against the Cubs that day.

“I pitched OK," he said. "I think I gave up a home run to Addison Russell. At the same time, I remember that game like I was forcing things. I might have pitched okay, but I was forcing the ball over the plate instead of relaxing, trusting and letting it happen which is kind of my mantra now. I’m saying that all the time, just having confidence in yourself and letting it go.”

A conversation in midseason with Charlotte Knights pitching coach Steve McCatty, suggested by Cooper, helped turn Giolito’s season around. The lesson for Giolito: whatever you have on the day you take the mound is what you have. Don’t force what isn’t there.

Fortunately for Giolito he has extra pitches in his arsenal, so if the curveball isn’t working (which it rarely did when he came up to the majors last season) he can go to his change-up, fastball, slider, etc.

It’s all part of the learning process, both on the mound and off it. Setbacks are coming. Giolito has already had his share. More will be on the way.

“You want to set expectations for yourself. You want to try and achieve great goals,” he said. “At the same time, it is a game of failure. There’s so much that you have to learn through experience whether that be success or failure. Especially going through the minor leagues. There’s so much that you have to learn and a lot of it is about development. It’s a crazy ride for sure.”