Bulls

Gasser puts the zip in Mount Carmel

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Gasser puts the zip in Mount Carmel

The numbers are impressive -- the offense is averaging 40 points per game and the defense has allowed only 79 points in 11 games, only 15 in the last five -- but Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti, in his 29th season, is wise enough not to make any proclamations before the final whistle.

"Is this the best team I've coached since our last state championship team in 2002? It has a chance to be one of the best since we won in 2002 but I can't decide until the season is over, to see what they ultimately accomplish," said Lenti, doing his best to straddle a fence without falling off. "Remember, we didn't win the (Catholic League's) Blue Division. Loyola won the title and won all the awards -- Coach of the Year (John Holecek), Offensive Player of the Year (Peter Pujals), Defensive Player of the Year (John Rushin) and Player of the Year (Luke Ford). They got all the honors, all the bells and whistles."

But Mount Carmel, which lost to Loyola 30-27 in overtime in Week 6, still is very much in contention for the Class 8A championship. The Caravan (10-1) will meet Lyons (7-4) on Saturday night in a quarterfinal match-up in Western Springs.

"The nice thing these kids have is great chemistry," Lenti said. "They really like being around one another. They have bought into the 'we' thing, not the 'me' thing. Last year, we had some seniors who were in it for themselves, about scholarships and one-day camps. But these kids are more focused on the team. They see the other way doesn't work."

Lenti has won nine state championships but none since 2002. He won four in a row from 1988-91 and five in seven years from 1996-2002. And he finished second in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Last year's 10-4 team lost to Class 8A champion Bolingbrook in the second round, then settled for the Prep Bowl title.

This year's squad lacks star quality -- no one compares to last year's standout, Brandon Carr, or such blue chippers of the past such as Simeon Rice, Donovan McNabb, Tony Furjanic and Nate Turner -- but Lenti is impressed with its leadership, chemistry, balance, attitude and drive.

He cites kicker Ivan Strimic and punter Joe Pavlik, junior defensive lineman Steven Richardson, running backs Matt Domer and Draco Smith, defensive backs Justin Sanchez and Vincent Speller, tackle Brian Parker and the four captains -- quarterback Don Butkus, wide receiver Jason Gasser and linebackers Connor Griffin and D.J. Romero.

"We have a complete team," Lenti said. "Strimic and Pavlik are by far the best kicker and punter in the league. When the offense is on a roll, it has done a great job of keeping the defense off the field. The captains have done an exceptional job. They have led the team in a great direction. The kids won't accept mediocrity. I felt all along if they followed the process, if they did what we asked them to do, they could be very successful."

If his three years as a starter, if Gasser has heard Lenti's "follow the process" speech once, he has heard it a hundred times. After a while, it starts to make sense.

"I feel we do a great job of following the process, as the coach says. If we listen to the coaches and do what we are taught, we will be fine," Gasser said. "This year we are more of a team. We work hard in practice. There is a lot of chemistry, no lazy guys. We don't want anyone bringing us down. Last year, too many were in it for the ride and didn't contribute. They were just posers, the coach said, they just wore the costume.

"But this team is different. We have no standouts, just a lot of good high school players, hard workers. All of us want to accomplish the same goal--win the state title. We don't think about scholarships or individual glory. We have pride in the school and the program."

Lenti has made one subtle change in his teaching process and Gasser thinks it has been a significant addition.

"In practice, we still do 60 minutes on offense and 60 minutes on defense and 15 minutes on kicking. But this year he has added a 15-minute combo period during the offensivedefensive time to work on situational plays like third-and-long and third-and-short and first-and-10," Gasser said. "It gets us more prepared. Our goal on first down is to average five or more yards. If we keep working on first down, it helps us to attain our goals and converting long third-and-10 plays and working on pass plays and draws and screens."

Gasser, a 6-foot, 190-pounder with 4.54 speed, has caught 20 passes for 203 yards, averaging 20.1 yards per reception, and has scored five touchdowns. He and Speller are Butkus' big-play and go-to receivers. And it doesn't bother Gasser one bit that he hasn't caught more passes.

He lives in Dyer, Indiana, and he would have enrolled at Andrean in Merrillville but his father, who played football at St. Francis de Sales, wanted to send him to Mount Carmel because of the academics and football tradition.

"I wanted to be part of a winning program," Gasser said. "As a freshman, my father wanted me to be a quarterback. I tried it, then was switched to defensive back. Then I started the first game at wide receiver, which I had played in middle school, and I've played that position ever since."

Gasser recalls losing to Maine South in the 2010 state championship game. As a senior, he hopes to write a different scenario.

"As a senior, I know I have to take a leadership role and I want all of us to have the experience of going Downstate and winning," he said.

He loves football and would like to play in college. He is hearing from several small schools. But he might end up playing baseball at Ball State. That's all in the future, something to consider in December, after the season is over. At the moment, football is the only thing on his mind.

"It would frustrate me if I didn't win one state title in high school," Gasser said.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Will Kris Dunn build off career night?

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Will Kris Dunn build off career night?

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Kevin Anderson react to a breakout game from Kris Dunn against the Hornets Friday night. They’ll discuss his development and how it impacts rookie Lauri Markkanen. Plus just how long will both the Wolves and Bulls be judged on the Jimmy Butler trade? Is Dwight Howard a hall of famer? And a new era in Philly with Simmons and Embiid. That and more on this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast.

Observations from Bulls-Hornets: Kris Dunn, a sigh of relief and hack-a-who?

Observations from Bulls-Hornets: Kris Dunn, a sigh of relief and hack-a-who?

Kris Dunn did it: You can’t play that position without an edge, without some form of “basketball killer” in you. Kris Dunn showed at the very least, he has that in his DNA in his best game as a Bull with a career-high 22 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

Leave it to Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to point out a forgotten stat: one turnover in 26 minutes.

“That’s the biggest thing I’m proud of,” Dunn said. “Everyone knows I’ve had a lot of careless turnovers in the season. It’s one thing I’ll take credit for.”

Dunn scored 13 with six assists in the fourth quarter alone as the Bulls outscored the Hornets 40-28 for the comeback victory. More than anything, it was his competitive spirit and aggressiveness that stood out. Kemba Walker stood across the way and gave Dunn—and the Bulls—every bit of 47 points.

“He tested my conditioning, for sure,” Dunn admitted. “He’s a great player. He’s been in the league for so long. It was good to go out there and compete with him.”

It could’ve went a different way had Walker not been bothered by Lauri Markkanen’s challenge at the rim, blowing a layup that would’ve given the Hornets the lead back with seconds remaining but he missed it and the narrative changed at least for a night.

And when teams are talking about learning experiences, it’s good to have them in a win every now and again. Markkanen’s challenge at the rim followed by his closing free throws right after, along with a quietly effective 16 points and seven rebounds, proved huge on this night.

Dunn finally having a confidence booster was imperative.

Dunn scored but it wasn’t an easy 20 or a smooth 20. It was an attacking 20, a necessary 20. He did hit some elbow jumpers, especially in the fourth as the defense laid off him.

But his biggest basket was a slithering drive to the rim for a layup with 2:24 left, because he attacked and was under control.

“That’s huge growth for Kris,” Hoiberg said. “He made the right play darn near every time he had the ball in his hands. Rose up with confidence, knocked down huge shots. Defensively got them going, got steals.”

What a relief: Nobody wanted to say it, but it bore out on the floor, the sheer desperation the Bulls played with.

Coming in with a five-game losing streak and headed out west to for four games in the next week, they were staring in the face of a possible double-digit losing streak to end November.

Confidence was sparse after three bad losses, and it’s a dangerous time for a team that will struggle to win games all season.

The United Center crowd got into it, particularly late when the Bulls began climbing back into contention to start the fourth quarter. The fans wanted this win too, even with the eyes being on a larger prize coming in mid-2018.

The relief was written all over Hoiberg’s usually-stress ridden face and he even cracked a couple jokes that weren’t aimed in his direction, as self-deprecation is normally his escape of choice.

“It is important but I asked the guys: is it hard to play with that type of effort? When you play with that type of energy and effort and swagger, it’s fun,” Hoiberg said. “When you play low energy and hang your head, it’s a drag. It’s hard to play at this level with that mentality.”

Starting change: Justin Holiday returned after his quick leave with his wife delivering a baby girl recently and his game-high 27 points showed he missed the Bulls as much as they missed his shooting, hitting four triples and going 10 for 15 from the field.

“Guys were serious about getting their jobs done,” Holiday said. “It was a lot of energy, a lot of energy, competitiveness. That’s how we have to play every night for our team to do well.”

Denzel Valentine, although he didn’t want to say it, wants to be a starter. Hoiberg chose Quincy Pondexter over him recently and then made the change Friday to insert Valentine for more scoring.

Valentine scored 18 with six assists and five rebounds in 32 minutes of run—and with those two starting as scoring options, the Bulls surpassed that seven-point first-quarter mark really early and scored 26 overall.

He hit a big triple in the fourth with 2:49 left to give the Bulls a 110-109 lead on a set play the Bulls actually executed between Valentine, Dunn as a setup man and Robin Lopez as a screen to pop Valentine open.

If he continues to hit 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip, especially with the way the Bulls have struggled to start games, he’ll have the right to feel he belongs in the first five.

“It’s definitely more confidence,” Valentine said. “You feel you’re an NBA starter, you get to go in and feel it out for a second and bring some energy to start the game.”

He didn’t mince words about starting, with a little honesty saying, “I think it’s huge being a starter.”

When asked if he felt validated by his performance and the result being a high-scoring win, it was just as telling.

“I think I deserve…I think I deserved a starting role,” Valentine said. “At the same time it’s different combinations, different people that need to be on the floor at certain times, so if he feels like I don’t need to start, I won’t start. But I feel very comfortable starting as well.”

Hack-a-Dwight: It could be Hack-a-Dwight, hack-a-Drummond, hack-a-Wilt or Shaq or Charles Shackleford.

The Bulls went to it and Howard went two of four from the line but it took a little rhythm from the Hornets and probably slowed Kemba Walker down just enough before he got cooking in the last 90 seconds and almost pulled a win out of his keister.

But…

I hate it. Get it out of the game completely.