Bulls

Historic Heisman? Te'o deserving, but past not on his side

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Historic Heisman? Te'o deserving, but past not on his side

Manti Te'o's Heisman bid started as a pipe dream in mid-September, when the linebacker received plenty of national attention for his outstanding performances against Michigan State and Michigan while dealing with a devastating tragedy.

A month later, Te'o's Heisman chances became legitimate when he intercepted Landry Jones in Norman, sealing Notre Dame's biggest win in nearly two decades. And after Notre Dame beat USC to finish its first undefeated regular season in 24 years, the argument became loud and clear:

If Te'o doesn't get the Heisman Trophy, no defensive player ever will.

"If a guy like Manti Te'o's not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award," coach Brian Kelly said in Los Angeles. "Just give it to the offensive player every year and let's just cut to the chase."

On Thursday, Te'o broke Charles Woodson's record for most awards won in a single season. In winning the Maxwell Award -- Te'o's sixth -- he topped Woodson's five won in 1997. One of those awards won by Woodson was the Heisman Trophy, although Te'o is hardly a slam dunk to to win college football's most prestigious honor.

Te'o earned an invite to the Heisman presentation in New York as one of three finalists, meaning he'll be the first defensive player who didn't play offense or special teams to have a top-three Heisman finish since Pittsburgh's Hugh Green in 1980. A handful of defense-only players have finished in the top four -- most recently, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh -- while Alex Karras and Green are the only two defenders to finish in the top three without playing on offense.

Woodson is heralded as the last defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, but his bid was aided by his explosive returning ability and moonlighting as a receiver. Te'o doesn't have any of that -- his impact comes only on the defensive side of the ball.

And it's a been a huge impact, one that has propelled Notre Dame to an undefeated season and bid in the BCS Championship. Te'o has 103 tackles and seven interceptions, the latter of which is the highest total compiled by an FBS linebacker in a dozen years. He's the emotional leader of a defense allowing 10.3 points per game, the lowest average in the nation. And Te'o's done it all while being a high-character guy, one who's as upstanding of a human being as you'll ever meet.

So what doesn't make him Heisman Trophy material?

It's exactly about what Te'o is lacking, it's about what Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel has done. It's Manziel -- not Cam Newton, not Tim Tebow -- who holds the SEC record for total offense, racking up 4,600 yards in his redshirt freshman campaign. With a new coach and new quarterback, Texas A&M actually wound up averaging more points per game this year against fearsome SEC defenses than they did last year against the Swiss cheese defenses of the Big 12, and that was with Ryan Tannehill as the team's quarterback.

The last few weeks have turned into ugly attack campaigns, with those in College Station and South Bend digging to find any reason, however small, to discount the other candidate (in this analogy, then, that makes Collin Klein the Green Party rep). Yes, Manziel didn't play well against Florida and LSU. But Te'o was stymied by Pittsburgh, a game which Notre Dame wound up winning thanks to a few big breaks.

It's Michael Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera all over again, with each grenade thrown making the debate more polarizing.

"That's definitely somebody that's of Heisman material," Te'o said of Manziel. "I'm a real big fan."

Manziel is a deserving candidate. So is Te'o. But only one can win the award -- and all signs point to Manziel -- so that begs another question: why not just split the Heisman Trophy into two categories, one for offense and one for defense?

It's a tricky concept, given the history of the Heisman Trophy. It's arguably the most prestigious and recognizable award in American sports, one that pre-dates baseball's Cy Young Award by 21 years. It'd take a lot of convincing for two players to be welcomed into the Heisman fraternity each year, for two players to strike the pose instead of one.

But it's rare for a defensive player to have the kind of national impact and appeal of Te'o in 2012. Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers pepper highlight reels and YouTube clips. A mundane touchdown will get more play than a run-of-the-mill interception, sack or fumble recovery. That's why it's much easier to identify the nation's top offensive players than defensive players, unless a defender has a gargantuan season like Te'o in 2012 or Suh in 2009.

The idea of a defensive Heisman won't be realized anytime soon, if ever. And even if it is installed down the road, it won't help Te'o this year.

In a situation where there are multiple deserving candidates, one will get snubbed. This year, that guy is likely to be Te'o, and he just so happens to play defense. And while there's no doubt Te'o wants to win the Heisman, he has a chance to play for an even bigger honor -- one Manziel doesn't have a chance to get this year.

"You ask any Heisman winner that wasn't a national champion what they would rather be, and I think they would rather be the latter, a national champion," Te'o said last month. "So that's what I want. I'd rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue."

Zach LaVine's conditioning at '70 percent' but still on schedule

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USA TODAY

Zach LaVine's conditioning at '70 percent' but still on schedule

Everybody saw the play, that awkward instance where Zach LaVine looked ready for his second dunk of the season but was fouled from behind by Atlanta’s Taurean Prince.

It looked as if LaVine was ready for liftoff but one of his jets misfired, sparking at least the thought of his recovery from his ACL injury being a bit off—but he laughed at the thought.

“I don’t know why everybody keeps talking about it,” LaVine said Sunday at New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center, where the Bulls held practice. “The dude stepped on the back of my foot, so I couldn’t get off the ground. Everybody’s wondering if I’m okay, yeah. I just missed a fouled layup.”

The adrenaline from his first two games have worn off a bit, and he missed his first four shots from the field Saturday before hitting a couple in the start of the third quarter in the Bulls’ 113-97 win over the Hawks.

He looked winded a few times during his stint and admitted his conditioning isn’t where it should be—as expected given he’s missed 11 months of real basketball. He said his conditioning is at about “70 percent”, and you can certainly see it in his jump shot not being as fluid as it was last season in Minnesota.

“It was feeling good in practice but in games it’s seventy,” LaVine said. “Playing defense, getting back, running the break, just getting used to it.”

Add to it, the Bulls cover the most halfcourt ground of any team in the NBA with their set offense and Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has long said he’s not slowing down his offense while LaVine is in.

The shooting guard will have to catch up to the pace, and it’ll probably be better for him in the long run.

“I think it’s just ‘okay’ and rightfully so,” said Hoiberg about LaVine’s conditioning. “It’s impossible to simulate game action in practices when you’re doing individual workouts. Every time he plays that conditioning will ramp up. As he plays, it’ll get better and better. And he’s such a good and natural athlete, it’ll come back quickly.”

Hoiberg isn’t concerned about the variances in LaVine’s performances. He came out the gate with such force and adrenaline in his debut against Detroit and two days later against Miami, but it’s tailed off against Golden State and then Atlanta.

“I think Zach’s doing great,” Hoiberg said. “You look around the league where players have come back from significant injuries, he’s gonna be up and down. His first two games he’s been unbelievable. A couple games he hasn’t shot the ball great. He played unselfish basketball last night.”

LaVine’s minutes has been extended to 24 from 20, and he’ll still practice in the off-days as the Bulls want to keep his rehab on schedule as opposed to having him play heavy minutes initially.

He’ll be re-evaluated after Wednesday’s game in Philadelphia and could see his minutes rise before the Bulls host the Lakers Friday at the United Center.

“I should just get used to it,” LaVine said. “Just getting used to the swing of things. It takes a second for your body to get adjusted to it.”

Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Pelicans

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Pelicans

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Bulls take on the New Orleans Pelicans tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Pregame Live.

1. Anthony Davis

The five-time All-Star just continues to improve. While he's not averaging career-highs in any major category, no one's going to scoff at his 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 blocks in 36 minutes per game. He's shooting nearly 56 percent from the field and is on pace for a career-best in 3-pointers made, which is a pretty impressive statistic. Lauri Markkanen will have his hands full, and it may be in the Bulls' best interest to get Nikola Mirotic some early minutes to try and get physical with Davis. There's no real way to slow him down.

2. DeMarcus Cousins

And if the Bulls should so happen to get lucky and slow down Davis, there's another All-Star starter waiting alongside him. Boogie Cousins has been every bit as good as Davis this season, averaging 25.3 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 36 minutes. He's certainly not as efficient as Davis (47 percent from the field, 5.0 turnovers) but is deadly inside. He's shooting a career-best 52.8 percent on 2-pointers this season, and his 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks make him a serviceable defender (although the Bulls could certainly stretch their offense to make him work more).

3. Rajon Rondo

Rondo hasn't been great in his first season with the Pellies, but perhaps he's turning things around. Beginning with his absurd 25-assist game just after Christmas, Rondo is averaging 7.4 points, 8.2 assists and 1.0 steal per game. He's allowed Jrue Holiday to play more off the ball, and while his defense is nothing to write home about he's logging solid minutes for a Pelicans team woefully short in the backcourt.