Humble Eifert has made huge strides


Humble Eifert has made huge strides

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The confidence Tyler Eifert has in his biggest decision, when he bypassed the NFL draft and returned to school to improve his skillset, is evident as he discusses his all-around game.
A lot of time, sweat and study have been poured into developing the Notre Dame tight ends blocking and route running this season.
Already an elite pass catcher before 2012, the humble senior wont try and quantify just how much his entire game has improved.
But he doesnt need to, as his coaches and teammates are more than willing to douse you with a long list of superlatives about Eiferts play. And then of course theres Eiferts 2012 Mackey Award trophy, awarded annually to the nations top tight end.
While Eifert wont say how much he has improved, he does admit he sees the difference whenever coaches pop in game film from previous seasons.
When I go back and watch (2011 tape) its just like, Yeah, what are you doing out there right now? Eifert said earlier this week as Notre Dame ramped up its preparation for its Jan. 7 meeting with Alabama in the BCS Championship Game in Miami. When we watch film on other teams, we see ourselves with teams weve already played, like Boston College, and you see yourself out there. Ive definitely gotten better every year.
Eiferts play in 2011, when he set a school record for tight ends with 63 catches and 803 receiving yards, made him aware success in the NFL isnt a far-fetched dream.
He already has been evaluated as a potential third-round draft pick in last Aprils draft. But with two years of eligibility left, the Fort Wayne, Ind.-product returned to campus in hopes of refining his game.
Tight end coach Scott Booker has no doubt Eifert made the right choice. Booker said Eifert has been determined since then to better understand his role as a blocker, to improve his blocking technique and how to improve his receiving routes.
Right off the get-go he did a great job of understanding where he wanted to improve, Booker said. Hes able to stay in there and block anybody in the country now and (you see) his ability to be able to separate from cornerbacks when hes out there one-on-one or inside getting separation from second-level defenders.
Said Eifert: I try to get better every week, try to watch the film and see what I did wrong and try to fix that stuff.
While Eiferts overall repertoire has clearly improved, it appeared earlier this season to come at the cost of his own offensive production. With the team in the middle of a quarterback transition from junior Tommy Rees to freshman Everett Golson, the opportunity for Eifert to make plays hasnt been as plentiful.
Eiferts production has picked up of late, but through the teams first five games he had only 11 catches and also saw his 22-game catch streak -- the longest among FBS tight ends -- snapped on Sept. 15 against Michigan State.
But through it all, if ever there was frustration on Eiferts end, wide receiver Robby Toma admits hes impressed because he has never heard a peep from the tight end.
'Eif' is one of the great examples of being selfless, Toma said. The first couple games I had more catches than 'Eif,' and he had a chance to go to the NFL. For him to come back and not complain about not catching enough balls, not getting enough touchdowns just spoke volumes to Eifs character.
Eifert has had little to complain about down the stretch. Twenty-two of his 44 grabs this season have come over Notre Dames last four games. Eifert also has the comfort knowing that 32 of his 44 grabs have resulted in either a touchdown or a first down.
Everett has done a great job of finding him and putting the ball where it needs to be placed and Tyler has done a good job of getting into position to make the plays, Booker said.
Despite it all, the gains he has made on the field and in the locker room, where Toma identified him as a leader because of his character, Eifert wont budge on just how much he has developed.
I dont know how much better Ive gotten, Eifert said.
Booker isnt as humble. He believes Eifert has a successful road ahead of him.
The sky is the limit for him, Booker said. You see a lot of guys in the NFL with the same skillset being very productive for a lot of different teams and a lot of different type of offenses.

There's more questions than answers with Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen

There's more questions than answers with Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen

When the Bulls’ season ends in a couple weeks, there’s a good chance the biggest question will go unanswered, thus creating an uneasy feeling headed into the summer.

To the fault of no one, it’s possible we’ve seen the last minutes of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn together. Dunn is in a walking boot while LaVine’s knee tendinitis will keep him out for at least another week, and considering the way he’s played or been deployed, there’s not much for him to gain from playing again.

Markkanen could return in the next couple days if his back loosens up, but his greatest value in these final weeks was seeing how he meshed with his two co-stars.

The minutes they’ve played together haven’t provided any clear answers as to a pecking order, or even if there’s any effectiveness.

Yes, Markkanen has been a revelation and has more room to grow than the other two, while Dunn reclaimed his name after being labeled a bust following a disappointing rookie season.

And it’s probably unfair to judge LaVine on anything considering most evidence shows it takes at least 18 months to get back to full health from an ACL surgery. But given the objective of the season, the Bulls will likely walk away with an “incomplete” on their report card—and that’s probably optimistic.

The small sample size has shown moments but those moments have occurred when one was missing from the three. Dunn’s signature stretch was when LaVine had yet to debut, and LaVine’s flashes of control happened when Dunn was out with a concussion.

They’ve only played 12 games together and to the eye, it’s looked disjointed. The mismatch lineups certainly play a part in things looking so scattered, but even a closer look hasn’t shown more than a mixed bag.

According to NBA.com, the 3-man lineup has an offensive rating of 97.5 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 119.2 points per 100 possessions. Even if you’re not into the advanced stats the way some are, it’s hard to ignore the numbers when the eye isn’t giving you much to combat it.

“I don't take too much into it just because of the fact Zach really joined the team full time with not many reps with that group,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Most of his contact practices were with Windy City. I am confident when we get all those guys together, especially this summer headed into training camp, we'll be a lot further ahead of where we were this year.”

Their collective plus-minus is minus-21.8 points and so much of that can be attributed to the trio not creating easy looks for each other. Dunn and Markkanen developed a decent chemistry, especially in December when Nikola Mirotic fueled a surge that saved the Bulls from temporary embarrassment.

“He was playing at such a high level,” Hoiberg said. “You look at his numbers during that stretch when I think we won 10 of 12, and went 15-11 I want to say in that six-week stretch in December and into January, and then unfortunately he had the bad concussion in the fall against Golden State.”

It also probably saved them from a sure-fire top three pick in the draft this summer, as they’ll resort to leaning on lottery luck to obtain a true franchise changer. LaVine was the centerpiece of the trade that delivered the trio to Chicago, and he’s admitted to frustration—which is to be expected given his recovery putting him behind from the start.

“I’ve had some parts where I’ve been frustrated, and I’ve had some parts where I’ve been happy with my play and the team’s play,” LaVine said earlier this week. “But I didn’t have any expectations really coming into it. I was excited to get back on the court and get back out here and playing, stuff like that. It’s been good overall just from the standpoint of me playing, and getting my rhythm back, getting with the team.”

LaVine and Dunn are in a unique situation where it appears both need the ball to be most effective, while also struggling to play without it. Will Dunn develop an outside shot respectable enough to allow LaVine easier driving lanes to the basket? And will LaVine find a way to make himself a threat off the ball to unlock a more deadly Dunn-Markkanen pick-and-roll?

He (Dunn) had a little bit of success, we put the ball in Zach’s hands a lot in that Minnesota game, and put Kris in the left corner where he did hit a couple shots playing off of Zach,” Hoiberg said. “Zach’s a guy that’s going to be a guy that has the ball in his hands quite a bit with the make-up of the team, and Kris has to be a guy that can be a reliable shooter.”

Markkanen will undoubtedly take another step in the offseason, even if he doesn’t play another minute this season. He doesn’t need to, anyways.

The wayward looks on the Bulls faces of their 135-102 drubbing at the hands of the Denver Nuggets said it all. Human nature is kicking in with this bunch, even if some of them have an opportunity to make names for themselves on an individual level.

The collective spirit has taken a few punches but by and large they’ve competed all season and should be commended. Wednesday night could be called an aberration of sorts.

“These guys are getting an unbelievable opportunity right now, to come out and prove they belong in this league, prove they belong in the rotation and prove they belong long-term with the organization,” Hoiberg said. “And we’re just obviously way too inconsistent with it. You can’t take it for granted. You got to go out, you got to fight, you got to scrap, do a lot of the little things. We’re not doing that.”

And even though Hoiberg is right, if everything revolves around Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen, how can the ancillary parts be truly assessed when they’re not out there to play off?

Denzel Valentine’s career night against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last Saturday would be easier to place into context if he were playing alongside Dunn or LaVine or Markkanen, hitting eight triples by finding the open spots in the defense.

Instead, one could merely write it off as the same type of aberration as a 30-point loss to a Nuggets team desperate to stay in the Western Conference playoff hunt.

“It’s different because personally, I’ve been through a lot of roles: Starting, coming off the bench, back starting without those three guys," Valentine said. "It’s definitely been challenging but at the same time I have to come out and play better. And we can compete a little bit better.”

And even with 11 games remaining, the images produced won’t provide much answers for the true big picture.

One factor could determine Loyola's chances at a Final Four run

One factor could determine Loyola's chances at a Final Four run

Loyola has already made plenty of national headlines during a thrilling run to the Sweet 16.

The Ramblers are fun underdogs thanks to a balanced team, two memorable game-winning shots and the off-court presence of international superstar Sister Jean.

Chicago has been starving for a college basketball team to be successful in the NCAA tournament. The No. 11 seed Ramblers' run into the second weekend comes at a great time. An area college hasn't been this deep in the men's NCAA tournament since DePaul advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1987. Loyola's winning streak comes at an absolutely perfect time to potentially capture the city's attention with Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup with Nevada looming.

Loyola's Sweet 16 run has been a lot of fun so far. But can Loyola make an unlikely push to the Final Four with two more wins? The key will be Loyola's ability to dictate tempo to keep things slow like the Ramblers did the first two rounds.

Loyola was able to advance to this point because Miami and Tennessee played at the slower pace ideally suited for the Ramblers' preferred style of play. Finding themselves down by an identical 62-61 score before knocking down game-winning shots in both wins, Loyola has been able to keep more talented and athletic teams like Miami and Tennessee playing at their tempo.

In fact, it's been a month since Loyola even scored in the 70s — a span of six games. With the No. 319 adjusted tempo rating (out of 351 teams) on KenPom, Loyola plays one of the slowest paces in the country. The Hurricanes (No. 233) and Volunteers (No. 281) also prefer to play on the slower side, according to KenPom numbers. That draw hugely benefited Loyola when it came out on Selection Sunday.

Playing at a slow tempo will be seriously challenged by a No. 7 seed Nevada team that can really put up points. Loyola struggles to score in the 70s. Nevada has only been held below 70 points twice all season.

Armed with five major weapons who can score all over the floor, the Wolf Pack have the No. 6 offense in KenPom in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency. In terms of pace, they're in the upper third of the NCAA at a No. 107 rating. Even after starting point guard Lindsey Drew was lost for the season with injury, this Nevada offense kept rolling.

With two double-digit, second-half comeback wins over Texas and Cincinnati, Nevada put up a serious amount of points in a hurry against two defenses that were even better than Loyola this season. The win over Cincinnati, in particular, was astonishing for Nevada. The 22-point second-half comeback was the second biggest comeback win in NCAA tournament history. And it came against the No. 2 defense in the county.

It means Loyola either has to put up more points than usual to stick with such an offensively-talented team. Or they have to do the best they can to keep the game in the 50s or 60s where they feel more comfortable.

Keep in mind that Nevada has also gotten off to slow starts in both of its tournament games — something that could come into play once again facing Loyola. A slow start for Nevada could give the Ramblers enough of a window to build a cushion for a potential second-half flurry. Even with Nevada's firepower, this is a winnable game for Loyola if they can knock down enough perimeter looks while slowing down Nevada's offense.

If the Ramblers can get past Nevada, then beating Kentucky and Kansas State also wouldn't be out of the question.

The No. 5 seed Wildcats and head coach John Calipari are the heavy favorites in the region after a strong stretch that includes an SEC tournament title. They're also one of the youngest teams in the country. There have been games where Kentucky has been extremely inconsistent this season. Loyola also won't be afraid of facing the SEC powerhouse. The Ramblers' two marquee wins of this season are against Florida and Tennessee — two teams that went a combined 4-1 against Kentucky this season.

Although Kentucky has offensive firepower and a lot of weapons, they're also one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country this season. The Wildcats became the first team since 2014 to win an NCAA tournament game without making a three-pointer during the first-round win over Davidson. So Kentucky's lack of perimeter shooting could easily rear its ugly head against Loyola and give the Ramblers a chance in a slower-tempo game.

No. 9 seed Kansas State would be ideally-suited to face Loyola because they are a limited offensive team who also plays an extremely slow tempo. Bruce Weber's team had a cringeworthy second-round win over No. 16 seed UMBC as both teams really struggled to generate offense.

And with the No. 303 adjusted tempo in the country, Kansas State will certainly oblige to the slower tempo Loyola desires to play. Kansas State still has one of the best defenses in the country. A potential matchup with Loyola would be a slugfest. It would also be a winnable game for Loyola if it came to that point.

Loyola still has a lot of work to do if they want to be the third double-digit seed to advance to the Final Four in the last 12 years. But the bracket has also given the Ramblers an opportunity at more winnable games during the weekend.

If Loyola can keep things to its slower pace, then they could be the next surprise team to make college basketball's biggest stage.