Bulls

Key for Illinois: Contain Braxton Miller

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Key for Illinois: Contain Braxton Miller

CHAMPAIGN Setting foot on the turf at The Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio can be an awe-inspiring moment. Luckily for Illinois, first-year head coach Tim Beckmans had that moment before.

In his career Beckman, has been on both sidelines at Ohio Stadium, first as cornerbacks coach at Ohio State and later as head coach at Toledo. The environment, he said, is always fantastic, but it will not distract him from the challenge at hand.

Been there, done it, was Beckmans response to questions about competing in the famed stadium. The Illini coach had much more to say about competing against his friend, Urban Meyer.

The two coaches met through a mutual friend while in college and continued to stay close as graduate assistants. Beckman would eventually become defensive coordinator during Meyers first head coaching stint at Bowling Green.

Beckman described Meyer as one of his close friends, but said the two have not communicated much since both took over Big Ten football teams last summer. He expects hell talk to his friend some before Saturdays clash, but the conversation will be minimal.

Were very, very competitiveright before the game I might say a couple of words to him, but we wont talk before the game other than that, Beckman said.

Beckman and the Illini will instead keep their focus on surprising the undefeated Buckeyes in search of their first win since September 15.

The key to surprising OSU will be containing sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller has led the OSU team to nine consecutive wins and the No. 6 ranking in this weeks Associated Press poll. He has been a dual threat, rushing for 1,093 yards (the fourth best single season mark in Big Ten history with three games remaining in OSUs season) and 12 touchdowns, while passing for another 1,527 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Coming from Toledo, however, Beckman has had plenty of chances to see just how good a player Miller can be, and he knows what to do to have a chance against the Buckeyes. He pinpointed containment of the 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year as a key to being successful against OSU this week.

Braxton is a special player. He was fabulous at Wayne High School, Beckman said. Were going to need to know what hes doing at all times, hes very important to their offenseWere going to need to have awareness of where hes at and put pressure on him because he can beat you with his feet and his arm.

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said his opposing number was vastly improved from last year to this year, and he expects a tough match-up on Saturday.

Hes gotten way better throwing the ball, especially downfieldand, obviously, running the ball hes one of the most dangerous players in the country, Scheelhaase said.

Tackle Akeem Spence echoed Scheelhaase, calling Miller one of the best. The soft-spoken junior was not overly anxious about the match-up, however. He said his team just had to perform like theyre capable.

Guys who have contain and guys who are assigned to him will have to get their job done and get him on the ground, Spence said.

Compared to the man he replaced, Terrelle Pryor, Spence says Miller is clearly a more talented player.

Hes a lot better than Pryor. He gets in the open field and he makes guys miss and hes one of the best in the conference as a sophomore, he said. Braxtons gonna make you miss, hes going to run you over hes going to do it all.

Despite all the talk of Miller and his ability to dominate the game, the Illini on hand Monday were calm and collected. Beckman and his players seemed ready to put in a hard week of practice and see what they can do against the Buckeyes this weekend.

You come to the University of Illinois to play Ohio State or Michigan, to play those tough games. For sure, you wont always be favored in those games, but thats why they play the game, Scheelhaase said.

Illinois notebook

-The injury situation for Illinois has become much more manageable since the bye week. Scheelhaase was roughed up late in the game against Indiana, but Beckman was confident his quarterback would be under center at OSU. Defensive back Steve Hull (shoulder) and running back Josh Ferguson (hip pointer), however, were still questions marks at Mondays press conference. The Illinois coach said he would have to wait and see how the two responded in practice this week before making a decision about playing this week.

-Tommy Davis is out as punt returner for the Illini. After another fumbled punt and a questionable no catch decision against the Hoosiers, the senior was pulled in favor of Darius Millines. Millines and Terry Hawthorne will take over punt return duties this week, with specific personnel decided on a play-by-play basis.

-Illinois must win their next four games to be bowl eligible this season. When asked about that scenario, Scheelhaase shrugged off the pressure. In my mind I dont look at it as you have to win out to get to a bowl game, its more of how can I get as good as possible to be a better player today to benefit my team.

-The friend who introduced Tim Beckman and Urban Meyer? Browns linebackers coach Bill Davis.

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.