Bulls

Last year's Final Four darling does it again

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Last year's Final Four darling does it again

From Comcast SportsNet
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Shaka Smart and Co. pulled off the first major surprise of the NCAA tournament. Yep, VCU is back again. Bradford Burgess hit a key 3-pointer with 1:33 left and the 12th-seeded Rams held off Wichita State 62-59 on Thursday night. Smart was one of the tournament's biggest stars last year when he coached VCU to victories over Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, making the Rams just the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four. The run ended when they lost to Butler in Houston. This VCU team moves on to a matchup with fourth-seeded Indiana (26-8), which advanced to Saturday's game with a 79-66 victory over New Mexico State at the Rose Garden. "We have different guys doing different things than last year's team," Burgess said. "We want to make our own mark on this year's tournament." Still, there are already similarities to last year's run. Just take a look at the last few frantic minutes of this one. With 12 seconds left and the Rams clinging to a 62-59 lead, Smart was so animated during a timeout that he swooped down on his team at midcourt and started strategizing. The intense huddle was eventually brushed back to near the bench by the referees, but the Rams (29-6) came out of the timeout and buckled down defensively, hurrying Wichita State center Garrett Stutz's errant 3-point attempt before the final buzzer. "Our guys did a good job executing our defensive plan," Smart said of those final seconds. "They didn't get a good look at a 3, and that's what won it for us." The Rams led by as many as 13 in the second half, but Wichita State (26-6) closed to 54-53 on Stutz's layup with 5:39 left. Troy Daniels hit a 3-pointer for the Rams, and Joe Ragland answered with his own for the Shockers. Toure Murry made a 3 that gave Wichita State the lead, but Burgess came back with his big shot to give the Rams a 60-59 edge. Darius Theus then tacked on a runner before Stutz's last-chance attempt was off. "I was kind of the last option on top, and VCU read the play well," Stutz said. "By the time I got the ball I knew there wasn't enough time to go for a two. Couldn't have been more than 2 or 3 seconds left." Said VCU guard Rob Brandenberg: "Everybody was on the same page that last (defensive) play." Burgess finished with 16 points, and Theus and Daniels had 10 points apiece for the Rams, who edged Drexel 59-56 in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament final to make it to the NCAAs. Because of their unexpected run last season, the Rams were expected to give the Shockers trouble. Even President Barack Obama picked them to advance. Ragland finished with 15 points after getting off to a slow start. "They obviously pressured the ball and the first half we didn't handle it as well as we should have," Ragland said. "The second half we handled it pretty well and had a chance to win the game." Wichita State was ranked No. 18 in the final The Associated Press poll. The Shockers won the regular-season title in the Missouri Valley Conference, but lost to Illinois State in the semifinals of the conference tournament. It was the first NCAA tournament appearance for Wichita State since 2006, when it advanced to the regional semifinals. There were lots of missed shots on both sides early, but Rob Brandenberg hit a 3-pointer to put VCU in front 17-13 midway through the first half. Wichita State put together an 11-0 run to make it 24-21 with 5:27 left. Carl Hall capped the surge with a layup. Treveon Graham broke the VCU scoring drought with a jumper and Burgess added a 3-pointer, sparking a 13-1 run that lifted the Rams to a 34-25 lead at the break. Burgess scored 13 points during a dominating first half, except for an errant 3-pointer that fell far short of the basket. Virginia Commonwealth stretched the lead to 41-29 after Brandenberg's layup. His jumper a short time later gave the Rams a 46-33 lead, but Ben Smith had a layup before David Kyles scored five quick points to trim VCU's lead to 46-40. Ragland, who was quiet most of the first half, made a 3-pointer with 7:23 left and Stutz tapped in a shot to get Wichita State within one at 54-53. "They came at us with kind of a dose of our own medicine and pressed us," Smart said. "I thought it gave us troubles for part of the second half but we hung in there and made all the big plays in the end."

The Bulls will always be linked to the Warriors — symbolically, practically and through history

The Bulls will always be linked to the Warriors — symbolically, practically and through history

Whenever the Bulls and Warriors meet for the foreseeable future, it’ll be a reminder of how the two franchises are inextricably linked symbolically and practically — even if no one would consider the two franchises mirror images in any way that truly counts.

Starting on the sidelines, as Warriors coach Steve Kerr will forever be etched in Bulls lore with a championship-sealing jumper in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals off a pass from Michael Jordan, the second title of their second three-peat.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was rumored to be in the running for the Warriors job after the Warriors fired Mark Jackson in 2014, when Hoiberg was still at Iowa State and Kerr was in the broadcast booth.

Reportedly, Hoiberg was a backup plan if Kerr wound up taking the New York Knicks job being offered to him by…former Bulls coach Phil Jackson.

Kerr has spoken highly of Hoiberg before games, even going as far as saying he’s stolen some of Hoiberg’s offensive plays — and it’s easy to see the similarities in philosophy, with both placing an extreme emphasis on ball movement and 3-point shooting.

With the Bulls crushing their own 3-point records — hitting fewer than 10-pointers six times in the last 21 games, they’re doing their best to copy the blueprint the Warriors have unleashed on the basketball world.

“I don’t know if we’ve revolutionized the game,” Kerr said at morning shootaround. “We just picked up on where the game was been heading over the last ten years with the added spacing and turning small forwards into power forwards and power forwards into centers. Really spacing the floor. It was happening before we did it. We have the personnel to shoot a ton of 3’s. It’s effective for us. Teams have to find whatever’s most efficient for them. We just try to play according to our talent.”

There’s the simple fact the Warriors erased the 1996 Bulls from the record book as far as regular season wins with a 73-9 mark in 2016, although they couldn’t finish the job in the Finals by blowing a 3-1 lead to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Warriors have joined the Bulls of that vintage, the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers and James’ Miami Heat as the road shows of modern-day basketball, drawing massive crowds, sparking historical conversations and taking opposing teams’ best shots on the road 41 times a year.

Stephen Curry has earned a new respect for what Jordan’s Bulls had to go through during that eight-year period in which the Bulls dominated to win six NBA titles.

“Until you win a championship you don’t know how hard it is,” Curry said. “Only highlight that even more, all that goes into it, year after year after year, being that team everybody is chasing. I have an appreciation before but going through a couple championship runs, you have an appreciation for the dynasty that they were. It’s always nice to be in the city they did it in.”

Then there’s the petty, as Jordan Bell will get the start in place of Draymond Green, a man who looked like a mummy at shootaround with a sore shoulder but had his elbows and knees wrapped in ice.

Bell, of course, remains a point of contention for Bulls fans as he was traded for $3.5 million on draft night to the Warriors and let everyone know what he thought of it when the two met in late November, making a money reference with his hands when coming out for his first start of the season.

Although his playing time has been spotty, he blocked six shots against the Bulls and grabbed six rebounds as an uber-athletic big man in a 49-point humbling loss in Oakland on Nov. 24.

Whether Bulls fans are in love with Bell and what he represents or merely the notion of trading a second-round pick when starting a rebuild, seeing him is a sore spot.

Kerr, though, hopes Bell has moved past the pettiness with the Bulls, as one would certainly like to think he’s happy where he is as opposed to vying for minutes with the glut of bigs the Bulls already have.

“I would hope that’s a thing of the past,” Kerr said. “Jordan’s been in the league for more than half a season. He had his fun the first time we played the Bulls with his comments and whatever he was doing on the floor. I liked it. I thought he was getting himself motivated. That doesn’t last long, in this league you gotta be motivated every single night. He’s past that now.”

Bell, assuming he develops into more than just a spot starter, represents where the Warriors are currently and where the Bulls are trying to get to: selecting physically unique players whose skill sets essentially make them unicorns on the floor.

The Warriors have that in Kevin Durant and to a lesser degree, Green, because of Green’s versatility on defense and with his playmaking, allows the Warriors to be special.

The Bulls have someone in the mold of a matchup nightmare in rookie Lauri Markkanen, who just broke the rookie record by being the fastest in NBA history to hitting 100 triples.

Markkanen did it in 41 games, breaking the mark held by Portland’s Damian Lillard. Curry, widely regarded as the best shooter in NBA history, accomplished the feat in 58 games in the 2009-10 season.

Curry’s taken note while joking Markkanen should “slow down and stop breaking all those 3-point records for rookies. I’m pretty proud of being in those groups.”

“He’s an amazing talent,” Curry said. “Got an extremely unique skill set at his height and size, being able to put it on the floor, being able to shoot the way he does, scoring a lot of different ways… He’s only gonna continue to get better. Other than that, he’s gonna be a force to reckon with as he goes through his career.”

Kerr is among Markkanen’s fans, although he won’t be one at the United Center when he tries to stop Markkanen from adding to the impressive resume.

“These things are so hard to predict but you knew at minimum he was gonna be a great 3-point shooting big man which is important to have these days,” Kerr said. “I think the question was defensively could he hold his own and could he do more than shoot and I think he’s proving all of that. He’s been good defensively.

“He’s not a one-trick pony on offense. He’s not just standing out shooting. He can put it on the floor, he can post up and he’s so young, all that stuff is gonna get better. I know our coaching staff, preparing for this game, have a ton of respect for what the Bulls are doing and Markkanen in particular in terms of his potential. We think he’s gonna be an All-Star.”

Is Luis Robert so good that he'll start the season at Double-A?

Is Luis Robert so good that he'll start the season at Double-A?

Just how good is Luis Robert?

Well, that's the problem. Us on the outside, we don't know exactly.

The White Sox obviously love him, willing to give him big bucks to come play a starring role in the rebuild. Rick Renteria raved about Robert last month at the Winter Meetings, getting White Sox fans all excited by hyping Robert's speed, fielding skills and power.

But as good as the scouting reports sound, is Robert really so good that he'll go from never playing a game in the United States to the higher levels of minor league baseball right away?

That eyebrow-raising possibility was floated Tuesday.

Robert unsurprisingly has plenty of confidence in his own abilities and told The Athletic's James Fegan at the team's hitters' camp in Arizona that his goal is to make it to the big leagues sometime in 2018.

But perhaps the more interesting comment came from Chris Getz, the White Sox director of player development, who said Tuesday that Robert could potentially start the season at either of the White Sox two Class A affiliates, Kannapolis or Winston-Salem, or even at Double-A Birmingham.

Robert is just 20 years old, and he's yet to play a game of minor league baseball in the United States after spending his teenage years playing in Cuba. In fact, his only action since joining the White Sox has been 28 games in the Dominican Summer League. He did fare quite well in that handful of contests, slashing .310/.491/.536 with three homers, 14 RBIs, 12 stolen bases and a sparkling 22-to-23 walk-to-strikeout ratio. But that's not really the point.

The White Sox are in no rush with Robert, or any of their highly touted prospects, for that matter. Not expected to compete for a championship in 2018, there doesn't appear to be any reason to elevate Robert to the highest levels of the minors so quickly without first getting him some experience in the lower levels.

Of course, Getz even mentioning the possibility of Robert starting the season at Birmingham should also show just how good the team thinks Robert is right now. So maybe Robert's major league dream for 2018 isn't as crazy as it sounds?