Cubs

Moon: NFC North is the Bears' division to lose

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Moon: NFC North is the Bears' division to lose

With the Minnesota Vikings (5-3) losing Thursday night, the Bears have a chance to establish at two-game lead in the NFC North on the Vikings, losers of two of their last three, playing well in none of the three and giving up 36 points in each of the two losses.

The Green Bay Packers (4-3) have the Jacksonville Jaguars in Lambeau Field. Even with top receivers (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson) hurting, the Packers should win their third straight easily.

Detroit (2-4) has Seattle (4-3) in Ford Field in a game that could exacerbate the growing pressure on Lions coach Jim Schwartz, in danger of spiraling to his third losing season in four.

The Bears and Atlanta Falcons are the only NFL teams on streaks of at least four wins; Atlantas is at six with the undefeated start and is at Philadelphia. Even though it will be another two months before it matters, if the Bears win and Falcons lose, the Bears will hold the No. 1 seed in the NFC by virtue of a 4-1 conference mark to Atlantas 2-1.

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

The second-guessing of Joe Maddon jumped the shark when someone questioned why the manager didn’t pinch-hit for Kyle Hendricks – with two outs in the fourth inning of a 2-1 game the Cubs would lose by five runs to a Los Angeles Dodgers team at 110 wins and counting this year.

Maddon makes himself a target when he shows up to a Dodger Stadium press conference in a hipster jean jacket, gets ejected from two of the first four National League Championship Series games, likens the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax, lectures the media about the dangers of dry-humping and threatens to “come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap” if Curtis Granderson hits a disputed home run instead of swinging at strike four.

You won’t have Maddon to kick around anymore, because Thursday night’s ugly 11-1 Game 5 loss ended the 2017 season and turned out the lights at Wrigley Field, the Dodgers advancing to their first World Series since 1988 and looking a lot like the 2016 Cubs.

“It’s not Joe Maddon against Dave Roberts,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “It’s the Cubs against the Dodgers. And the Dodgers have played extraordinarily well this postseason. We’ve played with a ton of heart and character, but we haven’t played our best baseball.”

Why would a manager even need a jockstrap, anyway? “That was just hyperbole on my part,” Maddon said. “Everybody’s so literal. It’s baseball prose.”

The game is now dissected 140 characters at a time on Twitter, where there isn’t enough room and attention bandwidth to explain how: the Dodgers have merged their great tradition of scouting and player development with cutting-edge analytics and $200 million payrolls; beating the Washington Nationals in an epic elimination game drained the defending champs physically and emotionally; this lineup isn’t nearly as good as the one that won last year’s World Series; and trade-deadline nonfactor Justin Wilson created a huge hole in a Cubs bullpen without many good options right now.

“It’s not manager against manager,” Epstein said. “That stuff just gets under the microscope so much this time of year. It’s players performing. And when you get a lead in the series – and when you’ve got a bunch of relievers throwing well – you can make tactically aggressive decisions. Your strategies tend to work.

“When you’re in a tough spot late in the game – and you’re searching for consistency in the ‘pen – it just puts all managers in tough spots.”

Even Epstein has admitted that Maddon opened himself up to second-guessing for how he handled Aroldis Chapman and managed last year’s World Series Game 7.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Maddon summoned Wade Davis for the ninth inning in Game 2 instead of letting John Lackey face Justin Turner and then watching that three-run, walk-off homer at Dodger Stadium. We’re not quite sure if the All-Star closer really was close to full strength or just getting by with guts and intelligence. But it’s pretty obvious the better team won this NLCS.

Epstein definitely felt frustrated with the way Maddon’s team sleepwalked through a 43-45 first half. That could be a much bigger issue than any lineup choice or bullpen decision moving forward: Making sure Maddon’s positive message doesn’t get tuned out in the clubhouse and having the safeguards in place so that hands-off approach doesn’t waste a season for this extremely talented young core.

But Maddon has guided this franchise into the playoffs for three straight years – something no one else had done since Frank Chance in 1906-08 – and at a certain point all he can do is watch along with the rest of us.

“It’s not about front offices or managers,” Epstein said. “It’s about the players.”

Ayo Dosunmu commitment changes the outlook of Illinois basketball

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SB NATION

Ayo Dosunmu commitment changes the outlook of Illinois basketball

Morgan Park senior Ayo Dosunmu helped change the outlook of Illinois basketball on Thursday as the 6-foot-4 guard committed to the Illini and new head coach Brad Underwood.

Deciding between his two finalists of Illinois and Wake Forest on the darkened second floor of the Jordan Brand Store on State Street, Dosunmu kept fans of both teams in suspense throughout the entire week. With his inner circle changing all of their Twitter avatars to black and Dosunmu wearing all black clothing to school on Thursday, there were no leaks from Dosunmu's camp on where he might end up.

But after a brief introduction video played, displaying Dosunmu's #whynotme catchphrase at the end, the lanky senior emerged from a back hallway. Ditching the blackout theme from earlier in the day, Dosunmu slowly walked into the light of his press conference, in front of teammates, family and friends, revealing a crisp white polo with a bright orange Block I.

Without saying a word, Dosunmu's presence in the white Illinois polo changed everything for the future of Illinois basketball. 

"I just want to bring good days back for basketball at Illinois and I want to be one of the cornerstones to start it off," Dosunmu said.

The frontrunner to win Mr. Basketball in the state this season, Dosunmu is a colossal catch for Underwood as it means the Illini could have back-to-back Mr. Basketball winners as their future backcourt. After landing Edwardsville guard and Mr. Basketball winner Mark Smith last spring, considering that Underwood has yet to even coach a game at Illinois, he is already doing a superb job of keeping in-state talent at home.

Although Underwood had to play catch up on Dosunmu once he took the job coming from Oklahoma State this spring, he made an intelligent hire in assistant coach and Chicago native Ronald "Chin" Coleman to help bridge the gap. A former coach at Whitney Young and with the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program, Coleman has recruited Chicago kids at multiple Division I stops before landing with Illinois this spring.

Coleman had an advantage when it came to recruiting Dosunmu. Not only was Coleman a former coach with Dosunmu's AAU program, but he also gave Dosunmu his first scholarship offer while he was an assistant coach at UIC. Even though national programs like Kansas and USC came calling, Dosunmu opted to stay close to home as loyalty is important to him.

"Me and Coach Coleman have a great relationship. He offered me my first scholarship. So, as a teenager, you never forget that," Dosunmu said.

With Coleman opening the door, Underwood and the rest of Illinois recruited Dosunmu as hard as possible. Underwood sold his fast-paced offense, promising to put the ball in Dosunmu's hands right away in a young backcourt that would also feature Smith, freshman Trent Frazier and sophomore Te'Jon Lucas as a solid perimeter core to build around.

""They like to play fast, I like to play fast," Dosunmu said.

"[Underwood] told me I could have the ball right away. He told me that I can be one of the freshmen playing the most minutes coming out so we sat there and talked about a lot of things."

Once Dosunmu took an official visit to Champaign to see campus last weekend he was sold after spending time with his future teammates. During one particular conversation, Dosunmu was playing NBA 2K18 with Smith as the two discussed what it might be like playing together.

"He said we can be the best backcourt and that if I have his back he has my back," Dosunmu said. 

"I think it can be scary."

Illinois hasn't had the kind of talent to produce a "scary" backcourt in the last few years but now with Smith, Frazier, Lucas and Dosunmu the Illini should have more than enough firepower to help run Underwood's high-octane offense.

It might take some time for such a young backcourt to gel, but all four of those pieces have a chance to be a major part of Illinois rebuilding into a perennial NCAA tournament contender.

Underwood still has to finish out the Class of 2018 and find more interior players to compete in the rugged Big Ten, but for the first time in years, there is reason to be very optimistic about the outlook of Illinois basketball.