Bulls

Gordon brings back the mustache before upcoming race

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Gordon brings back the mustache before upcoming race

JOLIET We've heard about winning one for the Gipper or for a sick kid, but when was the last time you heard an athlete go out and "win for the 'stache?"

Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, with nearly a week's growth above his lip, came into this weekend's action at Chicagoland Speedway hoping to find a motivational tool for he, his team and his fans to latch on to kick off the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Gordon hasn't worn a mustache since 1993, but given how often fans have asked him "when are you going to grow your mustache back again?" over the years, he decided a couple of weeks ago that if he made the Chase, he may just bring back the whiskers for a return engagement.

Especially if it could serve as motivational fodder.

But even Gordon is a bit surprised at the resulting comments and interest his new growth has fostered, including it's own Twitter account (@GordonsMustache). While he's taking things with a grain of salt and enjoying the attention his facial hair is causing, it very well may prove to be an inspiration towards winning that long-sought fifth Cup championship this season.

Gordon almost didn't make the Chase this season. It appeared Kyle Busch would earn the 12th and final qualifying position at Richmond last week, but Gordon drove like he hasn't in years perhaps as hard as when he last had a caterpillar atop his lip. In the end, Busch fell short and Gordon raced his way into his eighth Chase appearance (the Chase enters its ninth year starting tomorrow).

And if the stubble he sported heading into Richmond gave him an assist to make the Chase, why not ride it through for the 10 races in NASCAR's playoff, right?

"I've had fans, other competitors just saying you need to bring back that mustache, the mullet, the whole thing, the rainbow colored paint scheme, the whole thing. I always laughed about it. Then we were having a conversation about a month ago about making the Chase and I said if we make it, I'll bring back my mustache.

"It's just kind of taken a life of it's own. It's coming, slow, but it's coming."

Gordon has not won a Cup championship since 2001, but the combination of the mustache and his overall record at Chicagoland Speedway 11 starts, one win, six top-5 and seven top-10 finishes could ultimately wind up spelling a fifth career Cup title by season's end.

But one thing is missing, according to fellow competitor and reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart.

"(Gordon's) got to grow back the eyebrows, too," Stewart joked. "It was kind of a matching set."

While Gordon is adding hair, crew chief Alan Gustafson is also getting into the spirit of things, having shaved his head earlier this week after promising to do so if Gordon made the Chase.

While the now-bald Gustafson and the stubble-filled Gordon are making quite an unusual pairing, their dual actions have certainly motivated the No. 24 team as it gets ready for Sunday's kickoff to the Chase.

"I made the statement and am a person of my word," Gordon said. "And Alan said he'd shave his head, so we did. We're committed."

They're also committed to getting off to a strong start in the Chase. Or you can look at it as if they're picking up where they left off prior to the start of the chase, with a win at Pocono six weeks ago and then finishes of third and a pair of runner-up showings in his last three races, including the second-place finish that ultimately got Gordon into the Chase and mathematically kicked Kyle Busch out.

"If we finish where we're running and where our performance level is at, then we're going to be a major threat in this thing," Gordon said. "And we've done that in the last three weeks."

Gordon comes into Sunday's race in a four-way tie for ninth place in the 12-driver Chase. He'll start from the 19th position, not exactly where he'd like to, but given he'll get 267 laps around the 1.5-mile race track, Gordon is poised to make a run to the front in much the same fashion he did in earning his runner-up showing at Richmond last weekend.

"The whole team is extremely fired up and excited about the way things have been going, and to be able to pull (Richmond) off gives us a huge boost," Gordon said. "We're ready to go get after it here in Chicago this weekend. We feel like we've got a good gameplan, a great race car and the 'stache is back, so I think we're in great shape."

There's one other motivating factor that could play into Gordon's championship run: had it not been for reaching back into his bag of tricks and looking like the Jeff Gordon of old who won championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001 last weekend at Richmond, he would not be where he is coming into Sunday's race.

In other words, Gordon has to keep things going and not make the same mistakes or hopefully have better luck than he did in some less-than-fortunate instances in races earlier this season. Rather than having to sneak into the Chase by the skin of his teeth, he much rather would have made it with room to spare.

Still, that was not to be the case, but all that can help him and the No. 24 team find even more spirit deep inside themselves to go from Chase dark horse to champion 10 weeks from now.

"I'm the biggest believer in you make your own luck by being the best team out there. And I don't feel like we've been the best team out there so far this season."

So now you can see why Gordon is putting his face and mustache front and center. If the mustache can serve as a motivating tool, as well as a foil to deflect some of the bad things that happened to him and his team earlier this season, he may very well surprise everyone in 2012 in much the same fashion as Tony Stewart did by winning five races in last year's Chase en route to his third career Cup championship.

"What I love about the Chase is that it's all about timing," Gordon said. "If you pull together and you improve those things in areas that you're weak in at the right time and make your way into it and Tony (Stewart) proved that last year that anything is possible, and especially after Saturday night's performance (at Richmond), we definitely feel like this season has just now been rejuvenated for us, we're on a clean slate and we've got an excellent opportunity to do something pretty spectacular that we might not have expected with this season and the way it could possibly turn out."

While the mustache is a nice gimmick and motivating tool, it's not going to win Gordon any races. After his win at Pocono six weeks ago, giving a resurgence to his Chase hopes, Gordon and his team knew that the only way they'd make the Chase would be to adopt a win-or-go-home mindset. Given the performance in the last three races, it's working.

Now it's a matter of continuing that on for 10 more races.

"That's what got us into this thing and that's what's going to keep us in it and get us the championship," Gordon said. "If anything, I think what these last three weeks and really this season has proven to us is that you have to aggressively pursue wins and obviously accumulate the most points. That's what wins this championship.

"We're going out there with nothing to lose and everything to gain, just the same way that we've approached these last races in the last several weeks. We didn't expect to be here. The pressure is on us right now.

"Everything changes here, this weekend. Everybody ramps up, everybody brings out their best. And we're going to find out if our best is capable of winning the championship."

NOTES: Not only did Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won Saturday's Dollar General 300 in the Nationwide Series, he finally unseated previous points leader Elliott Sadler from the top spot in the standings. Sadler had lead the Nationwide Series points for the last 20 weeks, but Stenhouse now leads Sadler by nine points. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew reportedly had to change the motor in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, which means Junior will likely start Sunday's Geico 400 Sprint Cup race from the back of the 43-car field.

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

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USA TODAY

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

Over the past several weeks, the Bulls have been heavily rumored to be selecting Boise State small forward Chandler Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although the 6-foot-7 Hutchison had a stellar four-year career with the Broncos, and was regarded as a top-100 national prospect coming out of high school, his background is relatively unknown compared to many of his first-round counterparts. Not many recruiting gurus watched Hutchison in-depth in high school. The same could be said about draft analysts watching Hutchison's career unfold at Boise State.

Part of the reason Hutchison has flown under the radar for so long, despite being a first-round talent, is his unique basketball upbringing. Many elite high school players opt to transfer to big-time basketball schools while playing in high-exposure shoe-company leagues during the spring and summer. Instead of the normal path, Hutchison chose to stick with the people that he trusted.

Playing for a small, independent grassroots program in high school known as Team Eastbay, Hutchison started showing special gifts as a sophomore in before blossoming into a top-100 national prospect towards the end of high school. Hutchison's trainer and coach with Team Eastbay, Perry Webster, saw that Chandler had the ability to be a big-time player.

"I walked into the gym and saw this 15-year-old kind of gangly kid. And he just moved different than anybody else. I thought he had a chance to be a pretty good player," Webster said of Hutchison.

As Hutchison developed more of a reputation in the Southern California basketball scene, becoming a starter at Mission Viejo High School his junior season, he started to draw more attention from local and national recruiting analysts — including former ESPN recruiting insider Joel Francisco, Scout.com's Josh Gershon and SoCal recruiting analyst Devin Ugland.

"You saw during his junior year that he was a legitimate Division I prospect. During the spring he started blossoming," Francisco said. "He had the ball skills and the prototypical length and things like that. And he was finishing plays. He had a good IQ for the game. It was a matter of strength and he had to fill out to become a more complete player."

By the end of summer going into his senior season, Hutchison had established himself as a potential Pac-12 recruit, as schools like Oregon and USC started to show heavy interest. But it was mid-major programs like Boise State, Saint Mary's and UC-Irvine who had long been involved in Hutchison's recruitment.

Knowing that Hutchison was a unique wing with a high IQ and passing skills, Webster, a former Division I player at Cal State Fullerton himself, advised that his star player take a close look at the programs that would put him in position to succeed right away.

"Every AAU program in Southern California was trying to get him for their team. Free ride this, free shoes. The kid stayed really loyal to me. I was very hard on him," Webster said. "I demanded a lot of him. I screamed at him, I yelled at him. And he looked me in the eye and took it. I realized, this kid is pretty special because he's not running away from what he is. He knows what his limitations are. That's not something he's afraid to address.

"Not everybody was sold on him. Joel [Francisco] was. Joel was one of the proponents of him. But being that he burst on the scene late, and that he didn't play for the big shoe companies, we kind of came to the decision that we wouldn't be so enamored by the Pac-12. He realized he had ability but he still had a long way to go." 

Hutchison eventually decided to sign his National Letter of Intent with Boise State before his senior season started as assistant coach Jeff Linder acted as his lead recruiter. Even though his collegiate future had been decided, Hutchison continued to evolve into a major prospect during senior year as he flourished at Mission Viejo.

Even with his strong senior season, skepticism remained about Hutchison since he hadn't played with and against many of the major names in Southern California. Ranked as the No. 83 overall prospect in ESPN's final Class of 2014 national recruiting rankings, Hutchison was viewed as the seventh best player in his own state. While Francisco pushed for Hutchison to be ranked in the top 50, he had to settle for him being a back-end top-100 talent.

"They're like, hey, he's going to Boise State, he's not on a major shoe company team. How good can he be? But if he can play, he can play. It doesn't matter if he's not on the adidas circuit, he's not in the EYBL," Francisco said.

Francisco wasn't the only major recruiting analyst to take notice of Hutchison's play. Rivals.com's Eric Bossi also labeled Hutchison as a potential breakout player at Boise State. Hutchison was even placed in the Rivals national recruiting rankings, ending up at No. 98 overall, after his senior season. Bossi was on vacation with his family during spring break and he happened to see Hutchison play during his senior season. But Hutchison's strong effort, along with some research, convinced Bossi that he was worthy of a top-100 ranking, even with only one serious viewing. 

"I decided to go watch some regional California high school playoff stuff. And it just so happened to be that Chandler's high school team was one of the teams I was seeing," Bossi said. "I knew he was on the team and committed to Boise State. But then when I watched him play I was like, 'Holy cow, what an incredible get for Boise State. Like, this dude's legit.' He had great size for a wing. He could handle the ball, he could really pass and I thought he could defend multiple positions at the next level when it was all said and done. I thought he was a versatile, well-skilled, well-rounded basketball player. So, based on that, I thought he was top-100. I wish I had seen him more."

Even as a former top-100 national prospect, it took some time for Hutchison to gain traction at Boise State as he didn't put up big numbers during his first two seasons. Although Hutchison played plenty of minutes and started a healthy amount of games, he often took a back seat to talented all-conference players like Anthony Drmic and James Webb III.

When those players eventually moved on from the Broncos, Hutchison was given his chance to shine, as his ascension into all-conference player and future first-round pick came with an intense work ethic that continually developed during workouts in college.

Hutchison also became a consistent three-point threat — something he had been lacking during his development — as he became a hot name in the 2018 NBA Draft despite his unorthodox basketball background.

"He's always been competitive. I think the big thing is reps. And it still will be as he continues to play in the league," Webster said. "He wasn't a bad shooter in high school, but I think the big adjustment for him getting to college, it's hard to put up good percentages in college. I think some of it is mental. But I think he's a good shooter and I think that he'll prove that." 

It's hard to predict if the Bulls will end up with Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick on Thursday night — especially given all of the chaos that can occur on draft night. But if Hutchison does end up in Chicago, he won't be fazed by having to prove himself after already doing so at the high school and college level.

Mike Trout says Browns will win more games than Bears in 2018

Mike Trout says Browns will win more games than Bears in 2018

Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout is quickly becoming an icon in American sports. The two-time American League MVP is enjoying another dominant season batting .335 with 23 home runs and 48 RBI.

On Tuesday, he took a swing at what Bears fans may consider a shocking NFL prediction.

“I’ve got the Browns having a better record than the Bears,” Trout told a radio reporter, according to the Los Angeles Times. Trout's comments were made in response the reporter "talking up" Chicago.

Both the Browns and Bears have had productive offseasons that involved headline-grabbing acquisitions on offense. Cleveland drafted QB Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick, traded for WR Jarvis Landry, signed RB Carlos Hyde and drafted a backfield mate for him in Georgia's Nick Chubb. They added potential lockdown corner Denzel Ward with the fourth overall pick, too. Add all that to a motivated Josh Gordon ready to contribute for a full season, and there's good reason to be excited in Cleveland.

Still, it's hard imagining Trout can be that confident in a team that's won only one game over the last two seasons. And let's not forget what GM Ryan Pace has done this offseason, one that's been praised by analysts from all corners of the NFL universe. From new coach Matt Nagy to free-agent WR Allen Robinson and all the skill players in between, the Bears are ready to make a legitimate run in the NFC North.

Trout doesn't strike out much in the major leagues, but this prediction feels like it could be a back-straining whiff.