Cubs

A look inside Big Ten Media Day

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A look inside Big Ten Media Day

ROSEMONT Conference depth was the hot topic at Thursdays Big Ten Media Day at the Hyatt Regency OHare. Some coaches marveled at the strength of the league, which has three teams in the top five of the USA Today coaches poll. Others spoke, jokingly, as if it were a subject of pain.

I knew somebody would ask that. Why ruin a good day? Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said during his press conference.

And his team is one of them. In the preseason poll, Indiana is No. 1, followed by No. 4 Ohio State, No. 5 Michigan, No. 14 Michigan State and No. 21 Wisconsin.

I dont start thinking about the Big Ten really until late December, trying to keep my sanity, knowing how good this league is going to be this year, Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.

Even beyond those five ranked teams, there are no slouches in the Big Ten, several coaches insisted. Last season, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan all shared the Big Ten title, and six teams went to the NCAA tournament. Three others went to the NIT.

Time will tell, but the bottom half of our league is so good, Purdue coach Matt Painter said. However you want to categorize that, I dont know what teams you want to put there, but that makes our league pretty special. There are no easy outs throughout the season.

Indiana tops the USA Today coaches, Sporting News, Blue Ribbon Yearbook and Athlon Sports preseason polls after going 27-9 and falling to eventual champion Kentucky in the Sweet 16. The Hoosiers are enjoying the attention after enduring three consecutive losing seasons.

I know it feels good for us to be back in that conversation, to be back and mentioned in the same breath of other great teams, Indiana coach Tom Crean said, who mentioned the strength of college basketball in the overall Midwest. Not only having a great program, which Indiana has been for decades, but back to having a chance to be successful.

Picks to click

Conference media tabbed Indiana as the favorite to win the Big Ten, followed by Michigan and Ohio State. Indiana sophomore Cody Zeller was selected as the preseason player of the year. He joins Michigans Trey Burke, Ohio States Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas and Penn States Tim Frazier on the preseason all-Big Ten team.

Painter said he considers Zeller the best player in college basketball. The 7-foot sophomore from Washington, Ind., combines confidence and a desire to improve with a humble spirit, Crean said. I dont think Cody is somebody who has responded to pressure. I think thats what makes him as mentally tough as he is at his age, Crean said.

A funny moment

Before he left the podium following his press conference, first-year Nebraska coach Tim Miles snapped a panoramic photo of the crowd of reporters for his Twitter account. Hes a frequent tweeter.

Miles also joked about the strength of the league, saying Technically, I havent had my brains beat in yet. He also thanked the Big Ten for scheduling Nebraskas conference opener as a road game at Ohio State.

Miles recalled watching Big Ten basketball when he was a child growing up in South Dakota.

Its a league that you have Hall of Fame coaches, he said. You have unbelievable teams with traditions and were trying to put our mark up there with them.

Cutting to the chase

A child sex abuse scandal has rocked Penn State, as former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sexually abusing boys during 15 years. The incident has affected the entire university, and Nittany Lions basketball coach Patrick Chambers said he addresses the controversy head on during his recruiting.

Its there, and there is no denying it, and I try to stay out in front of it, especially when it comes to recruiting, Chambers said. I talk to the parents about it and the kids, and I dont want it to be the elephant in the room. I would rather get it out in front of us, and lets discuss it and if there are issues, (this) might not be the right place for you. Then you are going to get amazing kids that are serious about getting degrees, that are winners and that want to help build this program.

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

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USA Today Sports Images

Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

Dion Sims is still here, which is the outcome he expected but perhaps wasn’t a slam dunk — at least to those outside the walls at Halas Hall. 

The Bears could’ve cut ties with Sims prior to March 16 and saved $5.666 million against the cap, quite a figure for a guy coming off a disappointing 2017 season (15 catches, 180 yards, one touchdown). But the Bears are sticking with Sims, even after splashing eight figures to land Trey Burton in free agency earlier this year. 

“In my mind, I thought I was coming back,” Sims said. “I signed to be here three years and that’s what I expect. But I understand how things go and my job is come out here and work hard every day and play with a chip on my shoulder to prove myself and just be a team guy.”

The Bears signed Sims to that three-year, $18 million contract 14 months ago viewing him as a rock-solid blocking tight end with some receiving upside. The receiving upside never materialized, and his blocking was uneven at times as the Bears’ offense slogged through a bleak 11-loss season. 

“The situation we were in, we weren’t — we could’ve done a better job of being successful,” Sims said. “Things didn’t go how we thought it would. We just had to pretty much try to figure out how to come together and build momentum into coming into this year. I just think there were a lot of things we could have done, but because of the circumstances we were limited a little bit. 

“… It was a lot of things going on. Guys hurt, situations — it was tough for us. We couldn’t figure it out, along with losing, that was a big part of it too.”

Sims will be given a fresh start in 2018, even as Adam Shaheen will be expected to compete to cut into Sims’ playing time at the “Y” tight end position this year. The other side of that thought: Shaheen won’t necessarily slide into being the Bears’ primary in-line tight end this year. 

Sims averaged 23 receptions, 222 yards and two touchdowns from 2014-2016; that might be a good starting point for his 2018 numbers, even if it would represent an improvement from 2017. More important, perhaps, is what Sims does as a run blocker — and that was the first thing Nagy mentioned when talking about how Sims fits into his offense. 

“The nice thing with Dion is that he’s a guy that’s proven to be a solid blocker,” Nagy said. “He can be in there and be your Y-tight end, but yet he still has really good hands. He can make plays on intermediate routes. He’s not going to be anybody that’s a downfield threat — I think he knows that, we all know that — but he’s a valuable piece of this puzzle.”