Blackhawks

Illini make noise from perimeter in win

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Illini make noise from perimeter in win

CHAMPAIGN As Myke Henrys shot finished its arc and swished through the net, giving Illinois a 12-5 advantage over Colgate, the Assembly Hall erupted.

The noise was of a level not heard in a long time in Champaign, certainly not since Bruce Webers Illini went 2-12 in his final 14 games last season. The eruption was even more impressive given the four minutes of silence that preceded it.

As if the transition from Weber to new Illinois head coach John Groce was not noticeable enough, the Orange Krush asked fans to observe silence an Orange Hush until Illinois scored its 10th point of the game. The hush was a reference to Groces alma mater, Taylor University, and their Silent Night ritual.

The effect at Assembly Hall was dramatic, with the crowd roaring to life, showing appreciation for a strong start by the Illini. While the ghost of Webers teams may not have been exorcised completely, Illinois 75-55 win over Colgate made sure the Groce era started properly.

The biggest thing we wanted to accomplish was to play more consistently than performance in our final preseason game, Groce said. We asked them to play compete and play hard in the forty minutes, and we asked them to play unselfishly, and I think we made strides in both areas.

The Illini came out shooting strong from the perimeter in the opening minutes and never let up. The team sunk four consecutive threes to open scoring and finished 13-of-30 from behind the line. The 43 percent outside shooting was a big factor in Illinois victory and Groce praised his players for their solid shooting.

After the first three minutes, I would say 15-of-18 threes were great looks, he said Weve got guys who can shoot the ballthese guys have worked hard this summer to earn right to take shots.

Weve got a lot of confidence in these guysthese guys can make shots and I want them taking good ones.

Inside the three-point arc, however, the Illini had some problems. Those problems caught up to them six minutes into the game, as the Raiders tied the game at 12 then again at 14.

However, senior Brandon Paul stepped up with the game tied. His up-and-under layup started a 12-0 run by Illinois, a run he would finish with a steal and another layup. They would follow it up with another 12-0 run, stretching the score to 35-16 with three minutes left in the half.

Illinois got threes from six players in the first half, including two each from Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams and forward Tyler Griffey. Their strong outside shooting, along with 43 percent shooting overall in the first half, helped Illinois claim a 43-25 lead over the visitors at halftime.

The Illini kept rolling in the second half, creating a 20-point cushion and maintaining it throughout the frame. Groces group pushed the pace of the game and kept the pressure on Colgate.

Part of Illinois speed came from the rapid substitution utilized by Groce. Nine players got significant playing time on Friday night, helping wear down Colgate late in the game. The players seemed to have no issue with the substitutions, though, and played unselfishly when they were on the floor.

When Im out there Im going to give it what I got, Abrams said. I want to win, Im sure those guys want to win.

Shooting from the perimeter dropped off in the second half, but the team got better in the paint. After scoring just eight points inside during the first half, Illinois racked up 18 in the second half. Griffey, Nnana Egwu and transfer Sam McLaurin helped the Illini gain an edge over the Raiders in the paint with physical play in the second half.

Despite the increased effort down low, Groce said he would still like to see better play in the paint specifically on put backs. Illinois finished the game with 19 offensive rebounds, many of which came on unsuccessful attempts to tap the ball in near the hoop.

We were 16-of-34 down in the paint. We gotta slow down a little bit in there and finish a little better, Groce said.

Illinois finished the game with an astonishing 74 field goal attempts, making 29 of those shots for 39 percent overall.

Paul led Illinois with 20 points, adding eight rebounds and five assists. He said working hard with the coaches in practice, as well as playing with an unselfish group, helped him find his rhythm.

They gave me confidence to shoot anywhere, the senior said.

Abrams finished the game with 13 points and Griffey scored 10 in the win. Richardson had nine points and led the team with eight rebounds. McLaurin and Henry each had seven rebounds.

Illinois also limited turnovers, beating Colgate 12-17 in a big turnaround from some of the results from preseason games and in practice. The change made Groce very happy, at least for tonight.

Overall I was very pleased with our effort, our attitude and our unselfishness, he said after picking up his first win as the Illinois head coach.

Earlier in the week, after a bad practice, Groce indicated he would have difficulty sleeping because of the lingering worry. After the Illinis season opening win over Colgate, however, his mind should be as quiet as the Assembly Hall before Henrys three.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.