Fire

Illini still looking to improve ahead of Challenge

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Illini still looking to improve ahead of Challenge

CHAMPAIGN Illinois is not resting on its laurels before its first game as a nationally ranked team under coach John Groce.

The ranking is nothing but a number, Groce said at his Tuesday press conference. Its early in the season, were just seven games in.

In the seven games the 22nd ranked Illini have played and won, many things have gone well for the team. However, Groce has seen just as many things he would like to improve. First and foremost, is improving on rebounding.

After Sundays late win over Gardner-Webb, Illinois starting forward, Tyler Griffey, and center, Nnanna Egwu, have pulled in a total of just 7.2 rebounds per game. The teams leader in rebounds is guard D.J. Richardson, who has picked up an average of five per game.

Groce says he is not particularly concerned with who is getting the rebounds because guards picking up rebounds is usually an indication of big men blocking out successfully but he would like to see an improvement in the teams total number of rebounds per game (36.6, 133rd nationally).

The overall rebounding percentage is what were spotlighting, Groce said. Weve had some games where weve done that well, weve had some games where we havent, but we need to be more consistent in that area.

Illinois opponent in the ACCBig Ten Challenge on Wednesday is Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets (4-1) have been a surprising team so far this year, placing third in the DirecTV Classic over the holiday by upsetting St. Marys.

Georgia Tech has averaged 37.2 rebounds and limited opponents to just 31.6 in five games. Groce described his Challenge opponent as a tough, physical team and acknowledged the difficulty of the task facing his team at the Assembly Hall on Wednesday.

They are terrific on the glass and very physical. We have to be ready for that and ready to fight on the backboard, he said.

The Illini has not had to fight too much on the backboard this season, simply because the shots keep falling. In the first NCAA statistical rankings of the season, put out this week, Illinois claimed the nations best three-point shooting average. Through seven games the team has made 76 threes, an average of 10.9 per game. Should they keep up the pace, this years Illini will set a new school record for threes per game.

The teams high clip from behind the arc clearly encouraged Groce, but the coach wants to see better offense all around from his team. Working the ball inside and finding the center in zone defense were two issues he specifically pointed out on Monday.

We have four guys averaging double figures. I'd like to get a fifth, Groce said.

Brandon Paul (18.7), Tracy Abrams (12.3), Richardson (12.0) and Griffey (10.9) are currently averaging double figures per game. Illinois next scorers are guard Joseph Bertrand (7.4) and Egwu (6.1), the center. The Illini will try to boost those two into double figures in Wednesdays contest against Georgia Tech.

Tip-off for Illinois 14th annual ACCBig Ten Challenge game will be at 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2. Illinois comes into the game with a three-game winning streak in the Challenge, and, on the heels of their first ranking under Groce, the team will not be easy to defeat this year.

Haven't lost in the B1GACCchallenge in my career, don't plan on changing that anytime soon, Paul (@BP3) tweeted on Tuesday.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Only three of John Fox’s 12 wins as Bears coach have been against NFC North opponents, while 12 of his 29 losses have come against divisional opponents. 

That’s a recipe for back-to-back-to-back last place finishes in the NFC North. And if the Bears can’t beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers team, why could it beat a Detroit Lions team that has a healthy franchise quarterback?

The positive end of that answer is the Bears do have wins over two playoff teams (Pittsburgh and Carolina) while six of their four losses have been by eight points or fewer. Sunday’s game will probably be close, again (if it’s not, and the Bears are on the losing end of it, it would raise some significant concerns about the state of Fox within the locker room). 

So if the game is decided by one possession or less, this could be the difference: Detroit has one of the best special teams units in the NFL, ranking second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, while the Bears are 28th by the same measure. 

Getting Sherrick McManis back this week should help solidify Jeff Rodgers’ special teams units, but Jamal Agnew has two punt return scores and is averaging 18.3 yards per return. 

“Tough guy — he’ll return inside and outside,” Rodgers said. “He’s got multiple longer returns against people this year. it’s not just, ‘I had a long return in Week 2 or Week 1,’ and kinda held onto that. he’s been productive in a lot of games. certainly a guy that we’ve gotta do a good job against.”

If the Bears don’t do a good job bottling up Agnew, though, he could be the reason why the game flips to Detroit — or, at least, why the Lions keep the Bears at arm’s length. 

Prediction: Lions 24, Bears 16