Cubs

Illinois holds off Norfolk State, move to 11-0

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Illinois holds off Norfolk State, move to 11-0

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Brandon Paul scored 14 points and D.J. Richardson overcame a shoulder injury to add 11 and help 10th-ranked Illinois hold off Norfolk State 64-54 on Tuesday night.

The Illini (11-0) were coming of a win at Gonzaga on Saturday that helped move them into the top 10. Illinois was shooting 46 percent from the field coming in but was just 35 percent (21 for 60) against the Spartans. The Illini were 6 for 23 (26 percent) on 3-pointers and 16 for 27 (59 percent) from the free-throw line.

Rashid Gaston scored 12 points and Pendarvis Williams added 11 for Norfolk State (6-6), which led for much of the first half.

Gaston had a chance to tie the score at 49 with just under eight minutes to play. The forward launched a turnaround jumper in the lane that found nothing but Sam McLaurin's outstretched hand and Illinois clung to its 2-point lead.

A minute later Richardson fired in a 3-pointer from the top of the key that put Illinois up 52-47. He finally secured the win with a layup that put the Illini up 56-51 with just under two minutes to play.

Richardson left the game late in the first half after a collision that sent him to the floor. He skipped second-half warm-ups after what the Illinois sports information director said was a badly bruised shoulder but came back early in the half. He played 13 minutes in the second half and scored 7 key points

The Illini opened a 10-point lead at 39-29 in the second half's opening minutes. Five of those points came on a 3-pointer and a short jumper from Tracy Abrams.

Abrams collided with Malcolm Hawkins in the final three minutes and, like Richardson earlier, limped off the court. He returned about a minute later but had what coach John Groce said was a bruised shin.

The Spartans led much of the first half after opening a 5-0 lead on two baskets by Williams.

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CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

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USA TODAY

CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

ESPN’s Jesse Rogers stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki about his new book on Joe Maddon. The trio also debate whether Maddon’s tactics get stale and how the new coaching staff will affect the season.

Plus, who should hit leadoff? Fans are all in on Albert Almora Jr., but that might not be the best option. And whose side do you take in the Willson Contreras-Yadier Molina tiff?

Listen to the entire podcast here:

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

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USA TODAY

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

The Cubs' offseason has been hyperfocused on pitching, pitching and more pitching.

But what about the offense? Specifically: Who's going to hit leadoff for the 2018 Cubs?

That question seems to be one of the hot topics surrounding the team as they strive to make Even Year Magic a Chicago thing and win another World Series in 2018.

Before we get into who SHOULD lead off, I'll tell you who shouldn't: Albert Almora Jr., who is a popular choice among fans to fill in for the ghost of Dexter Fowler atop the order.

That's not a knock on the young outfielder, who seems primed for a breakout in 2018 when he should be playing on a regular basis and seeing a lot more time against right-handed pitching. 

This will only be Almora's second full season in the big leagues and given he was in a platoon for most of last year, he still only has 411 career plate appearances in the majors. 

So he's not much more experienced than Kyle Schwarber was when he was penciled into the leadoff spot for the Cubs to kick off 2017 and we all know how that experiment went. Leading off is a tough position to put players in, especially those that are still growing in their big-league skin.

Plus, Almora simply doesn't see enough pitches. He swings at the first pitch often (more than 11 percent of the time) and saw only 3.45 pitches per plate appearance in 2017. That mark was good for 29th on the Cubs behind eight pitchers (Dylan Floro, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Eddie Butler, Jose Quintana, Jake Arrieta and Hector Rondon), though the pitchers obviously have a small sample size of plate appearances.

Still, that's a shockingly small number for a position player. Almora would've been tied for 143rd out of 145 position players in baseball in pitches per plate appearance if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

But as for who SHOULD lead off, my choice is Ian Happ, though I would like to see Kris Bryant get some run up there and maybe even another Anthony Rizzo stint as "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time."

Here are my Top 5 suggestions if Joe Maddon were writing out the lineup today:

1. Ian Happ
2. Kris Bryant
3. Ben Zobrist
4. Jason Heyward
5. Anthony Rizzo

Here's more on the reasoning behind that:

Hot Stove - Cubs Leadoff Hitters/2021 White Sox Predictions

Who should be the Opening Day leadoff man for the Cubs? What will the 2021 White Sox lineup and rotation look like? We make our predictions and want to hear yours NOW on Hot Stove Live!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, January 17, 2018