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Groce taking over at tough time for Illinois

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Groce taking over at tough time for Illinois

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) New head coach John Groce has taken over at Illinois at a tough time.

The Big Ten opens with five teams in the AP Top 25, including No. 1 Indiana. Illinois is essentially the same team that lost 12 of its last 14, minus its most talented player, center Meyers Leonard. And Groce said he won't be able to play the kind of fast-paced style he favors until he adds players who fit it, particularly ball handlers. That's a season or more away.

If nothing else, though, Groce said Illinois' players have taken to the changes he's made so far and are ready to hit the court for the Nov. 9 opener against Colgate after a season of frustration.

``The one thing that's exceeded even our expectations is how hungry they've been, how excited they have been, how hard they work, how much they're in the gym,'' he said. ``You love going to practice and coaching this team because they're hungry.''

Groce was hired in March to take over for Bruce Weber, who was fired after nine seasons.

Weber oversaw last season's collapse - from a team that was on top of the Big Ten after upsetting Ohio State to a 17-15 wreck that missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in five seasons.

Groce came to Illinois on the strength of an NCAA run at Ohio last season that included an upset win over Michigan and a tough overtime loss to North Carolina in the round of 16.

His team ran and had enough ball-handling ability to do so. And, Groce has said often, his players had a tough edge to them.

Groce freely admits that, in sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams and senior Brandon Paul, a shooter who will share the ball-handling duty, he doesn't yet have quite what he needs.

``We certainly want to play fast long term,'' he said, ``(but) we don't want to try to ram a square peg into a round hole.''

Abrams is closer to a true point guard than Paul. And he played in all 32 games last fall, starting 19.

Paul - the team's leading scorer last season with 14.7 points a game - is a natural outside shooter whose weakness has been his inconsistency. He torched Ohio State for 43 at home last January, but a month later with his team in free fall and looking for someone to save them, he put up just nine points in the return game at Columbus.

Paul, Groce said, has been asked to dedicate himself to becoming a better ball handler, asked to, as Groce put it, ``make the sacrifice.'' But he's also been asked to be better night in and night out.

``I use the Pat Riley quote with him: `Coaches will take consistency over greatness any day of the week,''' Groce said. ``How do you do that? I think you do that by understanding every practice matters, every rep matters, every little thing that we do matters. That's how you become more consistent at what you do, and he's embraced that.''

But players say Groce is asking almost everyone to dribble, to penetrate, to try to create.

Forward Tyler Griffey, another strong outside shooter, said he has been directed to play off the dribble - and not to worry if he takes open shots that miss. Griffey said so far he loves the quicker pace that the high-energy Groce stresses.

``We're just going to be getting up and down a lot,'' said Griffey, a senior. ``Everything we do is at pace - going and getting water, going drill to drill.''

The key piece Weber had that Groce lacks is Leonard. The athletic 7-1 center left after an up-and-down two years at Illinois, but had undeniable talent that convinced the Portland Trailblazers to make him a first-round pick.

He'll be replaced, Groce has said, by committee. That will include, among others, 6-8 Sam McLaurin, a grad-student transfer from Coastal Carolina, and 6-11 sophomore Nnanna Egwu.

Egwu, more than any other Illini player, has worked to get better ahead of this season, Groce said. But fans may be disappointed if they expect Illinois to park Egwu in the lane and watch him grab rebounds and make layups.

``It's not him,'' Groce said. ``He's mobile, he's athletic. ... I think we're missing the boat if we just stick him down there and bang.''

After two home games to open - Colgate and St. Francis - the Illini will be tested quickly in non-conference games against Gonzaga, Georgia Tech and the annual Braggin' Rights Game against Missouri. Big Ten play starts Jan. 2 at Purdue.

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidmercerap

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Redskins draft countdown: Georgia RB Sony Michel

Redskins draft countdown: Georgia RB Sony Michel

Redskins draft countdown

Sony Michel

Running back
Georgia

Sony Michel is a solid north-south runner who also can bounce outside and pick up yardage. He shared playing time with Nick Chubb last year and still ran for 1,277 yards, averaging 7.9 yards per carry, and scored 16 touchdowns against SEC competition. Michel also showed his bona fides in the passing game, catching 64 career passes and showing that he can handle pass protection. 

Height: 5-11
Weight: 220
40-yard dash:4.54

Projected draft round:2

How he fits the Redskins: The Redskins have made no secret of their desire to draft an upgrade at running back. They would prefer one who can catch passes out of the backfield and gain yardage between the tackles. Sony Michel can do both as well as pop for yardage on the outside. There is a good chance that he will be on the board when the Redskins draft in the second round. Since they don’t have a third-round pick, this may be the last chance to get an upgrade in this draft. 

Film review: vs. Notre Dame, vs. Alabama

—The first thing to say here is that the Bulldogs had a quality run-blocking offensive line. Michel frequently had big holes to run through. For his part, Michel maximized his gains when he had a big opening, hitting it quickly and working north-south. 

—He also can pick up yards through just a small crease, again by hitting it with urgency and gaining momentum to drive for the final few yards. 

—Michel didn’t do a whole lot of pass protection in the plays I watched, but he was solid when he did. On one play against Notre Dame, he put a blitzing defensive back on the ground. Against Alabama, he got in the way of likely first-round pick Da’Ron Payne long enough to allow the quarterback to get off a deep pass. To be sure, he didn’t blow Payne away but his block was effective.

—Besides the O-line, Michel also got quality blocking from his receivers. Again, he took advantage, reading the blocks and maximizing the gain. 

—He also can get it done without much help. On third and 20 against the vaunted Alabama defense, he headed up the middle and quickly went outside when he saw no running room. He headed to the sideline with four Alabama defenders and no blockers in sight. Michel found another gear and accelerated down the sideline to convert the third and long.  

—He later converted a third and 10 on a draw play, quickly getting up to speed and zipping through traffic to move the sticks. 

Potential issues: Although he has decent speed, he’s not the home run threat you might want in a back taken in the second round. And Michel isn’t really a power back either, although he can fight for extra yards. 

Despite his limitations, there is chatter that Michel might be drafted early in the second round or perhaps even late in the first. It’s hard to separate the smoke and speculation from reality as we sit a week before the draft starts. But he’s a talented back and if Derrius Guice goes off the board earlier than most expect, a run on runners could include Michel. 

Bottom line: Saquon Barkley is the obvious top running back and he surely will be gone when the Redskins pick in the first round. After that, the Redskins have plenty of options. They like Guice but 13 may be too high for him and he is likely to be gone when their pick in the second is on the clock. Michel is one of a few possibilities there, a group that also would include Michel’s former teammate Nick Chubb, Ronald Jones of USC and others. Without a peek at the draft board in Ashburn, we will just have to wait and see. 

Redskins draft countdown

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.

 

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Ty Lawson is playing a bigger role than anyone could have predicted for Wizards vs. Raptors

Ty Lawson is playing a bigger role than anyone could have predicted for Wizards vs. Raptors

The biggest surprise of the Wizards-Raptors series through two games, at least from Washington's perspective, has to be the fact Ty Lawson has very quickly earned a prominent role in Scott Brooks' playoff rotation.

Lawson, 30, was signed the day after the regular season and after he played much of 2017-18 in China with the Shandong Golden Stars. He did not appear in one game with the Wizards or any other NBA team during the regular season, yet he was the first point guard off the bench in Game 2.

When John Wall picked up two quick fouls, it was Lawson who got the nod, not Tomas Satoransky. Lawson ended up playing 31 minutes, more than Satoransky and fellow backup point guard Tim Frazier have earned combined through two games.

Though the Wizards had three point guards on their bench behind Wall before Lawson even signed, he has apparently surpassed them all on the depth chart. Satoransky is the most surprising, given he played quite well during the regular season.

Satoransky averaged 7.2 points, 3.9 assists and shot a team-best 46.5 percent from three. He had the highest offensive rating (124) on the team.

Lawson, though, played quite well in Game 2. He put up 14 points, eight assists and three rebounds while shooting 4-for-5 from three.

Lawson outscored four of the Wizards' five starters. Not bad for his first game.

"He did everything I knew he was capable of doing," Brooks said. "I’ve seen him do it for many, many years. He’s tough, he’s a competitor. He competes and pushes the pace. He plays defense. I liked the spirit."

Lawson provided a noticeable spark. He is still quick and aggressive with the ball, not afraid to look for his own shot, and played physical defense against the Raptors. Lawson ended the night plus-8 in the box score in a game the Wizards lost by 11.

"It’s good to see him get into a game and be able to produce for us," guard Bradley Beal said.

Given the Wizards lost Game 2 and face an 0-2 deficit in their series, it is likely that Brooks continues to alter his rotation in the coming games. He could go back to Satoransky more often, knowing he had some solid games against Toronto in the regular season, including on March 2 when he had 10 points, eight assists and six rebounds.

Satoransky could see more time at shooting guard or small forward and could play alongside Lawson. That might be Satoransky's best bet because Lawson did nothing in Game 2 to squander the opportunity.

For a team whose effort has been questioned by their head coach, Lawson's energy and urgency was noteworthy. He brought the edge of a guy playing for his NBA career, knowing a good playoff series could earn him a contract next season. 

Clearly, the way Lawson played was refreshing for Brooks given how long he kept him out on the floor. He may have come out of nowhere, but it looks like Lawson is here to stay.

MORE ON THE WIZARDS-RAPTORS SERIES:

WIZARDS NEED BEAL TO BE MUCH BETTER TO WIN

BROOKS MAY CHANGE STARTING LINEUP FOR GAME 3

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