White Sox

Illini's Paul embraced under Groce's new system

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Illini's Paul embraced under Groce's new system

ROSEMONT Brandon Paul displayed his star power last January, when he dropped a career-high 43 points in Illinois upset of fifth-ranked Ohio State.

It was the third-highest point total in Illini history, tied for the fifth-highest total in the NCAA last season and was the highest total in a Big Ten game since Glenn Robinson tallied 49 in 1994.

Then things went downhill. The Illini lost 12 of their final 14 games, finishing 17-15 and failing to reach the postseason. Paul was unable to score in double digits in three of his final six games, coming up with only four points against Iowa in the Big Ten tournament. He finished 13th among conference scoring leaders at 14.7 points per game.

Entering a new season with a new coach, the Illini and Paul are aiming for consistency. Sometimes, its showing up both halves, Paul said at Thursdays Big Ten Media Day at Hyatt Regency OHare. I dont want to have a good half and come out next half and not take advantage of that and play harder. As a team, we want to play all 40 minutes. We cant just play 35. We want to control games and we want teams to come in thinking we
have to have conditioned guys and subs. Were hoping to create mismatches.

Paul said the Illini struggled to keep their focus and close out games last season. Senior guard D.J. Richardson said its up to him and Paul to keep the team focused and maintain chemistry. We both had an up-and-down year, Richardson said. Just him personally, we need him to stay consistent. Hell be running a lot of point guard. We need to him take control of the team.

Besides playing shooting guard, Paul will help handle point guard duties for an up-tempo offense implemented by former Ohio coach John Groce, who was hired in March to replace the fired Bruce Weber. As a backup point guard in the past, Paul is looking forward to the role. He said his ballhandling has improved each season. I like that the balls in my hands, he said. I like to make a decision with the ball. I feel Im a passer and I led the team in assists last year. Thats something I want to improve on, more assists and less turnovers.

Groce has been focusing on the mental side with Paul. He asks the senior guard: Who did you help today? He has shared the Pat Riley quote: Coaches will take consistency over greatness any day of the week. I think you do that by understanding every practice matters, every rep matters, every little thing that we do matters, Groce said. Thats how you become more consistent at what you do, and hes embraced that.

In the new system, Groce doesnt want to deter Paul from shooting. He can score more than 40 points a game against a high-ranked opponent, after all. Brandon is a terrific scorer, so the last thing I want to do is put shackles on him, Groce said. Hes got to take plays for us. Hes listened. Hes done a good job. I want him to be aggressive and I want him to attack.

White Sox Talk Podcast: Inside the White Sox draft room with Nick Hostetler

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AP

White Sox Talk Podcast: Inside the White Sox draft room with Nick Hostetler

Chuck Garfien and Ryan McGuffey speak with White Sox scouting director Hosteler inside the team's draft room at Guaranteed Rate Field.

How accurate are the mock drafts? (2:45) Can Andrew Vaughn meeting the lofty expectations? (6:40) Bobby Witt Jr's unique background (8:30), why this draft could bring a face of the franchise type player the top (11:15), and what it's like in the war room on draft day (12:30). Do they have a consensus pick yet? (13:45) Do they need to stock up on pitching? (17:35)

Is Nick Madrigal meeting expectations in Class-A? (26:40) Hostetler's sleeper pick from last season that White Sox fans should watch (30:00) and more.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

White Sox Talk Podcast

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How close is Ian Happ to rejoining the Cubs?

How close is Ian Happ to rejoining the Cubs?

Is Ian Happ nearing a return to Chicago?

In a surprise move at the end of spring training, the Cubs sent the 24-year-old switch-hitter down to the minor leagues to work on his swing and try to cut down on strikeouts.

Happ's numbers in Iowa don't jump off the page at you (.240/.362/.422), but it looks like he may be turning a corner of late. He homered Monday night then went 4-for-4 with another homer, 2 doubles and 5 RBI in the second game of a doubleheader Wednesday.

That's obviously a very small sample size, however, and even including that, Happ is still struggling to make consistent contact. He has struck out 14 times in 25 at-bats over his last 8 games. 

His overall strikeout percentage on the season is 25.9 percent — a major improvement on the 36.1 percent mark he struggled through in the big leagues last year. But Happ had never struck out more than 23.6 percent of the time in a season coming up through the minor leagues, so that number is still higher than the Cubs would like to see.

"If [the mini hot streak] were sustained, you'd have to really start listening," Joe Maddon said. "I'm following him via video, watching the at-bats. I'm doing that almost daily with him. I know prior to that, he had still had some problems with strikeouts. 

"And then hit a home run the other day and that seems like that's led to this other home run. That would be primarily a call on the front office and the minor-league part [on when to call him up], but I will watch the video. The home run I saw, I liked. I thought he had much better balance on the entire swing."

Obviously the Cubs aren't going to overreact to a couple games and deem Happ ready to return to the big leagues based off a handful of at-bats.

But there's also a solid case to be made that he could help the club in Chicago right now.

Despite a hot start to the season, the Cubs' role players have really fallen off the last few weeks and much of the offensive damage has come from the big boppers (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras) recently.

There's no indication Ben Zobrist is coming back anytime soon, as Maddon said Thursday morning he hasn't spoken to the veteran in a couple days. 

David Bote and Jason Heyward have looked better this week, but they were struggling for the first couple weeks of May. 

Daniel Descalso has really been scuffling, hitting .097 with only 1 extra-base hit in May and his defense at second base has been below average.

Then there's Mark Zagunis, who isn't doing much of anything for the Cubs — literally. He hasn't started a game since April 26 and hasn't seen even one inning in the outfield since then, either, serving exclusively as a pinch-hitter for the last month.

So if the Cubs decide soon that Happ is ready to return to the big leagues, they have a simple decision on the roster spot and right now, there might be an avenue to a decent amount of playing time either at second base or the outfield.

Happ may not be the best or most experienced defender at second base, but he's seen some time there in the minors this season (59.2 innings) and he can also play either of the corner infield spots and all three outfield positions.

But would it be prudent for the Cubs to call up Happ if they don't even have room for him to play every day? That could throw a wrench in his development, which is clearly something the organization has been committed to.

Albert Almora Jr. is still easily the best centerfielder on the roster and has been great offensively for the last month, so it's not like he's done anything to deserve falling back into a platoon with Happ in center like they shared for much of 2018.

"It's hard. You would want to [call him up only if there's ample time to play him]," Maddon said. "But if you could morph him in and there's a platoon that's worthwhile, you could do that, also.

"But part of him being [in the minors] right now on a consistent basis is to get these kind of at-bats to get this all worked out and you would not want to lose that, either. But when he were to come back, being that he could hit left-handed obviously permits us to do other things."

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