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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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5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

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USA TODAY Sports

5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

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USA TODAY Sports

MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.

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