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Illini ride hot shooting to undefeated start

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Illini ride hot shooting to undefeated start

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Illinois coach John Groce had a handful of questions about his team when it traveled to Hawaii for the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

Four wins later, he has some answers.

For starters, Groce said Friday he knows his team can take a punch and fight on. Hawaii opened a 13-point halftime lead that the Illini overcame in overtime for a 78-77 win. Illinois (6-0) then won its next three to take the tournament title.

Just a few months after essentially the same group of players melted down over a miserable stretch that led to the dismissal of coach Bruce Weber, Groce believes his team has a quiet resolve.

``We've got seniors that have been through a lot,'' Groce said of starters Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson. ``They stay very poised and very even-keeled. ... That's a part of our culture.''

Illinois dropped 13 of its final 15 games last season to finish 17-15 and miss the NCAA tournament. The losses piled up with such frequency that the players and Weber seemed powerless to stop the slide.

Not many people expected much this season out of the Illini, who host Gardner-Webb (4-3) on Sunday. They were picked to finish near the bottom of a strong Big Ten. And Groce himself has stressed that he doesn't yet have the players he needs to transition all the way to the fast-paced style he prefers.

But when his sharpshooters are on, the Illini can look pretty good.

Paul is averaging 19.7 points per game on 49 percent shooting, including an impressive 18 for 41 (43.9 percent) from beyond the arc. Sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams is averaging 14.3 points on 50 percent shooting, and Griffey is at 10.5 per game on 57.5 percent shooting.

And Groce isn't buying the idea that this year's Maui title means less this year because the field only included one ranked team, No. 9 North Carolina. Illinois didn't have to face North Carolina, either, taking on Butler in the title game after the Bulldogs took care of the Tar Heels.

The Illini made relatively easy work of Butler, winning 78-61.

``Call Roy Williams and ask him if he thinks Butler's any good,'' Groce said when asked about the quality of the tournament field. ``The teams we played were good. The environment we played in at Hawaii was tough. You have to be extremely mentally and physically tough to play Butler.''

Abrams, Groce said, understands the new offense in ways he didn't just three or four weeks ago. Paul, a sometimes streaky shooter who at his best can carry a team, is on and playing aggressively. And sophomore center Nnanna Egwu showed signs he might be able to offer Illinois the inside defensive presence it will need in the Big Ten.

The Illini are doing some other things right that they struggled with in recent seasons, including making 75 percent of their foul shots.

But Groce is wary of reading too much into a handful of early wins.

``Is that the end-all, be-all? Absolutely not,'' he said. ``We still have work to do - we've got to rebound better, we've got to foul less.''

Illinois was outrebounded in two of its wins on the Hawaii trip - 37-31 in the Butler game and an eye-opening 51-31 against Hawaii. And the Illini committed 26 fouls against the Rainbow Warriors, sending them to the line 31 times. If Hawaii had managed to hit just a couple more free throws than the 17 it made, it would have won.

``By no means,'' Groce said, ``have we arrived.''

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

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2019 NBA Draft prospect profile: Brandon Clarke

2019 NBA Draft prospect profile: Brandon Clarke

The Washington Wizards will have the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Here is the latest in our series on draft prospects who could fall around where the Wizards will select...

2019 NBA Draft Wizards Prospect Preview: Brandon Clarke

School: Gonzaga
Position: Forward
Age: 22 (turns 23 in September)
Height: 6-8
Weight: 207
Wingspan: 6-8
Max vertical: 40.5 in.

2018/19 stats: 16.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.2 spg, 3.2 bpg, 68.7 FG% (6.8/9.7), 26.7 3PT% (0.1/0.4), 69.4 FT%

Player comparison: Montrezl Harrell, Dominic McGuire

Projections: NBC Sports Washington 17th, NBADraft.net 23rd, Bleacher Report 19th, Sports Illustrated 25th, Ringer 11th

5 things to know:

*Clarke is a forward who probably swings more towards the four-spot at the NBA level. He is considered one of the best defensive players in this draft, having won the West Coast Conference defensive player of the year award this past season. He averaged 3.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per game for Gonzaga and was known for his versatility to guard multiple positions. 

*There are questions about whether Clarke's shot-blocking will translate to the next level. There aren't a ton of 6-foot-8 rim protectors in the NBA and there have been many before Clarke who racked up blocks in college but then couldn't in the pros. His height suggests a potential problem and also his lack of a plus-wingspan. But working in Clarke's favor is his 40 1/2-inch vertical leap. Only three players had better numbers at this year's combine and all were guards. That type of jumping ability is rarely seen with players at Clarke's size.

*A big concern for Clarke is that at this point he can't shoot from the outside. He attempted only 24 threes in his three years in college and made six of them. If he can't develop a three-point shot, he will need to live in the midrange and around the rim and that's just not how the best players his size play these days. Clarke doesn't need to become a sharpshooter, but a respectable three would open up his game.

*Clarke is going to be 23 years old by the time the season tips off. That is quite old for an NBA prospect, as many of the top players will only be 19 at the start of the year. That could mean he will contribute right away in the NBA, but it could also tell teams that his ceiling is limited compared to younger, less-polished players. Clarke just took a little longer to develop into a pro prospect after starting his college career at San Jose State. He transferred and played one year at Gonzaga. Dropping a guy's stock just because of his age, though, can be risky. Malcolm Brogdon has been making teams pay for that decision for years.

*He is from Canada. The country continues to pump out top NBA prospects and this year alone can claim Clarke, R.J. Barrett of Duke and Nickeil Alexander-Walker of Virginia Tech. Though many have come from the Toronto area, Clarke hails from Vancouver, in the western part of Canada. He also spent much of his youth in the United States, having moved to Arizona when he was three.

Fit with Wizards: The Wizards like Clarke, as evidenced by their interview with him at the NBA combine. And there are reasons to suggest he would fit in quite well with what they are looking for.

He would be plug-and-play and provide an instant impact at a position of need. Depending on what they do with their free agent forwards, he could even start as a rookie at the four.

They also need a complete overhaul defensively and he would help them improve on that end of the floor. He would provide rim protection and help shore up their midrange defense as well. 

Clarke plays smart, team-oriented defense and the Wizards need more of that. He could help them change their mindset on that end of the floor. Clarke seems like the type of player good defensive teams like the Bucks and Pacers would covet, that too often in recent years the Wizards have overlooked.

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Team meetings like the one the Nationals had this week are no guarantee of a turnaround – but it can happen

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Team meetings like the one the Nationals had this week are no guarantee of a turnaround – but it can happen

Sometimes the doors shut on the outside world and struggling teams find clarity inside the sanctuary of a locker room. Sometimes they do not. 

The Nationals experienced the downside of a players’ only meeting this week when a clear-the-air session on Wednesday at Citi Field in New York was followed by two horrifying losses to the NL East rival Mets.

Now 12 games under .500, the season slipping away, their manager facing daily questions about his job security, the hardest part is here: Where do the Nationals go after a team meeting doesn’t solve the problem? 

Washington doesn’t need to go too far back into the history books to see that team meetings are often just exercises in frustration, They held one after a 3-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox last July 4. It capped a 9-20 stretch where they were shut out eight times in 34 days. 

You know what happened next. The Nationals drifted through an 82-80 season and failed to reach any of their preseason goals. A team 10 games over .500 and tied for first place in the NL East on May 31 was a game under .500 (42-43), seven games out and never got closer than five again. 

Of course, if there were no problems there would be no meetings. But sometimes players can root out issues by shutting out everyone, including the coaches. The Capitals did it each of the past two seasons. 

It’s easy to forget in the wake of winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and a fourth straight Metropolitan Division title in 2019 that the Capitals had plenty of problems to work through. Former coach Barry Trotz blistered his team after a 6-2 loss at Colorado on Nov. 16, 2017 and left his players to sort things out. Washington was floundering at 10-9-1. 

The message got through. They won 12 of their next 15 games and finished the rest of the season 39-17-6. They went on to win the Cup – though there were a few more bumps in the road and a defensive overhaul following another team meeting in March. 

This year an embarrassing 8-5 loss at Chicago left the Capitals in third place in the Metro at 27-16-5. Maybe that doesn’t seem too bad, but they were in the midst of what would become a seven-game losing streak. They were teetering. Again the brutally honest talk after the loss to the Blackhawks eventually helped turn the tide.

“At the end of the day we’re pretty close, we’re a team. This group isn’t guys yelling,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said after that Jan. 22 game. “We’re close, we know how we need to play. We just needed to address it, we needed to talk it out a little bit, get on the same page.

 But it took two more losses – one a brutal 7-6 overtime defeat at home to San Jose where they coughed up a two-goal lead twice, gave up the game-tying goal with one second to go and lost in overtime. Even productive team meetings rarely have linear results. 

 But they can also make things worse. The Wizards had a team meeting in January 2018 and soon after got destroyed by Charlotte 133-109. They rallied and beat Detroit two days later and their record was 26-20. 

But the fruitless meeting couldn’t solve Washington’s underlying issues. And while injuries played a factor, the Wizards only made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and lost to Toronto in the first round in six games. 

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