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Illinois off to hot start no one saw coming

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Illinois off to hot start no one saw coming

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Last weekend, Illinois' surprising unbeaten start was 4.4 seconds away from running head-on into a wall.

Gardner-Webb, an opponent any Big Ten school is expected to beat at home, was up by two with the clock winding down on the strength of a banked-in 3-pointer, the kind of good-grief shot that tells the opponent it just might not be their night.

A season ago, Illinois probably would have cracked under that pressure. That team - essentially the same group of players - lost 12 of its last 14, missed the NCAA tournament and saw its coach fired.

Not this time.

Senior forward Tyler Griffey, just a minute or so removed from a bad miss that could have drained his confidence, buried a long 3 for the win.

The Illini (8-0) woke up the next day ranked 22nd in the country. So far they've won the Maui Invitational title, blowing out Butler in the championship, and are averaging 11 3-pointers a game. That's more than any team in the country, and this start is more than anyone expected after the big collapse.

What turned last year's fragile team into this tough, hot-shooting bunch? Some point to the energetic, relentlessly upbeat new coach, John Groce.

``He's a really, really positive guy, and I think his team feeds off of it,'' said Gardner-Webb coach Chris Holtmann, who was a member of Groce's staff at Ohio and both played in the early 1990s at tiny Taylor University in Indiana. ``His kids are going to play with great confidence, they're going to play really loose and aggressive, they're going to be in attack mode.''

Griffey, a 6-8 forward who has struggled the past three seasons to win and keep a place in the team, agrees.

``Positive encouragement goes a really long way,'' he said. ``He is very big on that.''

Teammate Brandon Paul, another senior and a big reason Illinois is hitting all those 3-pointers, says last season's long, slow demolition is playing a role, too.

``We've been through a lot here. We have toughness in us and that allows us to finish games,'' said Paul, who is averaging a team-leading 18.3 points per game and has hit 22 of his 53 3-pointers.

A 15-3 start last season included wins over two ranked teams, Gonzaga and Ohio State. But Illinois then had a head-scratching loss to Penn State, a defeat that started something rolling downhill that neither the players nor coach Bruce Weber could stop. Weber lost his job and Groce - after at least two higher-profile coaches said no - was hired.

Groce has gone to great lengths to say he won't judge these players by that collapse. But he believes that what they went through is a source of strength.

``They've seen so much, these guys,'' he said.

If Weber was the good-guy coach who slowly lost the team, Groce is the energetic newcomer who came to town to help them pick themselves up again. It isn't just the positive approach, the players say. Groce says he's tough on them, particularly Paul, when he needs to be.

``I was on him in the film session now. I mean, in was on him,'' Groce said. ``And that sends a message to the other guys - `Whoa, like man, he's going at him, man, everybody's held accountable around here.'''

Paul and others say they enjoy the up-tempo style Groce preaches, too. He encourages them to push the ball up the floor, to take shots - a bunch of them, even if they miss.

D.J. Richardson, another senior guard who is the team's leading rebounder and a hard worker on defense, has launched 62 3s, almost eight a game. Paul is averaging almost seven 3-point attempts a game.

``I just feel like in this offense, it fits my game a lot more than the past offenses have,'' Paul said. ``I think everyone has the confidence to play the game.''

Even at 8-0, though, everything isn't perfect.

Tracy Abrams, the sophomore point guard who Groce figures will run his offense, is struggling and has been on the bench when the last two games were on the line. Paul, for the most part, has had the ball in his absence with super-sub Joseph Bertrand taking Abrams' spot in the lineup.

The Illini are also weak inside. They have been outrebounded even in two of their biggest wins, over Butler and a comeback over Hawaii. While scoring 79.5 a game, they're getting just 26 of those in the paint.

And the schedule hasn't included a ranked team yet. That'll come soon, with No. 12 Gonzaga on Dec. 8, No. 16 Missouri on Dec. 22 and Big Ten play to follow. Five other conference teams are in the Top 25, including No. 1 Indiana and two others in the top five.

What happens if long jumpers stop falling, the way they did last season?

Groce says he's working on the answer, starting with better rebounding. He says that's at the top of a long list of things he needs to address in practice, something the Illini haven't had enough time for with their hectic early schedule. Not many teams have played anything close to eight games so far.

And Groce says he's not reading much into the early success or the ranking.

``What's it mean in terms of the long-term mission that we're on to try to be the best basketball team that we can be in February and March?'' he asked. ``Not a whole lot.''

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

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2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

To wrap up the 2017-18 season, we are looking at each player on the Wizards' roster. Today, we evaluate Jodie Meeks' season...

Player: Jodie Meeks

Position: Shooting guard

Age: 30

2017-18 salary: $3.3 million

2017-18 stats: 77 G, 14.5 mpg, 6.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.4 spg, 0.1 bpg, 39.9 FG%, 34.3 3P%, 86.3 FT%, 49.1 eFG%, 111 ORtg, 112 DRtg

Best game: 11/29 at Sixers - 21 points, 4 rebounds, assist, steal, 5-for-11 FG, 3-for-6 3PT, 8-for-9 FT

Season review: The Wizards took a flier on Jodie Meeks last summer in what seemed at the time to be a low-risk contract with a potentially high reward, if he could stay healthy and play to his career norms. They were in obvious need of help at backup shooting guard and three-point shooting for their bench.

Meeks fell short of those expectations for a variety of reasons. Though he stayed healthy for the first time in years, he could not make shots at the clip the Wizards were hoping for. His field goal percentage was not far off from what he posted in recent years, but his three-point percentage was nowhere near the 38.8 percent he shot in his previous four seasons.

Meeks bottomed out midseason, shooting 28.9 percent from three in December and 28 percent in January. Those numbers ticked up beginning in February, but Meeks never fully gained the trust of his coaching staff. He rarely got hot enough to alter games and his best stat-lines often came in blowouts. 

There was a domino effect from Meeks' struggles, as starting shooting guard Bradley Beal had no one to spell him. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any NBA player this season.

For Meeks personally, it was a bittersweet year because staying healthy was no small feat. He had a run of bad luck and finally broke out of it this season. On the other hand, he never made the impact he felt he was capable of and that wasn't easy for a guy joining a new team and a new locker room.

Meeks' 2017-18 season was ultimately defined by more than his shooting woes. First, he expressed interest in a trade in February and did not get his wish. Then, he was suspended for allegedy using performance-enhancing drugs after the regular season ended. He was out for the playoffs and will miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season without pay as he waits out a 25-game ban.

Meeks may or may not serve that suspension as a member of the Wizards. He has a player option for next season worth $3.5 million. He has yet to inform the team of his decision, but the expectation is that he will pick it up. Given how poorly his season went and ended, it would likely be the smart move financially for him to opt in and hope for better results next season.

Potential to improve: Shooting percentage, perimeter defense, passing

More player season reviews:

John Wall, PG

Bradley Beal, SG

Otto Porter, SF

Markieff Morris, PF

Marcin Gortat, C

Kelly Oubre, Jr., SF

Tomas Satoransky, PG

Ian Mahinmi, C

Ty Lawson, PG

Tim Frazier, PG

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Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

The Caps stand just four wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup. To get those four wins, however, they will have to beat the Vegas Golden Knights.

Here are the keys to the series that will give the Caps the win.

Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury

No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. He is reason No. 1, 2 and 3 why they have made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in the team’s inaugural season.

Fleury’s personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts.

Vegas has been a middle of the pack team in terms of offense this postseason scoring 2.87 goals per game. They have lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.

This shows you just how important Fleury is to their success. They are not scoring opponents into submission, rather they are relying on Fleury to keep opponents at bay.

Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.

Win the neutral zone battle

Much of this series will be determined between the blue lines. The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team.

Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-3-1 trap. With so many bodies defending in the neutral zone, opponents have struggled to break the puck cleanly into the Caps’ defensive zone. The Caps are cutting off passing and skating lanes, creating turnovers and generating odd-man breaks in the other direction by catching opponents’ defensemen playing too aggressively on the rush.

As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?

Limit obstruction penalties

When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking. When a player realizes he’s been beat, he does everything he can to prevent that from costing his team, leading to those type of penalties.

Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means with a success rate of only 17.6-percent this postseason, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.

Positioning is going to make all the difference in the world in this series to make sure a player is not forced into taking an obstruction penalty just to slow down the Golden Knights.

Get off to good starts

Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Their secret to success is a mix between goaltending and speed.

Fleury has been phenomenal in net and the Golden Knights are a quick breakout team. It is very hard to get much sustained offensive pressure against them because once they get the puck, they are going down the ice at a million miles an hour.

Having to play from behind against a team like Vegas is not a recipe for success. Just getting the puck and keeping up with them is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.

Strong starts will be vital to ensuring the Caps are not frequently having to play from behind.

Depth scoring

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since there drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams.

Consider how this team was constructed. The expansion draft did not give Vegas access to superstar players, but they also did not have to take any fringe NHL/healthy scratch players to fill the fourth line either. They filled their roster with the best players available to them which gives them four lines of much more comparative strength than most NHL teams.

While this means the Caps have a stronger top six, it also allows Vegas to roll four lines and take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

You can never take a shift off against Vegas. There is no weak line to exploit. The Golden Knights come at you with four lines and relentless pressure and forecheck for 60 minutes.

Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.

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