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.

32 Days to Kickoff: Downers Grove South

32 Days to Kickoff: Downers Grove South

CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 1, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 26. You can view Edgy Tim's other football previews here.

School: Downers Grove South

Head coach: Mark Molinari

Assistant Coaches: Terry Kent (Offensive Coordinator), Dan Bielawski (Defensive Coordinator), Paul Maggiore (QB's), Tony Nevrly (WR's), Jon Orech (DL), Brian Petring (OL)

How they fared in 2015: 3-6 (3-3) West Suburban Gold Conference. Downers Grove South failed to make the 2015 IHSA state playoff field.

Biggest storyline in 2016: Can the Mustangs bounce back to its winning ways this fall?

Names to watch this season: TE Charley LaCivita, QB Matt Greenwald

Biggest holes to fill: Graduated four-year varsity starting offensive tackle Erik Swenson (Oklahoma) was a leader for the Mustangs on and off the field.

EDGY's Early Take: Despite the graduation losses the Mustangs welcome back 12 starters this season. If South can find some answers in a few key spots they have a chance to give defending conference champ Hinsdale South a test for the WSC Gold conference crown.

Ten years later, A.J. Pierzynski recalls Michael Barrett encounter in Crosstown Classic

Ten years later, A.J. Pierzynski recalls Michael Barrett encounter in Crosstown Classic

Hard to believe, but it's been 10 years since the fist of Michael Barrett famously hit the face of A.J. Pierzynski, creating one of the most legendary moments in the Windy City Series between the White Sox and Cubs. 

The punch lasted only one second, but speaking with the man who was on the receiving end of that punch, Pierzynski knows he'll be hearing about it for the rest of his life.

"It's just one of those things that happens," Pierzynski said in an interview with Comcast SportsNet. "Hey, you got to be remembered for something."

Fans won't let him forget it, even if some have forgotten what actually happened that day—which might also include Pierzynski. More on that in a moment.

First to the play that started it all. It occurred on May 20, 2006. While scoring a run on a sacrifice fly on a ball hit to shallow left field, Pierzynski knocked over Barrett at home plate. The White Sox catcher then moved towards the Cubs backstop to retrieve his helmet. 

If it was anybody else, nothing would have happened. This story you're reading would never have been written.

But this was Pierzynski, one of the most hated players in baseball, the notorious monkey in the middle of everything.

This Sox was about to get socked.

"I went up to get my helmet. He grabbed me and said, 'I didn't have the ball (bleep)," recalled Pierzynski. Barrett threw a right hook that hit Pierzynski square in the left cheek, producing an image that has been permanently burned into the minds of Cubs and White Sox fans.

Or so we thought.

A decade later, Pierzynski says he frequently comes across people who have somehow forgotten what actually occurred.

"What's happened now is most people don't remember what really happened. They just know Barrett and I got into a fight," Pierzynski said. "Most people actually think that I hit him. People (say to me) 'Remember that time you punched Barrett and knocked him down?' So, it's kind of funny how it's kind of changed over the years."

But still, many people do remember the punch quite well, especially Cubs fans who relish in heckling Pierzynski whenever he comes to town, like earlier this month when his Braves played the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

“They’ll say things like, ‘Michael Barrett's coming. Look out!’ And I'll be like, 'Yeah, whatever,'" Pierzynski said. “Or they’ll yell ‘Hey, you suck! Or I hate you!’ Then it’s like, ‘Okay, great. Welcome to the club.’” 

The White Sox won the game that day 7-0, but Cubs fans have had a victory of sorts ever since—the memory of Barrett pelting their White Sox nemesis, a guy who pestered them for years.

But even Pierzynski himself seems to remember the play differently than everyone else. His account of what occurred will probably get under the skin of Cubs fans.

What else would you expect from A.J.?

"He didn't really hit me though, that's the thing," said Pierzynski. "He kind of just pushed me. It was weird, because he grabbed me and we were so close. It wasn't like (Rougned) Odor when he hit (Jose) Bautista where he wound up. I mean, it was so close that he just kind of pushed me off balance. 

"And (third base coach Chris) Speier grabbed me right away and then like 10 guys from the White Sox jumped on top of him. And poor (Cubs outfielder John) Mabry who was my hitting coach in St. Louis. I know we were laughing about it when I was in St. Louis. I think he ended up in the hospital with broken ribs and he had nothing to do with it."

Call it a punch, call it a push, most athletes who take a hit like that would be so humiliated they’d never want to talk about it again.

Not Pierzynski.

“I literally laugh about it. It’s funny to me,” Pierzynski said. “Now my kids are of the age to use the internet, so now that’s like the first picture that always comes up, and they’re like, ‘Why did you get in the fight with the guy?’ I tell them the story and they have to explain it to their friends. It’s just one of those things that happens in your life. Hey, at least it happened on national TV and gives people something to talk about.”

Six weeks after the fight, Barrett sought out Pierzynski at Wrigley Field before the White Sox and Cubs resumed the Crosstown Series on the North Side. The two shook hands, made amends and the feud was over.

But the two have not spoken to each other since.

“I haven’t seen him,” Pierzynski said. “I mean, we played a little bit, but I haven’t seen him off the field.”

What would you say to him?

“I don’t know. ‘Hey, how you doing?’ I don’t even know what he does anymore.”

Barrett is currently the minor league catching coordinator for the Washington Nationals. Attempts to interview him for this story were unsuccessful.

[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]

At 39, Pierzynski isn’t sure how much longer he’ll play. He already has enough baseball memories to fill multiple lifetimes. But his recollections of those classic White Sox-Cubs games will never fade.

“I played in Yankees-Red Sox, I played in Dodgers-Giants, Cardinals-Cubs, nothing matched the intensity," he said. "Maybe it was because I was on the White Sox and there was such a dislike for the other team, not only in the fan base, but also kind of the organization. It’s just kind of there. 

"It just brought out the best. It always seemed like it brought out the best in both teams. It was always the one game you circled, and it was like, ‘Okay, we’re playing the Cubs coming up in a week. Everyone be ready.’”

Pierzynski was always ready—maybe not for Barrett’s fist—but the face that took the beating that day gave us all a knockout Cubs-White Sox moment, one we will never forget.

Preview: White Sox host Cubs in Crosstown Classic tonight on CSN

Preview: White Sox host Cubs in Crosstown Classic tonight on CSN

The White Sox take on the Cubs in the Crosstown Classic tonight, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with an hour-long White Sox Pregame Live at 6:00 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Tonight's starting pitching matchup: Miguel Gonzalez (2-5, 4.41 ERA) vs. Jake Arrieta (12-4, 2.60 ERA)

White Sox HR leaders Cubs HR leaders
Todd Frazier (28) Kris Bryant (25)
Brett Lawrie (12) Anthony Rizzo (24)
Jose Abreu (11) Ben Zobrist (13)

Looking Ahead:

Date White Sox Cubs
Tuesday James Shields (4-12, 4.99 ERA) Kyle Hendricks (9-6, 2.27 ERA)
Wednesday Jacob Turner (0-1, 14.73 ER Jason Hammel (9-5, 3.35 ERA)
Thursday TBD TBD

MORE:

Chuck Garfien and Bill Melton on the impact of the Crosstown Classic

David Kaplan and Todd Hollandsworth give Cubs analysis for Crosstown Classic

Top Crosstown Moment: Blackhawks celebrate Cup with Cubs-Sox

Crosstown Classic: Look inside the Wrigley Field scoreboard

Todd Frazier on Crosstown Classic: 'I heard it gets a little crazy'

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