Groce trying to reinvigorate a young Illinois squad

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Groce trying to reinvigorate a young Illinois squad

ROSEMONT Every coach seems giddy at the beginning of a new season.

Illinois coach John Groce says hes having a blast, even at practice.

Groce, who replaced the fired Bruce Weber in March, has been impressed with the enthusiasm of his new team.

Its been maybe as fun as any time Ive been in coaching to go to practice, said Groce, who was the head coach at Ohio University. Theyre excited to be there. Theyre passionate. They want to learn. They have exceeded my expectations in that regard.

Likewise, Groce has made his objectives known. At Thursdays Big Ten Media Day, Illinois players Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson wore orange wristbands with the inscriptions TNT which stands for toughness and togetherness, as well as the opening date of the NCAA tournament.

Groce, 41, will try to reinvigorate a team that lost 12 of its final 14 games last season to finish 17-15 and ninth in the Big Ten, missing the postseason. The Illini return four starters.

We really appreciate them wanting to come here and help us get better and back on track, said Paul, a senior guard. Coach Groce is real animated and thats something thats helped us. He brings so much energy to the table. We come to practice and were really energetic. Everyones talking to each other. Everyones helping each other out.

Richardson said the young coaching staff relates to the players, and those coaches frequently use social media. Richardson also appreciated that Groce took the time to call players family members after he was hired Groce phoned Richardsons parents and uncle.

I say to the staff all the time, The first step to reaching our potential is getting to know our team and getting to know our individual players at a high level, Groce said.

Groces resume has also commanded respect from the Illini players. As the No. 13 seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament under Groce, Ohio upset fourth-seeded Michigan and fell to top-seeded North Carolina in overtime in the Sweet 16. Groce went 85-56 at Ohio and he was previously an assistant at Ohio State, Xavier and Butler.

We have to listen to what Coach says, Richardson said. Hes been to the NCAA tournament a lot of times. He knows whats he talking about, especially with a team like Ohio. They beat Michigan in the NCAA tournament, and we lost to them twice last year. He knows what hes talking about.

Illinois is new territory. Groce said the Illini fans are unbelievable in their support, and he has received standing ovations in front of hundreds of supporters at community events. He wants to continue to make a mark with recruiting in Chicago, signing the right ones.

At Ohio, he said he was focused on his team playing tough, being disruptive on defense and taking care of the ball. That carries over to Illinois.

I think about the 05-06 team we had at Ohio State. I want to say that team was picked maybe ninth or 10th (in the Big Ten), and they won the league, Groce said. Im more concerned about process and doing things the right way and getting caught up in the journey.

[PHOTO] Joe Maddon, Miguel Montero patch things up over a drink

[PHOTO] Joe Maddon, Miguel Montero patch things up over a drink

Despite the Cubs ending their 108-year World Series drought, Miguel Montero made offseason headlines for all the wrong reasons when he complained about his role in the Cubs' 2017 championship campaign.

Montero criticized Maddon's communication skills, catching rotation and bullpen decision-making after the team's Grant Park celebration. Maddon brushed off the criticism, and last week at spring training Montero said he hadn't spoke with the Cubs' skipper.

That tension appears to be all but a thing of the past, as Montero posted this picture of him and his manager sharing a drink together sporting nothing but smiles.

It's safe to say Montero would describe his relationship with Maddon now as: #WeAreGood.

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks clash with Wild tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks clash with Wild tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Minnesota Wild tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Road warriors.

The Blackhawks have won six straight games away from the United Center, and are looking to make it a seventh in Minnesota tonight. They've scored the game's first goal in four of those wins, and in the other two, overcame 1-0 deficits to beat Dallas 5-3 and Edmonton 5-1, the latter of which they scored five unanswered goals.

2. Corey Crawford vs. Devan Dubnyk.

Crawford hasn't quite been the same since undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Dec. 3, but he turned in probably his best outing since then in the Blackhawks' last meeting against Minnesota on Feb. 8 when he stopped 35 of 38 shots in a 4-3 overtime win. He essentially stole two points, and prevented the Wild from picking up the extra one. Across from him tonight will be Dubnyk, who leads the league in wins (32), goals against average (1.97) and save percentage (.934).

3. Jonathan Toews on fire.

After a tough offensive drought earlier in the season that lasted longer than expected, the Blackhawks captain has six goals and 10 assists in his last 12 games, and upped his point total to 37, which now ranks fifth on the team. In the last meeting against Minnesota two weeks ago, Toews had a three-point night and scored the game winner in overtime. 

4. Mikael Granlund among league's most underrated players.

File Granlund under the category of players who don't get enough attention. He has 17 goals and 36 assists in 58 games this season, and his 53 points is tied with Jeff Carter and Artemi Panarin for 13th in the NHL's scoring race. The next highest point total on the Wild is Eric Staal with 45, an eight-point gap between him and Granlund. The 24-year-old forward registered his first career hat trick earlier this month, and also had a 12-game point streak just two weeks ago.

5. Ryan Hartman's closing in on 15 goals.

In Saturday's 3-1 loss to Edmonton, Hartman defended his teammate by fighting an Oilers defenseman that was practically twice his size. He called it a "no-brainer" to stick up for Tanner Kero and did well in the scrap, but it led to an Oilers power play and 10-minute misconduct which didn't do the Blackhawks any favors. He responded in a great way Sunday by scoring the game's first goal that helped his team win 5-1 in Buffalo. The next goal he scores will be No. 15, which would give the Blackhawks six 15-plus goal scorers on the year. They had only four a season ago.

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