Strong finish lifts Illini past Georgia Tech

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Strong finish lifts Illini past Georgia Tech

A late flurry from Joseph Bertrand helped Illinois fend off a tough Georgia Tech team, 75-62 on Wednesday. The junior guard came off the bench to tie for the team lead in scoring with 15 points, 10 of which came in a 90 second barrage late in the second half.

No. 22 Illinois improved to 8-0 on the season, but head coach John Groce said the perfect start was a byproduct of hard work.

Everyday Im worried about tomorrowwere caught up in the process and the journey and we let the results come, Groce said. Our guys have been resilient. Weve been popped in the mouth and come back a few times.

Groce credited his team as a unit for the win, choosing not to highlight Bertrand alone for his spectacular play.

Everybody who played tonight made a play, or two, or more. Joseph was one of those guys, he said.

The game got going for Illinois with a steal by Tracy Abrams and an alley-oop to Nnanna Egwu. The Yellow Jackets never let the hosts slip away, and five minutes into the first half Georgia Techs interior presence began to cause problems.

The visitors got a fast break basket by Mfon Udofia and started to create better. They worked the ball inside and out to spread the Illinois zone, opening up three-point attempts and interior shots. The balanced offense helped the Jackets get D.J. Richardson into foul trouble and open a lead as high as six points.

Early in the game their transition really got us on our heels, Groce said.

The Illini would threaten with ten minutes left in the half thanks to a three by Bertrand, but Tech would gain separation again with a corresponding three from Marcus Georges-Hunt. With eight minutes left in the first half Georgia Tech was ahead, 29-25.

Three straight turnovers and two offensive fouls led to a scoring drought of more than four minutes for Illinois. The Yellow Jackets did not take full advantage, mustering just two points during the dry spell, giving Illinois a break.

Brandon Pauls three with four to play in the first pulled Illinois within three, 31-28, kick starting a rally. Abrams tied the game a minute later with an old-fashioned, and-one three-point play. At 1:20, Paul gave Illinois its first lead since 14:49 with a deep two, but a foul and two baskets by Kammeon Holsey tied the game again.

A Myke Henry three would put Illinois back on top and give them enough to carry a lead into halftime, 36-35. The Illini went into the half with an 18-13 advantage in rebounding, but the refs whistle did them no favors as the team tallied 11 fouls to Georgia Techs four.

After the break Illinois came out roaring on both sides of the ball. Richardson forced a jump ball on Georgia Techs first possession, then sank a three to open the scoring. Tyler Griffey followed that up with a three of his own and a steal. Off the steal, Griffey fed a streaking Richardson, who turned around to dump off to Paul for a slam, putting Illinois ahead 44-37 with just 1:30 elapsed in the second half.

Georgia Tech would follow the 8-2 Illinois run with a 13-6 stretch of their own, taking a lead midway through the half. A pair of threes from Chris Bolden helped the Yellow Jackets grab a 54-50 lead with just under ten minutes to play.

The gap remained four points for Illinois thanks, in part, to sloppy free throw shooting. Paul, Egwu and Sam McLaurin all had two missed free throws in the first 12 minutes of the second half. The Illini shot just 7-of-18 from the free throw line, with all but one of those made shots coming in the final two minutes.

Bertrand quickly made up for the free throw miscues and got the crowd at the Assembly Hall rocking.

The redshirt junior scored 10 points in 90 seconds to put the Illini in front for good.

Joe stepped up for us and that says a lot about his character, Paul said after the game.

His first basket came on a fast break from a Paul steal. He continued his run with a three and followed that with another after a block by Paul. The most impressive part of his run, was an acrobatic floater off his own steal. His hustle gave the Illini a 64-58 lead with less than five minutes to play.

Richardson followed up the outburst with a pair of threes, putting Illinois nine points ahead of the Yellow Jackets with two minutes left. Illinois finished the game on a 21-4 run to stay undefeated and secure a win in their first game as a ranked team this season.

Defense ignited offense at the end, Groce said. When we do that we can get out on a run.

Paul caught Bertrand late in the game with a few made free throws, finishing with 15 points of his own. Paul also led the team in rebounding, with seven. Griffey and Richardson were tied for second in scoring, with 14.

The win, the perfect start, a Challenge win none of that could slow Groces ambition for this team. He summed up his approach with the team by quoting Will Rogers: Even if youre on the right track, if you sit still youll get run over.

Practice tomorrow, according to Groce, will be about getting mentally and physically rejuvenated, then doing everything not to get run over.

Swanigan's, Diallo's decisions and how it affects Bulls' NBA Draft

Swanigan's, Diallo's decisions and how it affects Bulls' NBA Draft

The deadline for underclassmen to pull their names out of the NBA Draft passed on Wednesday at midnight.

There were a few surprises, and a handful of decisions had an effect on how the Bulls will go about next month's draft.

Staying in the draft

Caleb Swangian, PF, Purdue: The sophomore All-American surprised many by keeping his name in the draft. Swanigan actually tested the waters after his freshman season but returned to the Boilermakers in 2016. He averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 35 games, earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors and was a National Player of the Year candidate. It's no secret the 6-foot-9 Swangian can score  - he had 15 games of 20 or more points - and showed some ability to shoot from deep, making nearly 45 percent of his 85 3-point attempts. Quickness and conditioning will be the real test for the 245-pound Swanigan, who has already lost significant weight since high school. Questions about his defense (he had just 27 steals and 36 blocks in two seasons) also stand out. With Nikola Mirotic's future in Chicago unknown, the Bulls could be in the market for depth at power forward. He wouldn't be an option for the Bulls at No. 14, but if he slides out of the first round he could be an option at No. 38.

D.J. Wilson, PF, Michigan: After averaging just 6.1 minutes as a sophomore, Wilson burst onto the scene as a junior, averaging 11.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 30.4 minutes for the Wolverines. He did his best work during the postseason; during Michigan's Big Ten Championship run and Sweet 16 appearance, Wilson averaged 15.6 points on 54 percent shooting, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Standing 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Wilson leaves some to be desired on the defensive end but has the ability to play as a combo forward - he had a 3-inch growth spurt after high school. Like Swanigan, Wilson won't be an option for the Bulls at No. 14 but could be a second-round option. He'd give the Bulls a similar look to what Bobby Portis does with a little more versatility on the wing.

Going back to college

Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky: The NBA Draft's biggest mystery could have been a home-run selection for the Bulls in the first round. Alas, Diallo has decided to play a year under John Calipari at Kentucky and likely boost his draft stock. Having not played since December, where he played at a prep academy in Connecticut, so there wasn't much film of the 6-foot-5 leaper. Still, after Thon Maker went No. 10 to the Bucks last year there was thought that a team would take a gamble on a high-upside mystery.

Andrew Jones, PG, Texas: There was little surprise that Jones, a five-star recruit who put together a solid freshman season, returned. He's still a bit raw as a prospect despite having elite size (6-foot-4) and solid athleticism, and another year running the point with incoming five-star recruit Mo Bomba could really improve his draft stock. The Bulls clearly have a need at the point (less if Rajon Rondo returns) and if Jones had made the leap he likely would have been around at No. 38. Even still, Jones is a player to keep an eye on during next year's draft, assuming Cameron Payne and Jerian Grant don't make significant improvements.

Moritz Wagner, PF, Michigan: There's a need on every NBA team for a stretch forward with 3-point potential. But those teams will have to wait at least another year after Wagner decided to return to Michigan for his junior season. Like Wilson, who kept his name in the draft, Wagner had an excellent postseason run for the Wolverines. That stretch included a 17-point effort against Minnesota and a career-high 26-point outing in a win over Louisville. He weighed in at just 231 pounds and only averaged 4.2 rebounds per game, so adding some strength to his game will help his draft prospect for next year. He could have been an option for the Bulls at No. 38.

White Sox: Jose Abreu's five-week tear filled with hard contact, fewer strikeouts

White Sox: Jose Abreu's five-week tear filled with hard contact, fewer strikeouts

Jose Abreu has made quite a turnaround from being a guy who was admittedly lost to bashing the ball like Abreu of old.

From April 19th on, Abreu has hit at another level, reminiscent of the performances he put on throughout an eye-opening 2014 campaign in which he was the unanimous American League rookie of the year winner. Over that stretch, Abreu has slashed at an absurd .347/.404/.677 clip with nine doubles, one triple, 10 home runs and 22 RBIs in 136 plate appearances.

Earlier this week, Abreu said the run is the product of trusting his tireless preparation.

"I struggled in the first few weeks of the season but I kept working," Abreu said through an interpreter. "Now I'm at this point where I feel very good and confident with my offense and things are going well for me. That's part of what you work for and if you work hard, you know the results will be there at the end of the day."

Two numbers that have improved significantly during Abreu's five-week tear are his average exit velocity and strikeout rate.

Abreu entered Wednesday 39th in the the majors with an average exit velocity of 90.5 mph this season, according to Baseball Savant.

But Abreu wasn't hitting the ball nearly as hard early this season, which was littered with weak contact. Abreu stumbled out of the gate with a .157 average, one extra-base hit and only five RBIs in his first 54 plate appearances. Through the first two weeks, Abreu's average exit velocity was 89.0 mph on 31 batted-ball events, which was slightly down from last season's 89.6 mph average and significantly down from 2015, when he averaged 90.9 mph.

Since then, however, Abreu has seen a significant increase in hard contact. Over his last 92 batted-ball events, Abreu is averaging 92.6 mph, a total that would qualify for 15th in the majors this season. Included in that span is 35 balls hit 100 mph or more.

But Abreu's success isn't just related to how hard he has hit the ball. He's also made much better contact this season and is striking out less than ever. Abreu struck out 14 times in his first 54 plate appearances (25.9 percent). But since then, he has whiffed only 17 times in 136 plate appearances, good for a 12.5 percent strikeout rate.

His season K-rate of 16.3 percent, according to Fangraphs.com, is down from a career mark of 19.6 percent.

"You have started to see him heat up a little," manager Rick Renteria said earlier this week. "He's given us solid at-bats. He's in a good place right now."

Actually, it's a great place and one Abreu hasn't done with consistency since 2015. He once again looks like the hitting machine he was for most of his first two seasons and the final two months of 2016.

Abreu is on pace to hit 36 home runs this season, which would match his 2014 total. His current wRC+ of 138 is his highest since he finished 2014 at 167.

Last season, Abreu didn't hit his 10th home run until June 18. He hit his 11th homer on June 23 and then didn't hit another until August 4. That stretch raised myriad questions both inside the organization and externally about whether or not Abreu would return to prominence as a hitter. Perhaps inspired by the August arrival of his son, Dariel, Abreu finished 2016 with a flurry, hitting .340/.402/.572 with 14 home runs in his final 241 plate appearances.

General manager Rick Hahn said last September that the stretch was important for White Sox evaluators to see.

"It certainly makes you more confident as you see him over the last six weeks, projecting out that he's going to be that same player that he was for the first two years of his career," Hahn said. "Earlier, when he was scuffling, you looked at some of the things he was doing from his approach or some of the mechanical issues he might have been having and you felt confident he was going to be able to get back. But in all candor, you like seeing the performance match what you're projecting and we've certainly seen that over the last six weeks."

The White Sox offense has benefitted from Abreu's leap back into prominence. The team has averaged 4.53 runs per game this season and is 9th in the American League with 204 runs scored and 17th overall in the majors. But the increase in offense still hasn't helped the White Sox improve in the standings. While Abreu is glad to be on the roll he is, he'd prefer if his team is along for the ride.

"We're are passing through a tough moment, a rough stretch," Abreu said. "For me as I've always said the team is first. I want to thank God for how I've performed through this rough stretch. But it's not something makes me feel happy because we didn't win as many games as we wanted to win. It's tough."