Confident McIlroy ready for weather at Merion

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Confident McIlroy ready for weather at Merion

ARDMORE, Pa. -- At some point, Rory McIlroy says, he wants to get into the city of Philadelphia so he can do one thing …

Run up the Art Museum steps like Rocky Balboa.

“I was half thinking of going to the steps in the city -- the Rocky steps -- wherever they are and run up them,” McIlroy said during his media availability for the U.S. Open at Merion East Golf Club.

As far as touristy things to do go, perhaps Philadelphians will catch McIlroy at the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall or even Pat’s at 2 a.m. for a cheesesteak.

More likely, though, McIlroy will be front and center when the tournament begins on Thursday, playing alongside Tiger Woods and Adam Scott. That’s the top three-ranked golfers in the world playing together for the first two rounds at Merion.

With any luck, McIlroy hopes to be playing with Woods or Scott in the last group on Sunday.

“It's something that wasn't too much of a surprise. The guys at the USGA have done it quite a few times before,” McIlroy said. “It's always nice to be a part of a group like that. Something that I'm excited about. It's a good thing. I like it because you're in a group like that there's a lot of buzz and a lot of atmosphere around it and it gets you focused from the first shot.

“Teeing off on Thursday afternoon, there's obviously going to be a lot of attention on that group and it's just nice to be a part of it.”

A winner of two majors, including a record-breaking performance at the 2011 U.S. Open played at Congressional Country Club outside of Washington, D.C., McIlroy could very well remain in the spotlight come Sunday. A lot of that has to do with the condition of the golf course. The heavy rain that has hit the region has turned the grounds at Merion soft. That means the course will be easier and scores will be lower.

Often the U.S. Open is a war of attrition in which the winner is the last man left unbroken by the extreme rough and slick putting surfaces. But the rain takes control away from the course and gives it back to the players.

When McIlroy won in 2011 with the record-breaking score of 268 (16-under), the rain played a major role.

He expects the play at Merion to be very similar.

“I didn't really enjoy the [the 2012 U.S. Open at the] Olympic Club last year. I much prefer this sort of golf, I guess,” McIlroy said. “When you hit a shot and it doesn't bounce one way or the other, when you hit it and it stays where you think it's going to stay. There's still not going to be that many birdies out here. You've still got to hit it on the fairway. It's still a pretty tight golf course. So when you do get it in the rough, you're not going to make birdies out of there. So you're going to have chances, but you're going to have some holes where it's going to be very difficult.

“I expect the scores to be a little lower than what they would be if the course was a little firmer and drier, but I don't think you'll see scores like the scores that were shot at Congressional a couple of years ago.”

Maybe not yet, but the course could become even more water logged.

Forecasters are predicting more rain for Thursday. However, it doesn’t hurt that McIlroy feels confident about his game. In fact, McIlroy pointed out, his game might be in better shape heading into this week’s Open than it was when he won at Congressional.

“I guess that the two majors that I've won I've sort of come in a little bit like that, with low expectations,” McIlroy said. “I feel like coming into the U.S. Open this year, my game's in much better shape than it was last year. I came off the back of three missed cuts in a row and I wasn't playing very well. And this year I feel like my game is actually in good shape. So I feel coming in this year I've got a way better chance than I did last year.”

McIlroy doesn’t need to play alongside of Woods and Scott to get noticed. Chances are the gregarious 24-year old from Northern Ireland would have a large gallery following him around regardless of who he was lined up with.

Better yet, maybe Woods is happy that McIlroy will take some of the attention.

“I think it will be fantastic. I was part of that the first time they did it in ’08 and it was very electric out there,” Woods said. “Normally we don’t get those types of pairings very often. When you do it just makes it that much more enjoyable for us as players.”

Sixers-Clippers 5 things: Big men, minus Joel Embiid, in the spotlight

Sixers-Clippers 5 things: Big men, minus Joel Embiid, in the spotlight

The Sixers (15-27) on Tuesday night open their latest back-to-back set against the LA Clippers (30-16) at the Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m./CSN, CSNPhilly.com and streaming live on the NBC Sports app).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Missing in action
The Sixers are used to Joel Embiid missing at least one game of back-to-back sets. However, they will have to forge ahead without him in both contests coming up on consecutive days.

Embiid will miss the Sixers' games on Tuesday and Wednesday after suffering a left knee contusion in the team's 93-92 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday. The matchups will mark three straight absences for the Eastern Conference Player of the Week after he was sidelined for the Sixers' blowout loss in Atlanta to the Hawks on Saturday night.

The Sixers haven't exactly been able to survive without Embiid's production this season. They are 2-10 minus the Rookie of the Year frontrunner and have allowed 106.5 points in those games.

Brett Brown challenged his team to perform better — particularly on defense — during this upcoming stint without Embiid.

“It’s still about our defense, it’s still about running, it’s still about sharing the ball,” Brown said after practice Monday. “I think you go with Jahlil (Okafor) and Nerlens (Noel) and challenge them in relation to rim protection and what Joel provides us. The group around them also has got to perform at a higher level when you don’t have Joel. I think that second group that we have been playing, led by Nerlens, really can take on a far greater defensive identity than it has recently, and Nerlens will be the captain of that.”

2. The Blake Show is back
While the Sixers will be without their star big man in Tuesday's tilt, the Clippers are expected to get one of theirs back in their lineup.

Blake Griffin is likely to return to action against the Sixers after missing 18 games following right knee surgery.

Griffin was averaging 21.2 points and 8.8 rebounds this season as the Clippers jumped out to a 20-6 record. Griffin underwent an arthroscopic procedure to remove loose bodies from the knee on Dec. 19, and the Clips have recorded just a 10-8 mark since.

With fellow superstar Chris Paul now sidelined with an injured thumb, getting the five-time All-Star Griffin back should be a major boost for the Clippers.

3. Take care
The Clippers may not be the force they once were in the open court (15th in the NBA with 12.7 fastbreak points per game this season), but that doesn't mean they still can't revert to their Lob City ways in the blink of an eye.

That could be the case on Tuesday if the Sixers continue to turn the ball over at such an alarming rate.

The Sixers, who are last in the league with 17.1 turnovers per game, have somehow been even worse during this recent string of success. They have committed 19.4 turnovers a night over the last five games and 17.8 during the last 10 contests.

The Sixers have been able to survive thanks to their active defense creating opportunities on offense and some clutch shooting. However, with Embiid sidelined and facing a Clippers team that ranks in the top five in field-goal and three-point percentage, those miscues may come back to haunt the Sixers.

4. Injuries
Okafor (knee) is probable. Embiid (knee), Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.

Griffin (knee) is probable. Paul (thumb) and Brice Johnson (back) are out for the Clippers.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost nine straight games to the Clippers.

• Ersan Ilyasova is averaging 17.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game during January.

• DeAndre Jordan has averaged a double-double of 11.3 points and 12.8 rebounds against the Sixers during his career.

Scouting reports: Villanova-Marquette and St. Joe's-St. Bonaventure

Scouting reports: Villanova-Marquette and St. Joe's-St. Bonaventure

Two City 6 schools are in action Tuesday night. Let’s take a closer look at the matchups.

No. 1 Villanova (19-1, 7-1 Big East) at Marquette (13-6, 4-3 Big East) 
8 p.m. at BMO Harris Bradley Center on FOX Sports 1

Last time out
Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins combined for 44 points, as No. 1 Villanova won its fifth straight game Saturday afternoon, dispatching Providence, 78-68, at the Wells Fargo Center in a game that four Wildcats scored 10 or more points, three or more assists and three or more rebounds. After the game, Villanova head coach Jay Wright opened up about the Wildcats’ “constant challenge” of a national championship hangover and how ‘Nova has overcome it (see story).

Marquette is coming off a 102-94 upset win Saturday over No. 7 Creighton in the second game of a difficult three-game stretch against top-25 teams. Last Monday, the Golden Eagles fell, 88-80, to No. 13 Butler, and tonight, they tip off against the top team in the nation.

Scouting report
While Wright admitted the Wildcats are fighting through a championship hangover, it might not seem that way if you take a look at the scores during their current five-game winning streak.

Villanova won by an average of 18 points during the streak, including a 25-point win over then-No. 15 Xavier and a 30-point win over Seton Hall. Jenkins has scored over 15 points and shot 50 percent or better from three in four out of the five games.

Marquette started off the year 10-3, but has seen a drop-off since. Entering tonight, the Golden Eagles have lost three of their last six games, including one to Villanova on Jan. 7.

The Golden Eagles rank second in the Big East in points per game at 84.6, and lead the conference in three-point percentage at 41. They have five players averaging double digits, with Jajuan Johnson leading the way with 13 points per game and Markus Howard at 12.8 ppg.

What it means
With a victory, Villanova would extend its win streak before its matchup with No. 12 Virginia on Sunday afternoon.

A win for Marquette would help its résumé for the NCAA Tournament. It currently has an RPI ranking of 53, and a victory over ‘Nova would give its profile a significant boost.

History
This will be the second of two meetings between the two schools this season, as Villanova beat Marquette back on Jan. 7 in its first game after its first loss of the season — a 66-58 defeat to then-No. 18 Butler on Jan. 4. The Wildcats shot a season-best 60 percent from three against Marquette in the victory, with Jenkins shooting 6 of 9 from downtown and scoring a game-high 23 points.

What’s next
Villanova takes on No. 12 Virginia at 1 p.m. Sunday on FOX. 

Marquette will face Providence at home Saturday.

St. Joe's (9-9, 2-4 A-10) at St. Bonaventure (12-6, 4-2 A-10)
7 p.m. at the Reilly Center on TCN

Scouting report
The Hawks have lost four of their last six games entering tonight, and with Shavar Newkirk out for the season with a torn ACL, Lamarr Kimble and James Demery have become St. Joe’s primary scorers, averaging 14.7 and 14.9 points, respectively.

Charlie Brown is coming off a stretch that earned him A-10 Rookie of the Week honors for the second time this season. The freshman is averaging 15 points and 7.5 rebounds over his previous two games, and scored a career-high 19 points against Penn last Saturday. 

But, the Hawks will have their hands full with St. Bonaventure's backcourt. For the Bonnies, Jaylen Adams averages 21.8 points, while Matt Mobley averages 19.9 points. St. Bonaventure also leads the A-10 in scoring, averaging 81.6 points.

History
The Hawks fell to St. Bonaventure, 98-90, last season at the Reilly Center. St. Joe’s had five players in double figures but it wasn’t enough, as Marcus Posley put up a game-high 47 points. 

But, the Hawks will be without four of those five players that put up double figures last March. DeAndre’ Bembry declared for the NBA draft, Isaiah Miles and Aaron Brown both graduated and Newkirk tore his ACL in December. The Hawks will need to count on Kimble, the one player the Hawks have who scored double figures against St. Bonaventure last season.

What’s next
St. Joe’s will take on La Salle in a Big 5 matchup at Hagan Arena on Saturday.

St. Bonaventure plays Rhode Island Saturday afternoon.