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Ball, Burkhead should be at best in B10 title game

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Ball, Burkhead should be at best in B10 title game

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Two of the Big Ten's best running backs will be on the field when Wisconsin and No. 14 Nebraska meet in Saturday night's conference championship game.

Wisconsin's Montee Ball has been at his best lately after a slow start.

Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is running strong after missing a month with an aggravated knee sprain.

The two have long admired and learned from each other.

Burkhead said he's studied tape of Ball to cull tips on how to better use his blockers and to see how Ball patiently waits for a hole to open and attacks it.

Ball said he tries to emulate Burkhead's toughness and relentlessness.

``That man, he's a very physical running back,'' Ball said. ``He doesn't shy away from contact. I believe he loves contact. He loves to deliver the blow to defenders. What I take from him is, don't shy from contact and keep your feet churning.''

Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist after rushing for 1,923 yards and scoring 39 touchdowns last season, this week earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second straight year following a regular season in which he piled up 1,528 yards and 18 TDs.

He scored his 79th career touchdown last week against Penn State to set an NCAA record.

Burkhead was a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2011 after a 1,357-yard, 15-TD season. He sprained his left knee on his third carry of the opener against Southern Mississippi, has aggravated the injury twice and appeared in only six games. He has 474 yards on 63 carries, a 7.5-yard average.

Burkhead originally planned to return in Indianapolis on Saturday, but the Huskers (10-2, 7-1) needed a boost in the second half against Iowa last week, and he told coach Bo Pelini he was ready when needed.

Burkhead started the third quarter, scored the go-ahead touchdown in a 13-7, Legends Division-clinching victory and finished with 69 yards on 16 carries, including a few pile-moving runs.

Pelini said he expects Burkhead to be in the starting lineup against the Badgers (7-5, 4-4).

Burkhead gives the Huskers relatively fresh legs to go along with 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah and two other backs, who worked as the primary ball-carrier when Burkhead was out.

``I hope it kind of gives a burst of energy to the team, just being able to finish off things, finish off runs, fight for those extra yards and just help out the team however I can,'' Burkhead said.

Even without Burkhead the Huskers had the most powerful run game in the Big Ten. With him in the mix again as a runner and receiver - and with Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross as his backups - offensive coordinator Tim Beck will have plenty of options.

``It's nice just to know he's added back into our arsenal,'' tight end Ben Cotton said.

Ball and Burkhead played major roles in the teams' first meeting this season, a 30-27 Nebraska win on Sept. 29.

Ball ran 32 times for 90 yards, and he scored the Badgers' first two touchdowns as they got out to a 20-3 lead. Ball scored again in the third quarter, but the Huskers kept him under control most of the second half. Six of his final eight carries went for losses or no gain.

Burkhead had 18 runs for 86 yards, including a 21-yarder. He fumbled on his first carry when he ran up the back of an offensive lineman, setting up the Badgers' second touchdown.

Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, who tackled Burkhead five times in the first game, said Nebraska's offense doesn't change depending on which of the four running backs is in the game. But Burkhead is the toughest to bring down, he said, and is the master of turning a potential tackle for loss or no gain into a 2-yard pickup.

``That doesn't really show up in the stat book,'' Borland said, ``but that kind of saves their offense at times. Sometimes things will be bottled up, and instead of it being second down and 12, it's second and 8, and that changes their play-calling. I really applaud him for his ability in doing that.''

Ball, a Doak Walker Award finalist for the second straight year, is running for 153.6 yards a game since Oct. 1. He's run for at least 166 yards in four of his last six games.

The end of his senior season has been better than the start. He missed several days of preseason practice with a concussion and facial cuts after five men attacked him on a street in Madison, Wis.

He was held to 61 yards in a loss to Oregon State, had to run 37 times to get his 139 yards in a narrow win over Utah State and sustained another head injury in the first half against UTEP.

``Yards have been a lot tougher this year,'' Ball said.

A big performance against Nebraska could help send Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl for a third straight year and ease the sting of a five-loss season. The Badgers, who finished third in the Leaders Division, are in the title game because Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible.

``These five losses, one loss being against Nebraska, we really feel we have something to prove against them and to the nation,'' Ball said. ``I'm hoping the best team comes out winning, which is us.''

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Caps attempt to address blue line depth by trading for defenseman Michal Kempny

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USA TODAY Sports

Caps attempt to address blue line depth by trading for defenseman Michal Kempny

Facing serious questions about their defensive depth, the Caps took a step towards addressing that depth by trading for Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Michal Kempny. Chicago will receive a conditional third-round pick in the 2018 draft in exchange.

Washington has played the majority of the season with two rookie defensemen in the lineup in Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos. The team is giving up 2.98 goals per game which ranks 20th in the NHL. If there was one weakness the Capitals absolutely needed to address, it was defense.

RELATED: SEE THE LATEST NHL POWER RANKINGS

Kempny, 27, has played in 31 games for Chicago this season tallying one goal and seven points. He is a left-shot defenseman who carries a cap hit of $900,000. His contract expires at the end of this season.

For his career, Kempny has played in 81 NHL games, all with Chicago, Kempny has scored a total of 15 points.

The Capitals have two third-round draft picks in 2018 after acquiring Toronto's third-round pick in the trade that sent Marcus Johansson to New Jersey. Chicago will receive the higher of the two picks at season's end.

MORE CAPITALS: BLACKHAWKS FANS TOSSED AFTER DIRECTING RACIST REMARKS AT SMITH-PELLY

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NBA Midseason Awards 2018: Who is leading the pack at the break?

NBA Midseason Awards 2018: Who is leading the pack at the break?

The 2017-18 NBA season has reached the halfway point with the 2018 NBA All-Star Game taking place in Los Angeles, Calif., this weekend.

But as the season shifts toward the second half NBC Sports Washington is taking at the major NBA awards and which players are positioned to bring home the hardware at the end of the 2018 season.

The season is far from over the second half is where the awards are won. Will Ben Simmons hold on to his lead in the Rookie of the Year running? Will LeBron James surpass James Harden for the MVP award?

Below are the detailed results of the NBC Sports Washington NBA midseason awards. 

The voting panel consists of NBC Sports Washington's Steve Buckhantz, Kara Lawson, Chris Miles, Travis Thomas, Adam Wise, Chase Hughes, Nick Ashooh and Troy Machir.

CLICK HERE FOR THE 2017-2018 NBA MIDSEASON AWARDS GALLERY

2017-2018 NBA Midseason Awards

Rookie of the Year:

Nick AshoohDonovan Mitchell, Jazz. While Simmons gets to work with another franchise player in Joel Embiid, Mitchell saw Utah's second-leading scorer traded at the deadline (Rodney Hood), and has had center Rudy Gobert miss tons of games with injuries. Mitchell is the first rookie to lead his team in scoring during a winning streak of at least 11 games and he leads all rookies in scoring, on a team that could make the playoffs in a tough Western Conference.

Steve BuckhantzBen Simmons, 76ers. Rookie of the year would be Ben Simmons, and while there are more than one outstanding young players in the game, he seems to be the most unstoppable and the one with the greatest upside, especially if he hones his shooting skills.

Chase Hughes: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons has returned from injury to be a rookie sensation, consistently flirting with or recording triple-doubles. He is going to be an All-Star for a long time.

Kara LawsonBen Simmons, 76ers.

Troy MachirBen Simmons, 76ers. This is tough because Simmons 1) isn't really a rookie 2) Doesn't have any range on his jump shot, and 3) gets to play with Joel Embiid. Donovan Mitchell is the best player on his team and is doing it all without Rodney Hood (trade) and Rudy Gobert (injury). I still lean toward Simmons, but Mitchell will probably steal from him in the second half. 

Chris Miles:  Donovan Mitchell, Jazz. As Damian Lillard put it, he’s actually leading his team. Secondly he isn’t a “red-shirt rookie” like his top competitor Ben Simmons. This is a two horse race if anyone picks someone else that’s a failed drug test.

Travis ThomasBen Simmons, 76ers.  He’s the second best player on a team destined for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. His combination of size and court vision reminds me of a young Magic Johnson.

Adam Wise: Ben Simmons, 76ers. I don't like the rule that he's technically a rookie (ahem, Blake Griffin winning over John Wall in 2010-11) but he's a triple-double threat every night and you can't ignore that. Donovan Mitchell is a close second.

CLICK HERE FOR THE 2017-2018 NBA MIDSEASON AWARDS GALLERY

Most Improved Player:

Nick Ashooh: Victor Oladipo, Pacers. It’s always tough to pick the MOP, because sometimes it’s more about bigger opportunity that showcases the game a player already has.

Steve BuckhantzJaylen Brown, Celtics. Every time I see him play, the results are amazing. A very close second would be Kristaps Porzingis of the Knicks.

Chase Hughes: Victor Oladipo, Pacers. Oladipo went from decent to stardom seemingly overnight and has made the Pacers look very smart for trading for him.

Kara Lawson: Victor Oladipo, Pacers.

Troy Machir: Victor Oladipo, Pacers. We've always known Oladipo has elite athleticism and talent, but the change in scenery meant more opportunities to lead and develop. He's gone from a solid start to a bona fide perennial All-Star in less than half a season. 

Chris MilesVictor Oladipo, Pacers. He’s running away with this award. I taught him how to shoot over the summer so I can’t wait to get my residuals.

Travis ThomasVictor Oladipo. The local product is an All-Star now and he’s the only bright light on a team that’s overachieving, proving he’s also a leader. It’s hard to imagine the Pacers being in the Playoff picture without Oladipo.

Adam Wise: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. Should Tim Hardaway Jr. have a say in this? Giannis has upped his "wow" factor this season and it was already among to tops in the league. He's can't-miss viewing when he's on the floor.

CLICK HERE FOR THE 2017-2018 NBA MIDSEASON AWARDS GALLERY

Sixth Man of the Year:

Nick Ashooh: Lou Williams, Clippers. No brainer here. "Lou-Will" is one of the top scorers in the NBA despite playing just 32 minutes per game.

Steve BuckhantzLou Williams, Clippers. He's making shots of the bench like Jamal Crawford and has had numerous game winners. I also like Terry Rozier of Boston. He's an excellent player with a huge upside.

Keely Diven:

Chase Hughes: Lou Williams, Clippers.  could have been an All-Star this year, he has been that good off the Clippers' bench. The guy is putting up career numbers and got a well-deserved contract extension along the way.

Kara Lawson: Lou Williams, Clippers. 

Troy Machir: Lou Williams, Clippers. There are several good candidates, but this is Lou Williams' award ... again. He's averaging over 20 ppg and coming off the bench AND nearly made the All-Star Game. When has that ever happened before?

Chris Miles:  Kelly Oubre, Wizards. Yep, I went full homer on this one. Dude is legit and this summer the “should Oubre start” camp is going to revolt if he keeps this up.

Travis ThomasLou Williams, Clippers. He should be every year. In fact they should rename the award, Lou Williams Of The Year. He’s averaging 23 points a game coming off the bench for a team going nowhere fast.

Adam Wise: Lou Williams, Clippers. He should've been an All-Star ... and he doesn't even start! 

CLICK HERE FOR THE 2017-2018 NBA MIDSEASON AWARDS GALLERY

Coach of the Year:

Nick Ashooh: Mike D'Antoni, Rockets. D’Antoni has kept the Rockets in contention for the top spot in the west, which means a true competitor to the Warriors. They’ve already had two double-digit win streaks, and now that he finally has a roster that fits his system, it’s not just Golden State that can run teams off the floor.

Steve Buckhantz: Eric Spoelstra, Heat. Just when you think they really don't have a lot going on in South Florida, he consistently keeps his squad in the game and has them poised to make a run in the post season. Brett Brown of the Sixers and Brad Steven of the Celtics would also get consideration.

Chase Hughes: Gregh Popovich, Spurs. The Spurs are third in the stacked Western Conference despite missing Kawhi Leonard.

Kara Lawson: Dwane Casey, Raptors.

Troy Machir: Dwane Casey, Raptors. The Cavs and Celtics are the talk of the East, but the Raptors are the most consistent team this side of the Mississippi River. Casey doesn't get enough credit, which is why I'm writing about him here. 

Chris MilesBrad Stevens, Celtics. I hate Boston, everything about it. Just being forced to pick this guy means I don’t have to write an explanation.

Travis ThomasBrad Stevens, Celtics. Boston has continually overachieved under Stevens tutelage. Despite the devastating injury to Gordon Hayward, Stevens still has the Celtics primed for a run at the NBA Finals.

Adam Wise: Dwane Casey, Raptors. Toronto seemed to be an afterthought in the East after everyone got all excited about the new faces in Boston and Cleveland. He's figured out how to use a deeper bench, while also giving ample minutes to his stars in DeRozan & Lowry. The Raptors are very well in the hunt for the top seed for that reason.

CLICK HERE FOR THE 2017-2018 NBA MIDSEASON AWARDS GALLERY

NBA Most Valuable Player:

Nick Ashooh: James Harden, Rockets. He leads the NBA in scoring, second in assists, and has Houston poised to give a legit push to the Warriors out West.

Steve Buckhantz: James Harden, Rockets. You can always make a case for the great players and how they elevate the athletes around them, and this is an award that's best suited to someone AFTER the season ends, but right now I'd go with Harden, who continues to play at a high level for his squad. Lebron will be there in the end, as will Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. 

Chase Hughes: James Harden, Rockets. He is the NBA's leading scorer, is second in assists and is leading the charge for the Rockets, who have the league's best record.

Kara Lawson: James Harden, Rockets. 

Troy Machir: James Harden, Rockets. LeBron James is still the best basketball player on the planet, but James Harden is the NBA MVP at the midway point. He's still the elite volume scorer he always was, but he's evolved into a player that makes his teammates around him better. Also, he scored a 60-point triple-double. 

Chris MilesJames Harden, Rockets. His 60-point triple-double should say enough. His team is also 26-1 when he has Chris Paul and Clint Capella. They also gave it to the Warriors and are in contention for the top seed in the West. Lebron James is second and could supplant Harden depending on how the season ends.

Travis ThomasJames Harden, Rockets. You could have made the case for him the past three seasons but other guys balled out of control and earned the award. This season it’s undeniable, he’s averaging  over 30 point per game and leading one of the best teams in the league.

Adam Wise: James Harden, Rockets. He's used the runner-up to the award as motivation this year. While the rebounding numbers are down (Clint Capella has gobbled them up), he's still near the top of the league in assists and he's leading the NBA in scoring. Oh yeah, and his play has elevated the Rockets into the "Could they really beat the Warriors in the playoffs?" discussion.

CLICK HERE FOR THE 2017-2018 NBA MIDSEASON AWARDS GALLERY