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Can bottom dwellers break open Big East race?


Can bottom dwellers break open Big East race?

CINCINNATI (AP) The folks looking up from the bottom of the Big East will have a lot to say about who stays at the top.

With six weeks left in the season, the conference-in-transition has taken a dramatic turn from last year, when just about everyone was still in contention heading down the stretch. There was such parity and so many weekly upsets that it came down to the final week, with three teams sharing the title.

So far, equality is out this year. Three teams - Rutgers, Louisville, Cincinnati - have commandeered the top with a combined 19-1 record. None of the other five teams has a winning record.

Can the foundering five still make a mark on the race? The teams at the top aren't putting it past them.

``I think there's a couple of teams that have separated themselves but if you really look at it, you talk about the balance of the Big East last year, I think it's more balanced this year,'' Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. ``I think that's what separates our conference. You can have no off-days in our conference. Parity is extremely high right now.''

The top three - No. 16 Louisville (7-0, 2-0), No. 18 Rutgers (7-0, 4-0) and Cincinnati (5-1, 1-0) start their head-to-head winnowing out on Friday, when the Bearcats play at Louisville. The Cardinals finish the season at Rutgers on Nov. 29.

In-between, the bottom five will get a chance to weigh in and knock one of them out of it, or move themselves back into it.

Possible? The last-place team almost pulled it off. South Florida (2-5, 0-3) was on the verge of the first race-altering upset after B.J. Daniels threw three touchdown passes on Saturday for a 25-21 lead over Louisville with 3:09 left. Teddy Bridgewater's 11-yard touchdown pass with 1:35 to go gave the Cardinals a 27-25 victory.

South Florida has lost 11 of its last 12 Big East games, has dropped five straight overall and is the only team in the country without an interception. But the Bulls came up one defensive stand short of knocking off the preseason favorite Cardinals.

For Louisville, it was a reminder that even though there haven't been as many upsets, they're still possible.

``Even from the so-called bottom of the league, I feel those teams can show up and beat somebody,'' Louisville linebacker Preston Brown said. ``Because we know each other so well, there's always a team that can come out and beat the top of the Big East.''

The Bulls have one more shot at the big three, playing at Cincinnati on Nov. 23.

``They're a team that really has had some tough breaks during the year,'' Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said, referring to the Bulls. ``Last week they played Louisville well. They just didn't get some breaks at the end of the game.''

What about the rest?

Syracuse (3-4, 2-1) has played a tough nonconference schedule that included losses to Northwestern, Southern California and Minnesota. The Orange have games left at Cincinnati on Nov. 3 and at home against Louisville the following week.

They see little difference between themselves and the teams at the top.

``I don't think they've separated themselves,'' Orange senior receiver Marcus Sales said. ``Anyone can win the Big East. We're expecting somebody to knock one of those teams off. I think it's still wide-open for us.''

The league's history also provides encouragement. It's had a three-way tie for the title each of the last two years.

``The Big East is always open,'' Syracuse senior safety Shamarko Thomas said. ``You see what happened last year - a three-way tie. The Big East is always open, and we're going to go out there and take our opportunity.''

There's opportunity for others, too.

Newcomer Temple (3-3, 2-1) plays at Louisville and at home against Cincinnati in consecutive weeks. The Owls are coming off a 35-10 loss to Rutgers.

Pittsburgh (3-4, 0-3) opened its final season in the Big East by losing in Cincinnati - a week after it lost to Youngstown State - and also has lost to Louisville.

Nobody will get the final say quite like Connecticut (3-5, 0-3), which won the title in 2010. The Huskies close the season at Louisville on Nov. 24 and at home against Cincinnati on Dec. 1. UConn has dropped its last three games, a bad trend.

``We've got to cut down on giving up big plays,'' coach Paul Pasqualoni said. ``Big plays have hurt us. We've got to stop giving up big plays and find a way to run to take the pressure off the quarterback. We can't be dropping back 35 to 40 times a game.''

The three teams at the top aren't looking down on any of them.

``I think Syracuse is a byproduct of their schedule - they've had some difficult games,'' Cincinnati's Jones said. ``South Florida is as talented a team as we have in the conference. Look at what Temple's done. UConn has had some unfortunate injuries. You go across the board.

``We have six weeks left and it's going to be a tremendous challenge.''


AP Sports Writer John Kekis in Syracuse and Gary Graves in Louisville contributed to this report.

John Carlson gets the better of John Klingberg in duel of top defensemen


John Carlson gets the better of John Klingberg in duel of top defensemen

One week ago, the hockey world was captivated by the matchup of Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine, two players battling for the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer. Tuesday's matchup between the Washington Capitals and Dallas Stars once again pitted two competitors locked in a point battle together in John Carlson and John Klingberg.

Carlson and Klingberg entered Tuesday's games with 59 points each, tied for the league lead in points among defensemen. In a 4-3 win for Washington, both defensemen delivered phenomenal performances as each recorded two points, two assists for Klingberg and a goal and an assist for Carlson.

Tuesday's game was the latest example this season of Carlson rising to the occasion. He has been at his best when he has been needed the most such as when he was averaging 27:46 of ice time a night while Matt Niskanen was out injured.


Carlson's ability to deliver has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.

"John's having just a whale of a year, obviously," Niskanen said. "Monster year. Production, been carrying the load all year. He's been just a stalwart back there for us. He leads the way."

"The numbers don't lie, he's been having an unreal season," T.J. Oshie said. "Definitely on the points side of things, but maybe some parts that don't get talked about, the defensive side of things. He rarely loses a battle. It's very encouraging, it gets the bench going when he plays like that."

After the game, Carlson tried to downplay the notion that he elevated his game in response to playing against Klingberg.

"No," Carlson said when asked if he was motivated by the points race. "I think the guys do a good job of pumping that up in the locker room. I just want to go out there and win. I think we played a good game tonight so that's most important."

But while his words were subdued, his play was anything but.

Despite both players getting two points, Carlson got the better of his counterpart by scoring the game-winning goal in the third period, a one-timer slap shot to beat goalie Kari Lehtnonen, to lead Washington to the win.


Carlson may say he was not motivated by Klingberg, but his play certainly seemed to suggest otherwise.

"I think they both know, they know the stats," Barry Trotz said. "They know who they're lined up [against]. They're proud athletes. You're in a business where there's a lot of alpha males. That's what it is."

Of course, Carlson may not need a matchup with Klingberg to motivate him.

In the final year of his contract, Carlson has picked a good time to set new career highs in goals, assist and points. With a cap hit of just under $4 million, the 28-year-old blueliner will be due a significant raise in the offseason. That price tag continues to climb with every good performance as Carlson continues to cement himself among the league's top defensemen.

"Obviously he's very motivated," Trotz said. "He's in the last year of his contract. He'll be motivated. He's putting out points. He's gotten better and better. He's more poised every year. When he's intense and detailed in his game, he's a top defenseman in the league and he shows it."

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Need to Know: Redskins player quick hitters—Offensive starters

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Need to Know: Redskins player quick hitters—Offensive starters

Here is what you need to know on this Wednesday, March 21, 36 days before the NFL draft.  

Redskins starters quick hitters—offense

The last couple of days here I looked at how the depth charts are shaping up with a little bit of commentary (offense, defense). Today and tomorrow I’ll take a closer look at the starters with some quick hitters about each one, starting today with the offense.

QB Alex Smith—The deal is done, and the Redskins have their man for five years at $22.2 million per year or, if they prefer, three years at $23.7 million per. It seems like most fans are behind him but there will have to be a few more wins than losses this fall for that to become permanent.

RB Samaje Perine—He got better as the year went on, averaging nearly a half yard per carry more in the last seven games compared to the first nine. But the 3.4 average per carry certainly did not stop both Doug Williams and Jay Gruden from talking about drafting a running back early.

TE Jordan Reed—According to reports, he is rehabbing well from the hamstring and toe injuries that severely limited him last year. Still, expect him to be kept in bubble wrap until training camp and even then, his action may be limited.

WR Josh Doctson—Did Kirk Cousins look away from Doctson too often, lacking the confidence in him to let him go get the 50-50 balls? Will Smith have more confidence in Doctson? The answers to those questions may determine if the third-year receiver breaks out in 2018 or he continues to tease with flashes of ability.

WR Paul Richardson—He’s capable of the acrobatic catch, which should be fun to watch. Richardson was good with Russell Wilson on the off-schedule plays, maybe he can do the same with Smith.

WR Jamison Crowder—I guess it’s fair to say he had an off year in 2017 but his receiving yardage only dropped by 60 yards from 2016. It will be interesting to see if they keep him in as the punt returner after he averaged 6.3 yards per return (23rd of 25 qualifiers) last year.

LT Trent Williams—The six-time Pro Bowler is still in the relatively early stages of recovering from surgery to the knee that kept him from practicing from about Week 6 on. Don’t look for him until training camp and even then, the early workload is likely to be light.

LG Arie Kouandjio—This is the one offensive position that remains up in the air. Kouandjio has shown some grit as a spot starter but I don’t think the organization views him as a 16-game starter.

C Chase Roullier—Shortly after Roullier got the starting job when Spencer Long went out injured, Jay Gruden said that Roullier would be the Redskins’ center “for a long time”. There is no reason to doubt that at this point in time.

RG Brandon Scherff—His concern no longer is trying to live up to having been the fifth pick of the draft. Scherff has to play well enough to justify his 2019 option-year salary, which will be in the vicinity of $13 million.

RT Morgan Moses—He had surgery to repair his ankles, which were an issue most of last season. Still, he didn’t miss a start. Like Williams, even if he’s ready for training camp, don’t expect to see a whole lot of him.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.

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Days until:

—Offseason workouts begin (4/16) 27
—Training camp starts (approx. 7/26) 129
—2018 NFL season starts (9/9) 173

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