Capitals

Gophers look to prove themselves in Big Ten

Gophers look to prove themselves in Big Ten

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Golden Gophers have been here before.

They've steamrolled through cushy nonconference schedules to crack the AP Top 25 and raise some optimism for the season. Then the Big Ten comes along and roughs them up.

This year, they say they're different. Well, they're about to find out.

No. 11 Minnesota (12-1) hosts 19th-ranked Michigan State (11-2) in the Big Ten opener Monday, with a chance to set a new tone. The Gophers have had just two winning records in conference play in the last 15 years. In the previous two seasons, they've gone 23-2 in nonconference play and 12-24 against the heavyweights in their conference.

And they know it.

``We've definitely got a lot to prove,'' senior forward Rodney Williams said. ``We finished, what, 6-12 the last two years? We want to come into the Big Ten season and start off the right way. Usually we come out with a loss in the first game, and that hasn't ended too well for us in the Big Ten season. So we want to come out and get this `W' right away and see what happens.''

With Trevor Mbakwe healthy, Andre Hollins emerging as a top-flight point guard and more depth than Tubby Smith has ever had at Minnesota, the Gophers head into the Big Ten opener brimming with confidence. They have the highest ranking since they went to the Final Four in 1996-97 and have a nice mix of athleticism on the perimeter and muscle in the paint to stand up to the rugged schedule that awaits.

Smith has ridden players hard in his first five seasons since coming to Minnesota from Kentucky, a demanding approach that hasn't always sat well with some of the Gophers. But in his sixth season, he appears to finally have the mix of tenacious defenders and mentally tough veterans that he's been looking for.

``This group has really made it a lot of fun coming to practice,'' Smith said. ``They're sort of coaching themselves, and that's what good teams do. It's kind of like in the classroom when the teacher shows up and people are so excited about learning and being around one another. It makes it easier to teach and coach.''

Mbakwe hasn't played in a Big Ten game in nearly two years while he's worked his way back from a torn ACL in his right knee. He came off the bench for the first 12 games but was re-inserted into the starting lineup against Lafayette last week, and he said he's getting close to being all the way back.

``I'm excited about going up against another top-20 team, especially one that's coached by coach (Tom) Izzo, one of the best coaches in America,'' Mbakwe said. ``We're excited. It's a New Year's game. It's a chance for us to really set the tone and send a statement out that we're serious this year. And we're all up for the challenge.''

This season could be the most challenging in the Big Ten in years. Six teams are ranked in the top 20, including three ahead of the Gophers.

``We start the Big Ten season off against Michigan State, probably one of the most physical teams in the country. You're playing against better competition, and we'll definitely have to limit our turnovers and stuff like that,'' Mbakwe said. ``We can't beat ourselves. The level of intensity picks up, and we're excited for the challenge.''

The Gophers are 1-4 in Big Ten openers under Smith and have lost four straight to the Spartans, who have shown a knack in the past of deflating Minnesota's balloon just when things started looking up. So in some ways, the schedule couldn't unfold any better for the Gophers.

They get a team that has owned them on their floor on the last day of 2012. If this season is going to be different, this game will go a long way toward showing it.

``We can definitely contend for a Big Ten title, and we know that,'' Williams said. ``We've just got to come out and prove that to everybody else.''

---

AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this story.

---

Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

Quick Links

Trade to Caps potentially offers Jerabek what he never got in Montreal

capture_jerabek.png
USA TODAY Sports

Trade to Caps potentially offers Jerabek what he never got in Montreal

Defenseman Jakub Jerabek is really happy about the opportunity to play with the Washington Capitals, but it could have come at a better time. The trade came with his parents already on their way from the Czech Republic to visit him.

“It was crazy days past three days because I had my parents on the way to Montreal and they didn't know so it was a big surprise for them,” Jerabek told reporters Saturday after his first skate with the team.

A native of the Czech Republic, Jerabek signed his first NHL contract with the Montreal Canadiens in May 2017. After spending some time in the AHL and struggling to consistently earn a spot in the Canadiens’ lineup, he knew a trade was possible.

“My family, maybe we expected some trade. When its come with Caps and it was Washington, I was really happy.”

RELATED: TRADE DEADLINE STORY TIME WITH ALAN MAY

Jerabek said he came into the NHL with no expectations and was simply happy for the opportunity, but it is fair to wonder if he was not just the least bit frustrated with how he was utilized by Montreal.

For a player with experience playing for the national team, the Czech league and the KHL, getting only 25 games with a bad Montreal team seems a bit low.

“In first two weeks, I didn't know what's going on because the coaches just told me that I played well, but we just make some competition between the [defensemen] and that I have to wait for my next chance,” Jerabek said. “It was hard, but now I'm happy down here.”

Washington now offers a very different opportunity. In need of help on the blue line, Jeraebek has the chance to earn consistent playing time for a team on pace to reach the postseason.

Jerabek will not play in Saturday’s game against Buffalo, but he was hopeful he would be in the lineup for Monday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

MORE CAPITALS: IS IT TIME FOR GRUBAUER TO START IN PLACE OF HOLTBY?

For now, Jerabek and head coach Barry Trotz are unclear as to what his ultimate role on the team will be. With eight defensemen now on the roster, Trotz cautioned any lineup decision could not be rushed because of the trickle-down effect it will have on the other players.

“You always look at chemistry and all that with your group depending how high that player goes up the lineup, it affects different people,” Trotz said. “In a forward group, if you get a guy that you all of a sudden stick on the first line, there's four other guys that are bumped down and one guy's bumped out.”

The addition of Jerabek, however, offers the Caps another defenseman who can quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone, something the team has struggled with immensely throughout the season. Though he shoots left, he also said he is comfortable playing on the right said and has played there regularly over the past few years. That provides the lineup with some flexibility on the third pair behind Matt Niskanen and John Carlson.

As for Jerabek’s parents, they will be arriving in Washington on Saturday.

“I tried to figure out the situation with them to get them to here and they will come today,” he said. “So I'm really happy.”

Quick Links

Warriors will visit D.C. kids instead of White House when they play Wizards

usatsi_9095555.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

Warriors will visit D.C. kids instead of White House when they play Wizards

Instead of visiting the White House when they come to Washington this week to play the Wizards, the defending-champion Golden State Warriors plan to hold an event with D.C.-area kids.

Their invitation was rescinded by president Donald Trump following a back-and-forth between the two sides last year. After the Warriors won the title, they openly questioned whether they should follow the tradition given many of the players and coaches disagree with his policies. Trump took the opportunity away before they came to a final decision.

PODCAST: WIZARDS MAKE A FREE AGENT SIGNING

The Warriors' event will be closed off to the media and held at an undisclosed location. It is set for Tuesday, the day before they play the Wizards at Capital One Arena. The Warriors had the option of holding a ceremony with other politicians in the Democratic party, but decided that would send the wrong message. 

"It's their championship. They got disinvited to the White House, so it's up to them what they wanted to do. So they made their plans," coach Steve Kerr said. "I want the players to have a good day and to do something positive and to enjoy what they're doing."

The Warriors are the first NBA team to make this choice since Trump was elected president. Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers held their celebration with president Barack Obama in November. They did so just days after Trump was elected and LeBron James questioned at the time whether he would visit the White House with Trump in office.

RELATED: DURANT MAKES HUGE DONATION TO PG COUNTY SCHOOLS

Sports teams visiting the White House goes back to the mid-1800s. The first World Series title team to visit was the 1924 Washington Senators. By the 1960s, NBA teams were going and by the 1980s NFL and NHL teams made it a tradition.

Entire teams snubbing the White House is unusual, but many players have turned down the opportunity. In the NBA, some famous cases include Larry Bird in 1984 and Michael Jordan in 1991, according to Rolling Stone.

Perhaps the Warriors start a trend, or maybe it will be a one-off thing. Regardless, the alternative they chose is a respectable one. 

RELATED: LATEST NBA POWER RANKINGS