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Improving run defense key for Raiders

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Improving run defense key for Raiders

ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) With their offense still struggling to score, the Oakland Raiders have relied on a defense that has been surprisingly stout against the run this season.

Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who has never been part of a top 10 defense in his nine NFL seasons, expects even more.

The Raiders (3-4) have allowed 55 yards rushing or fewer in three of their past five games and are giving up an average of 102.1 yards rushing.

That's good for 11th in the NFL and is a marked difference from 2011 when opponents rushed for 136.1 yards per game against Oakland.

Two weeks ago, Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew suffered a foot injury on the Jaguars' first play from scrimmage.

The following game against Atlanta, the Falcons didn't run much because quarterback Matt Ryan was having so much success throwing the ball.

For a team trying to get back into contention in the AFC West, it might not be pretty but it has been effective.

``We always have a game or two where we play good run defense, but the key is just to keep it up,'' Kelly said Friday. ``We have to put some games together. I'd rather us be playing better run defense in December. As long as we don't go back to how we looked against Miami, I'm fine.''

The Dolphins ran for 263 yards against the Raiders in Week 2, leading to criticism over the defense being run by rookie coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.

However in the five games since, Oakland has given up 420 yards rushing - an 84.0 yard average.

The critics have gone silent. For now.

``If you play hard and you get 11 guys flying around to the football, it makes up for somebody that might be out of a gap,'' Allen said. ``You've got to have gap discipline, and that comes back to the players, and the players have done a nice job of maintaining their responsibility and doing what they're supposed to do on most every play.''

The previous time the Raiders were this good against the run? That was in 2002 - the last year they made the playoffs.

Over the past nine seasons, Oakland has routinely been among the league's worst run defenses. The high-water mark came in 2004 when the Raiders ranked 21st. Twice, in `03 and `08, they finished last.

With a new defensive staff this year, Oakland got off to a slow start but picked up the pace considerably over the past month as the players became more comfortable in the system.

Kelly isn't surprised by the turnaround.

``As the weeks go by you're knowing the calls better,'' Kelly said. ``The thinking (has) kind of gone away. Everybody's weaving themselves into the defense.''

Keeping that momentum going could be a challenge for the Raiders against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Bucs running back Doug Martin is coming off a record-setting performance against Minnesota when he became the first NFL rookie in 25 years to rush for at least 135 yards and have another 75 yards in receptions in one game. Overall, Martin is sixth in the NFC with 543 yards and a 4.2 per carry average.

Tampa Bay has also gotten improved play out of quarterback Josh Freeman, who has thrown for three touchdowns in each of his past three games.

But the Bucs will be without Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, who was placed on injured reserve with a toe injury earlier this week. That bodes well for Oakland, which is trying to get to .500 for the first time this season after getting off to a 1-4 start.

``I guess everybody honed in a little tighter,'' Kelly said. ``Everybody focused a little tighter, everybody crossed their little T's and everything. The defense is coming together. I just hope we keep getting better.''

Despite the improvements against the run, Oakland has only 10 sacks this season. Only two players, defensive tackle Richard Seymour and defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, have more than one.

``They're wounded and they're coming into our place ... we need to take advantage of the situation,'' Kelly said. ``They haven't gave up as many sacks but at the same time from what I see on film, (opponents) get pressure on (Freeman).''

Notes: Sunday's game will be televised locally, though some tickets remain available. The Raiders had received a 24-hour extension from the NFL to avoid the blackout. ... Allen said he's not ready to decide whether to add LB Aaron Curry to the 53-man roster. Curry, who was on the physically unable to perform list at the start of the season, has a roster exemption that ends Nov. 7. ... DT Richard Seymour was fined $15,750 by the NFL for roughing Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel last week.

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Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

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USA TODAY Sports

Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

After two games, it looks like Michal Kempny is already moving up in the lineup.

At Sunday’s practice, Kempny played on the team's second defensive pairing, lining up on the left of John Carlson. Previously, the Czech defenseman had been playing on the right of Brooks Orpik. The move to the left allows him to play on his natural side as he is a left-handed shot.

Here are the pairs from Sunday’s practice:

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos
Jakub Jerabek – Madison Bowey

Acquired on Monday from the Chicago Blackhawks, Kempny has played in two games for the Capitals and has received glowing reviews thus far.

“He's a really good pro, that's what sticks out,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He takes care of himself, he works at his game off the ice and with the guys, he has fit in very well.”

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“I've gotten to play a little bit with [Kempny] the last couple games,” Brooks Orpik said. “I think he's a guy that, he moves pretty well and he moves the puck pretty well and likes to keep things pretty simple. He's very consistent and predictable so he's very easy to play with.”

When the Capitals first acquired Kempny, it seemed like the best fit for him would be alongside Carlson. It’s a natural fit with Kempny being a left-shot and Carlson a righty. It also bumps down Christian Djoos to a third-pair role which is preferable to having a rookie in the top-four come the playoffs.

Should Kempny play well with Carlson, that would likely solidify Washington’s top two pairs. The Orlov-Niskanen pair was not going to be changed and Carlson was going to be on the second pair. The only question was who would ultimately play with him in the postseason?

The third pair, however, remains a work in progress.

The Caps will have to wait at least another day for the debut of their second recent acquisition as Jakub Jerabek cannot yet play due to visa issues and will miss Monday's game, reports Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Considering the issues Washington has had on defense, they would not have brought in another defenseman just to be a healthy scratch. He will get his shot to earn a spot in the lineup.

With two new defensemen in tow, obviously the team will need to experiment over the next few days and weeks to find the right combinations.

“We're going to have to probably spend at least the next 10 to 12 games doing that and then we'll have to sort of settle in,” Trotz said. “With eight defenseman, you sort of want to see which guys you’re going to play and who to play as partners and sort of a little bit of ranking. If someone goes down, who's filling that extra role?”

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2018 Big South Tournament Bracket, How to watch, Dates, Preview, Location

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2018 Big South Tournament Bracket, How to watch, Dates, Preview, Location

The Big South conference had a surprising start to their league play this year with preseason favorites UNC-Asheville and Winthrop losing two of their first three games.  Since, things have settled down in the Big South with those two squads separating themselves from the pack late in the season.

This 2017-18 season, the Big South is a single bid conference but does have opportunities to get a couple of teams into the NIT. Depending on how this tournament plays out, there may be two or three teams in the second biggest tournament in the country.

READ MORE: NCAA TOURNAMENT BUBBLE WATCH

Like always the tournament will be hosted at multiple sites. The first round will be on campus-sites with the No.7 and No. 8 teams hosting their respective games. From there, the remaining teams will head to Asheville, NC for two rounds as the Bulldogs earned the No. 1 seed. The highest remaining team will then host the championship game.

Home-court advantage will clearly be a factor for which ever team hosts, but it has also been a theme of the Big South. Combined, the entire conference is 88-38 at their home court. Only Liberty has a winning record on the road at 5-4. The host of the quarterfinals and semifinals, UNC-Asheville, is 13-1 at Kimmel Arena. The lone loss being against Liberty.

Only one year in this format, Winthrop won the championship in 2016-17 as the hosts.

TOURNAMENT INFORMATION:

When is the Big South Tournament?

The Big South Tournament will be Tues. Feb 27, March 1-2, and the Big South championship is on March 4.

Where is the Big South Tournament?
The Big South tournament will primarily be hosted at Kimmel Arena in Asheville, North Carolina. The higher seeds will host the first round match-ups. The Big South Championship will also be at the highest seed’s home court.

How to watch the Big South Tournament?

The Big South Tournament will be televised as a part of ESPN’s family of networks, excluding the first round. The first round can be seen on the Big South Network, the quarterfinals and semifinals will be streamed on ESPN3, and ESPN will televise the Big South Championship.

Who is the defending Big South Champion?

The Winthrop Eagles won the 2016-17 Big South Championship after hosting the main portion of the tournament. It was the Eagles 11th Big South Championship in their history, the most ever in the Big South.

2018 BIG SOUTH TOURNAMENT BRACKET:

First Round – Tuesday, Feb. 27

No. 9 Presbyterian at No. 8 Charleston Southern 7:00 pm (Big South Network/ Roku)
No. 10 Longwood at No. 7 High Point                     7:00 pm (Big South Network/ Roku)

Quarterfinals - Thursday, March 1

7/10 Winner vs. No. 2 Radford                     1:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
No. 6 Gardner-Webb vs. No. 3 Winthrop   3:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
8/9 Winner at No. 1 UNC Asheville              7:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
No. 5 Liberty vs. No. 4 Campbell                  9:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)

Semifinals - Friday, March 2

TBD vs. TBD                          6:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
TBD vs. TBD                          8:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)

Big South Championship - Sunday, March 4

TBD vs. TBD                          1:00pm, higher seed host (ESPN)

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PREVIEW:

Even as the No. 3 seed and losers of their last two games, Winthrop is probably still the favorite heading into the tournament. Their offense is one of the highest scoring in all of college basketball (80.7 ppg), with Xavier Cooks scoring 17.6 ppg (3rd in Big South). However, the Eagles’ offense is not powered entirely behind three-point shooting, it is done with balance on both sides of the ball. They have the best two-point shooting percentage in the league (47.3 percent), lead the Big South in rebounding averages, blocks, and field goal defense. In addition, their guards’ three point shooting ability is pretty good too at 37.5 percent and making 9.5 deep balls a game.

However, when they go quiet from long range or another team matches their three-point shooting for a contest, they are susceptible. Also as defending champs, they have been here before and are motivated to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

As the Big South tournament hosts, UNC Asheville will have a leg up on the competition, but they have not been as dominant as a top seed should be. The Bulldogs are one of the most consistent teams in the conference with all five starters scoring in double figures each game. If one is betting, they are the safe bet to win it all based on what is mentioned above.

While Radford was a pleasant surprise throughout league play, do not anticipate that they will be a contender. They are eighth in scoring in the conference (68.2) and around the same mark when it comes to shooting. Their defense has bailed them out as probably one of the top defensive units in the league, but their leading scorer is a post player, Ed Polite Jr.  (13.6 ppg) and if shut down in the paint, there is no offense.

Liberty is the darkhorse in the Big South Tournament. The do boast the best defensive numbers in the conference (64.0 points against per game) and have a high-powered offense, although it is spotty.  Two players are shooting well above 40 percent or better from behind the arc. Dominating the boards, they limit other team’s second chance opportunities. Do not bet against the Flames in a one-on-one contest.

PICK: No. 3 Winthrop