Indiana is preseason No. 1 in AP basketball poll for 3rd time and 1st since 1979-80

Indiana is preseason No. 1 in AP basketball poll for 3rd time and 1st since 1979-80

Tom Crean didn't look like any of the other people in the Maui airport that day.

He had just coached his third, fourth and fifth games in his first season at Indiana. He looked how you would expect a coach to look after losing games by 38 and 26 points, then managing to beat Division II Chaminade in the seventh-place game of the Maui Invitational by only two points. The Silverswords got off a possible game-winning 3-point attempt at the buzzer.

Others waiting for flights to the mainland on the day before Thanksgiving in 2008 were wearing leis and flowered shirts and were carefully carrying pineapples. Not Crean. He had a lot of things on his mind and looked like he was ready to blow the whistle and start practice.

"This is going to take a while," Crean said at the time. "We can do it. This place has so much in so many ways."

He was standing and pacing now, the way he piles up the miles on the sideline.

"We can do this," he said. "We can do this."

Not many people would have believed it then. They do now. Another step in the return of the fabled Hoosiers program came Friday as Crean is about to start his fifth season in Bloomington.

Indiana was ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press' preseason Top 25, a first for the Hoosiers since 1979-80, when they were coached by Bob Knight and the 3-point line was still in the experimental phase.

The Hoosiers and their fans are quite familiar with the next two teams in the voting: Louisville and Kentucky.

The three schools are from the basketball-rabid area known as "Kentuckiana." Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are all within an easy drive of each other and they are schools which have known basketball success over the years and recently, as well.

The Hoosiers, who return all five starters including 7-foot sophomore Cody Zeller, received 43 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel. Indiana is a preseason No. 1 for the third time.

Louisville, which reached the Final Four last season, and Kentucky, the reigning national champions who beat Indiana in the regional semifinals and Louisville in the national semifinals, received the rest of the first-place votes. Louisville was No. 1 on 20 ballots and the Wildcats got the other two.

Louisville has most of the team back from last season including Gorgui Dieng, a defensive force in the middle. Kentucky, on the other hand, has another roster full of talented freshmen after four players left early and were taken in the first round of the NBA draft including overall No. 1 and 2 picks Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

This is the fifth time that Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky were all ranked in the preseason top 10. The last time was 1983 when Kentucky was No. 4, Louisville No. 8 and Indiana No. 9.

Indiana's other preseason No. 1 was in 1975-76 when the Hoosiers put together the last unbeaten run to a national championship.

Ohio State and Michigan joined Indiana as Big Ten teams ranked in the top five. The last time a conference had three teams in the preseason top five was 2008-09 when Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh of the Big East were second, third and fifth, respectively.

North Carolina State, Kansas, Duke, Syracuse and Florida round out the top 10.

North Carolina led the second 10 and was followed by Arizona, UCLA, Michigan State, Missouri, Creighton, Memphis, UNLV, Baylor and San Diego State.

The last five ranked teams were Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Florida State.

The Big Ten led the way with five teams in the preseason poll, while the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference had four each. Along with the Southeastern Conference's three teams, those four leagues accounted for 16 of the 25 teams.

Crean took over an Indiana program in 2008-09 that had plenty of history - five national championships - and a lot of current problems. Only two players returned from a team that was facing NCAA discipline over a phone call scandal that led to the ouster of coach Kelvin Sampson.

The program was back on the national scene last season when Christian Watford's 3-pointer at the buzzer beat No. 1 Kentucky and the fans rushed the court at Assembly Hall. Three straight losing seasons seemed long ago as the Hoosiers added two more wins over teams ranked in the top five and got back in the NCAA tournament.

Now Crean has a team that will start the season No. 1

"It's great. Those things are great," Crean said. "I think now, it's just so much about the daily challenge of getting better. That to me is what the focus is. It's a big deal, but you don't get any banners for your preseason rankings. You've got to go out and you've got to earn it every day. I think that's what this team is really doing a good job of, and I know it's early, but they're doing a good job of it."

Duke has the longest current streak of consecutive poll appearances at 97, a run that started with the preseason poll of 2007-08. Kansas has the second-longest current run at 65 weeks.

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Redskins Draft Countdown: Could Da'Ron Payne be the final piece to the D-line puzzle?

Redskins Draft Countdown: Could Da'Ron Payne be the final piece to the D-line puzzle?

Redskins draft countdown

Da’Ron Payne

Defensive tackle

Stuff the run in the middle of the line? Check. Get outside to stop stretch plays? Check. Get after the passer? Check. Yes, Alabama defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne checks all the boxes the Redskins are looking for on the D-line.

He can be the immovable object, taking on double and triple teams, and he also can chase down the quarterback. At 311 pounds he could be the Redskins’ nose tackle in base and move outside in nickel.

Height: 6-2
Weight: 311
40-yard dash: 4.95

Projected draft round: 1

What they’re saying

Payne possesses one of the most impressive combinations of strength and athleticism that we've seen from an interior lineman. He will be the premier run-stuffer in this draft, but he may have enough in the pass rushing toolbox to project as a better pro than college pass rusher. Payne is a game-ready starter who immediately upgrades a defense's ability to slow the run.

Lance Zierlein,

How he fits the Redskins: This just in—the Redskins need a nose tackle. Of course, if you’re reading this you know that, and you’ve known it has been the case ever since the Redskins went to the 3-4 defense in 2010.

In very closely related news, they need to play better against the run, too. You probably noticed that they were dead last in the league in rushing defense last year. And that the NFC East has two very strong rushing teams in the Eagles and Cowboys and a Giants team that could well take Saquon Barkley with the second pick in the draft. If they don’t fix their rushing defense they could literally get run over.

Payne could help them a lot. He can take on double and triple teams and clog up running lanes in the middle. If they try to go around him, he has the quickness to penetrate and disrupt outside runs.

And a defensive lineman taken in the top half of the first round should be able to provide some pass rush pressure. As noted by Zierlein, Payne has the potential to do that. He’ll never be a double-digit sack guy, but if he can kick in four to six per year and get some pressure up the middle, that would be fine.

Film review: vs. Tennessee, vs Georgia (national title game)

Like most players, Payne can’t get much in the way of a pass rush when he is double and triple teamed. But when they tried to block him one on one he consistently got pressure. Payne didn’t get many sacks, but he did make a difference. Against Georgia, one pressure resulted in an interception and another forced a third-down incompletion.

Payne is very difficult to move off the spot in the running game, even when the offense tries to do it with two or even three players. Running backs did not get by him on a regular basis. In the second half in particular, Georgia tried to move the ball with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, both of whom are likely to get selected in the top 100 in the draft next month. But they kept running into a mass of humanity in the middle of the line with Payne in the middle of it.

He played well during the Tennessee game during the regular season, but he didn’t have a lot of impact. The only time his name was called was when he was hit with a roughing the passer call.

Potential issues: At 311 pounds, Payne may not be the ideal size to fill the chronic hole at nose tackle. It should be noted, however, that defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has said that the Redskins aren’t necessarily looking for the 350-pound nose tackle and that a relatively smaller player can get the job done. Ziggy Hood played the nose at 305 pounds last year. The Redskins finished last against the run, although that’s not necessarily cause and effect.

Bottom line: The Redskins went 20 years without taking an interior defensive lineman in the first round before taking Jonathan Allen last year. Nobody could legitimately complain if they doubled up on first-round D-linemen after so many years of neglect.

Payne should be there when the 13th pick goes on the clock. Unless the Redskins address the nose tackle spot in free agency Payne will be under strong consideration. The defensive line improved last year with the additions of Allen in the draft, Stacy McGee as a free agent and the second-year emergence of Matt Ioannidis. Payne could be the final piece of what could be a dominant defensive line.

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


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Wizards at Spurs: TV, live stream and radio info, things to watch

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Wizards at Spurs: TV, live stream and radio info, things to watch

Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Jr. and the Washington Wizards battle LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night.

Here is all you need to know: TV, live stream and radio info, tip-off time, plus three things to watch:


Where: AT&T Center
Tip-off: 9:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Washington (pregame coverage begins at 8:30 p.m.)
Live stream:
Radio: 1500 AM

Wizards are trending up

The Wizards have had some steep ups and downs in recent weeks. They lost three in a row from Feb. 28 through March 4 and that turned into five losses in seven games, their worst stretch since John Wall injured his left knee. But now, with two straight wins, the Wizards appear to be in good shape. They have won four of their last six games and all of those wins came against teams currently holding playoff spots.

The Wizards enter Wednesday night sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference. They have been off the past three days and during that break the Pacers won a game and pushed ahead into fourth. The Pacers play the Pelicans on Wednesday, while the third-place Cavs battle the Raptors and the sixth-place Sixers see the Grizzlies.


Tough place to play

The Wizards head to Texas hoping to win in San Antonio for the first time since 1999. Yes, you read that right: 1999. Like, back when Limp Bizkit was a thing. It has been 19 years and 17 straight losses at the Spurs for the Wizards.

Washington has had trouble with the Spurs in general in the past two decades, as have most teams. The Spurs have won 20 of their last 23 matchups overall and won 17 straight from 2006 through 2015. The Spurs under head coach Gregg Popovich have been among the most consistent winners in all of sports and the Wizards have had trouble cracking the code.


Spurs are still getting it done

The Spurs are currently sixth in the Western Conference despite having a slightly better record than the Wizards. They have gotten this far despite their best player Kawhi Leonard missing all but nine games this season. It is a remarkable feat and one that could very well win Popovich another Coach of the Year award.

In Leonard's absence, many have stepped up. LaMarcus Aldridge has put in an All-Star season with averages of 22.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. Rudy Gay has enjoyed a nice bounceback season with 11.2 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. And Pau Gasol is still making an impact with 10.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.

Really, though, it's all about their defense. The Spurs boast the lowest opponents points per game average (99.0) and the third-best defensive rating (104.1).


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