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Wisconsin turns to former coach for the Rose Bowl

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Wisconsin turns to former coach for the Rose Bowl

MADISON, Wis. (AP) When Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor was a kid, he used to watch the Badgers and dream of playing for Barry Alvarez.

He's finally getting his wish.

The Badgers are going retro for the Rose Bowl, talking Alvarez - their former football coach-turned athletic director - into returning to the sidelines on New Year's Day against Stanford after Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas this week.

``It's the best thing that could happen,'' Taylor said Thursday after Alvarez's return was announced. ``He's familiar with what we do and he built this program. That's why kids like me come here.''

But this is a one-night-only gig, Alvarez insisted. He's already looking for a replacement for Bret Bielema, and plans to begin interviewing candidates next week.

``No one likes change, but you can grow through change and there's opportunity through change,'' Alvarez said. ``I want the seniors to go out the right way, and I want the young players to understand that I will put a coach in place that they'll be pleased with.''

It won't, however, be Paul Chryst.

The first-year Pitt coach was considered the favorite to replace Bielema, a former Badgers offensive coordinator who is from the area, has many ties here and remains a popular figure at Wisconsin. Alvarez pulled some strings to help get Chryst the Panthers job last year, and said it wouldn't be ``appropriate'' for him to hire Chryst back such a short time later.

Chryst says he is committed to the Panthers, who are preparing for the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 5.

``I think he should be committed to Pitt,'' Alvarez said. ``I wouldn't think it would be right for him to leave after one year. I wouldn't feel right, and I don't think it would be appropriate for me to hire him back after I asked someone to do me a favor and help him get that job. So Paul's going to stay at Pitt.''

But there is no shortage of interest in the job, Alvarez said. His phone was ``blowing up'' as soon as word spread that Bielema was leaving, and Alvarez said he's already talked to a few potential candidates. He will not use a search firm, joking that ``most search committees use me.''

A current head coach is his preference, though Alvarez would not rule out hiring an assistant. Wisconsin ties are not required, but Alvarez said the new coach needs to be familiar with the program and its history.

``I think anyone that's competitive understands this is a good job,'' Alvarez said. ``They're not going to worry about my legacy or what Bret left behind or anything else. They know this is a good job and they can come in here and continue to win. We've got new facilities coming. This is a pretty special place.''

And Alvarez is largely to thank for that.

Wisconsin was little more than a Big Ten bottom feeder when Alvarez arrived in 1990. The Badgers had all of six winning seasons from 1964-89, and went 19 years without another bowl appearance after losing to USC in the 1963 Rose Bowl. They were such a sorry bunch that the Wisconsin band's postgame show was the main attraction at Camp Randall, with students rarely bothering to show up until halftime or later.

But Alvarez came with stingy defense, a power running game and a massive offense line - ``those big palookas up front,'' he said Thursday - that would soon become the standard in both college and the pros. The Badgers had a Big Ten-record 10 straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher under Alvarez, and Ron Dayne became the school's second Heisman Trophy winner in 1999.

Four years after taking over, Alvarez led the Badgers to a 10-1-1 record, a No. 4 ranking and the 1994 Rose Bowl. Wisconsin has had only two losing seasons since then.

Alvarez's 118-73-4 record in 16 seasons includes a 3-0 mark in the Rose Bowl - Wisconsin's only victories in eight trips to Pasadena. He was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2009.

``It's a special place,'' Alvarez said. ``I love the atmosphere. I love the week leading up to it. There isn't anything that I enjoy more. With this being our third (straight) appearance and the Hall of Fame, this is my fourth year in a row and I love it. It doesn't get a bit old to me. I will enjoy every second of it.''

As will the Badgers.

Bielema's departure was a shock, coming just three days after Wisconsin earned a school-record third straight trip to the Rose Bowl with a 70-31 rout of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship. The coach even told players at a Monday night meeting not to believe rumors he was going somewhere, quarterback Curt Phillips said.

Once Bielema left, there was no question who the Badgers wanted as their interim coach.

``Looking forward to being coached by one of the greatest of all time In my last game as a badger! Let's go get em!'' running back Montee Ball said on Twitter.

Alvarez has been something of a coach emeritus the last seven years. Bielema was his hand-picked successor, and he stuck close to the framework Alvarez had established. Alvarez attended most practices, and often helped to woo recruits.

``When anyone around this program simply says `coach', you know who they're talking about,'' Chris Borland tweeted.

So for him to step back in for the Rose Bowl will mean very little change for the Badgers. Alvarez said he will oversee practices and manage the game, allowing the coordinators to focus on game planning against the Cardinal.

The assistants have told players they are committed to Wisconsin through the Rose Bowl.

``I think this is probably the best,'' Alvarez said. ``I felt this was the best way to go about it and give the players the best opportunity'' to win.

And, make no mistake, the Badgers intend to keep Alvarez's perfect Rose Bowl record intact.

More than a few people have said the Badgers have no business being in the Rose Bowl at 8-5. Wisconsin actually finished third in the Big Ten's Leaders Division, but Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions.

But Alvarez said Wisconsin has nothing to apologize for.

``I told (the players) I would be honored to coach them,'' Alvarez said. ``But I wanted them to understand, if I was going to coach them, we weren't going to screw around. We were going to go out there to win.''

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Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

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Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

The Wizards entered the All-Star break having won seven of their previous nine games since John Wall went down with an injury, so a natural question to head coach Scott Brooks looking ahead to their first game back on Thursday was how he and his team can keep that momentum going in the second half.

Brooks immediately pointed to the Wizards' schedule, which gets notably more difficult in the coming weeks. They have a stretch of games over the next month-plus that features the best teams in basketball and Brooks knows that will be a big factor in whether they can sustain what they have going.

"Definitely the schedule gets tougher," Brooks said. "We've got a lot of good teams coming up starting with the first one in Cleveland. It's five games in seven nights against really good teams."

PODCAST: BIGGEST STORYLINES COMING OUT OF ALL-STAR BREAK

In the next five weeks, the Wizards will play 15 of 17 games against teams currently holding playoff spots. That includes the Cavaliers, Warriors, Celtics, Spurs (twice), Raptors and Timberwolves. 

That will represent a marked shift for the Wizards, who to this point have the weakest strength of schedule. Though they boast impressive wins over the Celtics, Rockets, Raptors and Timberwolves, they are about to play teams of that caliber more frequently with few nights off to rest. They have four back-to-back sets all in the next three weeks.

The upcoming stretch has been on the Wizards' minds for a while. Several players referenced their tough schedule before the All-Star break, knowing those wins leading up to the time off could prove extra important in hindsight.

The Wizards return to action on Thursday night against the Cavaliers, a team that has already beaten them twice. Both of those games were against the old version of the Cavs before they traded much of their roster at the deadline.

RELATED: WIZARDS HAVE BIG QUESTIONS TO ANSWER IN SECOND HALF

Gone are Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder and Channing Frye. But they still have that guy LeBron James.

"Shoot, they looked good the other time, right? They beat us twice with the other group," Brooks noted. "LeBron is going to go down as one of the best ever. They are younger and more athletic. They're a good team and they still have an All-Star in [Kevin] Love who hasn't played because he's hurt."

The Cavs haven't lost in three games since the All-Star break and that includes road wins over the Celtics and Thunder. They look rejuvenated and, at least so far, improved from the aging, incongruent roster they had just weeks ago.

The Wizards have also been playing better lately, of course, and this upcoming stretch will be a major test for them. Wall has been out three weeks since he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He is likely to miss another three-to-five weeks. The Wizards will have to get through this without him.

If they can remain competitive and even beat some of these elite teams, they will only gain more confidence in their potential. That's the way Brooks plans to approach the schedule.

"We still want to be a better team when John comes back," Brooks said. "But the schedule definitely gets a lot tougher."

RELATED: 2018 NBA MOCK DRAFT HAS LOADED CLASS

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Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

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USA TODAY Sports

Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

The mood in the Capitals locker room following a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday was one of frustration. Forty minutes of strong play from Washington amounted to nothing because of a disastrous opening first period in which the Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 lead.

No one in the locker room was more frustrated than Braden Holtby.

"Obviously you don't want to go down three," he told reporters after the game. "That's on no one else but me. The third goal, especially the third, fourth goal, that's the difference in the game. I thought we played a really strong game against a really good team. We should have got a better result and that's on me why we didn't."

Tampa scored three goals in the first off of only eight shots. For the game, the Lightning managed to pierce Holtby four times off of only 19 shots.

RELATED: WHY THE CAPS LOST TO THE LIGHTNING

Frustration seemed to boil over on the fourth goal when a normally stoic Holtby was visibly upset after allowing Nikita Kucherov to beat him on a breakaway in a play similar to what we saw in the All-Star Game.

See for yourself:

"The key to getting better is learning from your mistakes and obviously I didn't do that," Holtby said. "I was just trying to play it patient. I wasn't trying to cheat towards that move and he came at it a different way. That's on me for not recognizing it. That's not a goal I can give up in that situation after our team battled the way they did, especially in the third."

The frustration Holtby feels likely is not the result of one goal, but the culmination of a recent slump that continues to plague the Vezina winner.

Holtby has lost four straight starts and has given up at least four goals in each of those games.

While Holtby was quick to take the blame for Tuesday's loss, head coach Barry Trotz was quick to defend his netminder.

"No one takes the loss," he said. "We all take a loss. I take a loss, the group takes a loss and Braden's part of the group. ... He's had a little tough stretch. It's no different than, we've got guys that haven't scored in 15, 20 games. It's no different than a player."

The challenge now is overcoming that slump.

For a slumping skater, Trotz could try different line combinations or play someone in different situations over the course of the game. Getting a starting goalie out of a slump, however, is more difficult. Most of the work has to be done in practice with the hope that it will carry over into the next game.

"You analyze how the goals are going in, what you're doing differently," Holtby said. "There's always some stuff that you can't control and stuff that you can and it's focusing on those contrallables that you can make a difference at. Like the first goal in Chicago, the last two goals here, those are goals that I could and should stop. You get to practice the next day and you focus on that and work hard until you figure it out so you don't do it again."

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Part of the problem in Washington is that team defense is the Caps' biggest weakness. For most of the season, and even in years past, Holtby has made up for much of the team's mistakes on the backend. Now that he is slumping those mistakes become much more glaring and costly.

"The goaltenders in this league are erasers," Trotz said.

Lately, Holtby has not been able to erase those mistakes.

But the team has already moved to address the defense. Brian MacLellan added a puck-moving defenseman in Michal Kempny to help the team get the puck out of the defensive zone more quickly. Waiving Taylor Chorney could also signify another move may be coming before Monday's trade deadline.

As for Trotz, even during the slump, he made clear his confidence in Holtby has not wavered.

"He has been a rock since the day I've been here the last four years and he's been an elite goaltender and I look at him that way."