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Arizona appears to be back on track

Arizona appears to be back on track

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) When Arizona won a conference title and came within seconds of reaching the Final Four two years ago, the consensus was that the storied program was back after a couple of down years.

Coach Sean Miller had an inkling the Wildcats weren't quite there. He wanted to believe otherwise, but there were just too many holes in the roster, too many question marks to truly think Arizona had fully recovered from the dark days that followed coach Lute Olson's retirement.

``Anytime you win 30 games and you're a shot from the Final Four, everybody can certainly feel like we've arrived,'' Miller said Wednesday from the McKale Center. ``That was probably preliminary and I kind of knew that deep down.''

Arizona might now actually be back on track - not just this season, but for many to come.

Backing up a stellar recruiting class with one that may be even better, Miller appears to have a foundation in place to resurrect a program that has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons.

Miller's latest recruiting class includes four of the top prospects in the country - three of them big men - and was rated by some services as the nation's best. He also managed to land guard Mark Lyons, a graduate of Xavier who has a year of eligibility left after helping the Musketeers reach the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

Two of the four recruits from Miller's previous among-the-best-in-the-country class are gone, but explosive guard Nick Johnson and springy-legged forward Angelo Chol return.

Guiding all these youngsters is a nice core of veterans: All-Pac-10 forward Solomon Hill, multi-dimensional forward Kevin Parrom and point guard Jordin Mayes.

Oh, and next year the Wildcats will add T.J. McConnell, a dynamic, do-everything guard who's sitting out this season after transferring from Duquesne.

``We have a great foundation,'' Hill said. ``A great mix of younger talent and older guys, veterans, who really want to work hard.''

It's been a long fight to get to this point.

A gritty point guard at Pittsburgh, Miller inherited a mess in the desert after leaving Xavier. The fourth coach in as many years at Arizona, he took over a program that had fallen into disarray on the court and in recruiting after Olson took a leave of absence for the 2007-08 season and retired abruptly before the next one.

Miller cobbled the Wildcats together the best he could the first year, leading to a 16-win season that he said was much closer to 10 wins than 20.

Arizona caught a bit of a break the next season, when Derrick Williams transformed from an afterthought in his recruiting class into one of the best players in the country. Behind Williams, the Pac-10 player of the year, Arizona won 30 games, the conference title and came within seconds of knocking off Duke to reach the Final Four.

Despite a stellar recruiting class, Arizona didn't come close to matching that success last season.

The Wildcats took a big blow when Williams opted to leave after his sophomore season and became the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft by Minnesota. Parrom, expected to be a big contributor, had a miserable offseason and wasn't the same player from the season before despite gallantly returning after being shot in the leg and losing his mother and grandmother.

Mayes had offseason foot surgery and re-injured it during the season. Forward Sidiki Johnson, one of the fab four freshmen, never panned out and left the team in December. Point guard Josiah Turner, another freshman, was suspended twice during the season and left the team after it was over.

The Wildcats fought through all the hardships to win 23 games, but were relegated to the NIT after losing to struggling rival Arizona State in the regular-season finale. Even the NIT was a disappointment; Arizona lost at home to Bucknell in the opener.

``We've gone through a lot in three years and a lot of amazing things have happened when you consider we were within a shot of a Final Four, have won a conference championship and have pulled up short, fought hard and learned lessons along the way,'' Miller said.

Stability could come this season.

This year's recruiting class includes 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-10 forward Grant Jerrett and 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley, three of the top incoming big men in the country.

The addition of those three turns what was a weakness last season into a strength this year, their versatility - along with Chol's - giving Miller a chance to interchange players without a drop-off in talent or worrying about anyone wearing out. They also allow Hill to move back to his nature position of small forward, a change that spurred him to transform his body during the summer and enter the season in the best shape of his life.

The Wildcats are equally impressive at guard, the veteran leadership of Lyons and Parrom mixing well with the athleticism of Johnson and Mayes.

And this is a team built to last. Hill, Parrom and Lyons are all seniors, but most of the rest of the roster is underclassmen who should have the benefit of playing with the scrappy McConnell next season if they stick around.

``As you build and do things comprehensively and try to do things the right way, it takes time,'' Miller said. ``I think as we enter our fourth year here, it's exciting to know everybody in our program we recruited and I think the chances of being successful because of that, and some other things, are now in place.''

Not just now, but for the future, too.

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Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 

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USA TODAY Sports

Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 

In his first year as an NHL head coach, Todd Reirden is well aware that all eyes are on him. Stepping in to coach the defending Stanley Cup champions is a favorable position in many ways, but it does mean Reirden will be under more scrutiny than most coaches in their first year.

For a first-year coach already facing pressure to succeed, it does not help that the season has already thrown a number of curve balls in terms of the roster.

“Coaching the defending champions is a unique challenge in itself,” Reirden told NBC Sports Washington in a recent interview, “But I think for the most part that I haven't had much time to spend on that because I've been busy working on different lineups every night.”

With very few departures in the offseason, Washington was able to bring back the vast majority of its Stanley Cup winning team for the 2018-19 season, something that was considered a major strength of the team heading into the new season.

So far, however, we have seen much more roster attrition from the Caps than consistency.

Now 18 games into the season, Reirden has not had his full roster available to him at any point.

Tom Wilson missed the first 16 games of the season due to suspension, Brooks Orpik is currently on long-term injured reserve, Michal Kempny missed the start of the season because of a concussion and missed Wednesday’s game due to an illness, Travis Boyd has played in only five games due to a lower-body injury he suffered in training camp and Braden Holtby was a surprise scratch on Wednesday with an upper-body injury that required the team dress an emergency backup goalie in Winnipeg. Even John Carlson sat out a game with a lower-body injury.

Things may get worse before they get better given Evgeny Kuznetsov left Wedensday’s game early with an upper-body injury, T.J. Oshie appeared dazed after getting slammed to the ice by Josh Morrissey and Holtby is still considered day-to-day.

The rest of the league, however, does not care about the Caps’ suspensions and injuries. Washington does not get extra points in the standings because they have missed so many players and there are no asterisks next to Reirden’s head coaching record.

In the early part of the season, Reirden’s focus has had to shift from bringing the defending champs back to their championship form to simply surviving the team’s current roster attrition while facing questions as to why the team has been so inconsistent all the while.

Reirden has enjoyed the challenge.

“I think it's allowed us to really focus on what gives us the best chance to win, putting guys in different situations, manipulating lineups against other teams and what they have as the strengths in their lineup and how we can combat that,” he said. “So it's been a challenge from that standpoint in terms of moving our lines around and different components. That's made it a little bit more challenging, but that's the part I really enjoy is making those adjustments in house and figuring out how to set up things for success.”

Reirden has certainly not been shy about changing his line combinations or the defensive pairings early in the season as he searched to find the right fit for each spot, each situation. The return of Wilson certainly seems to have made things more clear on the offensive lines, at least in terms of the top-nine.

But while the early suspension and the team’s early injury woes have led to some early struggles and while this certainly is not the start that Reirden would have hoped for in his first season, he is taking a big picture view of it all and stressing the positives.

There’s not much more that this season could throw at the Caps that Reirden and the team has not already had to adjust to.

“It's probably been part of the reason we've had some inconsistency is because of the different changes we've had with different lines and different D-pairs,” Reirden said. “But in the long run, it'll actually help prepare us for adversity that comes to us down the road.”

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Week 11 Redskins vs Texans: An opportunity for a statement game at FedEx Field

Week 11 Redskins vs Texans: An opportunity for a statement game at FedEx Field

If the Redskins want to make a statement, Sunday marks a real opportunity. 

Washington, sitting at 6-3 and in first place of the NFC East, hosts Houston, a team that sits at 6-3 and in first place of the AFC South. Despite their records, neither team gets much consideration among the real Super Bowl contenders in the NFL. 

Like any NFL team, both the 'Skins and Texans have weaknesses. And unlike the top NFL teams, both the Texans and the 'Skins have a few warts, too. 

The team that best plays to their strengths will leave FedEx Field on Sunday at 7-3, almost assured of a playoff spot and no longer looking for a signature win. 

Going streaking

The Texans started the season bad, losing their first three games. Since then, Houston hasn't lost. Bill O'Brien's team didn't play last week, enjoying their bye in the actual middle of the season unlike the Redskins, but it's possible the layoff slowed the momentum.

When Houston last played, the Texans escaped Denver with a narrow, last-second victory. A six-game win streak is incredibly hard to come by in the NFL, and a seven-game heater is even harder to put together.

So. Much. Talent.

Not many teams can boast the type of elite talent like the Texans. The team has two possible future Hall-of-Famers in J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins both playing in their prime. Watt has nine sacks in nine games, and the Houston defense aggressively moves him around on the defensive line.

That means Watt will face up against Redskins right tackle Morgan Moses, but also probably inside against right guard Tony Bergstrom. Charley Casserly described Watt against Bergstrom as a significant mismatch, and Washington will need to be creative to slow down the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.

As for Hopkins, expect Redskins cornerback Josh Norman to travel with the athletic Texans wideout for much of the game. Hopkins is averaging nearly 100 yards receiving per game, and has seven touchdowns in nine games. He will be a major part of the Houston attack. Oh yeah, we didn't even mention Deshaun Watson or Jadeveon Clowney.

Ground game

The Redskins and the Texans run the ball well. Washington ranks 10th in the NFL on the ground, averaging 121.2 yards-per-game. Houston ranks 11th, averaging 120.2 yards-per-game.

For the Redskins, however, the run game is their only means of offense. Their pass game ranks in the bottom third of the NFL, and in four of his last five games, Alex Smith has thrown for fewer than 180 yards. Weirdly, all four of those sub-200 passing yard games from Smith have resulted in wins for Washington.

The Texans throw the ball better, ranked 18th in the NFL, but aren't the type of dominant offense that the Redskins have struggled against (cough Atlanta, cough New Orleans).

Turn around bright eyes

Few things change NFL games like turnovers, and the Redskins' win last week in Tampa might be the best example. Washington got dominated in just about every offensive category, but the Bucs turned the ball over four times, and the 'Skins skated with a 16-3 victory.

At +4 in turnover margin, the Texans take care of the ball, but not like the +11 Redskins. Watson has thrown seven INTs this season. Not a lot, but four more than Smith. A huge part of the Redskins winning formula is protecting the ball and generating turnovers, and certainly Jay Gruden wants to replicate that on Sunday. 

They said it

  • Jay Gruden on the Redskins mindset in first place: "We're obviously not satisfied or sitting in the lounge chair with our feet up right now relaxing. We've got to get back to work and continue to work. We know there is a lot of football ahead of us, a lot of great teams come in here to play and we have to go there to play and we have to do better. We have to do better on offense and there's a lot more for us to get offensively and defensively for that matter. I'm glad that we're winning without a doubt."
  • Alex Smith on facing J.J. Watt and the Texans defensive line: "They are one of the most disruptive fronts in football. I think when you just talk about just creating problems, penetration. They're all over the place. They obviously are really, really talented. They get up the field."
  • Texans coach Bill O'Brien on Redskins RB Adrian Peterson: "He is obviously one of the best to ever play the game. I mean, he's big, strong, fast, has got good vision, great cutting ability, very, very difficult to stop."

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