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Big 12 to send 9 teams to postseason

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Big 12 to send 9 teams to postseason

The health of the Big 12 has been a topic of debate since Nebraska and Colorado kicked off a four-team exodus a few years back.

Judging by the results in 2012, the league is stronger than ever.

No Big 12 team was able to survive through Thanksgiving with a shot at the national title. But nine of the 10 teams, including newcomers West Virginia and TCU, are already bowl eligible.

The league's 90 percent success rate is by far the best in the country - and that's with an extra league game for each school and a week left to play.

No. 7 Kansas State can win the league title with a victory at No. 23 Texas on Saturday, while No. 12 Oklahoma needs a victory by the Longhorns and to beat TCU to win the Big 12.

Everyone except Kansas will be playing beyond this weekend.

``I would say it's probably as strong and there's probably as much parity as I've seen,'' said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who has coached in the Big 12 for all but three years of its existence. ``You've seen the conference kind of fall out of the national spotlight gradually over the season. But at the end of the day, it's because you're playing such tremendously talented football teams week in and week out. Having a nine-game schedule like that is quite difficult.''

Perhaps the biggest reason why the league is so deep is because West Virginia and TCU have fit seamlessly into the league in place of Missouri and No. 10 Texas A&M, now in the SEC.

The Mountaineers and Horned Frogs have discovered that things are a lot tougher in the Big 12 than their old homes.

West Virginia won the Big East's BCS berth in its final season there and hung 70 points on Clemson in winning the Orange Bowl. But after a 5-0 start in 2012, the depth of the Big 12 began taking a toll. West Virginia (6-5, 3-5) needed a late TD to beat Iowa State 31-24 and simply reach bowl eligibility.

``It's a tough league, and each and every week the same thing happens. It doesn't matter who's playing who. It's going to be a battle,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said.

TCU went unbeaten in its final season in the Mountain West in 2011. The Horned Frogs have taken their lumps in the Big 12, but they're coming off their biggest win yet as a member of the league.

TCU (7-4 4-4) fell flat in its home opener, losing 37-23 to Iowa State in quarterback Trevone Boykin's debut. The Horned Frogs also dropped a wild, triple-overtime affair to Texas Tech, 56-53, and lost to Kansas State at home.

But the Frogs, in place of A&M as Texas's Thanksgiving night opponent, thumped the Longhorns 20-13 for their first win over a ranked opponent this season.

``The thing that everybody said, we'd hear on the recruiting trail before we joined the Big 12 was, `Well, they win ballgames. But they don't play good competition every week.' And now, we've been in every ballgame and we've won our share of ballgames,'' TCU coach Gary Patterson said. ``We've got to raise our level of athletic ability at a lot of positions. But I think our kids play hard.''

Texas Tech will also return to the postseason after a brief dip in 2011. Despite losing four of their final five regular season games, the Red Raiders are 7-5 after winning just five games last season.

Perhaps no team epitomizes the depth of the Big 12 better than Iowa State. The Cyclones could wind up in ninth place at 3-6 in the league, but they're still going bowling because they swept their nonconference slate.

Iowa State didn't play three cupcakes, either. The Cyclones beat Tulsa, which is 9-3 and playing for the Conference USA title this weekend, and won at Big Ten rival Iowa for the first time in a decade.

``I went on record early, even back in the summer stating that I thought the Big 12 would be the deepest conference in the country this year,'' Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. ``Very proud of our league, very proud of our accomplishments in the league this year.''

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Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

The Capitals’ season ended a month ago, but Alex Ovechkin has yet to take his break.

That will happen soon enough, but for now Washington’s captain is leading Russia at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Slovakia. After that, he gets his first real rest since the end of the 2016-17 season. He has played in 194 NHL games, including the postseason, in 18 months.  

Ovechkin will turn 34 on Sept. 17 and the questions now start in earnest: How long can one of the world’s greatest goal scorers keep up his pace? Ovechkin recorded his eighth 50-goal season this past season. And while it ended in disappointment with a first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin deserved little blame after adding four goals and five assists in the series.

“As a captain and as a leader, I thought he took another step this year from how he showed up to training camp to how he played all year long two-way hockey, commitment and when the games mattered the most,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said last month. “He scored big goals and showed fantastic playmaking ability. A physical force. I'm excited to see what he comes back with now after a little extended time away because he was tremendous this year.”

Washington won the Stanley Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas last year and after a hectic summer of celebrating and, eventually, training, players were back less than three months later for another grind of a season that ended after 89 more regular-season and playoff games. Ovechkin missed just one of them. 

Next year could be another one filled with milestones for Ovechkin. He doesn’t even need 50 to reach them. With 42 goals he reaches 700 for his career. Only seven players have ever hit that mark.  

Ovechkin passes Mario Lemieux (690) with 32 goals and moves into the top 10 all time. He has a reasonable chance to catch Brett Hull for second-most power-play goals (265) in NHL history. Ovechkin has 247 right now and has averaged 17 per year each of the past four seasons.     

At some point, even for Ovechkin, scoring 50 goals will be too much. Only Johnny Bucyk (36) and Jaromir Jagr (34) have ever topped 50 goals at an older age. But if he could just do it one more time he would tie Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most 50-goal seasons ever (nine). We’re at the point where nothing should surprise, but we’ve gone off the known map. 

“That's the best I've seen him play in my three years here,” teammate Lars Eller said. “He just took some games over. It was impressive. He was our best player. Him and Nick, but especially O, he just took it to another level. Physicality-wise, he enforced his will out there and when he decides to do that, he's almost unstoppable. That was exciting to see."

Almost everything Ovechkin does now is unprecedented. In the past 20 NHL seasons dating to 1998-99, there have been 28 different 50-goal seasons as scoring has become harder thanks to better goalie play, equipment and more tactical defensive systems. And yet Ovechkin owns 29 percent of those 50-goal seasons. His 89 points (51 goals, 38 assists) were his most since 2009-10.  

For now, Ovechkin will settle for another IIHF World Championship. He has helped Russia win gold at the event three times (2008, 2010 and 2014). 

But Russia was 6-0 heading into the matchup with Sweden on Tuesday night and had outscored its opponents 29-3 in Group B despite just a goal and an assist from Ovechkin. 

There can be wild fluctuations in the competition level during the group stage at Worlds. The Russians beat Italy 10-0 last week. And the United States, Canada and Finland are all formidable opponents in Group A. 

Russia will likely play one of those teams in the quarterfinals on Thursday so nothing is guaranteed. The semifinals would be Saturday if they do win and then the gold-medal game - or the bronze-medal game - would be Sunday. Then, finally, Ovechkin can rest and get ready for his 15th NHL season with two years left on his contract with the Capitals. 

“[Ovechkin] elevated his game in the first round. He's just got a hunger to him to contribute and to score goals,” teammate Brett Connolly said. “You could tell that he was committed and that he was going to give everything he had to win it again. He was great last year and arguably even better this year….This fan base is very lucky to watch what he does on a consistent basis. You're not going to see that ever again. So, enjoy it while it's here.” 

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Tim Connelly explains his interview with Wizards, decision to stay with Nuggets

Tim Connelly explains his interview with Wizards, decision to stay with Nuggets

Tim Connelly sat down with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis about the head front-office opening on Friday.

On Monday, NBC Sports Washington confirmed that he decided to stick with his role as president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets

A day later, he spoke to the media at a press conference and answered questions about his meeting with Washington.

Clear in Connelly's comments were his respect for Leonsis, but commitment to continuity in Denver. 

"I had a really nice conversation with Mr. Leonsis and his staff. He's a fantastic owner, I think a real visionary. I was really impressed by who he was and his thoughts for the team. That team's going to be special quickly under his leadership. We just had a conversation and not much more than that."

As for the reason for the discussion with Leonsis, Connelly said it came down to his love for the franchise. 

"I spent 14 years there. Certainly it's where I'm from, it's where my wife's from, so I just wanted to have the conversation because I care about the organization," he said.

"I'd never had an audience with [Leonsis], so to have that conversation and exchange of ideas, you know, it's flattering." 

Ultimately, however, the Baltimore native emphasized that Washington couldn't entice him away from the franchise he'd spent the last six years building. 

"Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that's here in spades. Those things matter to me," he said. "I had a hard time envisioning myself elsewhere."

With Connelly out of the picture, the list of candidates for the Wizards front-office opening is narrowing. Currently, Tommy Sheppard, Danny Ferry and Troy Weaver remain in the conversation. 

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