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Buckeyes hope they're ready for Big Ten start

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Buckeyes hope they're ready for Big Ten start

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas talks of the impending conference season as if it's a series of hand-to-hand battles.

In a way, maybe it is.

``Right now it's just all about the Big Ten,'' said the Buckeyes' and league's leading scorer after his team's 87-44 win over Chicago State on Saturday. ``Every night is going to be a fight night and everybody is going to compete.''

It's time for Ohio State to open play in the rough, rugged - and talented - Big Ten.

The Buckeyes (10-2) host Nebraska (9-4) on Wednesday night. There will be little time to take a breath until they close the regular season with a home game on March 10 against Illinois.

It's also the dawn of a new segment of the season for the Cornhuskers and first-year coach Tim Miles. He inherits a team that went 4-14 in league play last season former coach Doc Sadler.

Ohio State, co-champs of the Big Ten last year, is a prohibitive favorite.

``We're the underdog, so we've got nothing to lose,'' Miles said. ``Let's go figure it out and try to win the game.''

Despite being a three-time defending Big Ten champion, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta takes nothing for granted.

``You're going into 18 straight games that are going to be brutal, there's no doubt about that,'' he said. ``We've (played) some pretty good basketball. There's still a lot of areas we have to clean up.''

The principal areas of concern are the post position and shooting.

Matta has juggled his only senior, Evan Ravenel, 6-foot-11 sophomore Amir Williams, who is limited offensively, and Trey McDonald, with very little experience.

Combined, they're averaging 12 points and 10.2 rebounds a game. Still, they have been erratic against a non-conference schedule that was weak except for the two losses - against No. 1 Duke and No. 6 Kansas.

Also, keep in mind that's a considerable drop-off from two-time All-American Jared Sullinger, who averaged 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds by himself last season before leaving early for the NBA.

More troubling is Ohio State's shooting woes. In their only losses (73-68 at Duke, 74-66 at home against Kansas), the Buckeyes shot 33 and 31 percent, respectively, from the field.

Thomas, who is averaging just under 20 points a game, can only do so much.

Aaron Craft, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year, has struggled with his shot. He and his teammates have put in extra time on shooting in practice. They're confident they've worked out the kinks and are ready for the rigors of the Big Ten.

``I really hope so. If not, we're in for a rude awakening,'' he said. ``Going 10-2 in non-conference, we've played some pretty good teams that have set us up to be competitive in the Big Ten. (We have the) understanding that every team is a great team and every team has the potential to win each game. We have to find a way to get better each and every day and understand that every game is vitally important and every game we need to bring it.''

Three times the Buckeyes will play back-to-back road games; only once will they have two home games in a row. In a fortunate turn, they'll play second-tier teams Purdue and Penn State only on the road, and get toughies Minnesota and Wisconsin just at home.

Everybody's steeling for what's ahead. This could be a vintage year for the conference - ranked No. 1 in the RPI - with four teams currently in the Associated Press' top nine and six among the top 18.

``We just need to put together 40 minutes,'' Nebraska big man Brandon Ubel said. ``We've done that this season. We get up 10 (points) or down 10, but the game's not over. You just kind of have to have that mentality.''

Matta is looking forward to getting going against the rest of the conference. But he also knows that it's no time for mediocre play. Bad teams can be revealed quickly.

``It's exciting,'' he said. ``But you're also, like, `Strap it on. Here we go.'''

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Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter:http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap

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Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Brought up to replace the injured Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek's first taste of NHL hockey will come inside the bubble in Toronto. Not exactly the best of circumstances. 

But Vanecek plays an important role on a Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Should Braden Holtby struggle or get hurt during the playoffs, Washington will need its young back-up goalie to keep their team afloat and let his talented skaters take it from there.

That's why NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, during an appearance with The Sports Junkies Tuesday, looks forward to seeing Vanecek play a little bit in the round-robin portion of the NHL restart. Ideally, though, it stops there.

"[Vanecek] probably will get one of these games, [the Capitals] said that from the start," May said. "But I hope he doesn't play once they get to the playoff rounds. I think it would be wise to play him in [round robin] games, it's not the end of the world what the seeding is in this. He's a good size goaltender, I think he's about 6'2, and with the training that he's had, he's worked on the fundamentals of his game, he's gotten his conditioning up. He looks very similar to Holtby in net, He's gotten a lot of good reps in American Hockey [League] just like Holtby did around the same age."

And what's the reason why no Caps fan should want to see Vanecek in the postseason? It's simple really. Because this team's best chance at another title revolves around Holtby being a steady and stifling presence between the pipes throughout the playoffs. 

RELATED: PHYSICALITY THE KEY FOR CAPITALS IN PLAYOFFS

"I think the big thing with this is you really don't want to see [Vanecek] in the net after the round robin," he said. "If they're going to win this thing, it's gonna have to be Braden Holtby getting 16 wins. To me, the most important thing is that Holtby plays in the playoffs, the guy's dynamite, no leaky goals out of him."

This could be Holtby's last playoff run with the Capitals as he enters a contract year. The Caps already committed long term money to Nicklas Backstrom this season, they have an Alex Ovechkin extension to worry about and the flat salary cap certainly won't do them any favors either. Not to mention the presence of Samsonov after a stellar rookie season. 

So if this is it, if this is Holtby's last dance in Washington, he at least looks ready to play his best hockey when it matters most.  

"He looks focused and dialed in, and he wants to make sure if he's going out and won't be a Capital anymore he wants to go home with a victory in his last game."

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With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

Positive reports about Alex Smith's early training camp performance came out over the weekend, and on a Tuesday morning Zoom call with the media, Ron Rivera echoed those reviews.

"He's looked good, he really has," the head coach said. "I'll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised to see how far along he is. It's been exciting to watch his progression."

According to Rivera, Smith has been working off to the side with Washington Football Team trainers at the Ashburn facility and is mirroring what Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen are doing, too. Coordinator Scott Turner and QBs coach Ken Zampese are apparently involving Smith as much as they can, and Smith is looking "very fluid" so far.

"It's a tribute to who he is, it's a tribute to his trainers and his doctors who have helped him get where he is today," Rivera said.

That all, of course, is wildly encouraging. The fact that the 36-year-old is in a place where he can check off those boxes and do those activities is astounding. That can't be pointed out enough, either.

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Yet it's also fair to note just how different mimicking a starting signal caller and actually serving as the starting signal caller are. So, is there any real chance of Smith transitioning from that first phase to the second before the season? 

With what he's seen from the veteran so far, Rivera certainly believes there is.

"I can envision it," he said. "The big thing is if he can do the things that we need him to do, that he needs to do to help himself on the football field, he'll be part of the conversation most definitely. He did some really good things last week. He went through all four workout days, had no residual effect the next morning, which is always important because the next day usually tells.

"We'll see how he is this week and we'll go from there."

As Smith continues to rehab and try to make his way off PUP, the challenges are solely physical. Rivera is not worried at all about the veteran having to adjust to a new scheme or dealing with any other mental task; instead, the primary concern is ensuring that Smith can handle the contact that'll come if he makes it back into live action.

"I believe he already knows probably 75-percent of our playbook," Rivera said. "So for him, it's really just a matter of can he do the movements he needs to do? Can he protect himself when he's on the field?"

It feels like every time Smith is brought up, he's taken another step. The next one, however — going from the PUP list to the huddle — is particularly daunting.

But at this point, it's gotten pretty difficult to imagine anything being particularly daunting for Alex Smith. So don't be that floored if he makes it happen. Rivera clearly won't be. 

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