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Column: Badgers make best of a bad situation

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Column: Badgers make best of a bad situation

Loyalty being what it is these days in college football, you didn't know whether to be happy or sad to see Barry Alvarez back on the Wisconsin sideline seven years after he left coaching to become the Badgers' athletic director.

Wisconsin was one of two schools playing Tuesday - Northern Illinois was the other - whose head coach bailed out on the team between the end of the regular season and a bowl game. That's becoming such a regular occurrence, even when big-time BCS bowls like the Rose and Orange are involved, that it hardly qualifies as news. At least a half-dozen other teams found themselves in the same position during the current bowl season, and five more had to make do without one of their coordinators in the fold, which can be every bit as disruptive.

We even have a repeat offender this time around: Butch Jones, who left Cincinnati on Dec. 7 - a day after promising the athletic director he would return - to take the head-coaching job at Tennessee. He did the same thing to Central Michigan two years ago, and in both cases left the bowl mop-up work to assistant Steve Stripling, who followed Jones to Cincinnati and is already set to join his new staff at Tennessee. Nobody gets mad at shenanigans like that anymore, especially when the coach, like Jones, is an up-and-comer. There's too much money at stake now for either side to take it personally.

Even so, a few things made the Swap-O-Rama at Wisconsin more interesting than most. First off, running a Big 10 program used to be viewed as a destination job, but when Bret Bielema traded the Badgers for the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Southeastern Conference, it reinforced the perception that for any coach with serious championship ambitions, the SEC is the only place to be. Second, even though six of Bielema's assistants have already lined up jobs elsewhere next season, they all decided to work the Rose Bowl alongside Alvarez, which only seemed fair considering how well he treated every one of them in the past. And then there was Alvarez himself.

The Wisconsin seniors essentially ``drafted'' him after Bielema ditched them, and sweet as it was that he agreed to come out of retirement for this one game, his motives weren't entirely charitable. Alvarez makes $1 million a year as AD, and his deal includes a $118,000 bonus for coaching in the Rose and $50,000 more for winning it.

Even though Wisconsin lost 20-14, most still looked at the temporary measure as money well spent.

``I think it served as a unifying factor,'' junior linebacker Chris Borland said. ``Not that this team would ever experience any dissension, we've got a bunch of character guys. But to have Coach Alvarez come back ... I think it calmed guys' nerves. Initially, I think there was a little anxiety about the situation, at least from the younger guys, and to have Coach Alvarez step back and come back and coach, it brought everybody together.''

For his part, Alvarez said the seven years watching games from a booth upstairs hadn't dulled his competitive instincts, even though the loss snapped his personal 3-0 Rose Bowl streak. An interception by Stanford's Usua Amanam as Wisconsin was driving late also ensured the Badgers a third consecutive heartbreaking loss in Pasadena.

``You know what? Every game we had out here was very competitive,'' he said. ``We were fortunate to come out on top in my (previous) games. This game, the only thing that's different than the other teams that I coached is somehow we found a way to win, and we weren't fortunate enough to get a win today.''

Considering the way the regular season went in Madison, though, you could argue Wisconsin was playing the Rose Bowl with house money. The Badgers nearly lost star running back Montee Ball after he was attacked in August and suffered a concussion, only one reason they had trouble scoring points. They lost three games in overtime and two others by a total of three points, then wound up with the conference's Rose Bowl slot because the two teams ahead of them - Ohio State and Penn State - were ineligible for postseason play.

As an added bonus, Gary Andersen, the former Utah State coach Alvarez hired to replace Bielema, had the chance to watch the bowl practices with some of his incoming staff and was on the sideline Tuesday night to observe the players he'll inherit go through the ringer in a big game.

``The advantages are they had a chance to evaluate the players and have an idea in their minds when they get here, what they have and what they have to recruit, the strengths and weaknesses of the team,'' Alvarez said. ``As I told the team, we have a very good nucleus coming back next year, a lot of juniors, and they have a chance to be an outstanding squad again next year.''

By then, Alvarez, who turned 66 a few days ago, will be back in his office and probably glad of it. So credit him with making the best of a bad situation. But if you watched Alvarez come out of the tunnel at the start of the game, taking two quick steps before veering sharply left to get out of the way of his onrushing players, you know he hardly needed reminding that coaching is a young man's game.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

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Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

The pre-draft workout process can be an exhausting journey for players, with so many flights, hotel rooms and NBA arenas that they can all blend in together. Michigan big man Moritz Wagner, though, may have felt a sense of comfort in Washington for his pre-draft workout for the Wizards on Wednesday.

It was just over a year ago that his Michigan Wolverines cut down the nets at Capital One Arena as champions of the Big Ten conference.

"It was good memories, man. Never gets old," he said while glancing around the stadium.

Wagner, 21, will be seeing a lot more of Capital One Arena once he joins the NBA ranks and it is conceivable he ends up in Washington. They hold the 15th pick in the first round and the 44th pick in the second round and Wagner could be within their reach.

Wagner had an impressive workout in Washington and could provide what the Wizards need. He is a big, mobile and can spread the floor. Wagner was terrific at stepping out to hit threes off pick-and-rolls at Michigan and that ability would work well with Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall.

Wagner measured in at just under 7-feet at this month's NBA Combine, fifth-tallest among those who attended. He averaged 14.6 points as a junior this past season and made 39.4 percent of his threes on 4.1 attempts per game.

With three years of college experience and an NBA-ready jumper, Wagner believes he can step right in and help the Wizards.

"I think what we did at Michigan, sharing the ball and playing as a team, very organized basketball, that can help big-time," he said. "It's basically pro basketball I was playing on a different level."

As Wagner will tell you, he is very confident in his abilities. He is comfortable in his own skin and that includes openly discussing his faults. He feels good about his ability to score at the next level. Defense is where he needs to prove himself.

Despite his size, Wagner wasn't much of a rim protector in college. He averaged just a half-block a game as a junior. The Wizards need rim protection badly and he likely would not provide that.

Wagner, though, believes he can bring more to the table defensively than the numbers would suggest.

"I think I've been an offensive guy all of my life, but the more that you mature as a player, you understand that both sides are important. Without defense, you aren't going to play at any level," he said.

"I think the most important thing that I wasn't able to show in college is that I'm able to switch the ball-screen, especially with the way the league is going. Switch on everything and stay in front of guards as a big guy."

Wagner is from Germany and looks up to Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki, who is entering his 21st season and will be in the Hall of Fame someday. Nowitzki's game has always been built around shooting and, though he developed into a decent shot-blocker in his prime, was never an elite rim protector.

Wagner hopes to follow in his footsteps playing a similar style.

"He was my MJ. He kind of shows you 'okay, this is possible and this is doable.' It's just basketball," Wagner said. "It gives you a lot of hope. It gives you a lot of belief and motivation."

Hear more from Wagner in his one-on-one interview with Chris Miller in our latest Wizards Tipoff podcast. His interview can also be found in the video above:

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Believe it or not, this isn't the first D.C. vs. Vegas postseason matchup

Believe it or not, this isn't the first D.C. vs. Vegas postseason matchup

In what is perhaps the most unexpected Stanley Cup Final pairing in recent memory, the Washington Capitals and the Las Vegas Golden Knights are going to make history this year.

Either it is going to be the first expansion team to win a title in their first season, or it will be a team looking to end a 27-year title drought for one of the biggest cities in the United States.

But what it will not be is the first D.C. vs. Vegas postseason matchup.

Going even farther back than the Capitals last Stanley Cup appearance (1998), the Georgetown Hoyas and UNLV Rebels met in the 1991 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Sin City took the first, and up until now, the only postseason bout between these two cities. The Larry Johnson-led University of Las Vegas squad powered right past the Hoyas in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

[D.C. sports and Second Rounds, I know right?]

Coming fresh off the NCAA title in 1990, UNLV waltzed right to the Final Four before meeting their demise against Duke. It also ended up being the last game for Dikembe Mutombo in a Georgetown uniform.

While in all likely-hood this will not be the final game/ series for Alex Ovechkin rocking the red, it may be his last and only chance for him to play this far into a postseason.

In the past two seasons, Vegas has gone from zero professional teams to having a Stanley Cup contender, a WNBA franchise, and lined up to take over the Oakland Raiders in 2020. 

Now time for the Golden Knights' Cinderella story to come up a little bit short. 

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