Creighton and Wichita State ready for MVC tussle

Creighton and Wichita State ready for MVC tussle

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) Wichita State's Carl Hall remembers vividly when Creighton visited the Roundhouse last season. The two Missouri Valley Conference heavyweights went toe-to-toe for 40 minutes before the Bluejays pulled away late for the win.

He also remembers what happened when the Shockers traveled to Omaha, Neb.

They kept the Bluejays' Doug McDermott in check, and their best performance of the season in an 89-68 rout helped them wrap up the regular-season conference championship.

It was clear that the Bluejays and Shockers were the class of the Valley - they were the only two teams with winning league records. And that appears to be the case again, with Creighton perfect through six games and the Shockers just a game behind in the standings.

Their burgeoning rivalry will be renewed Saturday afternoon in Wichita, and Hall - the senior forward of few words - got straight to the point.

``It's a big-time game,'' he said.

In what should certainly be a big-time atmosphere.

Charles Koch Arena, affectionately known around these parts as the Roundhouse, is expected to be sold out. The students will be back on campus, and they'll turn their attention toward one of the nation's mid-major darlings and the biggest reason they tick.

McDermott, a first-team All-American last season, is averaging 24 points and 7.4 rebounds for Creighton (17-1, 6-0). The son of coach Greg McDermott scored a season-best 39 points in a recent win over Missouri State, and is coming off a 31-point outburst against Northern Iowa.

``Northern Iowa was a little rough start, but I think I kind of settled in and started getting easier shots, so I think my confidence is at an all-time high,'' McDermott said. ``Things are just rolling, so hopefully it will continue.''

Things seem to be rolling for his entire team.

The Bluejays already have nonconference wins over the likes of Wisconsin, Arizona State and Nebraska, and their lone loss to Boise State suddenly doesn't look so bad given the way the Broncos have been playing. And since that defeat on Nov. 28, the Bluejays have won 11 straight to knock on the door of the top 10.

Only once during their winning streak have they even been tested, a 79-72 win at Illinois State. Otherwise, they've won every game by double figures.

``We don't often get teams that are ranked that high to Koch Arena, so it's a special opportunity for us,'' Wichita State coach Greg Marshall said before practice Friday.

``They were picked No. 1 (in the Valley) for a reason,'' he said. ``They have so many pieces and weapons, and they've improved from last year, and they're undefeated and in first place and we're a game behind them, so a loss would mean separation and make it harder for us to catch up.''

The lone loss for the Shockers (16-2, 5-1) happened Sunday at Evansville, and knocked them out of the national rankings. But it also came with Hall, their second-leading scorer and top rebounder, out for the seventh consecutive game with a broken thumb.

Hall returned for Tuesday night's win over Illinois State, and even though he's still trying to get into game shape, he'll be on the court against the Bluejays.

``Having him back and having a 10th healthy, eligible player, it's like I grew an arm back,'' Marshall said with a smile. ``It's bizarre.''

Yes, the Shockers are still a bit thin thanks to a string of lousy luck.

Over a span of just a few days in December, Hall went down with his injury, versatile wing player Ron Baker sustained a stress fracture to his foot, and Evan Wessel, arguably the team's top 3-point shooter, broke the little finger on his shooting hand. Hall is already back, and Marshall is hopeful that Baker will be able to return sometime in February, but Wessel finally resorted to season-ending surgery on Thursday.

``In the seven games without those three, we went 6-1. We're one game short of perfection,'' Marshall said. ``Now if you watch us play, it was far from perfect basketball. It was grind-it-out, scratch-and-claw. But that's what I loved about it. They found a way to win.''

Finding a way to win against Creighton should prove more difficult.

The Bluejays can start 18-1 for the first time in school history with a victory, and win their seventh straight road game for the first time since 1962. They would also start 7-0 in the Valley for just the second time since rejoining the league in 1977.

But both coaches understand that nothing comes easy against each other in one of the nation's underappreciated rivalries. The teams have played 28 games decided by 12 points or less since the 1994-95 season, and neither coach expects Saturday to be any different.

``You want to try to beat the teams that are playing the best in your league, and Wichita had an outstanding year a year ago and were the league champions of the regular season,'' said the Bluejays' Greg McDermott. ``I think that makes it fun. These are the types of environments that players play for and what coaches coach for. This is what college basketball is all about.''

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A Capital doesn't win Hardest Shot at NHL Skills for the first time in 3 years

A Capital doesn't win Hardest Shot at NHL Skills for the first time in 3 years

ST. LOUIS -- John Carlson did a valiant job trying to defend his title for the hardest shot, but Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber took home the prize with a blistering 106.5 MPH shot at the NHL Skills on Friday.

Alex Ovechkin won the Hardest Shot in 2018 and Carlson won it in 2019. He looked to be in good position to win it again after taking the lead with only one shooter left to go.

As Carlson skated up for his turn, the number to beat was 102.4 from Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson. Carlson shattered that with a shot of 104.5, beating his own winning shot from last year of 102.8.

The only problem? Weber was the last shooter.

"With Webs going behind him you kind of just expect him to go put up some big numbers," T.J. Oshie said. "But when John put up 104.5, you thought maybe there was a chance, but obviously Shea stepped up and took care of business."

Weber had Carlson beat on his very first shot. Weber smashed the puck for 105.9 MPH on his first attempt. As he was the last shooter, he had already won, but took his second shot anyway and beat his own mark, finishing with a 106.5 MPH shot.

While the Caps had won the event in each of the past two seasons, Weber had won it three straight times before Ovechkin took the title in 2018.

Even when Carlson took the lead, he still did not believe he would win knowing Weber still had to go.

"I think I knew all along we were all just a part of the show," Carlson said.

Braden Holtby also fell short in his attempt to win the Save Streak event. Frederik Anderson had the number to beat of seven when Holtby went between the pipes. He faced shooters from the Atlantic Division and made a run at seven when he stopped David Pastrnak’s shot. A goalie's round could not end on a save. As the captain, Pastrnak was the last shooter unless Holtby saved his shot. When Holtby stopped Pastrnak, that meant he would continue facing shots until he was beaten. With two straight saves, Holtby denied Shea Weber and Brady Tkachuk to get his streak up to five saves before he was finally beaten by Jack Eichel.

"I was just hoping Shea Weber wouldn't come down and take a slap shot on me,” Holtby told the NBCSN broadcast.

St. Louis Blues Jordan Binnington ended up winning the event, much to the delight of the home crowd. Andrei Vasilevskiy raised the save streak up to nine with Binnington as the last goalie to go. In dramatic fashion, Binnington went on to deny 10 straight shots to take the win.

Other highlights of the All-Star Skills:

Ryan O’Reilly’s football helmet

Next week is the Super Bowl Sunday and Ryan O’Reilly showed who he is cheering for in warmups as he came onto the ice wearing a Kansas City Chiefs' helmet.

Connor McDavid is not the fastest skater?

We all know who the fastest skater in the NHL is. It’s Connor McDavid. You might as well just declare the race over, right?

Not so fast. (See what I did there?)

Stunningly, McDavid did not win the event and was edged out by New York Islanders forward Mathew Barzal who completed the event in 13.175 seconds, just 0.03 seconds away from the record.

The Justin Bieber mask

San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl decided to have some fun during the save streak. Before his shot attempt on Binnington, he busted out a Justin Bieber mask and put it on before shooting.

No, he did not score. Yes, the mask was terrifying.

The women’s 3-on-3 game was awesome

If there is one complaint about the All-Star Skills and All-Star Game, is that it is not competitive enough. Players have fun with it, as they should, but they aren’t exactly going 100-percent like they would in an actual game. That was certainly not the case for the 3-on-3 women’s game between Canada and USA.

The women’s teams put on a great display of skill in what was an incredibly fun game to watch. Canada took a 1-0 lead in the first period off a goal from Rebecca Johnston. Melodie Daoust made it 2-0 in the second period and Hilary Knight finally put USA on the board putting them to within one.

But really it was the goalies who stole the show. With plenty of room to work, there were a number of breakaways and odd-man rushes. Both Alex Cavallini for the USA and Ann-Renee Desbiens for Canada were strong in net to keep it a three-goal game.

"It was pretty impressive," Oshie said. "The goalies stood on their head, but the girls were making some awesome plays, some great moves. It's always fun cheering on the Americans."

Desbiens had a drop the mic moment with a glove save just as time expired to maintain the 2-1 win for Canada.

Shooting Stars

You have to credit the NHL for trying. One of the new events featured players on a raised platform in the crowd shooting at targets on the ice. It was...different. The biggest issue with it was that the players could not hit most of the targets and the one that seemed the easiest to get was worth the most points. This one will need some tweaking if they want to bring it back again next year.

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Ryan Zimmerman’s return to the Nationals is finally happening

Ryan Zimmerman’s return to the Nationals is finally happening

If Ryan Zimmerman did not return to the Nationals, he at least would have a future teaching how not to negotiate.

Zimmerman openly drove down his bargaining leverage for almost a year before signing a one-year deal on Friday to return to the only professional team he’s known, a source confirmed. The deal is reported at $2 million.

Throughout the season, Zimmerman openly discussed his interest in returning and understanding it would be at a low rate. As if his stance wasn’t already clear, Zimmerman explained at a screening of the Nationals’ championship video he would return or play more golf.

“So, we’ll be good to go,” Zimmerman said.

It’s baseball for now. Zimmerman rejoins the defending World Series champions to play his 16th season. He’s a 35-year-old platoon player this season. Zimmerman’s money and legacy have been established. He’s back in the fold to pursue another title. 

And he makes an already old Nationals team older. Zimmerman turns 36 years old the day after the 2020 regular season ends. Howie Kendrick will be 37 years old by midseason. Asdrúbal Cabrera is 34 years old. Eric Thames is 33 years old. Will Harris is 35, Daniel Hudson 32, Sean Doolittle 33, Max Scherzer 35, Kurt Suzuki 36. Yan Gomes will be 33 just after the All-Star break. 

Zimmerman will share first base with Thames and, occasionally, Howie Kendrick. They provide an intriguing splits-based platoon. Thames hits right-handers well -- 23 of his 25 2019 home runs came against them, as did much of his opportunity in Milwaukee -- and Zimmerman has a .917 career OPS against left-handed pitchers. Zimmerman is the much better defender.

He’s back because he -- and the Nationals -- believe Zimmerman’s production remains directly tied to his health. His September and postseason work showed Zimmerman’s bat speed remains intact. He is quietly one of the better defensive first baseman in the league. They think they can protect him. Overall, the Nationals are so comfortable with an expanse of older players because they plan to shield them with limited usage. Also, Josh Donaldson went to Minnesota, clearing the cash and providing a need for Zimmerman. 

Kendrick, Cabrera and Starlin Castro can play various infield spots. Thames and Zimmerman will reduce the other’s role, as well as pinch-hit when not starting. Davey Martinez has options. He also has the challenge of rotating players. One thing on his side: older players know they are just that. Grousing about playing time should not be an issue with the group, the majority of which played as role players last year on the way to a World Series title. 

One other thing to note about Zimmerman: he’s 30 home runs short of 300. Can he get there with another two years on the field? He has at least one more to add to his total, assuring his driver has another lonely summer.

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