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Dabo Swinney: Clemson closing in on elite

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Dabo Swinney: Clemson closing in on elite

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson had a landmark season and Tigers coach Dabo Swinney feels his team has closed the gap on the game's elite programs - and that they could go even further next season.

The Tigers (11-2), ranked 11th in the final poll, finished with their most victories since going 12-0 and winning the national championship in 1981. Swinney said Friday his players took a giant step forward with their last-second, 25-24 win over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.

Now that they have, Swinney believes Clemson ranks alongside the game's very best.

``It just does a lot for our football team knowing we don't take a back seat to anybody,'' the fifth-year coach said. ``We can play and compete with anybody in the country.''

That attitude already has expectations soaring around campus. Swinney laid the groundwork moments after Chandler Catanzaro's 37-yard field goal as time expired gave the Tigers their first bowl win in three years, demonstrating to a national audience that his has national title potential.

Swinney said he'll have just 10 seniors next fall, meaning the bulk of a program that's gone 21-6 the past two seasons will be coming into its prime.

``With that comes an expectation. With that comes a belief,'' Swinney said. ``They understand the commitment that it takes. Those are positive things. That's the kind of culture you want to have.

``They're not hoping to win, they expect to win.''

Not that it will come easy.

On Thursday, Clemson's record-setting receiver DeAndre Hopkins gave up his senior season for the NFL draft. Hopkins had a school-record 1,405 yards on 82 receptions including an Atlantic Coast Conference record 18 touchdown catches.

Swinney thought Hopkins, who received a second-round grade from NFL draft advisors, could've used another year in college to develop. Still, he said he supported Hopkins' choice to leave.

``I think it's going to be tough'' for Hopkins to crack the first round of April's draft, Swinney said.

Coming back are two pieces some might not have expected in offensive coordinator Chad Morris and junior quarterback Tajh Boyd. Morris was linked to several head coaching openings and was interviewed by Texas Tech before AD Kirby Hocutt selected Kliff Kingsbury. Morris, the highest paid assistant in the game at $1.3 million last season, said he was happy to return to the Tigers.

Boyd, the ACC's player of the year, has thrown for 7,724 yards and 69 touchdowns the past two years and was leaning toward turning pro after the LSU victory. However, Boyd said he wasn't ready to leave with Clemson on the verge of even bigger things.

``There are things for us to go out there and accomplish,'' Boyd said.

That began, Swinney said, with a team meeting on Thursday. The typically ecstatic Swinney told his players the book was closed on 2012 and its achievements as everyone prepared to buckle down for next year.

Swinney expects another high-flying offense despite the departure of Hopkins and senior tailback Andre Ellington, who posted his second 1,000-yard season this past fall.

Sammy Watkins, an All-American as a freshman in 2010, will lead the receiving corps with backups like Charone Peake and redshirted freshman Genome Hopper looking for more playing time.

Clemson's backfield will feature Rod McDowell and D.J. Howard, who combined for 588 yards and seven touchdowns in backup roles.

The biggest questions will again come on defense, which struggled much of the season before having its best game against LSU. The Tigers, under first-year coordinator Brent Venables, allowed more than 396 yards and 24 points a game this year, although they forced eight three-and-outs against LSU in the bowl victory.

Two of Clemson's three biggest games next season - an expected top 10 season-opening matchup against Georgia and defending ACC champ Florida State - come at home where the Tigers have lost just once in 14 games the past two seasons.

Swinney likes what he sees down the road, yet understands there are plenty of hurdles to leap long before anyone can think championship.

``The big thing is are they going to have the same type of leadership and accountability,'' he said. ``I know what the 2012 team did. It's well documented. But that's got nothing to do with this team.''

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The goal that no one wanted: Alex Ovechkin gives up hat trick to set up T.J. Oshie

The goal that no one wanted: Alex Ovechkin gives up hat trick to set up T.J. Oshie

Alex Ovechkin had two goals, the puck on his stick and an empty-net yawning. The Caps held a 4-2 lead on Monday against the Vancouver Canucks late in the third period and the win looked all but secured. The only thing still up for grabs was the exclamation point empty-net goal.

Ovechkin took the puck in the defensive zone and weaved his way through the neutral zone. Once he hit center ice, there was only one player between him and the net. The hat trick looked all but certain…until he passed the puck away.

He easily could have taken the puck himself and fired it into the empty yet, but instead he chose to pass it off to T.J. Oshie on the wing.

Oshie delayed, but with the trailing Vancouver players skating into the passing lane, there was no way for Oshie to try to pass it back to Ovechkin and he very reluctantly shot the puck into the net.

When the players returned to the bench, the disappointment on Oshie’s face was clear to see. He wanted Ovechkin to get the hat trick, but Ovechkin wasn’t having it.

After the game, head coach Todd Reirden praised Ovechkin for his leadership.

“He could have easily got in the red and tried to score himself and it wasn’t even a thought,” Reirden said. “He passed right to Osh and Osh couldn’t go back to him and that’s the way it worked out. It doesn’t bother him one bit and I think that’s where you see a different player than maybe you saw three or four years ago that is not focused on individual stuff. He’s doing the right thing and he feels if you do the right thing for long enough, you’re going to get rewarded.

“We were benefactors of that last season with being able to win out at the end. He’s really got a lot of buy-in right now for doing the right thing. I think his leadership is really in the last probably year, year and a half has really gone to a new level.”
 
Reirden saw leadership on the play. Oshie saw disappointment.
 
Ovechkin offered his own explanation for giving up the shot as he said, “Save it for next time.”

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Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. show how they can change everything for Wizards in win over Blazers

Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. show how they can change everything for Wizards in win over Blazers

Most nights, with little variance, the Wizards know what they are going to get from John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. They are consistently what they are, both good and bad, and mostly good.

The same cannot always be said about Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. Both are capable of brilliance, it's just those moments come and go and sometimes with mysterious timing. Both players help the team more often than not, but can be unpredictable and enigmatic.

Monday night saw both Morris and Oubre at their best as the Wizards topped the Blazers 125-124 in overtime at the Moda Center. It was a worthy reminder of how much the two of them can change the outlook for the Wizards as a team on any given night.

Let's begin with Morris because this may have been the best game he's played with the Wizards since joining them in a Feb. 2016 trade. On both ends of the floor, he  was a force, but particularly on offense.

Morris erupted for 28 points in 25 minutes on 9-for-15 from the field and 6-for-10 from three. His six threes were a career-high. He also had 10 rebounds, a block and a steal.

It was the most efficient night in Morris' career and, by one measure, one of the most efficient in franchise history. His 28 points were the most by a Wizards or Bullets player in 25 minutes or less since A.J. English dropped 30 points in 23 minutes in 1990.

Morris' threes were well-timed. He hit two in the extra period, including one with 38.5 seconds remaining to put the Wizards up four. He also made one with 1:04 left in regulation and another right before that with 1:39 to go, both to give the Wizards a lead at the time. 

The clutch threes invoked memories of a game-winner Morris hit in the very same building two seasons ago. That also happened to be his best year with the Wizards.

Morris has improved his three-point shooting in recent years with a career-best 36.7 percent last season. When he's knocking them down, the Wizards can be uniquely good at spacing the floor, as Wall and especially Beal and Porter can be dangerous from three.

What Morris did against Portland was a major departure from a pair of uninspired games to begin the season. He had 21 points and 12 rebounds total in his first two games, both losses, as he failed to compensate for Dwight Howard's absence. On Monday, he stepped up and helped lead the Wizards to victory.

Like Morris, Oubre had been scuffling through two games. A different version of him showed up in Portland.

Oubre amassed only 17 points in his first two games and shot just 5-for-16 from the field and 1-for-7 from three. Against the Blazers, Oubre scored 22 points and shot 9-for-13 overall and 3-for-3 from long range.

Oubre added six rebounds, a block and a steal and a host of winning plays that didn't show up in traditional stats. He drew a loose ball foul on Mo Harkless early in the fourth quarter and took a charge on C.J. McCollum with under two minutes in overtime.

Oubre played pretty much exactly how head coach Scott Brooks often says he should. He ran the floor in transition and attacked the rim when the ball swung his way. He was more selective with his three-point attempts than usual. He wreaked havoc on defense with deflections, didn't gamble for steals and he hustled for rebounds. 

Monday night showed the perfect version of both Morris and Oubre. The Wizards need that to be the model for how they aspire to play every single night. If they do, this team's ceiling is significantly higher.

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