Nationals

Depth big reason for No. 18 K-State's success

Depth big reason for No. 18 K-State's success

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) Bruce Weber is willing to admit that he's not exactly pleased with the way Kansas State's Big 12 schedule worked out.

The double round-robin format means each team will play 18 games from the first week of January through the first week of March. To fit it all in, teams will only get one week during that stretch when they play just once - the closest thing to a bye that they'll get.

The 18th-ranked Wildcats had theirs after their very first game.

But if any team is built to deal with the rigors of conference life, it just may be Weber's bunch of veterans. Not only have most of them been through the grind a couple times, there are a lot of them: An astonishing 11 players average at least 11 minutes per game.

``That's a huge factor,'' said senior Rodney McGruder, who scored all but two of his 28 points in the second half of the Wildcats' win over then-No. 22 Oklahoma State on Saturday.

McGruder said one of the reasons for his late-game success was that the Cowboys had been worn down. Most of their starters had played at least 18 minutes in the first half - guard Markel Brown played 39 for the game - and foul trouble only served to compound their problem.

``Brown looked a little worn down at the end of the game, and we were subbing a little more,'' McGruder said. ``Guys were fresher. Depth is key. It's key to any successful team.''

Depth is one thing.

Quality depth is quite another.

The Wildcats (12-2, 1-0 Big 12) have six players averaging at least six points a game, and three more chip in at least four a game. They've had five different players lead them in scoring though 14 games, making them one of the most balanced teams in the Big 12, if not the country.

In their upset last month of then-No. 8 Florida, the Wildcats got 17 points in 39 minutes from Will Spradling. But they also had eight players get into the game for at least 17 minutes, and constant substituting helped fend off every move the Gators made down the stretch.

Kansas State followed the win with a brief winter break, and when the team reconvened after the holidays, guards Angel Rodriguez and Martavious Irving had come down with injuries.

The Wildcats were able to withstand losing two of their best ball-handlers and distributors because they could rely on others. Nino Williams and Omari Lawrence had break-out games in wins over UMKC and South Dakota.

``You don't beat Florida and not be very good,'' Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford. ``They're very well-coached, they have some veteran players. Everybody is back from last year except one player. They're very good. They're supposed to be very good.''

He saw that firsthand last Saturday night.

``You got to have some other guys,'' said Ford, who had been looking for some depth of his own early in the season. ``McGruder's not going to be able to win it every night by himself. You have to have other guys step up, and you have to give Kansas State credit for that.''

While the depth is a luxury, Weber said it also creates some problems.

For one thing, it's hard to find enough minutes to go around.

Post players Adrian Diaz and D.J. Johnson have had trouble getting onto the court, simply because of the big guys playing in front of them. Same goes for Johnson's fellow freshman, Michael Orris, who's only played 36 minutes all season because of the log-jam in front of him.

``Adrian and A.J. we need to get in the mix,'' Weber said. ``One of those guys should have redshirted, but they were playing so well early. It was tough to do. We need to get one of those guys involved, because you never know what could happen. We've had injuries already and it could happen again.''

Especially with the schedule the Wildcats face the next couple months.

It starts back up again on Saturday, when they visit Big 12 newcomer West Virginia. Then another game on the road against TCU before returning home to face Oklahoma.

All in the span of a week.

Good thing for the Wildcats that they're built for the grind.

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Kevin Long dissects Juan Soto’s World Series Game 1 home run off Gerrit Cole

Kevin Long dissects Juan Soto’s World Series Game 1 home run off Gerrit Cole

Before the Nationals faced off with the Houston Astros in the 2019 World Series, Washington’s hitting coach Kevin Long sat down with FOX Sports analyst Tom Verducci. Long told the veteran reporter that he guaranteed young phenom Juan Soto would hit a home run off a high fastball from Gerrit Cole.

It was considered a lofty prediction, as Cole was in the midst of a Cy Young-caliber year and had allowed just one earned run in 22.2 postseason innings thus far that October. But sure enough, four innings into the first game of the series, Soto did exactly that.

In his first at-bat, Soto looked overmatched and struck out on three pitches. He got his second look three innings later and must have learned something, because he took Cole’s 1-0 pitch—a fastball high and outside—and sent it 417 feet to the opposite field.

At the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event, Long spoke with NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas about what went into that prediction and why he felt compelled to make it.

“First and foremost, I do believe that Juan Soto is one of the best high fastball hitters in baseball,” Long said. “I’ve seen him numerous times take high fastballs and take care of business. Gerrit [Cole] doesn’t pitch in much, so I figured it was going to be out over the plate.

And the other factor there is, we weren’t getting much credit. They basically were cashing that game in as a loss. ‘We can’t beat Gerrit Cole. Gerrit Cole is too good. Gerrit Cole hasn’t lost since May.’ So I just said, ‘You know what? Let me just make a prediction, because I’m sick of hearing about how we’re not going to be able to do anything against this guy…and it ended up working out, it’s pretty cool.”

LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW ON THE NATIONALS TALK PODCAST BELOW

The Nationals entered the World Series facing the longest odds Las Vegas oddsmakers had given to an underdog since 2007, when the Boston Red Sox were heavy favorites over the Colorado Rockies. Given that Washington went on to stun the baseball world and win in seven games, it isn’t surprising that most national fans didn’t quite yet understand what kind of player Soto is when the series began.

“I’ve had numerous people come up to me and say, ‘That was one of the most impressive home runs I have ever, ever seen,’” Long said. “As a left-handed hitter, number one. A 97-mph fastball and how far he hit it was remarkable. It truly was.

“We were putting together pretty good at-bats off him in those big situations you just need one guy to come through and that was Juan Soto’s moment. He got the pitch, he didn’t miss it and I don’t know if Gerrit was admiring it—I’m sure he wasn’t—but he was probably like, ‘Wow, this kid is pretty special.’”

Now, Soto is entering the 2020 season as the undisputed top hitter in Washington after Anthony Rendon departed for the Los Angeles Angels in free agency. Long doesn’t want Soto to change his approach too much, but rather just focus on what got him to this position in the first place.

“He doesn’t have to do a whole lot extra, he’s just got to basically be the Juan Soto he’s been,” Long said. “His swing is really, really good. He makes adjustments really well. He’s smart. He gets it, and at 21 years old that’s what makes him certainly unique.”

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Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews help lead AFC to victory in Pro Bowl skills competition

Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews help lead AFC to victory in Pro Bowl skills competition

Lamar Jackson was excellent this season finding his receivers across the field en route to an MVP caliber season. 

As it turns out, he’s not so good at hitting targets that aren’t human. 

Jackson struggled in the precision passing event, an event with moving targets labeled from one to five points and scored just two total points on 17 throws. 

But Jackson’s poor performance in the first event didn’t hurt the AFC, as it won the 2020 Pro Bowl skills competition over the NFC.

“A lot of bad throws,” Jackson said of his performance in the first event. “A little wind with me. It’s all good.” 

As soon as the event aired, Jackson immediately took to Twitter.

The events that followed were: The Gauntlet, Best Hands, Thread The Needle and Dodgeball. 

Jackson and teammate Mark Andrews competed in the Best Hands and Thread The Needle competitions. 

The duo’s obvious chemistry resulted in the second-best time, 49.4 seconds, out of four total pairings. 

The next drill was another passing drill called ‘Thread The Needle,’ which Jackson fared better in. He scored 12 total points, tied for the second-best of four passers. The concept of the drill was to throw the ball past a defender guarding a wall with nine targets, each with a corresponding point total.

In the final event of the night, the AFC beat the NFC two games to zero in dodgeball — led by Jackson and Andrews’ division rival, Browns wideout Jarvis Landry.

Jackson didn’t start the night well, but thankfully for him, the next targets with numbers he’ll see will be actual receivers at the Pro Bowl on Sunday afternoon.

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