Nationals

Duke looks to end bowl drought vs. Cincinnati

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Duke looks to end bowl drought vs. Cincinnati

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Chances are when you think of Duke, you think of men's basketball.

Senior receiver Conner Vernon sees Thursday night's Belk Bowl against Cincinnati as a perfect opportunity to help the Blue Devils' football team emerge from coach Mike Krzyzewski's shadow.

This is Duke's first bowl game in 18 seasons, and the Blue Devils will be playing in the only nationally televised bowl of the night.

``Anybody who follows college football will be watching, so this is our chance in the national spotlight to take a big step forward with this program and let people know about us,'' said Vernon, the Atlantic Coast Conference's all-time career leader in receptions and yards receiving.

Duke (6-6) hasn't won a bowl game since 1961.

``Is there a lot of pressure on us? Absolutely,'' said quarterback Sean Renfree. ``But good players like added pressure, and they thrive on it.''

Coach David Cutcliffe called this game the next step in trying to build a winning tradition and raise the level of expectations of the players, similar to what his friend Krzyzewski has done on the hardwood.

``This is national exposure for us,'' Cutcliffe said. ``The NFL is not playing. We're it. We're the game. So people across the country who maybe heard a little bit about Duke football, if they see us play as well as we can play, I think they will be a little shocked. We have a lot of speed and a lot of skill. So this can have a huge impact for us.''

And Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils are on the verge of something special.

``I don't plan on not making a bowl again - and that's the mentality I want every player to have. ... When I talked to coach Krzyzewski, there is no question what the expectations of a Duke basketball player are,'' Cutcliffe said. ``And that's the opportunity we have - to create really big expectations.''

Duke faces a Cincinnati team in transition after the departure earlier this month of coach Butch Jones and both coordinators.

Jones left to take the job at Tennessee, so defensive line coach Steve Stripling will serve as interim head coach Thursday night. Incoming coach Tommy Tubberville will also be on hand to watch but won't have any input on game day.

Jones went 23-14 at Cincinnati the last three years.

The Bearcats (9-3) finished tied for the best record in the Big East Conference but are left with only five full-time coaches from Jones' staff to work the game. They'll have new coordinators calling the shots on both sides of the ball.

Stripling led Central Michigan to a 44-41 win over Troy in the 2010 GMAC Bowl before joining Jones' staff. Stripling, who'll call the plays on defense, said his biggest concern had been keeping his team focused through adversity.

He said the play calls won't change.

``What we've tried to do from the beginning, because this is such a different situation for them, is try to find some normalcy,'' Stripling said. ``You try to keep them in their comfort zone and keep them focused.''

Despite the changes, the Bearcats come in as 7-point favorites. That's largely because they have a high-powered offense that'll be facing a Blue Devils defense that collapsed down the stretch.

After a rare win over rival North Carolina to go 6-2, the Blue Devils lost their final four games to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami. During that stretch, Duke's defense surrendered a whopping 51 points and 294.5 yards rushing per game.

That should play into Cincinnati's hands.

Led by senior tailback George Winn, the Bearcats enter the game ranked 31st in the country in rushing. After serving as a backup for most of his career at Cincinnati, Winn has emerged as a leader on offense, running for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Cutcliffe said Winn reminds him of Cadillac Williams, a guy who can put the team on his back and carry 25 to 30 times per game.

``I've had a chance to carry this offense and step up and take on a big role,'' Winn said. ``I think that has meant a lot to this team, and that's meant a lot to this team which wasn't given a chance, at least offensively, do anything special this year.''

Duke will need its offense to be in high gear.

Renfree completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,760 yards with 18 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. His favorite targets are Vernon and Jamison Crowder, who combined for 145 receptions and 15 touchdowns. Desmond Scott also caught 60 passes.

Cincinnati features a bend-but-don't-break defense.

``We kept teams off the scoreboard, which is big,'' Stripling said. ``I think that's going to be the key.''

Stripling laughed when asked if he foresees a high-scoring affair.

``Well, I'm a defensive guy, so I don't think that way,'' he said. ``Ultimately I think this game will be about which defense steps up to the challenge.''

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Max Scherzer takes the next step toward returning to the mound for the Nationals

Max Scherzer takes the next step toward returning to the mound for the Nationals

BALTIMORE -- Max Scherzer emerged from the visitor's dugout about 3:20 p.m. Wednesday and walked to left field. A bullpen catcher, director of athletic training, Paul Lessard, and a couple of other watchful eyes went with him.

Scherzer progressively backed up while throwing in the outfield. By the end, he was roughly 90 feet from the catcher and throwing with clear effort.

The nightly news will not lead with the development. However, it's progress for Scherzer. Manager Davey Martinez said Scherzer came out of the session -- a little further apart, a little more intense than Tuesday's version -- feeling well. 

So, what's next? Thursday, Scherzer could throw a "light" bullpen session in Atlanta. that will determine if he pitches Sunday. Scherzer (mid-back strain) is first eligible to come off the 10-day injured list Saturday.

The Nationals have their rotation for the series against Atlanta otherwise set: Stephen Strasburg on Thursday, Patrick Corbin on Friday, and Anibal Sanchez on Saturday. If Scherzer can't pitch Sunday, Austin Voth would be on the turn. 

Washington entered play Wednesday night six games behind first-place Atlanta, which lost Wednesday afternoon to Milwaukee. The Braves lost two of three to the Brewers, dropping a series for the first time since time June 4-6. Washington can creep as close as 5 1/2 games back before the four-game series begins.

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Drew Gooden, Justin Kutcher to highlight NBC Sports Washington Wizards broadcast team

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Drew Gooden, Justin Kutcher to highlight NBC Sports Washington Wizards broadcast team

Drew Gooden was nearing the end of his second 10-day contract with the Wizards in the 2014 season when he went off for 21 points against Brooklyn. 

It was a game that changed his career, led to being signed to the team for the remainder of that season and ending his career as a Washington Wizard two years later. “My career was totally reborn as a veteran leader on the Washington Wizards,” he said. “And that’s something I never would have thought would come full circle.”

And now? Gooden will serve as the game analyst on NBC Sports Washington’s Wizards broadcast this season. NBC Sports Washington announced on Wednesday he will join new play-by-play announcer Justin Kutcher as part of the Wizards' game broadcast team. Chris Miller will return in his role as sideline reporter.

“It’s a dream and I never thought in a million years I would have retired a Wizard and that out of all my teams that I played for, that Wizards would be the favorite organization that I played for, never thought I would be a color analyst for NBC Sports Washington,” Gooden said. “All of this is a dream.”

And while Kutcher may not have the same playing resume that Gooden does, he promises to bring the same passion Gooden does to broadcasts.

During the early days of his career, Kutcher wasn’t just the voice of (and practice player for) the Boston University women’s basketball team. He was such a passionate fan that he was the one making the most noise on the team bus after a big win or a big loss. Now, after decades in the business, he’s not sure he’ll go to that extreme – but Wizards fans can expect him to be “a fan who’s calling the game,” he said. “I say that about myself all of the time. I think of myself as just this incredibly lucky person that gets to call a sport that I love. When I have a reaction, it’s a genuine reaction. So, I’ll keep everything professional, but I’ll get excited.”

Kutcher has 17 years of experience as a play-by-play announcer, having spent the last seven years at Fox Sports where he led national coverage of NCAA basketball and football, the NFL and MLB. Prior to FOX Sports, Kutcher served as a play-by-play announcer for ESPN for four years. During that time, he led live coverage for a variety of sports, including basketball, football, baseball, softball, volleyball and hockey, across professional, college and high school leagues and conferences. He also appeared on studio shows during his tenure with ESPN. In addition to FOX Sports and ESPN, he has also called collegiate events for CSTV, now CBS Sports Network, for two years, as well as BTN, and contributed to MLB.com digital programming.

“I have known Justin since he was a runner for us at FOX Sports,” said Joe Buck. “He’s gone from working hard behind the scenes to one of the best, young voices in sports. Wizards fans are getting a great broadcaster and a better person .”

Here’s five more fun facts about Kutcher and Gooden.

1.    Kutcher’s worked the past five Westminster Dog Shows. “I get more ticket requests for that than any other event I go to,” he said. But, at first he wasn’t sure he was going to stick with it. The first year, he said, was a little tough. “I called my dad after it airs and he said that it was my mom’s favorite thing that I’ve done.” But, he stuck with it. And now? “I love it,” he said. 
2.    His favorite thing in DC is … the breakfast at Ted’s Bulletin. “They have a breakfast burrito that I get, I eat two of them at a time and people can’t believe it,” he said. Oh, and also his family. His family in the area includes a 3-year-old nephew, who when asked for real estate recommendations in the area, declared “you can live at our house!”
3.    Meanwhile, you can find Gooden at his favorite crab shack. “Quarterdeck in Arlington is my favorite, favorite restaurant,” he said. In the two years he’s known about the crab spot, he’s eaten there, he estimates, “800” times. 
4.    Good news for Wizards fans: He thinks the Wizards will be a team everyone sleeps on – and that’s great for them. “They’re going to have the opportunity to surprise a lot of people early,” he predicted. 
5.    Kutcher expects Rui Hachimura to … “be one of the steals of the draft.” Kutcher covered the new Wizard as a play-by-play announcer during Hachimura’s college career. “I would not be surprised if you see Rui average 15-18 points per game and close to 8 rebounds per game. I think he’s that type of player, he’s a really good kid, when I saw the Wizards drafted him I said that’s a great, great pick,” he said.