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Fate in its hands, Rutgers eyes a Big East crown

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Fate in its hands, Rutgers eyes a Big East crown

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) With three weeks left in the season, Rutgers is in the driver's seat in the Big East Conference.

The road is straight for first-year coach Kyle Flood and his program, one that has never won the league.

But if the Scarlet Knights (8-1, 4-0) win their final three games, they will capture the conference crown, a BCS bowl bid and complete a more than a decade-long revival that will see the birthplace of college football rise from a gridiron doormat to elite status.

The final steps won't be easy, though. Rutgers' schedule is back loaded with its three toughest opponents - Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1), Pittsburgh (5-5, 1-4) and No. 20 Louisville (9-1, 4-1), whose surprising 45-26 loss last week to Syracuse (5-5, 4-2) left the Scarlet Knights alone in first place.

``It's something that is always on our minds. Last year, we were one victory away from a Big East title, so we're not overwhelmed,'' cornerback Logan Ryan said. ``We've been there before with the pressure and we came up short. I think one thing we learned is that you have to come out to play every week.

``Keep chopping and you'll end up where you want to be.''

It starts this weekend in Cincinnati, a place that has never been very hospitable to the Scarlet Knights. They are 1-6-1 all-time there, with their only win coming in 1987.

Ironically, the last time Rutgers started 4-0 in the league was 2006. The fourth win was a nationally televised upset of then-No. 3 Louisville. The following week, the Scarlet Knights went to Nippert Stadium and were embarrassed by the Bearcats, 30-11. The title slipped away two weeks later when West Virginia beat the Ray Rice-led team in three overtimes.

While Pittsburgh isn't having the best of seasons, the Panthers recently took No. 3 Notre Dame to three overtimes before falling. And of course, it all could come down to the final weekend and Louisville, which has a bye this week.

Flood - given the job after Greg Schiano left in January for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL - isn't worried about his team losing focus staring at the big picture.

``I think when you are playing an opponent like we are this week, and again, I'll say it one more time - a team that has been able to call themselves the Big East champions three of the last four years - they have your attention right away,'' Flood said of Cincinnati, a program that went to BCS bowls in 2008 and 2009. ``There is nothing else on our mind this week other than trying to be 1-0 this week and executing our game plan against whatever game plan they show up with.''

There are a couple of other teams thinking the same way. Cincinnati and Louisville both have a chance at the title if Rutgers stumbles down the stretch, with Louisville having the inside track, having beaten the Bearcats.

Syracuse has an outside chance at the title, but it would have to finish tied for first with Louisville. For that to happen Rutgers would have to lose its final three games, Cincinnati would have to lose its last two after beating the Scarlet Knights this weekend, and Louisville would have to lose to Connecticut next weekend and beat Rutgers.

Louisville coach Charlie Strong isn't going to worry about what-ifs. He will sit back this week and watch Rutgers, knowing that the Cardinals will go the rest of the season without their leading rusher, Senorise Perry, because of a knee injury.

``I told them, `Guys, I know this. We go to Syracuse and we got our butt kicked in. Still though, you have to beat Rutgers to go win it.' So, your goal is still there,'' Strong said. ``Whatever is in front of us is still there. It's all about taking care of Connecticut. Let's not worry about Rutgers.''

For those who haven't seen them, the Scarlet Knights are reminiscent of the Virginia Tech Big East teams of the late 1990s. They are a fast, aggressive defense that is outstanding against the run and very opportunistic in getting their hands on opponent miscues.

Rutgers ranks in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense (fifth, 13.4 points per game), total defense (14th, 309.4 yards, pass efficiency defense (17th, 109.9 yards), rushing defense (17th, 110.0 yards) and pass defense (25th, 199.4 yards).

The special teams are among the best in the country, and have been for years. They have blocked a nation-best eight kicks this year - including two field goal attempts by Army last weekend- and 31 kicks since 2009, which also is best in the country.

The offense is the question mark despite the presence of running back Jawan Jamison (105.9 yards per game) and receiver Brandon Coleman, who has a league-high eight touchdown catches.

Sophomore quarterback Gary Nova has thrown 18 touchdowns but also has tossed eight of his 10 interceptions over the past three games, including a few that were just bad decisions. Against Army, it seemed that the offensive game plan was overly conservative to avoid mistakes and allow the defense to carry the team.

It remains to be seen if that will work in the final three games.

``We've been underdogs all year,'' said linebacker Khaseem Greene, the league's co-defensive player of the year in 2011. ``Everybody expects us to lose or wants us to lose. We're going to be the same Rutgers team that was the underdog when we went down to Arkansas or when we played all these other teams. I love the underdog role.''

All that said, the critics this year have at least a little to go on. Rutgers, after all, has played just one FBS team with a record over .500 - Kent State of the Mid-American Conference - and lost to the Golden Flashes, 35-23, on homecoming in Piscataway. Last week, Rutgers was tied 7-7 with Army (2-8) in the fourth quarter.

But Nova isn't worried. He's got a job to do, and skeptics aside, he knows Flood is in his corner as the Scarlet Knights seek out history.

``He told me that no matter what happens this year, I'm going to be his guy and I'm going to be his guy for the next three years,'' Nova said. ``Having that out of your mind in the game is just huge and takes a lot of weight off my shoulders.''

If there is an intangible for Rutgers down the stretch, it might be Flood. He is a player's coach that has carried on the culture and brand of Rutgers Football that Schiano cultivated.

``People may not believe us, but we believe we can win every game on our schedule,'' Ryan said. ``Coach Flood believes in us. Coach Flood is not afraid to talk about winning a championship. That's what we're trained for, so we're not afraid to go out there and say we expect to win the Big East Championship.''

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That time new Wizard Troy Brown dunked on No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley

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That time new Wizard Troy Brown dunked on No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley

Back in high school, the newest Washington Wizard Troy Brown was an athletic freak. So much so that Brown dunked over the No. 2 pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, Marvin Bagley III.

Playing at Centennial High School from Las Vegas, Nevada, the 15th overall pick went straight at the dominating 6-11 Bagley and posterized the man.

Now from the other side: 

Although both were merely kids at the time (an each a few inches shorter), still you cannot question the confidence and athleticism of the Wizards' top pick. 

Heck, Brown is still athletic.

Now Oregon never got the chance to play Duke this past season, but Brown will get two chances for another poster on his wall with Bagley now on the Sacramento Kings. 

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Now the Islanders' coach, Barry Trotz explains why he left the Capitals

Now the Islanders' coach, Barry Trotz explains why he left the Capitals

DALLAS — Hours after being named head coach of the New York Islanders on Thursday, Barry Trotz made his first public comments since stepping down in Washington earlier in the week.

And, from the sounds of it, his departure was mostly a business decision.

“Yeah, obviously, I love the D.C. area,” he told reporters on a conference call. “But when it came to the business aspect, from my standpoint, I felt that it wasn’t really sincere [given] what we did together. So I decided that it was better to just move on.”

“I thank the fans,” he added. “I’m glad we could get it done. I said we could get it done in four years, and we did.”

Although the value of his contract with the Islanders has not been publicly disclosed, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman reported that Trotz is set to earn “at least $4 million” per year—or more than twice what he was earning in Washington.

A source told NBC Sports Washington earlier this week that Trotz, who directed the Caps to their first Stanley Cup two weeks ago, sought $5 million per season for five seasons. The five-year term, that source said, was a non-starter as far as the Caps were concerned, given the relatively short shelf life of NHL coaches and the fact that Trotz had already been in Washington for four seasons.

When it became clear that the sides weren’t going to close the considerable gap between their positions, Trotz offered to step down and the resignation was accepted, making the 55-year-old a free agent.

When “I got the [counteroffer], I guess I knew it was time to go in a different direction,” he said.

In New York, Trotz replaces Doug Weight, who was fired earlier this month along with GM Garth Snow. Lou Lamoriello, a longtime NHL executive, took over for Snow and immediately started a search for a new head coach.

Once Trotz became available, it didn’t take Lamoriello to zero in on the NHL's fifth all-time winningest coach. The two met, exchanged ideas and quickly realized that they had found a good fit in one another. Trotz said he's already reached out to the Islanders' star captain, John Tavares, who could become the biggest prize on the free agent market on July 1. 

And, like that, Trotz now is the coach of a Metropolitan Division foe. The Caps and Isles will face off four times next season, beginning with a Nov. 26meeting in New York.

It’ll be weird, for sure. But professional sports is a business. And all sides involved in the Trotz saga were served a painful reminder of that this week.

Asked if he felt wanted in Washington, Trotz said: “Well, I’ll leave that up to the Caps to answer that. I think, absolutely. We just won a cup together and so I don't think that was an issue. I think it was more principle.”

In the end, Trotz wanted to be compensated like one of the top coaches in the game. And now he will, settling in behind big market coaches such as Toronto’s Mike Babcock ($6.25 million per year), Chicago’s Joel Quenneville ($6 million) and Montreal’s Claude Julien ($5 million).

“It’s good to be wanted,” he said. “It happened really quickly because you go from one emotion of winning the cup to the next emotion of leaving the team that you just won the Cup with, and you have to make some quick decisions. I know the timing of it—end of the season, the draft coming up, free agency [and] all that—there was some urgency on that. Both parties knew that, so we went to work at it and got it done.”

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