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Gophers look to prove themselves in Big Ten

Gophers look to prove themselves in Big Ten

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Golden Gophers have been here before.

They've steamrolled through cushy nonconference schedules to crack the AP Top 25 and raise some optimism for the season. Then the Big Ten comes along and roughs them up.

This year, they say they're different. Well, they're about to find out.

No. 11 Minnesota (12-1) hosts 19th-ranked Michigan State (11-2) in the Big Ten opener Monday, with a chance to set a new tone. The Gophers have had just two winning records in conference play in the last 15 years. In the previous two seasons, they've gone 23-2 in nonconference play and 12-24 against the heavyweights in their conference.

And they know it.

``We've definitely got a lot to prove,'' senior forward Rodney Williams said. ``We finished, what, 6-12 the last two years? We want to come into the Big Ten season and start off the right way. Usually we come out with a loss in the first game, and that hasn't ended too well for us in the Big Ten season. So we want to come out and get this `W' right away and see what happens.''

With Trevor Mbakwe healthy, Andre Hollins emerging as a top-flight point guard and more depth than Tubby Smith has ever had at Minnesota, the Gophers head into the Big Ten opener brimming with confidence. They have the highest ranking since they went to the Final Four in 1996-97 and have a nice mix of athleticism on the perimeter and muscle in the paint to stand up to the rugged schedule that awaits.

Smith has ridden players hard in his first five seasons since coming to Minnesota from Kentucky, a demanding approach that hasn't always sat well with some of the Gophers. But in his sixth season, he appears to finally have the mix of tenacious defenders and mentally tough veterans that he's been looking for.

``This group has really made it a lot of fun coming to practice,'' Smith said. ``They're sort of coaching themselves, and that's what good teams do. It's kind of like in the classroom when the teacher shows up and people are so excited about learning and being around one another. It makes it easier to teach and coach.''

Mbakwe hasn't played in a Big Ten game in nearly two years while he's worked his way back from a torn ACL in his right knee. He came off the bench for the first 12 games but was re-inserted into the starting lineup against Lafayette last week, and he said he's getting close to being all the way back.

``I'm excited about going up against another top-20 team, especially one that's coached by coach (Tom) Izzo, one of the best coaches in America,'' Mbakwe said. ``We're excited. It's a New Year's game. It's a chance for us to really set the tone and send a statement out that we're serious this year. And we're all up for the challenge.''

This season could be the most challenging in the Big Ten in years. Six teams are ranked in the top 20, including three ahead of the Gophers.

``We start the Big Ten season off against Michigan State, probably one of the most physical teams in the country. You're playing against better competition, and we'll definitely have to limit our turnovers and stuff like that,'' Mbakwe said. ``We can't beat ourselves. The level of intensity picks up, and we're excited for the challenge.''

The Gophers are 1-4 in Big Ten openers under Smith and have lost four straight to the Spartans, who have shown a knack in the past of deflating Minnesota's balloon just when things started looking up. So in some ways, the schedule couldn't unfold any better for the Gophers.

They get a team that has owned them on their floor on the last day of 2012. If this season is going to be different, this game will go a long way toward showing it.

``We can definitely contend for a Big Ten title, and we know that,'' Williams said. ``We've just got to come out and prove that to everybody else.''

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AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this story.

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

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It's early, but John Carlson is easily living up to his new contract

It's early, but John Carlson is easily living up to his new contract

Whenever a player has a career year in the last year of his contract, there is always some trepidation the next season. Was he really worth all those years or all that money that come with his new deal or did he just cash in on one great season?

John Carlson got the big contract and now is silencing all the doubters with his outstanding play.

Carlson scored his fifth goal of the season Monday as he chipped in a great feed from Jakub Vrana past Vancouver Canucks goalie Anders Nilsson (see above).

He later assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov's goal in the second period giving him his fifth multi-point game of the year.

On the final year of his deal in 2017-18, Carlson was brilliant with 15 goals, 53 assists and 68 points, all of which were career highs.

It’s rare to see a bonafide No. 1 defenseman hit the open market, meaning there would have been plenty of teams lining up to pay him the big bucks. The Caps never let it get that far and they re-signed Carlson to an eight-year deal worth $64 million before free agency opened. His $8 million cap hit ties him for second among all defensemen.

That’s a whole lot of money to spend on a player whose previous career high was 55 points. Carlson would not have been the first player to regress in the first year after signing a big deal and he certainly would not be the last.

For now, however, he looks like he is worth every penny.

Carlson’s 68 points last season led all defensemen and he looks like he’s on pace to shatter those numbers. His goal Monday was his 11th point on the season. It took him 15 goals to reach that mark last season and 43 games to reach five goals.

Despite a career year, Carlson was not invited to the All-Star Game, he was not a finalist for the Norris Trophy and he was not named a first or second-team All-Star at season’s end. At his current rate of play, however, he will be impossible to ignore. 

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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nats have a clear need at catcher​​​​​​​

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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nats have a clear need at catcher​​​​​​​

One of the Nationals' biggest offseason needs is clearly at the catcher position, where they have no obvious starter under contract and no top prospect waiting in the wings.

Matt Wieters, Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino all saw time in the starting lineup in 2018, but all three failed to contribute in anything more than a few flashes. Severino started strong but was ineffective at the plate after the spring ended. Wieters finished the season strong but missed two months with an injury. Kieboom was good but never great.

Before we look ahead at the future of the position and whether the Nats will address their need with a trade or through free agency, let's look back at the 2018 season that was for Nationals backstops. 

2018 Nationals Position Review: Catchers

Matt Wieters

Age: 32
2018 salary: $10.5 million
2018 stats: .251/.315/.410, 76 G, 271 PA, 235 AB, 56 H, 24 R, 8 HR, 30 RBI, 8 2B, 0 3B, 30 BB, 45 SO, 86 OPS+, bWAR 0.6

Wieters was always a short-term fix for the Nationals catcher, but this year he didn't exactly provide the production needed to even serve that purpose. His numbers were a bit better than 2017, his first year in Washington, but Wieters battled injuries, missing two months from mid-May to mid-July with a hamstring strain. 

To Wieters' credit, he finished the season strong. From July 23 to his final game on Sept. 29, Wieters carried a .353 on-base percentage with a .763 OPS. His defense was a mixed bag, but he did rank 10th in MLB in caught stealing percentage (min. 40 GP).

Wieters is expected to be gone this winter and where he goes next will be interesting. He can probably still get another starting catcher job, but not for a good team. Meanwhile, the Nats will go out hoping to find someone much better and younger than Wieters to move forward with.
 

Spencer Kieboom

Age: 27
2018 salary: Pre-Arb Eligible
2018 stats: .232/.322/.320, 52 G, 143 PA, 125 AB, 29 H, 16 R, 2 HR, 13 RBI, 5 2B, 0 3B, 16 BB, 28 SO, 71 OPS+, bWAR 0.4

Kieboom got the call in May when Wieters went down and got his first extended stint in the majors. He made his debut in 2016, but had just one plate appearance before going back down and then staying in the minors for all of 2017.

Kieboom did a serviceable job considering the circumstances. His caught stealing percentage was fourth in the majors. And offensively, he had some moments. He had seven multi-hit games and had a few stretches where he drew walks in bunches. 

The question for Kieboom is whether he did enough to keep a roster spot next season. He's under team control until 2024, but clearly, the team will seek upgrades at his position. 
 

Pedro Severino

Age: 25

2018 salary: Pre-Arb Eligible

2018 stats: .168/.254/.247, 70 G, 213 PA, 190 AB, 32 H, 14 R, 2 HR, 15 RBI, 9 2B, 0 3B, 1 SB, 18 BB, 47 SO, 34 OPS+, bWAR -1.1

Severino had played for the Nats in brief stints each of the past three seasons, but like Kieboom he got his first real run in the major leagues this season. He began the year as the backup catcher but was optioned down when Wieters returned in July because Kieboom essentially took his job. Severino then returned in September when rosters expanded.

Severino continued to show flashes this season with his defense and speed on the basepaths relative to his position. But he just didn't get it done at the plate. He couldn't hit for average or power and he doesn't get on-base consistently enough.

Since Kieboom passed him on the depth chart, and given the Nats are likely to add talent at catcher, it's unlikely Severino will enter next season as anything more than Triple-A depth.

 

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