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Kent State climbs back to football glory

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Kent State climbs back to football glory

KENT, Ohio (AP) Alabama coach Nick Saban is elated by a team that's bowl eligible, leads the nation in turnover margin, just knocked off a hated rival and has an entire campus buzzing.

No, not his top-ranked Crimson Tide.

Kent State has made him proud.

``It is my alma mater,'' said Saban, class of '73.

For the first time since Saban played safety on a Golden Flashes squad that included Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, Kent State (8-1) has climbed back onto college football's main stage. In its second year under coach Darrell Hazell, Kent State has won seven straight games and is knocking on the door of the AP's Top 25.

With a signature road win two weeks ago at Rutgers (ranked No. 15 at the time) and their longest winning streak in 72 years, the Golden Flashes have raised the school's profile, given the underrated Mid-American Conference something else to brag about and brought excitement to the quaint campus about 40 miles from Cleveland.

``It's crazy,'' senior defensive end Jake Dooley said. ``It's amazing what we came into and what we're leaving with. A lot of that is due to Coach Hazell. He has really turned the program around in a respectable way. Teachers now congratulate me when I come into classes. That's something that has never happened before. The environment around campus is totally different now than what it was. It's great.

``We have to keep it going.''

Hazell deserves much of the credit for Kent State's turnaround.

An assistant for seven years on Jim Tressel's staff at Ohio State, the confident Hazell inherited a program that had just six winning seasons since 1974 and hasn't been to a bowl since the 1972 Tangerine. The Golden Flashes started 1-6 last season, and just when a here-we-go-again attitude was beginning to take root, Kent State got hot.

Hazell, a New Jersey native, got his players to believe. He put an emphasis on the running game, and the Golden Flashes took off, winning four of their last five and played for bowl eligibility in the season finale. Five of Kent State's opponents last season went on to win their bowls, including Saban's national championship squad at Alabama.

``You could feel something change then,'' Hazell said, looking back to 2011. ``There was a quiet confidence in our locker room. Now, it's a lot louder. Guys are having fun. It's a lot louder in the stands, too. I wear double headsets, but I can see the passion from the fans. And you can just feel it, too. Fans are coming out of the woodwork and I love it.''

Before last Saturday's matchup with Akron, fans tailgated around Dix Stadium, where loud music echoed in the distance and fireworks exploded during player introductions, again after a go-ahead 30-yard touchdown run by speedy junior running back Dri Archer and following a 35-24 win over the despised Zips in the annual tussle for the Wagon Wheel trophy.

Slowly, fans are returning each Saturday to watch football at Kent State, which in recent years has produced NFL stars James Harrison, Antonio Gates and Josh Cribbs, but hasn't had many teams worth celebrating.

``I went to school here when Jack Lambert did and I've always kind of supported the football program ever since,'' Jim Mitchell of nearby Medina said while sitting in the stands. ``We have had so many coaches come in and promise to build a winner. Coach Hazell did it in two years. The team is winning, but it is the way it is winning, by playing exciting, up-tempo football. This is just great. I used to come to one or two games a year.

``I haven't missed a game since coach Hazell was hired.''

However, it took an Oct. 27 win at Rutgers - Kent State's first over a ranked opponent in 23 tries - to convince the Flashes' faithful that this team was for real.

Kent State rolled up 224 yards rushing on the nation's then-No. 3 ranked run defense and won 35-23, ruining Rutgers' homecoming but giving Hazell a nice return to where he spent three years as an assistant. The Golden Flashes intercepted six passes and forced seven turnovers, which has been a major component in their new-found success.

``Our team played extremely well in all phases at Rutgers,'' the 48-year-old Hazell said. ``We made some plays on both sides of the ball. It was a great win for our program. We have a good football team and we are starting to play with some discipline. We play extremely hard and prepare extremely hard. I am not surprised (at the turnaround), but we have stayed humble and have to keep working at it.''

The Golden Flashes have a tough stretch ahead. This week, they're at Miami of Ohio, which handed then-No. 23 Ohio its first loss earlier this season. On Nov. 17, Kent State travels to Bowling Green before wrapping up the regular season on the day after Thanksgiving at home against Ohio in a game that could decide the MAC East champion.

Then, Kent State gets to go bowling, something foreign to generations of fans.

``My husband said this year's team is bowl eligible,'' said Ann Bullington of Stow, Ohio. ``I didn't even know what that meant.''

Hazell knew a reversal at Kent State was possible. He had recruited in the football-crazed region and was certain finding talent wouldn't be hard.

All that was missing was belief.

``There were a lot of good players in the locker room when I got here,'' he said. ``We went about getting them to do things the right way, take pride in every game, every practice. I told them that they were winners, they just didn't quite know it yet.''

Now they do, and that makes Saban smile.

``I always kind of look and see what the Kent State score was, kind of follow them week to week,'' he said. ``It's really good to see that they're having a great year. It means something to me.''

---

Freelancer Chuck Murr in Kent, Ohio, and AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.

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Alex Ovechkin in the lineup shows just how important Wednesday vs. Toronto really is

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Alex Ovechkin in the lineup shows just how important Wednesday vs. Toronto really is

The Capitals have one last piece of business to tend to before the All-Star break. They head to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs Wednesday (7:30 p.m., NBCSN) in an absolute must-win for Washington.

Here’s what you need to watch.

Alex Ovechkin is in

Because Ovechkin decided not to participate in the All-Star Game, he has to serve a one-game suspension. The team had the option of Ovechkin missing the last game before the All-Star break or the first game back. Ovechkin was asked after the game Tuesday if he would be playing against the Leafs and he said yes. Head coach Todd Reirden confirmed that he would indeed be playing Wednesday. So, coming off a hat trick performance, Ovechkin will be back in the lineup Wednesday in Toronto.

The decision comes as no surprise. The Caps desperately need a win Wednesday or they will head into the All-Star break on a seven-game losing streak which will fester until the team finally returns to the ice after the bye week.

Ironically enough, the last time Ovechkin played in Toronto was on Nov. 25, 2017, the famous Alex Luey game in which Ovechkin also tallied a hat trick.

By playing Wednesday, Ovechkin will have to sit out the team’s first game back from the break on Feb. 1 against the Calgary Flames.

Who will play in net?

With the high stakes of this game, could we see Braden Holtby back between the pipes despite playing Tuesday? It’s possible.

Reirden said after Tuesday’s game that he had not yet reached a decision on which goalie would play in Toronto. On the one hand, this is a game the team really needs to win so it would make sense to play your top netminder especially before the prolonged All-Star break. On the other, Holtby has really struggled in his past two outings giving up four goals to Chicago on just 11 shots and seven goals to San Jose on 43 shots. Holtby’s break will also be shorter given that he will be participating in the All-Star festivities.

Pheonix Copley has been a dependable backup this season, but he certainly seems to be showing some cracks the last few games. He has given up 14 goals in his last three appearances, one of which was only half a game in Chicago.

It’s been a long time since Washington has lost seven straight

The last time the Caps lost seven straight games was in January 2014.

From Jan. 12 to Jan. 24, the Caps went 0-5-2 in Adam Oates’ second and last season behind the bench. That streak was particularly messy as Washington had three goalies on the roster -- Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and Michal Neuvirth -- and all three played during that stretch.

What should concern Caps fans the most is that not only was that the last time Washington lost seven straight, it was also the last time it missed the playoffs.

Toronto could really use this game too

For any optimists out there thinking maybe the Leafs will be looking ahead to the break and may just mentally take this game off, that’s not going to happen. Toronto needs this game about as much as the Caps do.

The Maple Leafs have lost four of their last five and seven of their last 10. Given what hockey means in Toronto, you can guess what the mood is like in that city. To say people are panicking would be grossly underselling it.

When the puck drops on Wednesday, two desperate hockey teams will be facing off.

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Bradley Beal doesn't care if he's named a 2019 NBA All-Star starter

Bradley Beal doesn't care if he's named a 2019 NBA All-Star starter

The 2019 NBA All-Star starters are set to be announced on Thursday and Wizards guard Bradley Beal is not optimistic he will be chosen. That is despite a growing number of supporters in the media, but Beal understands their votes only count for 25 percent of the equation.

Fan voting makes up 50 percent and NBA players the remaining 25 percent. With Beal in a distant 10th among Eastern Conference guards in the fan voting rounds that have been made public, he has set his expectations accordingly.

"I'm not going to be a starter so it doesn't matter," he quipped after Wizards practice on Wednesday. "I'm positive. Let's just be honest. Right? We all can be honest, right?"

Beal, who made his first All-Star team last season as a reserve, will almost certainly be an All-Star again this year one way or another. Coaches vote on reserves and those will be announced on Jan. 31.

But Beal has a solid case to be a starter despite his Wizards sitting at just 20-26 and outside of the playoff picture. He is posting career-highs in points (24.7), rebounds (5.0), assists (5.0), steals (1.3) and blocks (0.9). He has appeared in all 46 of the Wizards games this season while many of his teammates have been absent due to injury.

Boston's Kyrie Irving appears to be a lock for one of the two starting guard spots in the East. He has a strong case with his numbers, his team's success and has fared well in fan voting. But the second spot has no clear favorite.

Ben Simmons has played well for a good Sixers team. Victor Oladipo of the Pacers also has a case, though due to injuries his numbers have fallen off.

Kyle Lowry has helped the Raptors post one of the league's best records. Kemba Walker of the Hornets has had the best season of his career and plays for the hometown team with the game taking place in Charlotte.

There is also Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, a future Hall of Famer who might be a starter if it were based solely on fan voting. If he gets support from players or media votes, he could get in as a legacy pick given this is the final season of his legendary career.

Basically, Beal has a lot of competition. He gets it and insists he isn't losing sleep over the pending announcement.

"Even then I don't let it consume me. It's not like a goal of mine like 'oh, I've gotta be an All-Star.' If I am, it's great. It's even more motivation to continue to get better. Even if I'm not an All-Star, I'm not going to be mad or upset," he said.

Beal said his No. 1 goal is winning and mentioned how the Wizards remain six games under .500 despite reeling off seven of their last 10. Washington happens to be hosting the defending-champion Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, so he has plenty on his plate.

Beal will likely be an All-Star representing the Wizards in the Feb. 17 showcase. But it doesn't sound like he will be doing any of the other festivities.

Beal has participated in the three-point contest twice in his career and both times was a runner-up. He has not been invited yet to this year's contest and probably won't participate even if he is asked.

"I would probably take a break this year because it was definitely a lot last year, just all the off-court stuff," he said. "I'm not saying I won't do it for the rest of my career, but I don't think I'm doing it this year."

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