Nationals

Kentuckiana again focal point of college hoops

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Kentuckiana again focal point of college hoops

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) It's always been easy for basketball fans living in this part of the country to find a good game. There are 15 national championship banners hanging in three campus arenas within about two hours of each other.

They've been spoiled by Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky - all just a short ride along Interstate 64 or 65.

But never like this.

For the first time the Hoosiers, Cardinals and Wildcats start the season ranked 1-2-3 in the Top 25.

Welcome to Kentuckiana.

The corridor along the Ohio River is once again the focal point of college hoops - rekindling memories of its heyday back in the 1970s and 1980s. The last time Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky were ranked in the top five was 32 years ago. And it's been 37 years since they finished the 1975 season rounding out the top four behind UCLA.

All three schools reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in 1975. Kentucky ended Indiana's perfect season with a 92-90 victory to advance to the Final Four, along with Louisville. The Cardinals lost to UCLA in the semifinals and then the Bruins knocked off the Wildcats for the title.

That year was the highlight of Kentuckiana - until now.

``If you're a fan in this area, even if you don't like someone it doesn't get any better than what you have around here,'' said former Louisville coach Denny Crum, who led the Cardinals to titles in 1980 and `86.

``Fans here are treated to something very special because people are always talking about these three teams. Right here is the top college basketball in the country.''

The fans are some of the most passionate in the country. They are nearly as territorial about their favorite team as they are knowledgeable about the game. That's especially true about Big Blue Nation, the throng of Wildcat faithful whose sheer numbers seem to irritate their neighbors as much as their team's success.

Even across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Ind. - an area affectionately called the `sunny side of Louisville'' - where Kentuckiana thrives with plenty of Louisville red among the Hoosier crimson, and the blue of the Wildcats stands out.

That doesn't sit well with Indiana fan Ernest Brown, 63, though he's more tolerant of Cardinals fans than Wildcats fans.

``That burns me up,'' Brown said of the UK paraphernalia he sees. ``There are so many Kentucky fans, you wonder why they just don't move there. (But) when the (Cardinals) lose, yeah, they're down. They're not making 500 excuses. ... It's just a different kind of people on the same side of the river. I don't understand it.''

Still, beneath the fans' dislike for one another sits a mutual respect - albeit begrudgingly -for all three teams.

Kentucky rolled to its eighth NCAA title last year with tournament victories over Indiana and Louisville led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Wildcats and coach John Calipari have replaced that group with another talented rookie class that includes Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel. But Kentucky begins the season in the polls behind Indiana and Louisville, which return veteran rosters.

Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall says it all just adds to the excitement in Kentuckiana.

``It's great what Indiana has done with keeping their recruits and it's been good for Louisville,'' said Hall, who led the Wildcats to three Final Fours and the 1978 championship. ``But Cal is in a situation all his own with these one-and-dones. I think it's exciting for our fans.''

Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, the former Indiana All-American, said having the Hoosiers competitive again is a big part.

``Kentucky has always been extremely good and competitive and Louisville has always had good players and a good program,'' said Thomas, who led the Hoosiers to the 1981 national title. ``But Indiana has always prided itself on the purity of the game. So, I give more weight to Indiana because of what it represents in terms of basketball.''

There was a time in Kentuckiana that debate would have been settled on the court in the Big Four Classic.

Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana and Notre Dame used to battle in Indianapolis every December from 1987 to 1990. That event disbanded for various reasons and Louisville hasn't played Indiana since 2003. Though the Cardinals and Wildcats will play here on Dec. 29, the Hoosiers announced last spring they wouldn't play Kentucky this season because they were already playing too many games away from Bloomington.

Former Louisville star Darrell Griffith leads a chorus of laments for the teams to work something out.

``I don't think it's that hard to play each other because Louisville and Kentucky play every year,'' said Griffith, known as ``Dr. Dunkenstein'' when he led Louisville to the 1980 title. ``You just do it. The fans would love it. The players would love it.''

Calipari, whose Wildcats lost at Indiana last December on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, said he didn't want the series to end.

``I wanted to play those Indiana games and I thought they'd be great games in Indianapolis but that's fine,'' he said. ``We're doing what most teams are doing, playing a schedule that fits.''

Kentucky radio analyst Mike Pratt and former Indiana All-American Brian Evans say it's just wrong that the teams don't play each other.

``I can appreciate the rivalry because I've lived in the middle of it and have known so many Louisville and Indiana players,'' said Pratt, a Wildcats Hall of Famer who played at UK from 1967-1970. ``You observe how they talk about it. There are a lot of armchair quarterbacks out there, but that's what makes playing around here so special. They care almost to a fault.''

Said Evans, ``These games need to be played. Too many fans want to see it happen.''

Especially with Kentuckiana back in the national spotlight.

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3 trade scenarios for the Nationals to acquire Kris Bryant

3 trade scenarios for the Nationals to acquire Kris Bryant

Less than 24 hours after signing Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million deal, the Nationals have reportedly already pivoted to their other major position of need: third base.

Anthony Rendon is still a candidate to return to D.C. after Nationals President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo left the door open in a press conference Monday. But if the two-time Silver Slugger turns elsewhere, the Nationals are already exploring their options.

Bryant is a lifetime .284 hitter coming off a season in which he posted a .903 OPS and hit 31 home runs. The 2016 NL MVP is signed through the 2021 season but has filed a grievance against the Cubs for manipulating his service time. A decision isn’t expected until January, but Cubs President Theo Epstein told ESPN he’s confident the arbitrator will rule in Chicago’s favor.

The Cubs are exploring trade options in an effort to shed salary after Chicago finished with the third-highest payroll in the majors last season. Bryant, who can play both corner outfield spots as well, figures to net a strong return if the Cubs are able to trade him.

Washington doesn’t have the deepest farm system but could put together a few packages that might pique the Cubs’ interest depending on what path they’re hoping to go down. Here are three trade scenarios that could land Bryant in the District.

Cubs’ goal: Kickstart a rebuild

Nats’ offer: Carter Kieboom, Mason Denaburg, Tim Cate for Kris Bryant

When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, it looked to be the start of a dynasty that would dominate the sport for at least the next half-decade while stars like Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks were under contract.

Instead, Chicago has taken a step back each year. After losing in the National League Championship Series in 2017, the Cubs were knocked out in the Wild Card Game the following season before missing the playoffs entirely in 2019. Epstein expressed frustration with the team’s results in a radio interview last season, saying the Cubs’ “failure to play up to our ability, up to our potential” was the biggest contributor to their inconsistent play.

If the front office is looking to begin a teardown, then the Nationals would have to dig deep in their farm system to put together a viable package.

Kieboom is the 20th-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline and would be the centerpiece of negotiations. Denaburg was drafted in the first round in 2017 and considered several years away, but he’d immediately have one of the highest ceilings of any pitchers in the Cubs’ depleted minor-league system. Cate is much farther along than Denaburg and pitched well at High-A Potomac last season, plus he’s left-handed.

The Cubs wouldn’t have an immediate solution at third base, but if the goal is to net as much prospect capital as possible then this would be Washington’s best offer—that is, if Luis Garcia and Jackson Rutledge are untouchable.

Cubs’ goal: Build toward the future but remain competitive

Nats’ offer: Carter Kieboom, Joe Ross, Wil Crowe for Kris Bryant

All things considered, the Nationals probably won’t be in the running for Bryant if the Cubs are seeking solely prospects. Washington’s farm system isn’t much better off than Chicago’s and there are plenty of other contending clubs who could put together a better deal.

But if the Cubs are looking to fill a need while also dumping Bryant’s contract, the Nationals have plenty of back-end starters with some value. Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth are all out of options heading into 2020 and likely competing for the No. 5 spot in the Nationals’ rotation. Washington could make that decision easier by shipping one of them to the Cubs, a team that also has several question marks at the back of its rotation.

Washington could allow the Cubs to pick their favorite of Ross, Fedde and Voth then package their choice with Kieboom and a prospect like Wil Crowe or Sterling Shepherd. Crowe and Shepherd are both knocking on the door of the majors and could contribute either in the rotation or the bullpen as soon as next season.

The Cubs would then be able to slot Kieboom in at either second or third base with Javier Báez entrenched at shortstop. He’d then have David Bote, Ian Happ and possibly Ben Zobrist behind him in case he struggles to start the year.

Cubs’ goal: Cut salary but don’t lose any present value

Nats’ offer: Adam Eaton, Joe Ross, Jackson Rutledge for Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber

If the Nationals deem Kieboom untouchable, as they have in the past, then they’re going to need to get creative if they’re going to want Bryant.

One of the Cubs’ biggest weaknesses over the past few years has been at leadoff. Since Dexter Fowler departed for free agency after the 2016 season, 56 different players have batted first in the order for Chicago. Eaton would be the bonafide leadoff hitter they’ve been looking for and could slide in for Schwarber at left field.

Rutledge was the No. 17 overall pick in the 2019 draft and is considered to have potential ace upside down the line. If the Nats won’t trade Kieboom, he’s probably the guy they’d have to let go. Ross (or Voth or Fedde) slides into the No. 5 spot in the rotation for pennies compared to anyone on the open market.

Schwarber, while a better hitter than Eaton, is actually projected to make slightly less than him in 2020 at $8 million (compared to Eaton’s $9.5 million salary). But given Schwarber has two years of control, he would make more in arbitration in 2021 than Eaton’s $10.5 million team option.

All in all, the Cubs would save around $15 million in 2020 salary alone by making this deal while adding a pitching prospect who has the potential to be a top-flight starter, a leadoff man and a cheap starter who would be in the mix for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.

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MLB Rumors: Josh Donaldson could reportedly end up with a four-year contract

MLB Rumors: Josh Donaldson could reportedly end up with a four-year contract

As the hopes for Anthony Rendon's return to Washington fade fast following Stephen Strasburg's record seven-year $245 million contract, Josh Donaldson comes more into focus for Nationals faithful. 

The Nationals had reported interest in him as far back as mid-November, and if they want to spend big on Strasburg and less on third base rather than spend on Rendon and find a cheaper pitcher, Donaldson represented the most value. 

But every team that misses out on Rendon will probably look right to Donaldson, and that reality is reportedly driving up his price. 

According to Mark Bowman, there is a growing expectation Donaldson will end up with a four-year contract. That might be a problem given he's entering his age-34 season, but for the Nationals, there isn't a major difference between a four-year deal and a two-year deal for Donaldson. 

He's coming off a very productive season in Atlanta, where he hit 37 home runs and drove in 94 runs to go along with a .379 on-base percentage. Realistically, Washington would need at least two years of solid production at third base from him to get ample return on their investment. 

Carter Kieboom figures to be in the mix this season at third or second base, but he's much better suited as a middle-infielder. Then, the Nationals have 19-year-old Luis Garcia on the way as one of their top infield prospects. 

By the time Garcia hits the majors he'll ideally go to third base to join Kieboom and Trae Turner as Washington's infield of the future.

And as Bowman notes, the DH could be coming to the National League by after the 2021 season. If Donaldson can still slug, that's an easy move for him to make and play out the last two years of his deal. 

So while a potential four-year contract can and should cause a bit of sticker shock, the Nationals are constructed where they can take that risk to help their team in the short term should Rendon leave for greener pastures. 

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