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Kentucky shows improvement with 3-1 SEC start

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Kentucky shows improvement with 3-1 SEC start

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Now that John Calipari's young Kentucky squad has shown it's capable of playing with the intensity and teamwork needed to dominate a conference opponent, the Wildcats coach would like his team to do it consistently.

Kentucky (12-5, 3-1) is looking for its third consecutive win in Tuesday night's Southeastern Conference game at Alabama. The Crimson Tide (11-6, 3-1) is shooting a league-best 46 percent on 3-pointers in SEC games using a four-guard lineup that plays physical.

The Wildcats are still learning how to play physical but Saturday's 75-53 rout at Auburn shows their improvement. Kentucky shut down the cold-shooting Tigers in the second half. The Wildcats pushed Auburn around on the boards, increased their defensive pressure and turned a five-point halftime lead into a blowout.

``I'm trying to convince them that the wins and losses, they come and go,'' Calipari said Monday. ``You're not going to be judged just by that. You're going to be judged by your effort, your fight, your scrappiness. ... Believe me, 20 years from now they're going to say, `are you a competitor or not? Were you a battler ... played hard, made great decisions.'

``That's how you define yourself. I'm trying to get them more on process and less on results because we're so young.''

Encouraging signs emerged in the second half of Kentucky's 75-65 win over Tennessee last Tuesday, when the Wildcats held the Volunteers to 38 percent shooting. But Calipari said the absence of 7-foot freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein at Auburn following a ``minor procedure'' on his left knee might have ignited Kentucky's second-half performance against the Tigers.

``This team, I hope learned some stuff and I think Willie being out put a sense of urgency in the team; that sometimes happens,'' Calipari said.

In the final 20 minutes against Auburn, the Wildcats shot 67 percent, outrebounded the Tigers 19-11 while holding them to 12 of 32 shooting (38 percent).

Kyle Wiltjer's 17 points led five players in double-figures for Kentucky, which has won both of its SEC road games so far. And despite foul trouble, Wildcats freshman forward Nerlens Noel finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks. That follows his 12-point, nine-rebound, six-block, four-steal performance against Tennessee and earned him SEC Freshman of the Week honors on Monday.

Calipari didn't say what Cauley-Stein's availability would be against Alabama but Kentucky's objective will be containing the Tide's guard contingent. They're led by junior Trevor Releford, who averages 16.2 points per game overall but ranks third in SEC contests at 18.7. He's helped by sophomores Trevor Lacey (12.5), Rodney Cooper (11.6) and Levi Randolph (8.3). They're long and athletic, ranging from 6-3 to 6-6.

Lacey and Releford combined for 29 points in Alabama's 50-49 win over Texas A&M on Saturday, the Crimson Tide's third victory in a row.

To slow down Alabama's backcourt, the Wildcats will need strong defensive efforts from Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress. Both had 12 points and seven rebounds against Auburn, drawing praise from Calipari. The coach said Goodwin's shot selection was better on Saturday while Poythress showed more effort offensively and defensively, adding that he needs to sustain it longer.

In the backcourt showdown, Goodwin and Poythress will need help from Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays and Jarrod Polson to keep Alabama from getting in an offensive flow.

``They are pretty much a typical SEC school. They have really good guards,'' Polson said of Alabama. ``Coach Calipari says it will be a big test for our guards. Their bigs are physical, so we have to be physical and come out and compete for 40 minutes.''

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Scott Turner won the Redskins offensive coordinator job over Kevin O'Connell, per source

Scott Turner won the Redskins offensive coordinator job over Kevin O'Connell, per source

There has been plenty of speculation as to why new Redskins head coach Ron Rivera decided to hire Scott Turner as offensive coordinator, and now a source tells NBC Sports Washington the answer is simple. 

Turner won the job competition. 

Many expected 2019 Redskins offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell to maintain his position when the team hired Rivera as their new head coach earlier this month. That didn't happen. 

As Rivera moved quickly to assemble his coaching staff, the biggest question seemed to be running the offense and working with second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Rivera interviewed O'Connell and Turner for the job, and asked to interview former Giants head coach Pat Shurmur. 

Shurmur declined the interview, and at that point, a source explained that Rivera then made his decision to go with Turner over O'Connell. 

So why Turner? 

Both candidates got their first experience calling plays last year after an in-season firing to the head coach. The results weren't great for either coach, but Turner's game plans involved more play action passing than O'Connell. 

Turner's resume working with Cam Newton and Teddy Bridgewater mattered, as did the plan Turner presented for working with Haskins. 

It's important to note that Rivera had years of experience working with Turner, as well as his father Norv Turner. That mattered too, and one source explained Rivera "believed" in Turner. 

While O'Connell landed in a strong spot as offensive coordinator for the Rams, he won't be calling plays. Coaches don't like giving up control, particularly offensive coaches giving up play calling. For O'Connell, maybe that will change in LA, but it will take time. 

Some Redskins fans have a bad habit of assuming the worst. That maybe Turner got the job because O'Connell passed on it. That's not the case, per multiple sources.

Ron Rivera wanted his guy, and that's why Turner got the job. 

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Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
3.55 goals per game (1st in the NHL)
20.3-percent power play (13th in the NHL)

Goal leaders
1. Alex Ovechkin 34
2. Jakub Vrana 22
3. T.J. Oshie 18

Assist leaders
1. John Carlson 47
2. Nicklas Backstrom 29
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 26

Point leaders
1. John Carlson 60
2. Alex Ovechkin 50
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 42

Just in case you forgot about Ovechkin, he just let everyone know that yes, he is still outrunning Father Time with eight goals in the past three games. He remains one of the top scorers in the league, that is beyond dispute and so is this team's the top-six.

Backstrom, Wilson, Vrana, Kuznetsov and Oshie round out one of the best top two lines in the NHL. There are only a few minor concerns with this group.

Vrana and Kuznetsov have proven to be streaky performers. When they are hot, they are among the top offensive players in the NHL. Vrana is actually tied with David Pastrnak for third in the NHL in even-strength goals with 21. He is as dangerous a goal-scorer as just about anyone in the league. And everyone knows how good Kuznetsov can be at his peak. Just look at the 2018 Cup run.

You just have to cross your fingers and hope Vrana and Kuznetsov don’t get cold in the postseason because when their production tapers off, it craters.

Moving on to the bottom-six, let’s start with the fourth line because it is easier. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway is one of, if not the outright best fourth line in hockey. They are able to hem opponents into the offensive zone and allow very little in the way of scoring opportunities. If you put any credence into things like Corsi, Nic Dowd is the best on the team with a Corsi-For percentage of 57.22 while Leipsic is 54.04 and Hathaway is 54.43. In a nutshell, what that means is this line is generating a heck of a lot more offensive opportunities than it is allowing which is a huge asset to have for a fourth line.

What’s more, these guys are the kind of players you hate to play against. Hathaway and Leipsic both play with an edge and Leipsic has a fair amount of speed as well. They have to make sure they limit the penalties they take, but otherwise this line is a huge asset.

That brings us to the third line.

While the offense is starting to pick up slightly, overall the numbers have just not been there. Lars Eller is doing fine with 11 goals and 16 assists, but Richard Panik is having a tough first year with five goals and five assists while Carl Hagelin has only three goals and eight assists and that’s including the two goals he scored in the past week.

Even as the line continues to improve, I do not think at its peak it is going to prove to be as good offensively as once hoped.

The third line has definitely found a role as a shutdown line, however, which is how Reirden has been utilizing them of late, using them to shut-down one of the opposition’s top lines both to limit their offense and also to free up Ovechkin’s line by getting it away from that matchup.

That’s easier to do at home, now Reirden has to figure out just how to best utilize the third line one the road where it is tougher to get the matchups you want.

Overall, however, this line is trending in the right direction. The power play, however, is not.

Though it ranks 13th in the NHL, that percentage is being propped up by a good start. Since Dec. 1, the power play ranks 30th in the NHL at 14.1-percent. The offense has just been non-existent. The struggles have clearly gone to the head of the players because it becomes a comedy of errors on the ice every time the team gets the man advantage. Reirden has tried Vrana on the top unit in Kuznetsov’s spot, but that spot is not well suited for Vrana as he is a sniper and Kuznetsov plays primarily around the goal line where shots are hard to come by. Kuznetsov on the second unit is largely wasted as there is not enough scoring talent on that unit for him to set up.

The result is two power play units playing without confidence and not producing while also allowing far too many shorthanded goals.

The verdict: Yes, the Caps have the offense to win the Cup.

In terms of the personnel, it is hard to get better than what the Caps have. The top two lines are loaded with talent and the fourth line is the best at what it does. The offense is lacking on the third line, but Reirden has found a role for it in which it can still have a positive impact on the game and its offensive production seems to be improving.

The only real concern is the power play, not only because it is completely ineffective but because the team is pressing so hard it has allowed five shorthanded goals, tied for the most in the league. As bad as it is, however, I think this is a case of frustration making things worse. With the personnel this team has, there is no reason for it to be producing at only 14.1-percent. Once they string a few goals together, things will turn around. I don’t think it will be among the most potent in the NHL, but I do think this is a low point and a natural progression will occur.

After the power play, however, it is hard to find a more potent offense than the one assembled in Washington.

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