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Michigan State wants to go from good to great

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Michigan State wants to go from good to great

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Michigan State coach Tom Izzo often lamented what his team lacked when it won 17 of its first 20 games.

A day after the Spartans lost by five points at Indiana, Izzo was more encouraged than discouraged.

And, he even said the team has a chance to go from good to great.

``That is one thing I would've taken out of that game,'' Izzo said. ``That was a pretty good basketball game to watch. I liked our competitive attitude.

``We had a couple inside guys play good and one outside play well. If we can get it to two and two, we have a chance to get even better.''

The Spartans (17-4, 6-2 Big Ten) stayed at No. 13 in The Associated Press' poll on Monday. They host Illinois (15-6, 2-5) in their only game during a nine-day stretch.

Izzo give his players a ``mental day'' on Monday by having them only watch film, plans to give them Friday off and perhaps dedicate a day next week to working on individual skills before preparing to play Minnesota at home on Feb. 6.

``I think this break will be perfect,'' he said.

Even though the Fighting Illini have slumped to a ninth-place tie in the Big Ten, Izzo hopes the third-place Spartans realize they are playing a team that was talented enough to beat Ohio State, Gonzaga and Butler - all by double digits.

``We're in for a dangerous week,'' Izzo said.

In the 75-70 loss to the third-ranked Hoosiers, Michigan State post players Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix were dominant at times and freshman guard Gary Harris perhaps played his best game. They helped the Spartans have a shot to win - trailing by two points late in the game - despite leading scorer Keith Appling being on the bench with five fouls and two points.

Payne had 18 points, nine rebounds, blocked a shot and had a steal. Nix scored eight points, made a game-high six assists, grabbed five rebounds and had two steals.

Harris scored 21 points - one short of his season high - and made five 3-pointers while playing sound defensively.

``Gary Harris took a major step again,'' Izzo said.

The crowd taunted Harris, the 2012 Indiana Mr. Basketball award winner, and he insisted he didn't hear the jeering fans.

``I didn't even notice it to be honest with you,'' Harris said. ``I just tried to block it out.''

Branden Dawson, who is also from Indiana, contributed 12 points and eight rebounds.

Even thought that was a solid performance from a sophomore less than a year removed from major knee surgery, Izzo said the forward will prove to be one of a few pivotal players this season.

``For us to go from good to great, (Dawson) has to keep taking steps,'' Izzo said. ``I think Denzel (Valentine) and Travis (Trice) are very important parts. We can't do it with four or five players.''

Izzo said top-ranked Michigan and Indiana, who are tied for first place in the Big Ten, are definitely better than every other team in the conference.

The Spartans will have two more games left with the rival Wolverines - the first is in two weeks at home - a rematch with the Hoosiers along with a trip to Ohio State during the second half of the Big Ten schedule.

``We do have a chance to get better, but that could still mean a couple losses,'' Izzo said. ``I don't say that to protect myself, but I do it realistically because this league is very, very good and you don't get many off days.''

While Izzo acknowledged being more pleased with his team than he was just a few days ago, he vowed that it's not because he believes in moral victories.

``It's because we did get more guys playing well,'' he said. ``And, we did some things we wanted to do.''

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AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Bloomington, Ind., contributed to this report.

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DC United embarks on MLS playoffs with Wayne Rooney’s tenure near its end

DC United embarks on MLS playoffs with Wayne Rooney’s tenure near its end

The MLS playoffs has a new look this year, with all teams now pitted against each other in do-or-die knockout rounds instead of the two-legged conference semifinals and finals format. For fifth-seeded DC United, that means Wayne Rooney could be playing his final MLS match when the postseason kicks off Saturday.

Rooney, who starred for Everton and Manchester United for 16 years before coming to the U.S. ahead of the 2018 season, announced in August that he’ll be going back to England to be a player and assistant coach for second-tier Derby County. He’s led the team in goals each of the past two years, including some highlight-reel strikes from beyond midfield.

DC United finished with 50 points this season, which tied Toronto FC for the fourth-best mark in the Eastern Conference. Toronto took the tiebreaker in the Eastern Conference standings and will host DC United tonight at 6 p.m. for the right to face New York City FC in the conference semifinals Wednesday.

The signing of Rooney and opening of Audi Field in 2018 created a lot of buzz among D.C. fans but the team is still looking to reclaim the success it sustained in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since winning the MLS title in 2007, DC United has finished with 50+ points just four times.

The team captain’s time in D.C. may be coming to an end sooner than expected, but after being ousted by Columbus Crew SC last postseason in a match that came down to penalty kicks, DC United has one more chance to live up to the hype that came with Rooney’s presence before it’s too late.

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Nationals coy about how starting pitching will lineup in World Series

Nationals coy about how starting pitching will lineup in World Series

WASHINGTON -- Mike Rizzo declined to say specifically Friday how the Nationals’ World Series rotation would line up. 

“Davey [Martinez] and I haven’t met officially yet,” Rizzo said. “I don’t think the pitching plans will come as any shock to anybody.”

Washington’s sweep of St. Louis in the National League Championship Series presents options. Everyone is rested. And, they needed it.

Despite the sweep, Stephen Strasburg is second in pitches thrown in the postseason, Max Scherzer fourth, Patrick Corbin sixth and Aníbal Sánchez 11th. Houston’s Justin Verlander is No. 1 following his Friday start in New York. Astros starter Gerrit Cole is third.

“You guys can figure it out,” Martinez said to reporters of the pending rotation. “You’ve been here all year. 

“For me, it’s making sure these guys are ready and healthy. These guys have pitched a lot. I want to make sure -- it’s not just about Game 1, it’s about Games 4, 5, 6, 7. We’ve got to make sure we prepare ourselves for seven games and that we do our due diligence on each one.”

The flat, and most likely, scenario is Washington simply decides to throw Max Scherzer in Game 1 and Stephen Strasburg in Game 2. Scherzer would be back in Game 5, if necessary, on full rest. Strasburg would return for Game 6 on an extra day of rest. They could also flip to give Scherzer the extra day. 

Here’s a wrinkle to consider: throw Aníbal Sánchez in one of the first two games. Why? 

Sánchez has been potent in the postseason. He has a 0.71 ERA in two starts. He’s struck out 14 and allowed five hits. Nothing about his ERA is a fib.

If he starts Game 1 or 2 in Houston, let’s say Game 1 for this what-if exercise, Scherzer is bumped to Games 2 and 6 -- with an extra day of rest. Strasburg opens Game 3 at home, then is in line to pitch Game 7 on the road on regular rest. Otherwise, the Nationals will have to massage the pitching later in the series to put their two best pitchers in the most important game.

Think of the argument this way: if the goal is a road split to start, what are the chances a Sánchez-Scherzer pairing could accomplish that? Based on the postseason so far -- and Sánchez’s 2.57 career postseason ERA -- it’s a reasonable consideration.

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