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No. 15 Mississippi St readies for Middle Tennessee

No. 15 Mississippi St readies for Middle Tennessee

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill needed all of about five seconds to describe why No. 15 Mississippi State has moved from the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference to contending for the Western Division title.

``They've really improved their throwing game,'' Stockstill said.

It's a simple explanation, but also quite true. The once ground-bound Bulldogs are now able to throw the ball with some of the SEC's best, thanks to a breakout season from first-year starter Tyler Russell.

He'll lead Mississippi State (6-0) against Middle Tennessee (4-2) on Saturday in a non-conference game at Davis Wade Stadium as the Bulldogs try to continue their best start since 1999.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior from Meridian, Miss., has thrown for 1,382 yards, 12 touchdowns and just one interception this season. He spent two seasons as the backup for Chris Relf in 2010 and `11, and has seamlessly stepped into the starter's role.

Russell's best performance came in last week's 41-31 victory over Tennessee. He completed 23 of 37 passes for a career-high 291 yards and two touchdowns, outdueling Tennessee's better-known Tyler Bray.

The breakout performance has brought some attention. The soft-spoken Russell said he's not seeking the spotlight, but doesn't mind that it's found its way to Starkville.

``That comes with it,'' Russell said. ``Being in the SEC, we're 6-0 and we have a chance to be 7-0. If we take care of business this week, we go and play Alabama. This is why we came to Mississippi State. This is the reason I wanted to be here.''

And Russell is fortunate to have several playmakers around him. LaDarius Perkins is third in the SEC with 599 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Chad Bumphis is sixth in the SEC with 468 receiving yards and six touchdowns.

Then there's tight end Malcolm Johnson, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore who missed the first five games with a torn pectoral muscle, but returned for the Tennessee game and made two big catches for 34 yards.

The last one was a 9-yard touchdown catch in the final minute that sealed the victory. It was an acrobatic, one-handed grab in the back of the end zone.

``You expect those things from Malcolm,'' Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. ``He does have such great ball skills and even in practice you see him make those catches.''

While Mississippi State has a plethora of playmakers, Middle Tennessee must adjust to life without its best offensive player.

The Blue Raiders lost running back Benny Cunningham for the season after the senior suffered a knee injury near the end of last week's victory against Florida International.

Cunningham was having a sensational season, with 600 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in just five games.

``It's very unfortunate for him and our football team,'' Stockstill said. ``But it's a situation that we can't make excuses about. We can't whine. We can't cry in our milk right now.''

The Blue Raiders won't be totally helpless without Cunningham. Drayton Calhoun and Jordan Parker have combined for more than 400 rushing yards behind Cunningham and junior quarterback Logan Kilgore has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in his career, including 1,422 yards this season.

Stockstill is familiar with Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won back-to-back meetings between the two programs in 2008 and '09.

``Those years they solely relied on their running back,'' Stockstill said. ``They'd turn and toss it to him or turn it and hand to him, and then rely on their defense.''

Not anymore. Russell has made the Bulldogs' offense much more dynamic.

And now he's working on making sure Mississippi State is more consistent. The Bulldogs have had some hiccups already in non-conference play, needing a fourth-quarter rally to beat Troy 30-24 one week before a lackluster 30-10 victory over South Alabama.

``We have to take care of the business,'' Russell said. ``We have to play like (the No. 15) team in the nation.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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2019 NBA Draft profile: Rui Hachimura gives Wizards scoring and speed

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2019 NBA Draft profile: Rui Hachimura gives Wizards scoring and speed

The Washington Wizards have chosen Rui Hachimura at No. 9 in the 2019 NBA Draft. 

2019 NBA Draft Wizards pick: Rui Hachimura

School: Gonzaga
Position: Forward
Age: 21
Height: 6-8
Weight: 230
Wingspan: 7-2
Max vertical: N/A

2018/19 stats: 19.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.5 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.7 bpg, 59.1 FG% (7.4/12.6), 41.7 3PT% (0.4/1.0), 73.9 FT%

Player comparison: Gordon Hayward, Mike Scott

Projections: NBC Sports Washington 9th, NBADraft.net 10th, Bleacher Report 23rd, Sports Illustrated 16th, Ringer 19th

5 things to know:

*Hachimura is an athletic scorer, most effective in the midrange and in the post. He is quick up and down the floor for his size and scores a lot in transition. Due to his size and downhill speed, some have compared him to Jabari Parker, who played for the Wizards this past season.

*Hachimura shot 41.7 percent from three this past season at Gonzaga, but on one attempt per game. He shot just 31.6 percent from long range in his college career. 

*He has some traits that suggest he could be a plus-defender. He has quick feet and long arms, but may have difficulty in the post against bigger, stronger players. 

*Hachimura is from Japan. He is set to become just the third Japanese-born NBA player. He was just the fifth player from the country in Division I NCAA basketball history. He has a chance to become the greatest Japanese basketball player of all-time.

*He didn't start playing organized basketball until he was 14. Though he became a sensation in Japan and adapted well to the college game, he may still be just scratching the surface of his potential. 

Fit with Wizards: Hachimura could end up as the best option for the Wizards at No. 9, depending on how the board moves on draft night. He plays a position of need and would add scoring and speed to their offense.

Hachimura, though, wouldn't immediately help the Wizards with their biggest weaknesses of defense and rebounding. Hachimura may have a high floor based on his college production and style of play. 

The Wizards need to hit on this draft pick either way, but ideally they would find someone who could someday make a major difference.

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Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman nearing minor league rehab assignment

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Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman nearing minor league rehab assignment

Over the last few weeks, the Nationals have finally started to get healthy. Slowly but surely, they’ve added stars like Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Anthony Rendon back to their everyday lineup, and the wins have followed.

If everything goes according to plan, they could be close to adding yet another potential impact bat. This time, it’s Ryan Zimmerman.

The first baseman, who has been on the Injured List since April 28 while dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, could begin his rehab assignment as soon as this weekend, according to his manager.

Zimmerman is getting closer to full health but is still experiencing discomfort while running. During batting practice Thursday, Zimmerman resumed baseball activities, and the plan is for him to run the bases before his minor-league assignment.

"If you're going to be out there playing, you've got to be able at least score on a normal base hit if you're on second, go first to third,” Zimmerman said Thursday. “You might not have to be 100 percent on all that, but you have to do normal, everyday activities, or you're not really helping the team.”

The priority in the minors will be playing nine full innings.

"I think the biggest thing with the rehab games is just getting on your feet for nine innings so the first time you're out there for nine innings isn't here, and you can play some games and make sure it doesn't act up,” the longtime National told reporters. “Because once you're activated and once you're between those white lines, it's game on. It's more I think for Davey [Martinez]. You don't want to put him in a bad spot. If he is managing without knowing if I have restrictions or without knowing what's going to happen, that puts him in a bad spot. That's not what you want to do."

Davey Martinez has rarely had his full complement of players in 2019. Zimmerman himself has already missed 47 games.

Of course, once he returns, the Nationals will have more decisions to make. Not only do the Nationals need to find a roster spot for Zimmerman (Gerardo Parra is a candidate to be the odd man out, despite some flashes in his time in Washington), but they also need to figure out the playing time.

Matt Adams has hit with a lot of power this season, and without the DH in the National League, is limited to first base, same as Zimmerman. Howie Kendrick has been the Nationals’ second-best hitter in 2019 and is one of the best surprises in baseball, but is also limited defensively. Kendrick has more versatility, but with Brian Dozier’s recent surge (and superior defense), the Nats will likely want to keep him there. And, of course, Rendon and Turner are entrenched on the left side of the infield.

It’s something Martinez will have to figure out, he’s already begun speaking with players about what the arrangement will look like.

For right now, it’s a problem for another day, but if Zimmerman’s rehab goes well that won’t be the case much longer.

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