No. 18 Louisville playing with something to prove

No. 18 Louisville playing with something to prove

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Louisville enters Saturday's Big East Conference opener at Pittsburgh unbeaten and seeking some national respect.

The No. 18 Cardinals have been ranked all season and are 5-0 for the first time since 2006. But after losses by eight teams ahead of them - including LSU, Florida State, Georgia and Texas last weekend - they have moved up just seven spots.

That's added motivation for Louisville to keep doing what its been doing - winning.

The Cardinals want to win the Big East and clinch an automatic Orange Bowl berth. But they will probably have to finish undefeated to have even an outside shot of being considered for the Bowl Championship Series title game.

The first BCS standings will be released on Sunday.

But coach Charlie Strong said first things first.

``Now we start the real season, which I call the real season because it's the conference season,'' Strong said earlier this week. ``Everything from here out counts.''

Louisville shared last season's conference championship with Cincinnati and West Virginia, which it beat in Morgantown. The Mountaineers' win over Cincinnati helped them earn the Orange Bowl berth.

But now No. 5 West Virginia is a member of the Big 12. Next season Pittsburgh and Syracuse will join the Atlantic Coast Conference. What's left is an image of a foundering conference lacking strong teams.

That sounds strange considering three Big East teams - Louisville, No. 20 Rutgers (5-0, 2-0) and No. 21 Cincinnati (4-0, 1-0) are all ranked in this week's poll. Nonetheless, the remaining Big East teams seem to have to prove their worth - simply winning is not enough.

``Because of what's happened to the conference over the last seven or eight years, I think the perception is that the Big East is a step or two beneath the other conferences that are out there,'' ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. ``And yet, here they have three teams that are ranked.

``For Louisville, Cincinnati and even Rutgers I just think they're getting attention for the first five or six weeks and now that they've gotten some attention, people are going to sit back and evaluate them and take into consideration whether they're a top-15, top-10 or eventually a top-seven or -eight type of team. All three will need a lot of help to move up the BCS standings.''

Especially Louisville, further hampered by opponents' poor record.

The five teams it has beaten are a combined 6-23. The Cardinals' next seven opponents are 20-15, but only 11-15 when Cincinnati and Rutgers are removed from the equation.

All three ranked Big East schools will face each other over the next seven weeks, and that shake-up could affect outsiders' perceptions as well.

``If you look at it now, it's hard to imagine a game between Louisville and Rutgers at the end of the year (going) a long way toward determining who eventually emerges as the Big East champion,'' added Herbstreit, whose preseason pick was Pitt.

While the Cardinals can't change their opponents' fortunes, they aim to avoid playing down to their level.

The Cardinals hope last week's bye will help correct inconsistency that has slowed their ascent. After a fast offensive start in which they averaged 35 points and nearly 468 yards per game at home, they've dropped to 24.5 and 296 respectively playing the past two games on the road.

Bad weather might explain Louisville's minus-2 turnover margin the past two weeks, but for the most part the Cardinals have struggled to put a complete game together. Against North Carolina last month, Louisville led 36-7 at one point before the Tar Heels rallied to within five, falling short of the upset when the Cardinals deflected an end-zone pass.

In road victories over FIU (1-5) and Southern Mississippi (0-5), the Cardinals have had to overcome slow starts before rallying and then holding on.

``We haven't played very well the last couple of games,'' Louisville offensive guard Jake Smith said. ``It's evident, you guys know and we know. We have to come out and prove we're a lot better team than that because we haven't been playing to our level.''

The Cardinals would certainly love to do that to avenge last November's home 21-14 loss to the Panthers, their last regular season defeat. Though Pitt was upset by Football Championship Subdivision member Youngstown State and is coming off last week's conference loss at Syracuse, Louisville expects a tough game.

The Panthers will certainly be the most physical opponent Louisville has played.

``When you play Pitt, you learn how smash-mouthed and hard-nosed you are,'' Smith added. ``(You) not only have to match a team's physicality, but you have to overcome it and show that you're a more physical team. It's going to be a tough task because Pitt is hard-nosed and smash mouth. The most physical team is going to win this game.''

In spite of everything, the Cardinals have the record they wanted and are confident of building on it. Louisville has won 10 of 11 games going back to last season and enters the toughest part of its schedule more experienced than a year ago.

Maximizing that and other skills will determine if the Cardinals complete a perfect season and see their bowl prospects end in a best-case scenario.

``We haven't really shown our abilities the last few games, but we know we have that ability,'' junior safety Hakeem Smith said. ``We've got to use all our talent and blow teams out, put up numbers, basically just showcase everybody's ability.

``We have to prove ourselves, and things will fall into place.''


AP freelance writer Josh Abner contributed to this report

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Ovechkin’s hat trick keeps Capitals rolling in 6-2 win against Red Wings

Ovechkin’s hat trick keeps Capitals rolling in 6-2 win against Red Wings

Capital One Arena — The stars came out for the Capitals on Tuesday night. 

There was Alex Ovechkin continuing his marvelous age-33 season with a hat trick, his first since Nov. 25, 2017. Nicklas Backstrom had four more assists. That’s his second four-point game in six games. T.J. Oshie returned from an 11-game absence (concussion) and scored on the power play. Evgeny Kuznetsov set up two goals. 

Anything else?

It all added up to a 6-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings and Washington is rolling. With that kind of firepower why wouldn’t it be? The Caps have won 11 of their past 14 games. At 18-9-3 and with 39 points, Washington is in first place in the Metropolitan Division and has a chance to build on that lead with five of its final eight games of 2018 at home. 

It didn’t hurt that the second-place Columbus Blue Jackets coughed up a 2-1 lead to the Vancouver Canucks at home Tuesday, allowing two goals in the final five minutes to lose 3-2 in regulation. The Blue Jackets are stuck on 34 points and suddenly the Capitals have a five-point lead in the division. 

“The season is all progress,” Backstrom said. “You keep building your team getting all the roles intact. Lately the last couple of games we’ve been playing good hockey, we’ve been playing with a lot of speed, we’ve been playing quick. That’s when we’re hard to play against, I think.”

The recent hot streak starts with Ovechkin, in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career. It was his 126th multi-goal game and he passed former Washington forward Dino Ciccarelli (125) for the 11th-most in league history.

“I’ll take it,” Ovechkin said. “Couple lucky goals.”

Ovechkin has points in 12 straight games (13 goals, six assists) and 18 of his 19 points during that stretch have come at even strength – with admittedly a few empty-net tallies tossed in for good measure. He extended his NHL lead to 25 goals – four ahead of Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point (21).  

If Ovechkin records a point against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday he will tie his career best of 13 games set between Dec. 30, 2006 and Feb. 1, 2007. That was the year before this incredible run of sustained success began with Washington’s first playoff berth in the Ovechkin era. They didn’t even wear red uniforms back then. Ovechkin ranks eighth in points (38) in the NHL through 30 games. 

“I don’t watch much hockey so I can only go off the years I’ve been here but he’s playing outstanding,” Oshie said.

“At that level that he got himself to last year right at the start of the year … he’s really just kept building off that. It’s fun being on this side of that when Big O is going like that. It’s a privilege to play with him out there and you think maybe there are not other ways he can kind of amaze you and wow you but there was another example tonight.”

Last year, he didn’t get to 39 points until Dec. 30, which was game No. 40. He had three assists that night against the New Jersey Devils and ended that game at 41 points. He didn’t get to 25 goals until a Jan. 2 game against Carolina, which was Game No. 41. Ovechkin finished with 87 points (49 goals, 38 assists) and is well ahead of that pace and halfway to his magic number of 50.   

“The age he's at to still continue to not only want to get better, but to be able to,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said.

“After just the way he's played the game with such a physical presence and the energy he has and the size he is, it's not easy. He's been great in our room, the leadership is really stepped up for me, the best I've seen him lead in our room during the regular season. And then his overall play is following right along with it. I know some other years statistically have been better, but for me it's his best two-way hockey that he's played.” 


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The anatomy of Kelly Oubre Jr.'s follow-dunk and pose

The anatomy of Kelly Oubre Jr.'s follow-dunk and pose

Kelly Oubre Jr. didn’t know precisely what the moment required. The hops and charisma are always on standby regardless.

In one of his more controlled performances of the season, the Wizards’ forward managed to stand out in Monday’s road loss at Indiana. Not solely for his 23 points, even though it established a new season-high. Not just for a rim-rattling follow dunk, though props for the aerial work.

What came after the slam is what got social media jumping. It’s why his popularity surpasses his production. It’s why his critics sometimes cannot help but smile.

Two days after turning 23, the birthday boy explained how the jam and viral video pose went down.

It started with two aspects not always associated with Oubre’s game: Passing and court awareness.

Washington already trimmed Indiana’s 25-point lead to eight as the clock moved closer to the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter, and the Wizards executed a play.

Teammates Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris ran interference for Oubre as he dribbled toward the right elbow.  Despite openings for a drive or shot, the player who passes with the frequency of a wishbone quarterback stuck with the plan. He looked for Morris rolling toward the basket.

“I just looked at the situation. The play was for Keef to roll and be open. He was open,” recalled Oubre.

Enter Myles Turner. The Pacers’ center dominated the paint throughout, finishing with 12 rebounds and five blocks. Oubre’s dribble brought Turner his way, but on the pass, the mobile big man quickly shifted across the paint. Morris created space and lofted a half-hook. Turner’s wingspan, on display with ferocity all night, altered the shot.

Oubre thought it might. Standing alone and with a clear path to the basket, the sleek forward made his move. Quick and light steps positioned out front if a miss bounced his way. It did.

“Myles is a great rim protector," said Oubre. "I just figured that since he’s been altering shots all game. I’d at least jump to give myself a chance to follow it up.”

Morris’s banked shot went short off the glass, sending the ball off the front of the rim. Oubre read the carom’s angle like geometry major. He rose with ease and hammered dunk the miss with two hands.

“Perfect timing, the stars aligned.”

Then the personality popped.

Before Oubre touched back down, the smile began to form. He stuck the landing like a 6-foot-7 Kerri Strug, though with two good ankles. As the grin enveloped his face and Oubre looked out into the crowd of non-well-wishers, both hands attached to his hips, forming a perfect pair of isosceles triangles. 

Oubre: “The pose was just me having fun. Their fans was talking crazy [expletive] though. I was just smiling at them the whole game.”

Just posing would have put a nice capper on the high-rising moment. Ever the showman, Oubre added a final flourish.

As the megawatt smiled remained, he went with a full head nod toward the crowd. He knew what they witnessed and that they didn’t love it. Regardless, they had to appreciate the style and let them know he felt the same.

“I don’t really look around when I’m playing," said Oubre. "It was really just because the fans didn’t want us to do good.

“I just have a lot of personality, you know? It was a good time, man.”

Oubre’s highlight reel includes a new entry. Such moments wow fans and keep scouts intrigued. If only Oubre could hone the rest of his game, they think. He’s shooting under 30 percent on 3-pointers since January. His shot selection and struggles with team defensive concepts cause exasperation.

Some team might fall in lust regardless and offer the 2015 first-round pick a hefty contract when he hits restricted free agency this coming summer. The Wizards can match any offer. Considering their salary cap concerns and Oubre’s uncertain trajectory, they might not.

Oubre wants more and says he works to improve his game daily while pushing free agency thoughts aside.

“Just getting better every day. Just taking it one day at a time, trying to live in the moment,” Oubre said. “Not necessarily looking at the future because the future will happen if I take care of now. Today I got better. Tomorrow is a new game, a new opportunity.”

Tomorrow comes Wednesday when the Wizards host the rival Boston Celtics.

“The Celtics have a lot of guys who are talented basketball players, and I’m a competitor,” Oubre said. “I’m looking forward to going to play against them.”

When it comes to the entertaining Oubre, even those head-scratching doubters probably feel the same.