Nationals

No. 2 Cardinals set sights on Final Four return

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No. 2 Cardinals set sights on Final Four return

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Things just keep getting better for the Louisville Cardinals. First came a surprise trip to the Final Four, then a contract extension that will keep coach Rick Pitino around for nine more years.

Can a national championship be next?

The players seem to think so.

``The expectations are a lot coming in, but we have the personnel to get the job done,'' guard Russ Smith said.

The second-ranked Cardinals are an experienced team with excellent depth. They are long and quick, with shooters surrounding imposing post players.

Pitino, who signed a five-year contract extension that will keep him in Louisville through the 2021-22 season, has 11 returning players. Last year's team went 30-10, won the Big East Conference tournament and reached the Final Four for the first time since 2005 before losing to eventual champion Kentucky in the semifinals.

Part of their championship pedigree is an unselfish attitude.

Anchoring this year's squad are Smith and backcourt mate Peyton Siva, center Gorgui Dieng and forward Chane Behanan, who each averaged at least 9 points per game last season.

``We know how important February is and how important March is,'' Smith said. ``It doesn't matter what our record is going into February. As long as we can take care of those two months, things will be OK.

``We've just got to ... take care of business when February and March comes.''

The Cardinals' bench could determine how far they go.

Sophomores Wayne Blackshear (slowed by a shoulder injury), Angel Nunez, Kevin Ware and Zach Price are all ready for bigger roles. The same can be said for junior guards Michael Baffour and Tim Henderson and senior forward Stephan Van Treese, back from a knee injury that limited him to three games last season.

Louisville is also expecting big things from a couple of newcomers: Montrezl Harrell and Luke Hancock.

Harrell, a 6-foot-8 freshman forward, helped USA Basketball's Under-18 National Team win the gold medal this summer at the FIBA Americas U18 Championships in Brazil. He has been an imposing post presence in practice.

Hancock, a 6-6 forward with two years of eligibility remaining after transferring from George Mason, averaged 9.4 points and shot 35 percent from 3-point range with the Patriots.

Hancock figures to boost Louisville's perimeter game - the Cardinals shot 32 percent from beyond the arc last season - but coach Rick Pitino said don't look for the Cardinals to start launching 3-pointers.

``I don't think we'll be a great 3-point shooting team, and we don't have to be,'' Pitino said. ``We won't be a poor 3-point shooting team. Our strength is going to be our speed, our quickness, our unselfishness.''

Especially in Smith and Siva.

Smith is the Cardinals' top returning scorer at 11.5 points per game and also creates havoc on defense - he set Louisville's single-season record with 87 steals as a sophomore. Though Smith's unpredictability earned him the nickname `Russdiculous' from Pitino, the coach said the junior has improved.

``He's really getting good right now,'' Pitino said. ``The last week of practice I've really been taken aback by how it's finally registered with him. I'm hoping when the lights come on that it's not just practice (when he does this), because that's when he gets a little revved up.''

The Cardinals have a proven floor leader In senior point guard Siva, the Big East tournament's most outstanding player. He is also the heart and soul of the team. After averaging 9.1 points and 5.6 assists per game as a junior, Siva is working on contributing more offensively.

``Peyton's really developed into a great, great point guard,'' Pitino said. ``He's always pivoting in the lane rather than just leaving his feet and throwing it away. He's dribbling back out and looking for another hole. Everything we put into it for four years has come to the forefront. If there's a better point guard in America than him, I'd like to see him.''

While the backcourt is in good hands, Louisville's inside game is also solid.

Dieng set a Louisville single-season blocks record with 128 and averaged an impressive 9.1 rebounds as a sophomore last season. The 6-11 Senegal native seems motivated to improve those numbers.

``I'm ready to block out, do whatever I need to do defensively,'' Dieng said. ``I have the strength to do a lot of things on the court.''

Behanan might be the Cardinals' most intriguing player.

He started 37 games as a freshman, averaging 9.5 points and 7.5 rebounds and was named to the Big East's all-rookie team. But he has had off-court problems and has been suspended from playing in any exhibition games.

Behanan's troubles have created opportunities for the freshman Harrell.

``If Chane didn't have these little suspensions, would he beat (Harrell) out? I don't know,'' Pitino said. ``But right now Harrell's got a leg up because he's (Behanan) not playing.''

Not yet, but he will. And when he gets on the floor, he will be another inside threat for the Cardinals.

``He's quicker. He's stronger. He has improved his shot,'' Pitino said of Behanan. ``He's getting there, but he's got to stop turning the ball over and work on his ball handling and passing. He's going to catch up and he's going to be good.''

With so many options, the Cardinals like their chances to win their first title since 1986.

``It's going to be tough to guard us because we have so many different combinations and so many weapons on this team,'' Siva said. ``... That's what makes this team so good. We've got a lot of depth and are just trying to keep everybody on the same page - no egos, just going out there and playing for the `W.'''

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite as clear anymore. 

MORE NATS NEWS:

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Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

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USA TODAY Sports

Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

The Washington Wizards hold the 15th and 44th overall picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. Here is the latest in our series on draft prospects projected to be picked around where the Wizards will select...

2018 NBA Draft Wizards Prospect Preview: Jerome Robinson

School: Boston College
Position: Shooting guard
Age: 21
Height: 6-5
Weight: 188
Wingspan: 6-7
Max vertical: N/A

2017/18 stats: 20.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.1 bpg, 48.5 FG%, 40.9 3PT% (2.3 3PT/5.7 3PA), 83.0 FT%
Player comparison: Danny Green
Projections: NBC Sports Washington 29th, NBADraft.net 16th, Bleacher Report 19th, Sports Illustrated 17th

5 things to know:

*A three-year player at BC, Robinson developed into a big-time scorer before making the leap to the NBA. He averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore and then 20.7 points as a junior while improving his shooting percentages across the board. He went from 42.3 percent from the field as a sophomore to 48.5 in 2017-18.

*Robinson turned himself into an excellent three-point shooter. After shooting just 33.3 percent as a sophomore, he got that up to 40.9 percent as a junior and on 5.7 attempts per game. That trajectory bodes well for Robinson's chances at the next level.

*He has a quick release on his jumper, giving him the ability to be effective on catch-and-shoot plays off screens. Robinson could develop into a reliable scorer who doesn't need the ball in his hands as a primary focus of the offense. He also showed the ability to throw down some powerful dunks and finish with creativity at the rim. He didn't record a vertical leap at the NBA Combine, but playing above and around the rim didn't appear to be a problem in college.

*Though it didn't show in his last season at Boston College, Robinson was adept at forcing turnovers in his first two years. He averaged 1.6 steals per game across his freshman and sophomore seasons and 16 times in his career had three steals or more in a game.

*Questions for Robinson would include his versatility and speed. Some draft evaluators wonder if he will be able to get separation off the dribble at the NBA level. Also, he put up decent rebounding and assists numbers in college but didn't exactly stand out in either category.

Fit with Wizards: Robinson would give the Wizards depth at the shooting guard position and they need that. He could help Bradley Beal pare down his minutes and offer a scoring punch off the Wizards' bench. The Wizards could use a reliable shooter to help space the floor for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and others in the second unit.

The problems with Robinson's fit would be his lack of positional versatility and what appears to be a relatively low ceiling. He's not the freak athlete that some of his counterparts are at shooting guard. If the Wizards are choosing between Robinson and guys like Zhaire Smith and Lonnie Walker IV, they could view the latter two as more enticing because of their potential. Robinson would represent a safer pick while others could pay off big-time and have a greater impact on the franchise in the long-term.

Best highlight video:

More draft prospect profiles:

Kevin Knox, PF, Kentucky

Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State

Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky

Zhaire Smith, SG, Texas Tech

Landry Shamet, PG/SG, Wichita State

Gary Trent, Jr., SG, Duke

Lonnie Walker IV, SG, Miami

Anfernee Simons, PG/SG, IMG Academy

Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton

Chandler Hutchison, SG/SF, Boise State

Kevin Huerter, SG, Maryland

Mitchell Robinson, C, Western Kentucky

Troy Brown, SG/SF, Oregon

Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Villanova

Moritz Wagner, PF/C, Michigan

Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA

Keita Bates-Diop, SF, Ohio State

For more on the NBA Draft, check out our latest episode of the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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