Nationals

No. 23 Toledo, Ball State gear up for shootout

No. 23 Toledo, Ball State gear up for shootout

It's been more than a decade since the Toledo Rockets have been in the Associated Press Top 25.

They'd like to stay a while.

But less than 60 hours after climbing to No. 23, the Rockets will be tested on Tuesday night when they host Ball State in a game full of risk and reward for both teams.

``For us and our staff and our kids, the thing that has gotten us to this point is our ability to focus on getting better each day,'' first-year Rockets coach Matt Campbell said. ``That's the thing that makes November really special. We know how important that is. It's a great honor (to be ranked) but it's something you'd like to end the season with.''

By almost any measure, the Rockets and Cardinals have a lot in common - particularly in terms of being well stocked with dangerous offensive players and leaky defenses.

The Rockets (8-1, 5-0 Mid-American Conference) are out to extend an eight-game winning streak and put themselves in position to play in the MAC title game. The Cardinals (6-3, 3-2) can enhance their bowl prospects by pulling off the upset.

Rest assured Ball State's players are well aware that the Rockets have moved into the rankings. And that they may not be alone for long. The MAC has four teams in the top 32 - matching the number of representatives from the mighty Big Ten. (Northern Illinois is 26th in the media balloting, Kent State is 27th and Ohio, yet a fourth one-loss team from the MAC, is also getting points at No. 32.)

``I did share with our team yesterday after practice about Toledo moving into the Top 25,'' Ball State coach Pete Lembo said on Monday. ``That's a great thing for the MAC. We've got some terrific teams in the league this year. We're just excited to be in a position where this game has a lot of meaning to it at this point.''

Both teams are built around offenses that can score early, often and quickly.

They combine to average 68 points and 919 yards a game. Meanwhile their defenses are surrendering 60 points and 931 yards per contest.

Toledo can rely on steady multipurpose back David Fluellen, third in the nation with both 1,181 rushing yards and 131.2 yards per game. He's able to grind out tough yards between the tackles but also has the breakaway speed to outrun defenders. The junior, who has topped 100 yards in each of his last five games, has gains of 53, 53, 49 and 44 yards this season.

It's fitting that a team called the Rockets would have a solid air attack as well. Quarterback Terrance Owens, who didn't win the starting job until earlier this season, is both accurate and athletic. He ranks fourth in MAC history in career completion percentage (.654), a year after setting conference and school marks by hitting on 72.2 percent of his attempts.

Owens' favorite target is Bernard Reedy, who has 61 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns, plus is one of the most dangerous return men in FBS. He's brought back one punt and two kickoffs for scores, including a 91-yard kickoff return that was the difference in a 29-23 upset of No. 18 Cincinnati on Oct. 20.

The Cardinals can also fill up a stat page.

It starts with Keith Wenning, who throws for 269 yards a game. He's passed for more than 6,000 yards in less than three seasons.

Wenning needs to throw just 77 more passes to set a Ball State career record - and it's not out of the realm of possibility he might do that very, very soon. After all, he tossed 71 passes (completing 42 for 434 yards) in a 35-23 home loss to Northern Illinois on Oct. 6.

Wenning's got plenty of help, too. Wide receiver Willie Snead leads the nation with 46 plays from scrimmage that have gained at least 10 yards. He leads the MAC in catches (68) and receiving yards (901).

As if that wasn't enough, Jahwan Edwards is averaging 105 yards rushing a game and Steven Schott leads the nation in field goals per game with 2.22. He's also 15th in the country in scoring at more than 10 points a game.

Defense is the big concern for both teams, trying to put a governor on all those points and yards that the other side is capable of producing. Ball State has allowed more than 30 points in five games, while holding opponents under that figure in just four. Still, the Cardinals have won three in a row while playing their best defense of the year.

``There certainly are some outstanding players on their offense,'' Lembo said. ``And our offense is led by a pretty good offensive line and some underclassmen skill players who are coming along nicely. It'll be interesting.''

The Rockets' only loss came in overtime, 24-17 at Arizona in the opener. Since that close loss, they've won four games by six or fewer points, including three times on the road. After giving up 35 and 47 points in back-to-back wins, they've given up 23 and 20 points in their last two victories.

Now they're getting some national attention. But can they hang on to make this more than a once-per-decade thing?

``We've worked really hard the last nine months to develop that workmanlike approach to everything we do,'' said Campbell, a former player and coach at perennial Division III powerhouse Mount Union. ``We try to worry about what we can control.''

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Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter:http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap

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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. 

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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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