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No. 3 Kentucky reloads with 4 talented freshmen

No. 3 Kentucky reloads with 4 talented freshmen

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky lost six players from last year's national championship team and is again projected to be title contender this season.

Yes, Wildcats coach John Calipari signed another talented freshman class.

The high expectations remain after the Wildcats won their eighth title behind freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. All were first-round NBA draft picks along with Terrence Jones; Doron Lamb and Darius Miller went in the second round.

It's a tough act to follow for freshmen Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein - but Kentucky is ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll.

Nearly seven months after Calipari won his first title with a team anchored by underclassmen, he is eager to see if this group can go as far as their predecessors.

``We're just so young,'' Calipari said. ``If we had to play a game right now, we'd probably be the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth team in our league. Now, let's hope in two months that that's not the case.

``I like our talent. I like our size. I like our length. We have some guys with pretty good speed. We're just not a good basketball team right now. Too many young guys that we're trying to bring along.''

Replacing a lineup that accounted for 92 percent of last year's offense definitely gives Calipari room to exlpore many options with an incoming class that includes three McDonald's All-Americans. The Wildcats are taller than last year's squad and have just as much quickness, in addition to veterans ready to fill a variety of roles.

Leading the way is 6-foot-10 forward Noel, considered the nation's top recruit. His offensive and shot-blocking skills have already drawn comparisons to Davis, That's high praise considering Davis earned many of the nation's top awards and was the NBA's top overall pick.

Noel acknowledges the comparisons to Davis, but said, ``this is a different day (and I'm a) different person. I'm bringing my own game to this team and interested in winning games.''

Poythress, 6-7, is considered one of the nation's most versatile forwards and can play several positions. The same has been said about 6-4 guard Goodwin, who gives Kentucky another excellent swingman.

Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot center, lacks the accolades of his fellow rookies but brings athleticism that has Calipari considering pairing him with Noel. Calipari could even play a trio of big men with a lineup that features Noel, Cauley-Stein and 6-10 sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, the Wildcats' leading returning scorer at 5.0 points per game

Just don't ask Calipari how this group stacks up against last year's team - one he describes as a once-in-a-lifetime squad.

``Comparing this team to that team in March is not fair,'' Calipari said. ``They're not going to be (that team). We're going to turn it over. We're going to get pushed around.

``Defensively, we're going to have breakdowns. Offensively, we're going to look like `what in the world are they doing?,' and it's going to be the process we go through.''

And like any Calipari team, the question is whether that process is for the short or long term.

Of the 15 Wildcats that have gone on to the NBA since Calipari's arrival in 2010, eight left after their freshmen season. The departure of last year's entire rookie class has ratcheted up questions about this year's recruits, all of whom are already being projected as high NBA draft choices on various web sites.

At the top of the list is Noel.

He was the subject of an NCAA probe into the funding of his unofficial visits to Kentucky before being cleared to play earlier this month. While that has eased the concerns of Big Blue Nation for the time being, neither he nor his fellow freshmen have said specifically how long they'll stay.

``That's a hard question to answer,'' Cauley-Stein said. ``A lot depends on how you feel at the end of the season.''

No matter what they decide, Calipari has dealt with turnover very well.

``I wish I had the whole team coming back,'' he said. ``I wish I had teams for three and four years, but that's not the way it is. I've talked enough about how I can't stand this one-and-done stuff, but it is what it is. I'm not going to cheat the kids. I'm not going to have kids stay that need to leave.

``We just deal with what's left. It's funny. We've had kids leave every year, and our teams have been good, if not better. So they're chasing their dream, and it's not hurting us.''

As that guessing game continues, Calipari is teaching the Wildcats how to play defense while trying to figure out his lineup and where the offense will come from.

There's potential for all four freshmen to have breakout seasons, along with opportunities for two transfers now eligible to get minutes and for a group of returnees to step up their contributions.

Julius May, a 6-2 guard, could play a significant role for Kentucky. A graduate student who averaged 14.1 points and 2.5 assists last season at Wright State before transferring, he could provide the veteran leadership needed along with Twany Beckham, the Wildcats' only senior.

``More often than not it could be me (speaking up), but other guys have spoken up at other times,'' Mays said. ``We have a young group but a very mature group, and that's important.''

Sophomore Ryan Harrow, also 6-2, is also eligible after transferring from North Carolina State and is expected to contribute at point guard. Wiltjer provides a backup big man, needing to improve his scoring and defense.

In guards Jon Hood, Jarrod Polson, Sam Malone and Beckham, the Wildcats have players capable of filling in where needed.

``This is all exciting,'' Calipari said. ``I mean, think about it. It would be boring to have the same team every year, I think. We're coming in and have no idea. I have in my mind things that I think will work, and they may or may not work.''

One thing that never changes are the championship expectations.

``I like what they'll look like in March in my mind,'' Calipari said of the Wildcats. ``Right now, that's the only thing I can live with. I have a vision of what they're going to be in March, and that's what I try to drive them to.''

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Douglas F. writes: Now that we traded away Matt Niskanen will Nick Jensen be paired with Dmitry Orlov? I personally would like to see how Jonas Siegenthaler would do beside him. My ideal defensive pairings: John Carlson/Michal Kempny, Jonas Siegenthaler/Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen (or Radko Gudas)/ Christian Djoos. Would that make sense?

What you have to consider is the shooting side of each player. Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos are left-shot defensemen while John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas are all right-shot defensemen. I don’t see the team putting two leftys together in the top four. Right-shot defensemen are harder to find and the Caps have three of them. That is a luxury not every team gets and I do not see Washington going into the season with a plan to willingly giving up that advantage.

Brian MacLellan telegraphed his feelings on Jensen when he traded for him and re-signed him for four years before he ever put on a Caps jersey. They see him as a top-four and that is where they are going to use him.

Granted, if Jensen struggles then pretty much all options are on the table so perhaps we could see this possibility later in the season.

I also get your point on Siegenthaler. I liked him a lot last season. I was surprised it took four games to get him into the playoffs and I was not surprised to see him move up to the top pairing after that. For now, however, putting him on the third pair with Gudas makes the most sense to me not just because of his inexperience but because of the guys ahead of him.

Paul O. writes: With the glut of young defensemen in the prospect pool, along with good ones moving fast in Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary, has the team soured on Connor Hobbs and Lucas Johansen ever making the jump to the big club?

I am not sure “soured” would be the right word for it as I think this has more to do with how impressed the team has been with Alexeyev and Fehervary than any negative feelings towards Hobbs and Williams.

Hobbs was a fifth-round draft pick who has shown that he may have had more potential than initially thought and could reach the NHL, but he was always going to be a third-pairing type of player so it is no surprise to see highly touted prospects like Alexeyev and Fehervary push for the NHL before Hobbs makes it there. His defense has improved tremendously, but the offensive skill that made him a standout in the WHL has not translated to the AHL as of yet. Johansen was hampered greatly by an upper-body injury last season and looks very jumpy with the puck on his stick which is not good news for a player in whom puck-moving was supposed to be a major part of his game.

The bigger concern of the two would be Johansen as he is a first-round pick. That means the team saw him as being a significant NHL contributor and I do not think they would have anticipated him getting passed on the depth chart before reaching the NHL. Hobbs, however, was always going to be a long-shot as a fifth-rounder.

To me, the greater takeaway is not that the team has soured on anyone, but that they are so high on both Alexeyev and Fehervary. Hopefully the other two will continue to develop and eventually catch up, but the silver-lining is you have at least two defensemen the team seems pretty confident can compete for an NHL spot in the near future.

Luka K. writes: Hershey has eight defensemen who all deserve and need to play (Erik Burgdoerfer, Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen, Colby Williams, Alex Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary, Tobias Geisser, Tyler Lewington and probably Bobby Nardella)? Who is deemed surplus, an ECHL ticket or possible trade for forward prospect?

In addition to the nine you mentioned, Hershey also has Tommy Hughes and Kristofers Bindulis. That gives the Bears 11 defensemen which should make for a crowded blue line even for the AHL where teams carry more players. Of those nine, Burgdoerfer and Hughes are the only two not under contract with the Caps and are playing on AHL contracts with Hershey.

I would assume Bindulis is headed to the ECHL. He played in only four games for the Bears last season and 12 the season before with 34 games in the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays. He certainly looks like the odd-man out. Hughes played last season in Europe, but was with Hershey in 2017-18 and spent the majority of that season in the ECHL. I could easily see him head there this year as well, though I expect Hershey wanted him and Burgdoerfer as veterans to help the younger guys.

Speaking of the younger guys, if they are struggling with the transition and are not getting much playing time, they may get a tour in South Carolina, but the Caps will want to see their top prospects in action and I imagine most of those players will stick around in Hershey.

The only one I could potentially see eventually being on the trade block is Johansen. As a first-round pick, he still could have some trade value. When you start getting passed on the team’s depth chart, it does not take long before your trade value surpasses your on-ice value.

Brian D. writes: Can you please explain the Connor McMichael signing? He’s not going to crack the Caps roster this year and he’s too young to play in the AHL so it’s almost guaranteed he’s going back to juniors this year. So why pay a salary to a player (and burn years off his entry level contract) to play in juniors the next two years? Why not wait till he’s ready to play professional hockey to start paying him and using his entry level contract years?

Barring a miraculous performance in training camp, no, Connor McMichael is not going to make the NHL roster this year. You are also correct in that he is still with his junior team so, by rule, he cannot play in the AHL. He can either play in the NHL or the OHL this season, there are no other options. The good news, however, is that McMichael is not going to burn a year off his contract.

Because most players require more development before they reach the NHL, entry-level contracts slide so as not to punish a team for its patience. So long as McMichael does not play 10 NHL games next season, he will not burn the first year of his contract and will not earn a salary. The only money he will be paid is his signing bonus. There are rules as to when an unsigned draft pick becomes a free agent and when some players get close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they elect to wait it out and head into free agency. Signing these players to NHL contracts early in their careers when they are excited about getting drafted is much easier than waiting until they start to think the grass may be greener on the other side.

So why not just immediately sign every draft pick to a contract and let them continuously slide until you need them thus avoiding losing them to free agency? Because teams are limited to only 50 contracts and teams could quickly run out of room to sign or trade for more players they may desperately need. The Caps ran into this issue last season. With 50 players already under contract, the team could not sign highly touted prospect Chase Priskie who has declared he will wait until Aug. 15 when he will become a free agent. If the team could have signed Priskie at the end of his college season last year and brought him right away to the AHL or NHL it could potentially have enticed him to sign. Instead the Caps now stand to lose him for nothing.

So I hear you, Brian, but there is no reason to fear. Now the Caps have McMichael signed and do not have to worry about him holding out for free agency several years from now, but they also are not losing any contract years.

Phillip M. writes: With the Seattle Expansion Draft approaching and the Caps having signed most of their key players through the next 2 years I have a question. NHL teams can protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and a goalie, or any 8 skaters plus 1 goalie. I understand first and second year NHL players, and unsigned draft choices are exempt. So I assume that means signed non-NHL playing draft choices can be selected. Are Alex Alexeyev, Connor McMichael, Brett Leason and Ilya Samsonov available to be selected by Seattle? Who do you expect the team will most likely protect?

What qualifies as first and second-year players to the NHL is players who have finished at least two seasons of professional North American play. I explained above how a player burns the first year of his entry-level contract. With the expansion draft two years away, that means any prospects who remain with their junior teams at least through this season will not qualify not have to worry about the expansion draft including McMichael.

Ilya Samsonov already burned the first year of his contract last season and with Alexeyev and Leason expected to play in Hershey this season, all three will likely qualify for the expansion draft..

It is really hard to project between now and 2021, but if you insist:

Seven forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller, Brett Leason

Three defensemen: John Carlson, Jonas Siegenthaler, Alex Alexeyev

Goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Don’t hold me to this, a lot can happen in two years.

John F. writes: Will an enterprising team owner (with deep pockets) ever consider building an outdoor arena designed specifically for hockey? Sticking an outdoor game in a baseball or football stadium seems like a bad way to watch a hockey game.

I can’t see this ever happening. Maintaining a playable ice surface is incredibly hard to do inside in an arena. When you put it outside, you are greatly complicating things. The league does a great job with its outdoor games, but this is just for one game. Building an entire stadium for the limited number of Winter Classics and Stadium Series games it would host would not be feasible. If you are suggesting a team could have all its home games outdoors, this would be a nightmare in terms of maintaining the ice surface for the full season especially when the weather gets warm. Heaven forbid you try to have a playoff game there.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Nationals Roundup: Nats' bullpen spoils Erick Fedde's economical outing

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Nationals Roundup: Nats' bullpen spoils Erick Fedde's economical outing

The Battle of the Beltway Series finale didn't go as planned for the Nationals in Baltimore Wednesday night. Washington settles for a series split and falls to 50-44 following its 9-2 loss to the Orioles. 

Consider these news and notes as Davey Martinez's club heads south for a pivotal four-game weekend series in Atlanta. 

Player Notes:

Can you say economical? Erick Fedde cruised through six innings inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards on just 66 pitches (40 strikes). The 26-year-old surrendered just one run on five hits while striking out two. 

Very quietly, Adam Eaton is hitting .330 over his last 29 games and has reached base safely in 73 of 89 games in 2019. His third-inning sacrifice fly brought in Victor Robles, and a fifth-inning double -- his 12th of the season -- brought in Trea Turner. 

To put it quite simply, the Nationals' bullpen imploded Wednesday night following Fedde's exit. Wander Suero recorded just one out while allowing three runs, three hits and walking one Oriole. Just nine of his 19 pitches were thrown for strikes. Javy Guerra and Matt Grace then went on to allow a combined three runs on six hits, and Baltimore never looked back.  

Injuries: 

SP Max Scherzer: Back, Expected to be out until at least Jul 20

RP Jonny Venters: Back, Expected to be out until at least Jul 18

SP Jeremy Hellickson: Shoulder, Expected to be out until at least Jul 20

RP Justin Miller: Shoulder, Expected to be out until at least Jul 16

RP Koda Glover: Elbow, Expected to be out until at least Aug 7

RP Austen Williams: Shoulder, Expected to be out until at least Jul 17

Coming Up:

Thursday 7/18: Nationals at Braves, 7:20 p.m., SunTrust Park

Friday 7/19: Nationals at Braves, 7:20 p.m., SunTrust Park 

Saturday 7/20: Nationals at Braves, 7:20 p.m., SunTrust Park 

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