NCAA

Packers excited for rare gathering of 4 top WRs

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Packers excited for rare gathering of 4 top WRs

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Aaron Rodgers is putting up MVP-worthy numbers again, throwing for more touchdowns than anyone in the NFL and ranking near the top in completions and yards passing.

Imagine if he'd had all of his favorite toys for the whole year.

With Randall Cobb back from a sprained ankle and Jordy Nelson planning to play in Saturday night's NFC wild-card game against Minnesota, the Green Bay Packers finally will have all four top receivers for the first time in, essentially, three months.

``It makes us very dangerous,'' Greg Jennings said Thursday. ``It's pretty obvious when we have all four guys healthy, the amount of big plays that we can accumulate goes up. Aaron has a lot more options.''

There's no question Rodgers is a special quarterback, one of the league's finest, and he'd put up impressive numbers if he had only one or two guys to throw to. But he has four - count `em, four - receivers who could be No. 1s on many other teams.

``I don't think so,'' Nelson said when asked if any other team is as loaded at receiver as the Packers. ``I don't think you can go four and five deep like we can.''

Jennings had 1,000-yard seasons from 2008-10, and came up just short (949) last year despite missing three games. Nelson has a career average of 15.1 yards per catch, and joined Jennings in the 1,000-yard club last year. James Jones led the NFL with 14 TD catches this year, and matched a Packers record with two scores in three straight games. Cobb is the newest of the bunch, and all the second-year receiver has done is lead the team in catches (80) and yards receiving (954).

Add in big tight end Jermichael Finley and you can see why defensive coordinators have nightmares about facing the Packers.

``You can go to any one of them and get a big play, so it makes it more difficult for defenses to defend,'' Green Bay offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. ``If (opponents) only have one guy or two guys that they have to defend against, they can structure their defenses and set it up in certain ways to take those guys away. But if you have four out there, and sometimes even five, it makes it more difficult.

``So if it's more difficult for them, it's advantageous for us.''

But injuries have kept the Packers (11-5) from making full use of that advantage. The Big Four have played less than three full games together this year, and you have to go all the way back to the Sept. 24 game in Seattle for when they were last all at full strength. (Yes, they were all available for the Dec. 2 game against the Vikings, but Nelson was gone after the second series with a hamstring injury.)

Jennings was hurt in the season opener, and wound up missing eight of the first 11 games with a torn muscle in his abdomen. Nelson was out for four games with a hamstring injury. And Cobb, who's also been Green Bay's primary kick returner, was sidelined last week with a sprained ankle.

Only Jones made it through the entire season unscathed.

``It's been a while,'' Nelson agreed. ``Hopefully we can go out and perform well, make a lot of plays and play a few games together. That's what you want. You want to be at full strength going into the playoffs, and I think we're as healthy as we can be.''

To get an idea just how potent the Packers could be, look at their last three games, when only one of the Big Four was on the sidelines. Rodgers has thrown for 998 yards and 10 touchdowns. Cobb, Jones and Jennings have had 100-yard games, and each game has had three receivers with five or more catches. Green Bay has put up 110 points, including hanging a season-high 55 on Tennessee.

Yes, the Packers lost at Minnesota on Sunday. But the offense found another gear after an uncharacteristically slow start on the first three drives, outgaining and outscoring the Vikings over the final 40 minutes. Jennings had his best showing since his return with 120 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches, while Nelson averaged a whopping 29 yards on his three catches.

Finley's eight catches gave him 61 for the year, a Packers record for a tight end.

``We definitely got it going,'' Jennings said. ``Felt good with what we were seeing, ARod was delivering the ball on the point and guys were making plays all across the field. Are there some things we could have done better as a whole? Absolutely. But we got another shot at it. We've got a chance to make it right this week.''

And they'll be doing it at full strength.

Cobb was held out last weekend as something of a precaution, but he's practiced all week. Nelson was a question mark after he banged up his knee against the Vikings. But he was a full participant in practice Thursday and said ``no, none whatsoever'' when asked if there was any question he'd play.

``We were hoping that, come this time, everyone would be together and ready to go and we are,'' Nelson said. ``And we look forward to the opportunity.''

Notes: Coach Mike McCarthy said there won't be a rep count on Charles Woodson, who will be playing his first game since breaking his collarbone Oct. 21. ``We're going to let him play and communicate on the sidelines and make sure he's OK,'' McCarthy said. ``He's been really pushing the conditioning really the last five or six weeks and he has been practicing the last four weeks. It's just that transition to the games.'' ... CB Tramon Williams missed Thursday's practice with the flu.

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Diakite, No. 7 Virginia hold off Vermont, 61-55

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Diakite, No. 7 Virginia hold off Vermont, 61-55

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) -- Mamadi Diakite scored 19 points and No. 7 Virginia withstood a 3-point shooting display by Anthony Lamb and beat Vermont 61-55 on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (4-0) trailed before Diakite's basket gave them a 50-49 lead with 5:12 left and sparked a 9-0 run. Jay Huff scored twice in the spurt and Braxton Key hit a 3-pointer as Virginia held the Catamounts scoreless, and forced four turnovers, in a nearly four-minute span.

Lamb scored 30 for Vermont (4-1), including 25 in the second half, to nearly match the point total of the Cavaliers' first two opponents of the season, who each managed just 34 points. Stef Smith added 11 points, but Virginia turned Vermont's 13 turnovers into 20 points.

Kihei Clark scored 15 points and Key had 14 points for Virginia.

Virginia led 24-18 at halftime, but Vermont used a 10-2 run to start the half to take its first lead since the early going. Lamb had seven points in the run, including the last five, and tacked on his team's next 12 points with four 3-pointers as the score was tied five times.

BIG PICTURE

Vermont: The Catamounts hang their hat on defense, too, and came into the game with a 107-9 record since the 2011-12 season when holding their opponents to 60 points or fewer

Virginia: The Cavaliers' defensive excellence has been essential early in the season as they still are struggling to find an offensive rhythm. Highly regarded freshman guard Casey Morsell came into the game having made just 2 of 21 field goal attempts and was 1 for 6. Virginia has made 21 3-pointers in its first four games and allowed 31, including 12 by the Catamounts in 33 attempts.

UP NEXT

The Catamounts face Central Connecticut State on Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut.

The Cavaliers face Massachusetts on Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut.

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Wizards' fundamentals will be put to the test against Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge

Wizards' fundamentals will be put to the test against Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge

The Wizards are hosting the Spurs on Wednesday night, and these days that sentence isn't nearly as scary as it used to be. 

Tim Duncan is an assistant coach rather than a player, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are retired and Kawhi Leonard is a full two teams removed from his time playing for Gregg Popovich. 

San Antonio is reeling at the moment, dropping six straight games. If they lose in DC, it would be the longest losing streak the franchise has had since 1996-97, the season before they drafted Duncan. But that doesn't mean they won't represent a significant challenge. The Spurs are well-coached, fundamentally sound and are probably due for a win to get back on track.

The Wizards play the Spurs on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

They rank fifth in offensive efficiency and 26th in defense, which is surprising given their tendency to take too many mid-range jumpers and stifling batch of guards. On both ends of the floor, the Spurs are going to test the Wizards' fundamentals. That might yield fine results on offense for Washington, but the defensive end could be an ugly scene. 

Here are two stars to watch on the San Antonio side that the Wizards will have to be wary of if they're going to secure their fourth win of the year. 

Dejounte Murray

Murray's numbers won't bounce off your screen, but he's a bonafide stud Bradley Beal might have to deal with throughout the night. He made the NBA's All-Defensive First-Team two seasons ago as a 21-year-old but missed last season due to a knee injury. 

His defensive acumen and athleticism are still with him, and he might just be the best perimeter defender in the NBA not named Marcus Smart or Kawhi Leonard. If Beal is going to keep up the same level of production we've seen over the last week, he'll have to get there while dealing with an immense amount of ball pressure.

Offensively, Murray isn't much of a threat from the outside but he makes up for it with his explosiveness toward the rim. The Wizards defense has struggled with breakdowns created off of dribble penetration, so there's a good chance Popovich looks to create open looks off of Murray's drives. 

LaMarcus Aldridge

Moe Wagner won't be able to take as many charges against this big man. Aldridge, who's averaging 18.3 points on 52 percent shooting, does most of his damage in the mid-post area. Aldridge has more shot attempts from between the free-throw line area and the three-point line (62) than he does at the rim (41).

He has a multitude of moves and counters, but he doesn't get to the line much for a player who primarily plays inside the arc. For the Wizards to contain him, they'll have to play smart but remain physical with him on his catches. Don't let him get to his spot without working for it. 

Thomas Bryant and Wagner are more equipped to defend your traditional bully-ball big men like Joel Embiid or Andre Drummond. Guarding a player like Aldridge requires poise and self-control, which are not words typically used to describe the Wizards' interior defense. 

Between Murray's dribble penetration and elite perimeter defense and Aldridge's refined face-up game, the Spurs represent a major problem for the Wizards at this stage of the season. Washington's offense is for real, as they rank third in the NBA in efficiency, but the defense is the main reason they're 3-8. 

This game could go one of two ways. The Wizards can communicate more effectively on defense, defend with more connectivity and let their offense take care of the rest in a solid win, or they could continue to struggle and a fundamentally-sound team like the Spurs will blow the doors off of them in front of their home crowd. 

Tune in to NBC Sports Washington on Wednesday at 6 p.m. EST for all your Wizards coverage before tip-off at 7 p.m.

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