Nationals

Phillips' future as Wildcats coach in jeopardy

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Phillips' future as Wildcats coach in jeopardy

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky coach Joker Phillips has tried to maintain a sense of humor during what has been a difficult season and mounting questions about his job status.

``I was coming over here today, and I got in the car, and my seat was hot,'' he said. ``And I looked up, and I had hit the seat warmer.''

Questions regarding Phillips' future and Kentucky's struggles are no laughing matter, though.

The Wildcats (1-8, 0-6 Southeastern Conference) lost their seventh straight game Saturday at Missouri, ensuring a third consecutive losing season and putting them on pace for their worst finish since going 2-9 in 2004.

Injuries have forced Phillips to play 26 freshmen against one of the nation's toughest schedules. That hasn't stopped Wildcats fans from expressing their frustration: Calling for his dismissal on radio talk shows and not showing up for games - attendance has fallen off at 67,942-seat Commonwealth Stadium.

Players say they still support Phillips and will try to finish the season with three wins to help the embattled coach.

``He's still here, he's still our coach, we're still playing for him and I'm going to play hard for him,'' junior right tackle Kevin Mitchell said.

``We don't actually say anything to him (about his situation), but we come out and we practice hard. We're keeping it going, we just continue as a team. We're all pushing each other hard. Practicing hard shows him that we still care, that we still believe and that we're not giving up.''

Phillips, 12-22 and in his third season at Kentucky, is one of several SEC coaches facing uncertain futures - joining Auburn's Gene Chizik, Tennessee's Derek Dooley and Arkansas' John L. Smith.

But Phillips has remained upbeat through the turmoil, saying that he's been too busy focusing on his team to pay attention to what has been or said about him.

When asked again if he has talked to Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart about his status, Phillips came back with his standard response that the two friends have talked without being specific.

It's ``just small talk,'' Phillips said. ``Talking like friends do weekly.''

Kentucky spokesman Tony Neely declined an interview request with Barnhart about Phillips, saying via email, ``As was stated before the season, and as we do with each program, an evaluation will be done at the end of the season.''

As for Wildcats fans, they've had plenty to say on sports talk shows.

``Most fans feel there needs to be a change, and they've felt that way for some time,'' said Larry Glover, who hosts a nightly radio show heard here and in Louisville.

``I think the knock on Joker is that Kentucky was relatively healthy and then they lost to Western Kentucky (32-31 in overtime). Had they beaten Western, I think he'd have a more credible case about the injuries and youth.''

That game marked a turning point for Kentucky in other ways. Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, who started strong and was expected to lead the Wildcats' offense, suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him for a 38-0 loss at Florida.

Smith lasted just two plays in his return against South Carolina, tearing an ankle ligament that has effectively ended his season. That thrust true freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles into action, with Whitlow playing most of the past three games after Towles sustained a high ankle sprain against Mississippi State.

Most of Kentucky's youngsters have been seen on defense, something the Wildcats believe will pay off down the road. In the meantime, opponents have exploited their inexperience particularly on the road.

The Wildcats are coming off a 33-10 loss at Missouri, which followed a storm-shortened 49-7 rout at Arkansas and the one at Florida.

They've been more competitive at Commonwealth Stadium, playing Georgia close two weeks ago and leading South Carolina at halftime last month before the Gamecocks rallied in the second half.

Nonetheless, attendance has fallen to an average of 51,255 through five games after averaging 60,007 for seven dates last season.

``You see the loss of confidence reflected in the attendance figures this year,'' said Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones, whose show is heard on 18 statewide affiliates. ``This is probably the least interest I've seen in a UK football team in the seven, eight years I've been covering them. There's never been a team that people cared less about than this one.''

Glover said some callers have questioned Barnhart's commitment to having a winning football program, which happened regularly until last season. Despite playing in what is considered the nation's toughest conference, the Wildcats were able to finish .500 or better from 2004-10, going to bowl games each year.

The recent record could deter potential successors from being interested in the Kentucky job for the same reasons mentioned by callers, Glover added.

Still, no one has totally ruled out Phillips' return.

If the Wildcats can close with a winning streak, Phillips might get a reprieve. While none of the opponents are imposing, they could provide a bright spot in having to play so many underclassmen. They eagerly want to see their careers through with the coach that brought them here.

``He's the same encouraging coach,'' sophomore linebacker Alvin Dupree said. ``He's a good dude and I really don't try to look at it that he's leaving. Hopefully, he'll continue to be the same coach and we'll keep moving forward.''

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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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