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In top-heavy Big East, middling teams aim for bowl

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In top-heavy Big East, middling teams aim for bowl

Just when it seemed Syracuse was over the hump, the Orange self-destructed again and rejoined a dubious Big East crowd that also includes South Florida, Connecticut, Pitt and Temple.

With the season winding down, dreams of the postseason are getting oh-so-dim for these programs.

While Rutgers, Louisville and Cincinnati orchestrate memorable seasons in the ever-changing Big East, the beat goes on for these mediocre teams that have struggled to find consistency as the landscape of the league begins to turn.

Doug Marrone's Orange (4-5) have a glimmer of hope, needing to win two of the last three games. For UConn and USF, both 3-6, there is no margin for error - they have to win out to reach the six victories needed to become bowl eligible.

Paul Chryst, in his first year at Pitt, is in the same boat as Marrone. The Panthers are 4-5, have three games left and might be able to carry over some momentum from their near upset of No. 3 Notre Dame last week. Pitt has won two of the least three, and faces UConn on Friday.

Meanwhile, Temple (3-5) is sort of in a league of its own. After rejoining the Big East in March, the Owls were left with only 11 games on this season's schedule. They've been trying to schedule a 12th opponent, and a December game at Hawaii remains a possibility.

Without the extra contest, it's wait till next year for the Owls. So, just getting to a 12th is a big goal.

``I think it would be tremendous for us to have another at the end,'' Temple coach Steve Addazio said. ``I don't know if we will or we won't. We'd love another chance. It means more practice. It means another game for a young football team. It means another opponent to fight for a win. That would be a great opportunity if something could happen to create that. We would embrace that.''

Temple's season has gone south because the Owls also can't seem to embrace the ball. They lost four fumbles, three in the second half, in a 45-17 loss at unbeaten Louisville on Saturday after playing the No. 11 Cardinals to a standstill in the opening half.

Three straight losses have put a damper on the season for Temple. Picked to finish last in the conference, the Owls started strong with wins over UConn and South Florida and led then-No. 19 Rutgers 10-0 at halftime before folding.

``I feel like we're ahead of schedule,'' Addazio said. ``I don't think we're far off. (We have to) think big, focus small.''

Syracuse's up-and-down season is down again for the moment after a 35-24 loss at Cincinnati. The Orange, leaving for the ACC next season, was seeking its third straight conference win, something not done in 11 years.

Instead, Syracuse lost two fumbles that set up touchdowns, missed a field goal and had another blocked, was whistled for a dozen penalties for 104 yards, and Brandon Reddish dropped an interception that was a pick-six for the taking.

Back to the drawing board one more time.

``What's frustrating is the mistakes that we make that really put us in a tough position to win,'' Marrone said. ``It's happened through the course of the season. It's been very tough for us to overcome those mistakes.''

Syracuse (3-2 Big East) is alone in fourth place in the conference and already has lost to two of the three teams on top of the conference - Rutgers and Cincinnati - and hosts top-dog Louisville (9-0) Saturday.

The Orange finish the season with road games at Missouri and Temple. With the 11th-ranked Cardinals coming to town, Marrone isn't looking too far ahead, that's for sure.

``I always look at it from week to week,'' he said. ``I've never really looked at it from the overall picture because you can't. I think it distracts you from the task at hand.''

South Florida finally broke out of its Big East funk, beating Connecticut 13-6 on Saturday for its first conference win of the season after four losses. That also snapped a school-record six-game losing streak. USF entered the UConn game as the only FBS team without an interception and had two picks in the fourth quarter. That was the good news.

The bad? Standout quarterback B.J. Daniels suffered what is likely a season-ending ankle injury. Daniels was hurt on a 15-yard run inside the UConn 10 in the fourth quarter.

And then there's UConn, which is 0-4 in Big East play and has not scored a point in the fourth quarter in its last five games. And the Huskies continued a familiar pattern for all these teams fighting to make the postseason - they turned the ball over on their final three possessions against USF.

Not a good omen as the team preps for Pitt, another team bolting for the ACC next year.

``We still have three pretty meaningful games to play, so obviously to me, there's still a lot of football to play and I'm pretty optimistic that we can do this,'' UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. ``Obviously, we're disappointed, but that hasn't diminished what we are doing.''

Nobody is giving up.

``A lot of teams would just go into the tank, but we're trying to stay together,'' Huskies linebacker Jory Johnson said. ``We have three games left, so we can make this a positive ending or a negative ending.''

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Associated Press Writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Conn. contributed to this report.

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Five observations from Wizards' win over the Lakers, including John Wall's 40 points

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USA Today Sports

Five observations from Wizards' win over the Lakers, including John Wall's 40 points

The Washington Wizards beat the Los Angeles Lakers 128-110 on Sunday night. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Despite disappointing overall, the Wizards have had a few brilliant games this season. Only rarely have they thoroughly demolished an opponent, and before Sunday night, those games were against NBA bottom-dwellers. On Sunday, they finally put it all together from start to finish and overmatched a very good opponent.

The Wizards beat LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers by 18 points. They held James to only 13, the lowest scoring game of his long and otherwise distinguished career against the Wizards. 

James has dominated Washington for a decade-and-a-half, in 49 regular season games and 16 more in the playoffs. He once scored 57. But on this night, Jeff Green and others pushed back and wore him down on the second night of a back-to-back.

While James was off, John Wall was all the way on. He was dominant in transition and in the halfcourt, making easy work of Lonzo Ball, Lance Stephenson and a host of players the Lakers tried on him.

The Wizards snapped a four-game losing streak and moved to 8-6 at Capital One Arena. 

2. This was the best game of the season for Wall and by a good margin. He had it going early and there was nothing the Lakers could do to stop him from scoring and setting up others. 

Everything Wall tried worked. He played with pace, yet was in complete control, seeing passing lanes before they were open and keeping Lakers defenders off-balance.

Wall erupted for 28 points in the first half alone. At one point in the second quarter, he had more points (24) than the Lakers' starting lineup (22).

Wall ended up with a season-high 40 points, 14 assists, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks. He shot a masterful 16-for-27 (59.3%) from the field and 4-for-8 from three.

3. If there is one thing Sam Dekker does really well, it's run the floor. Last season, he ranked fourth in the NBA in average speed. That doesn't mean he's one of the fastest players in the league, it just means he's constantly moving.

Players with that trait generally work well with Wall, who is one of the most gifted and willing passers in the game. Sure enough, Dekker was rewarded.

Wall assisted on four different shots by Dekker in the first half alone and all of them were open looks around the rim. Dekker seems to have good instincts on when to cut and has the athleticism to finish in traffic. 

It has only been four games since he joined the Wizards, but the early returns have been good on Dekker. He finished with a season-high 20 points, just the second time in his career he's reached the 20-point mark.

4. The Wizards were without Otto Porter Jr. for the third consecutive game, as he remains sidelined with a right knee contusion. This was the first time Porter has missed three straight since 2015-16, the year before head coach Scott Brooks took over. 

Porter is usually very good at managing injuries. Sometimes he will leave a game or miss a practice, but always bounces back quickly. This injury, though, has proven to be a stubborn one. 

Brooks said Porter sustained it by bumping knees with Myles Turner of the Pacers back on Dec. 10. The team insists it is just a bad bruise. But those things were believed about Wall's knee injury last season and look at what happened.

5. Porter's absence wasn't the only factor that left the Wizards undermanned in this one. Their trade with the Suns is not yet official, so they didn't have Trevor Ariza available. 

The departure of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers removed two members of their regular rotation. To help fill the void, they brought up three players - Troy Brown Jr., Okaro White and Jordan McRae - from the Capital City Go-Go.

The Wizards also lost forward Markieff Morris in the first half. Morris took a shot to the chin area and left with a neck strain. He went to the locker room after stretching out his hands over and over while on the floor and then on the bench as if he was trying to regain feeling in his fingers.

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Scott Brooks enters Kobe Bryant alongside LeBron James into NBA's 'GOAT' debate

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USA Today Sports

Scott Brooks enters Kobe Bryant alongside LeBron James into NBA's 'GOAT' debate

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- NBA fans and internet inhabitants debate the league’s All-time greatest player relentlessly. The primary side-by-side comparison these days for “GOAT” status centers on Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James. Other legends have supporters. Jordan and James, who made his first appearance in Washington as a member of the Lakers Sunday night, dominate such discussions.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks inferred another former Laker is worthy of such greatest ever talk when answering a question about the expected pro-Los Angeles crowd inside Washington’s arena.

“There are organizations and rightfully so that their crowds are global. You can argue [the Lakers] had the greatest player ever to play the game for 20 years before LeBron got there,” Brooks said.

Do the math. He’s not talking about Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry West or Wilt Chamberlain. That’s Kobe Bryant’s music.

“Everybody is a fan of Kobe and now they have LeBron. Now they have another guy who could arguably be the greatest player ever,” Brooks said.

Back it up. Again, many thrust James, a four-time league MVP and three-time NBA champion, into the debate with Jordan, whose cultural reverence exceeds his six titles, 32,292 points scored and countless honors.

Bryant’s résumé is all kinds of impressive. The 20-year veteran and 18-time All-Star passed Jordan as the league’s third-time scorer, and won five championships. Top 5-10 player, perhaps. The GOAT? That’s not an argument often heard beyond loyal Laker fans that grew up during Bryant’s reign. It’s not even clear he’s the best Laker of all-time considering the competition.

Bryant’s career deserves praise. Brooks didn’t go out on the flimsiest of limbs. Still, that’s quite a statement from a longtime coach and former player.

Perhaps the presence of James back in Washington, a place he’s thrived over the years, sparked Brooks’ comment.

“So, [Los Angeles is] going to have fans. Those guys are fun to watch. I love watching LeBron play even when he (scored) 57 (points) last year against us and made 11 of 14 mid-range shots.”

Don’t forget the game-tying banked 3–pointer at the buzzer in regulation during the 2016 regular season. Los Angeles won in overtime, snapping Washington’s 17-game home court winning streak. Brooks hadn’t.

“Even the 3 that [LeBron] sent to overtime with whatever on the clock that he traveled on,” the coach joked.

Clearly, Brooks isn’t over those moments. That alone didn’t lead him to nominate Bryant as perhaps the best ever, although at this moment, maybe. 

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