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Tubby leaning heavy on starters in Big Ten play

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Tubby leaning heavy on starters in Big Ten play

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Tubby Smith drew some criticism in his first five seasons in Minnesota for a substitution pattern that often looked more like a hockey philosophy.

He would run groups of five players in and out, playing his starters almost the same amount of minutes as his bench players.

Now that he has a talented, versatile starting group that believes it can play with any team in the nation, Smith is taking an entirely different approach. He's riding his most talented players hard this season, a strategy that has taken Minnesota to the No. 9 ranking and a highly anticipated game against No. 5 Michigan on Thursday night.

In the first four Big Ten games, guard Julian Welch is the only reserve playing more than 10 minutes a game. Three starters are averaging at least 30 minutes, with point guard Andre Hollins' 28.5 the lowest number.

``As you get into conference play, there's going to be tighter games and better athletes,'' Smith said Wednesday. ``So you want your better athletes in the game at the same time. I don't have somebody measuring. This isn't Little League where everyone is going to play so many minutes.''

Gophers starters have accounted for 87 percent of the team's scoring, with Hollins leading the way at 19 points per game in the conference. The biggest producer off the bench has been Oto Osenieks at just 2.5 points per game.

So far, the imbalance hasn't been much of an issue. The Gophers won at Illinois last week even though they didn't get a single point from their reserves. But in the rugged Big Ten, where foul trouble and injuries await with every collision under the basket, Minnesota's depth is sure to get a test sooner or later.

``I think we can hold it up,'' senior starter Rodney Williams said. ``And then when he's ready to go to the bench, we know we've got guys that are ready to come off the bench as well.''

Where the Gophers appear to be most thin is the front court. Williams and Trevor Mbakwe are getting all the minutes, while big man Maurice Walker has been slow to come back from a knee injury and center Elliott Eliason has been inconsistent behind them. In such a physical conference, it will be key for Mbakwe, who at 6-foot-8 is an undersized starting center, to stay out of foul trouble.

Backup point guard Maverick Ahanmisi hit a couple of 3-pointers against Indiana, an encouraging sign for a second unit that has been lacking offensive punch to this point. He said going against the Gophers' talented starters in practice should have them ready once the games begin. They're trying to pattern themselves after the Los Angeles Clippers' reserves, widely considered the best bench in the NBA.

``We're playing against the first group all the time, so we're going to push them because that's going to make them better. That's going to help us out, too,'' Ahanmisi said. ``The other day, coach said we play like the Clippers. So I think that was a big part of what we do as a second group, coming in and pressuring the ball and things like that, also in practice helping the starting five bring their intensity as well.''

The Wolverines have used their athleticism and playmaking on the perimeter to get off to a 16-1 start, winning their first three Big Ten games before falling to rival Ohio State last weekend. The game will feature two of the best players in the conference in Hollins and Wolverines point guard Trey Burke in what is expected to be a rowdy Williams Arena. Burke scored 30 points to beat the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament last season and Hollins is ready for a rematch.

``I look forward to going against great players,'' Hollins said. ``I don't get too caught up in it, but at the same time it's like I have something to prove at the same time. It's going to make me better in the long run so I just take the challenge to go out and compete.''

Hollins knows he's going to need plenty of help if the Gophers are going to bounce back from a loss at Indiana. And it may have to come from the backups.

``We know our bench is important,'' Hollins said. ``Everybody's going to be expected to play 100 percent. Coach Smith has 100 percent trust in our bench and I do also. We trust in each other.''

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AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this story.

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Three ways the Redskins helped Dwayne Haskins truly shine for the first time

Three ways the Redskins helped Dwayne Haskins truly shine for the first time

Dwayne Haskins played really well Sunday against the Eagles, and it wasn't just on certain drives or in specific situations. Haskins put together a complete and encouraging performance in Week 15, and for that, he deserves a lot of credit.

But the Redskins' coaching staff, and most notably Kevin O'Connell, should be praised as well for setting Haskins up to shine versus Philly.

Here are three things O'Connell and the offense did at FedEx Field that contributed to the rookie's best effort as a pro.

They were more aggressive on early downs

The following two things are true: 1) Bill Callahan loves Adrian Peterson, and 2) Adrian Peterson has a legitimate shot at rushing for more than 1,000 yards this season. Because of those two facts, it felt like Sunday was setting up to be the Peterson Show, especially on first down.

It wasn't, though, and that greatly benefitted Haskins.

No. 7 found Terry McLaurin for a nine-yarder to start the contest, a throw that allowed the QB to settle into a nice rhythm from the start. The 75-yard touchdown pass from Haskins to McLaurin was also a first down toss, one that featured play-action:

A first down pass in the second quarter, meanwhile, led to a defensive pass interference that advanced the ball 14 yards. On that possession, Haskins would eventually find Steven Sims for a score. 

Throughout the matchup, the Burgundy and Gold seemed more comfortable with trusting Haskins to attack the Eagles, and that's something he very much enjoyed.

"I hope to continue to do it," he told reporters postgame.

They targeted Steven Sims a bunch

Want another example of O'Connell's influence over the gameplan? Look no further than how much Sims was involved.

Overall, Sims was targeted 11 times, and while he only hauled in five of those passes, he's a guy worth looking to often. O'Connell has talked for weeks now about how much he wants to use Sims, and while it may sound odd to say that an undrafted receiver from Kansas deserves lots of chances on a unit that includes McLaurin and Peterson, it's true.

He's really difficult for defensive backs to stay in front of and he's shown a penchant for making some tremendous grabs, including his toe-tapper for his first career receiving TD on Sunday.  

"I'm seeing everything and I'm playing faster," Sims said in the locker room. 

O'Connell and Haskins are seeing him, too, and his larger role is giving Haskins another weapon to rely on.

They introduced a creative option play

In addition to the uptick in aggressiveness, the Redskins also were more creative against the Eagles than they had been lately. The best example of that is the option they introduced and executed perfectly on two separate snaps.

On the first option, Haskins fake-tossed it to Peterson before lateraling it to him a second later. The fake from Haskins was a nifty way to buy more time for the play to develop and it set Peterson up to pick up a first down:

They went back to it again in the third quarter, but this time, Haskins kept the ball and cut upfield for a 23-yard gain:

Watch any NFL game on any weekend, and you'll see offenses trying new concepts and surprising defenses with those concepts. In Week 15, the Redskins were finally one of those offenses, and the group as a whole was the most effective its been under Haskins. And for that, both the player and the staff should be recognized.

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Mark Lerner reflects on Bryce Harper’s departure in free agency

Mark Lerner reflects on Bryce Harper’s departure in free agency

For seven seasons, the Nationals and Bryce Harper enjoyed a happy marriage that included four NL East division titles, an MVP award and the respect from the rest of the league as legitimate playoff contenders year in and year out.

But principal owner Mark Lerner knew their relationship might not last forever. In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Washington’s Donald Dell, Lerner talked about how the team balanced making a business decision with the personal side of hoping to extend Harper when he hit free agency last offseason.

“We all like Bryce but at the end of the day, there’s the economic factor, there’s other factors that come into it: clubhouse, interaction with teammates, everything you could imagine in a decision about a free agent,” Lerner said.

Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, which at the time was the record for the most expensive contract in MLB history. The Nationals reportedly made him an offer for 10 years and $300 million that included $100 million in deferrals at the end of the 2018 season.

“He [was] a free agent for a reason, he earned that right,” Lerner said. “It’s his decision and his family’s decision where they play. And he chose to move on. He obviously got an incredible offer.

“Everybody seems to forget it’s not just a bidding war to get the players, the player has to want to play here and sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t.”

By the time Harper signed with Philadelphia in early March, the Nationals had already reported to Spring Training with starter Patrick Corbin signed to a six-year, $140 million deal as well as a slew of new faces on the roster that had joined the club through free agency. Lerner said Washington never heard back from Harper and didn’t want to wait for him to make a decision.

“We were moving down a different path at that point anyhow,” Lerner said. “Because, as you may recall, Bryce had not given us a response through his agent Scott Boras and we had decisions we had to make so we didn’t get caught waiting too long for him to find out we can’t get other players to replace him.

“And our choice at that point in time was either wait for him or we had the opportunity to sign Patrick Corbin. And we chose to sign Patrick Corbin and get another great starter, which has worked out great, and it was really more us at that point to say, ‘We have to move on.’”

The Nationals went on to win the World Series in 2019 while Harper posted an .882 OPS with 35 home runs in 157 games for the 81-81 Phillies. But as division rivals, Harper and the Nationals will see each other plenty over the next 12 years he’s locked into Philadelphia.

Only time will tell which side ends up wondering what could’ve been.

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