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Vols' McRae heats up while his teammates struggle

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Vols' McRae heats up while his teammates struggle

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee guard Jordan McRae is on a roll in the Southeastern Conference. So are the Volunteers, just in the other direction.

The Vols have not been able to capitalize on the best stretch of the junior's career.

He has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games, all Tennessee losses. The Volunteers have dropped their first three Southeastern Conference games for the first time since 1997-98.

The Vols (8-7, 0-3 SEC) will try to avoid going 0-4 in conference play for the first time since 1993-94 on Saturday when they host Mississippi State (7-8, 2-1). The losing streak has given McRae no reason to celebrate the best individual stretch of his career.

``I still feel bad that we lost,'' McRae said. ``The points don't cross my mind at all. At the end of the day, I want to win. That's all I'm about, just winning. We haven't done it lately.''

McRae certainly has done his part.

The 6-foot-5 McRae leads the SEC with 23.3 points per game in conference play. McRae has a team-high 13.9 points per game overall this season, although he didn't enter the starting lineup until last week. He's the first Tennessee player to score 20-plus points in four straight games since Chris Lofton in 2008.

``I'm attacking more and being more aggressive than I've ever been in college,'' McRae said.

McRae's surge followed a discussion with Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who told him to start shooting more often. McRae didn't attempt more than 10 shots in any of Tennessee's first 11 games. He has shot 34 of 67 over his last four games.

``I said to him two or three weeks ago, `If you're a scorer, then be that,' `` Martin said. ``I don't know too many scorers who leave games on a consistent basis with six or seven shots. If you're a scorer, get 12-15 shots and get to the free-throw line. It's the same thing I tell Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes. Those guys have the ability to score the ball. They have to get shots up.''

The Vols need to give McRae some help.

Tennessee doesn't have anyone else averaging more than 8.3 points per game in conference play. McRae was the only Vol to score in double figures in each of Tennessee's last two games, a 68-65 loss at Alabama and a 75-65 setback at Kentucky.

The Vols were picked before the season to finish fourth in the SEC, but they've run into plenty of roadblocks.

Jeronne Maymon, a second-team all-SEC forward last year, won't play a minute this season because of an injured left knee. Golden, the Vols' leading scorer last season, has fallen out of the starting lineup and hasn't exceeded eight points in any of his last five games.

Stokes, the Vols' best pro prospect, has made more than three baskets in just three of Tennessee's last 10 games. Senior guard Skylar McBee, the team's top outside shooter, has made just 31.6 percent of his 3-point attempts as he plays through a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

McRae said he started asserting himself more on offense because he realized that's what the team needed.

``Seeing Trae struggle a little bit and with the news that Jaronne would be out the whole year, I felt that somebody had to step up on the offensive end,'' McRae said.

Tennessee's entire team must step up soon to have any hope of meeting preseason expectations.

The Vols have bounced back from slow starts before. They dropped three of their first four league games last year and ended up tied for second in the SEC with a 10-6 conference record. The last Tennessee team to start 0-3 in SEC play went on to reach the 1998 NCAA tournament.

``There's always a sense of urgency, but I think there's a difference between urgency and panic,'' Martin said. ``For us, it's not panic mode but a sense of urgency to want to get back in stride.''

This game represents a reunion of sorts for Martin and Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, who worked together as Purdue assistants from 2006-08. Mississippi State, which has just seven healthy scholarship players, won its first two conference games before falling 75-43 to Alabama on Wednesday.

``I know Cuonzo Martin, and they're going to compete,'' Ray said. ``We better be ready to get out there and compete. This isn't going to be an X's and O's situation. This is going to be about this: Are you ready to play competitive basketball?''

The Vols must be ready as well.

A loss would give them their worst SEC start in nearly two decades. A victory would back up their confidence that they can rebound from a slow start for a second straight season.

``This can still be turned around,'' McRae said, ``and I think we will.''

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AP Sports Writer David Brandt of Starkville, Miss., contributed to this report.

How Ben Olsen is coaching D.C. United during coronavirus quarantine

How Ben Olsen is coaching D.C. United during coronavirus quarantine

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the MLS season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen is finding a sense of “underlying positivity” in the face of massive changes to the day-to-day life of so many around the world.

"The priority right now with the group that we have is to maintain a level of fitness," Olsen said on a conference call with local reporters this morning. "All we can do right now is follow the guidelines given by MLS."

Even though the team is not able to meet face-to-face like they normally would, Olsen and his staff have had to get creative in ways to continue to build team chemistry and make sure everyone is on the same page.

"We have a once-a-week call with everyone on a Zoom chat with the trainers," he said. "We talk about things like social media and how to stay connected to fans, the programs we are sending out and we get feedback from [the players] on what is going well."

Dealing with the pandemic has been especially challenging for players from overseas, who might not have the same support systems that those longtime MLS players have in the area. The club is making a particular point to reach out to those players.

D.C. United and its staff are also making sure that all of the club’s players are able to partake in individualized training to keep a level of fitness, even if that means getting some workout equipment to players who might not have it where they live.

Olsen noted after a personal story of taking his kids to a local field to play some soccer and being turned away by policemen and that “there’s all these hurdles that the [players] are coming up against and we are now constantly having to adapt off our new reality.”

As new challenges arise and are met, Olsen is trying to keep a positive mindset and joked that he now has the time to be a better husband and father than he normally would at the start of a new season.

"There’s this underlying positivity that again I feel very, very lucky because of the scenario I’m in," the head coach noted. "I’m also constantly thinking about others that are not in the situation I’m in. Whether it’s the EMTs, the firemen, the D.C. support system, our medical doctors, so many people on the frontlines that are doing so much and putting their lives in danger right now. I make sure we as a family are constantly reminding our children that there’s a lot of people out there doing some great things in a very, very tough time."

When asked what he misses most about what would be the end of the opening month of the MLS season, Olsen stated that he misses the locker room and being with his players.

"Dealing with the ups and downs of a season, dealing with the journey of the season," he said. "It’s a special thing that we have and I think in some ways you have to lose it to appreciate it. Right now I miss being in that locker room, I miss the guys, I miss my staff."

While no one knows yet when the season will return, Olsen is "very bullish and optimistic" that MLS will recover quickly.

"Of course the league will take a hit, just like every other league and every other business across this country," Olsen said. "This league will be just fine when we get through this, just like our country will be just fine."

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Davey Martinez to ESPN: ‘I believe there will be baseball’

Davey Martinez to ESPN: ‘I believe there will be baseball’

Baseball may not yet be close to returning to action, but Nationals manager Davey Martinez hasn’t given up hope that the 2020 season will be salvaged after the start pf the campaign was delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I do believe that we'll have a season, but at this particular moment, for me and for our players, our main concern is the well-being of families, friends, fans,” Martinez told ESPN’s Marly Rivera. “We need to get out of this healthy and ready to go.”

This is the seventh time MLB has had to cut into a season. The last time it happened was 1994-95, when a strike by the players forced the league to cancel ’94 World Series. Martinez was a member of the San Francisco Giants that season, denied a chance to make the playoffs after the season came to a halt with the Giants only three games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.

But when asked if he had any past experiences helping him get through the pandemic that’s forced governors across the U.S. to issue stay-at-home orders, Martinez pointed to another traumatic event that shook both baseball and the country.

“For me, 9/11,” Martinez said. “I am from New York and I have family in New York. I understood what everybody was going through. But New York rebounded, and baseball came back and took everybody in. I was playing with Atlanta and we played the Mets in that first game [in New York after 9/11].

“We were winning that game, and all of a sudden [Mike] Piazza hits the home run -- and it was almost a sigh of relief for everybody. It really was. That moment, watching the ball go over the fence. ... I know we're all so competitive and we all want to win, but in that particular moment for me, it was like, ‘You know what, this is what the game's all about. Win or lose, this is what the game is all about.’ Watching and listening to the fans stand up and cheer like they did, it was phenomenal.”

While stuck at his home in Tennessee, Martinez has helped pass the time by driving around his property on a four-wheeler and reaching out to his players—two or three a day. He asks them about their families, trying to gauge what their mindsets are because “all of a sudden what you love to do this time of year is gone.”

“I believe there will be baseball,” Martinez said “I can't put a finger on when, but we're going to step back on that field and we're going to have a lot of fun. I tell the boys, think of it this way, we hold the trophy for a lot longer than anybody else.”

As the defending World Series champions, the Nationals have been able to at least take solace in the fact that a banner-raising ceremony and ring presentation await them when they return to D.C. Until then, all Martinez can do is bunker down and wait things out along with the rest of the world.

“I think about that moment when we come back and get those beautiful rings and put up that banner in the stadium,” Martinez said. “It's still going to be there no matter what when we get back. But under these circumstances, I can't think about anything else but the safety of the people and our love for this country.”

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