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Washburn, Utah getting noticed for right moves

Washburn, Utah getting noticed for right moves

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The nasty chants that rained down on Jason Washburn during Utah's Pac-12 opener last week were hard to ignore.

Instead of being insulted, the Utes' 6-foot-10 center took them as a sign that his play was being noticed.

Considering how far Utah had fallen off the college basketball map last season during a 6-25 campaign, the razzing almost felt good.

``I wasn't going to jaw back with them,'' Washburn said of the rowdy Arizona State fans. ``All I could do was hope my game silenced them. Obviously, we lost the game (in overtime) and they probably got the final laugh, but I took it as I was doing something right.''

Now, after putting up big numbers in pushing ASU and No. 3 Arizona to the brink last weekend, Washburn needs a similar effort at home Thursday against high-scoring UCLA (12-3, 2-0), winner of seven straight.

It's a matchup of the Pac-12's top offense, led by freshman forward Shabazz Muhammad (19.6 points a game), and Utah's conference-best defense.

Washburn is a big part of that D, the lone holdover from the Jim Boylen era.

He had a 19-point, 18-rebound effort against the Sun Devils and blocked four shots. He followed that with a 17-point, 11-rebound effort against the Wildcats, with two blocks and a 3-pointer.

Washburn leads the league in rebounding, is second in blocks in conference play and is the inspirational leader on a defense that ranks first in the conference (seventh nationally) in field goal percentage (35.4) - up from 321st in the nation last season.

He has plenty of help from a revamped roster that includes freshman Jordan Loveridge (a team-leading 13 points and 7.6 rebounds per game), sophomore Dallin Bachynski and guards Aaron Dotson, Jarred DuBois, Cedric Martin and Glen Dean.

And the Utes have second-year coach Larry Krystkowiak preaching defense.

``A guy can have a night where he just can't hit a shot but defense can always be there. Defense travels with you,'' Washburn said.

That approach by Utah has resulted in slow-it-down games, including the 60-57 loss in Tucson on Saturday in which Arizona failed to score a basket in transition.

``It's not two teams running down, dunking on each other, but we feel it's the right way to play,'' said Washburn, who already has his education degree and wants to be a teacher. ``I don't know how else you can explain us staying with the No. 3 team in the country.''

Washburn acknowledges last year's team was so lacking in ability it probably had no right even winning six games. Credit Krystkowiak for making them believe they could.

Now Utah (8-6, 0-2) has surpassed the six wins with 16 games remaining on the regular-season schedule.

Thursday's ``blackout game,'' where fans are encouraged to wear black, has brought excitement to the campus not seen since USC made its visit last fall to play Utah in football.

``The margin for error will be slimmer and we have to be ready to compete,'' Krystkowiak said. ``Hopefully, people have something to cheer about.''

There wasn't much last year, even though Washburn's game was beginning to take shape under Krystkowiak - once he finally accepted the coaching.

``I was a big Boylen fan, and when he (was fired), I was heartbroken,'' Washburn acknowledged. ``Coach K never gave up on me. I saw that and respected him instantly.''

He learned to move in Utah's motion offense, improved his decision-making and footwork in the post, and kept working on his defense and shooting.

This year he even accepted a move to the bench for nine games when Bachynski was lighting it up, and Washburn was finding early foul trouble.

The move jump-started Washburn's game.

``It was perceived as a little bit of a timeout,'' Krystkowiak said. ``But he proved to me he was about Utah and it wasn't about him by the way he practiced and (his) emotions. He didn't take it as a demotion.''

Since returning to the starting lineup, Washburn has averaged 15 points on 56 percent shooting.

``The past few games he lifted his level up and hopefully his curve is going up,'' Krystkowiak said.

The Utes still must learn to finish games, with their six losses by a combined 22 points.

The one common opponent UCLA and Utah have played is Cal State Northridge. The Bruins won 82-56, while Utah blew a 48-27 halftime lead and fell 76-71 at home.

``Guys are gaining some (pride), but the animal coming in here on Thursday is a little bit different than what we're used to,'' Krystkowiak said. ``So we're going to have to be that much better.''

Last year, the Utes lost to the Bruins 76-49 in Los Angeles. Consider it another part of the crazy road Washburn has endured - one that has seen him have 55 different teammates since he arrived in 2008.

``My time here has been so full of up and downs and rocky roads. All I want for myself and this team is to win and get this program going where I believe it can go,'' Washburn said.

A win over one of the most storied college programs would help.

``I don't want people to remember the losses and hard times, but the fact that I stuck with it as best I could and worked every offseason to improve,'' Washburn said. ``My college career is 2 1/2 months away from being over. I'm going to try to make that the longest 2 1/2 months I humanly can.''

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Tom Wilson’s suspension reduced to 14 games by neutral arbitrator

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Tom Wilson’s suspension reduced to 14 games by neutral arbitrator

Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension has been reduced to 14 games by a neutral arbitrator meaning he is eligible to return as early as Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild. Elliotte Friedman was the first to report the arbitrator’s decision.

Wilson was suspended 20 games for a hit to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the preseason. The suspension was announced on Oct. 3 and upheld by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Wilson’s first appeal.

Though the second appeal was technically successful in getting the suspension reduced, the lengthy process ended up costing him an extra two games as the Caps are already 16 games into the season. The good news for him is that he will recoup $378,048.78 of the over $1.2 million he was originally due to forfeit as a result of the suspension.

This marks the second suspension that Shyam Das, the neutral arbitrator, has reduced this season. Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson was suspended 27 games for domestic assault, but had his suspension reduced to 18 games after taking his appeal to the neutral arbitrator.

Tuesday’s ruling may mark the end of Wilson’s suspension and of the appeals process, but it hardly marks the end of the entire saga and controversy surrounding Wilson and his style of play. A 14-game suspension is still significant and should not be seen as vindication that Wilson did nothing wrong in the eyes of the league.

If there is another suspension, it will be longer and neither Wilson nor the Caps can afford for that to happen. Wilson still must change the way he plays or everyone is going to end up going through this entire process again and nobody wants that.

The Caps will have a morning skate at 12:30 p.m. ET which should provide more clarity on whether Todd Reirden intends to play Wilson immediately and where he could slot into the lineup.

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What do the Capitals do with Jakub Vrana?

What do the Capitals do with Jakub Vrana?

You don’t have to watch Jakub Vrana very long to realize just how talented he is. Unfortunately for him, you also don’t have to watch very long to realize how turnover prone he can be as well.

Carelessness with puck management has been one of the glaring issues for the Caps in the early season and Vrana, as he has been for much of his young career, is certainly guilty of that.

Vrana’s combination of talent and penchant for on-ice mistakes presents a problem for head coach Todd Reirden as he has to find the right place plug him into the lineup. That challenge has thus far proven difficult.

Vrana entered the Nov. 3 game against the Dallas Stars on the top line.  After a minus-three game and a turnover in overtime that led to Dallas’ game-winning goal, he found himself on the fourth line the very next game with barely eight minutes of ice time.

“We'll continue to try to remove those glaring turnovers or defense mistakes from his game,” Reirden said recently. “I think it's something that has improved compared to prior years which is why he spent the majority of the time up with those top-six guys, but it's sometimes good for a reset with some of the bottom-six guys and then start slotting him back in.”

At 22-years-old, mistakes on the ice are to be expected. But Vrana may take that to the extreme.

Not only does Vrana commit a lot of careless turnovers, he is also guilty of taking far too many penalties. Vrana ranks third on the team with 14 penalty minutes.

Mistakes by a forward are not nearly as glaring to a coach as those by a defensemen considering the mistakes tend to happen in the offensive zone and are less likely to result in a goal for the other team. When those offensive zone mistakes lead to offensive zone penalties, however, that’s a different story.

But Vrana is simply too skilled to bury in the lineup or take out altogether. With four even-strength goals, Vrana is tied for the third-most on the team behind only T.J. Oshie (7) and Alex Ovechkin (6). Of all the forwards Reirden has cycled into the top line in Tom Wilson’s absence to play with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vrana was the player who seemed to fit the best. He does not provide the same sort of defensive balance to the top line as Wilson does, but no one has been able to step in and adequately fill Wilson’s spot thus far. Vrana added an extra element of speed and offensive skill to an already dangerous line and seemed to show chemistry with Kuznetsov especially.

“There's some really good things that he's showing,” Reirden said. “The speed he plays with, the release of his shot, the chances he's getting, you've got to try to find ways to get him out there more.”

But Wilson will soon return to fill his top line role and Reirden will soon get his full lineup for the first time this season. Yet, almost a quarter into the season Vrana still makes it hard to find the right spot for him.

Putting Vrana on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie – if Reirden reunites Ovechkin and Kuznetsov – seems like the best fit. Backstrom and Oshie can make up for Vrana’s defensive issues and Vrana can provide speed on an otherwise slower line.

But at some point, Vrana has to cut back on the turnovers and the penalties.

“You've got to continue to show him,” Reirden said. “Continue to show him, continue to `remind him, continue to teach and help him grow and get better. That's a young player trying to become a top-six full time.”

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