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Germany: Merkel aide floats long suspension to debt rule

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff has floated the idea of Germany suspending rules to prevent the government running up new debt for several years as Europe's biggest economy digests the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.In an article for Tuesday's edition of the Handelsblatt business daily, Helge Braun advocated stabilizing employees' social welfare contributions until the end of 2023 and doing without tax increases. He wrote that such a “strategic decision for the economic recovery” would have significant consequences for the budget — "in concrete terms, the ‘debt brake’ can't be kept to in the coming years even with otherwise strong spending discipline.”The so-called “debt brake," which was introduced a decade ago, allows new borrowing to the tune of only 0.35% of annual gross domestic product, though it can be suspended to deal with natural disasters or other emergencies that are out of the state's control. After six years in the black, Germany resorted to running up new debt in 2020 to help cover the cost of huge support packages made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic and an expected shortfall in tax revenue. The “debt brake” was suspended to allow up to 217.8 billion euros ($265 billion) in new borrowing. Eventually, Germany borrowed only 130.5 billion euros; the economy suffered less badly than expected, declining by 5% — still a better outcome than long expected. The rule is being suspended for 2021 as well.Braun argued that, rather than continuing to claim year-by-year exceptions to the rules, the constitution should be adjusted to define a “reliable diminishing corridor" of new borrowing over the coming years and “a clear date for the return to fulfilling the debt rule.”Braun's intervention is remarkable given that the debt rules have long been a point of pride for Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union and this is an election year. Germans will elect a new parliament on Sept. 26, a vote that will determine who succeeds Merkel as chancellor after 16 years.The center-right parliamentary group's budget spokesman, Eckhardt Rehberg, rejected the idea and described the proposal as Braun's “personal opinion.” He said that “solid government finances are not negotiable” for the group.

Official: Troops withdraw from home of Uganda's Bobi Wine

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — An attorney for Bobi Wine says Ugandan soldiers have withdrawn from the opposition presidential challenger's home the day after a judge ruled that his house arrest was unlawful.But attorney George Musisi told The Associated Press that security forces could still be seen in the village near the candidate's property outside the capital, Kampala. “They have gone for now,” he said. “Of course (the candidate) hasn't yet stepped outside the house. We don't know what will happen.”The popular singer-turned-opposition figure was meeting officials with his National Unity Platform party at his home on Tuesday, a holiday in Uganda that marks the day that rebels led by President Yoweri Museveni took power 35 years ago. A police helicopter hovered over the area, according to local broadcaster NTV. The candidate, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has been unable to leave his home since the Jan. 14 election. Ugandan authorities have said he can only leave his home under military escort because they fear his presence in public could incite rioting.Police told reporters on Monday they would pull away from his residence but keep surveilling the area. Museveni was declared the winner of the election with 58% of the vote while Wine had 34%. The opposition leader insists he won and has said he can prove that the military was stuffing ballot boxes, casting ballots for people and chasing voters away from polling stations. Wine has accused Museveni of staging a “coup” in the election and urges his supporters to protest his loss through nonviolent means. But he has suggested he might not go to court to challenge the official results because of concerns a possible loss there would validate Museveni’s win. Uganda’s election was marred by violence ahead of polling day as well as an internet shutdown that remained in force until four days after the vote. Social media sites remain restricted.

Italy's Conte to resign, seek nod to form new coalition

ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte was meeting Tuesday with his cabinet before heading to the presidential palace to offer his resignation after a key coalition ally pulled his party’s support over Conte’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Conte is hoping to get President Sergio Mattarella’s support for forming a new coalition government that can steer the country through the pandemic, economic recession and a spending plan for 209 billion euros in European Union recovery funds.Conte’s government was thrown into turmoil earlier this month when a junior coalition party headed by ex-Premier Matteo Renzi yanked its support. Conte won confidence votes in parliament last week, but fell short of an absolute majority, forcing him to take the gamble of resignation.Mattarella, who is the largely ceremonial head of state, can ask Conte to try to form a broader coalition government, appoint a largely technical government to steer the country through the pandemic, or he can dissolve parliament and call elections two years early.The current coalition of the 5-Star Movement, Democratic Party and smaller Leu party are all hoping for a third Conte government. Conte's first government starting in 2018 was a 5-Star alliance with the right-wing League of Matteo Salvini that lasted 15 months. His second, with the Democrats, lasted 16 months.Salvini and center-right opposition parties are clamoring for early elections, hoping to capitalize on polls prior to the government crisis that showed high approval ratings for the League and the right-wing Brothers of Italy party of Giorgia Meloni. Salvini has blasted the “palace games and buying and selling of senators” of recent days as Conte has tried to find new coalition allies, saying Conte is incapable of leading Italy through the crisis.“Let’s use these weeks to give the word back to the people and we’ll have five years of a serious and legitimate parliament and government not chosen in palaces but chosen by Italians,” Salvini said in a video statement Monday.Democratic leader Nicola Zingaretti says early elections are the last thing the country needs. He tweeted Monday: “With Conte for a new clearly European-centric government supported by an ample parliamentary base, that will guarantee credibility and stability to confront the challenges Italy has ahead."

South African Muslim group safely buries its virus dead

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Not even the full protective gear can mask the respect with which the men wash the body of a newly deceased member of their Muslim community.“To Allah we belong. Unto him shall we return. Ghusal Room 1,” reads a sign, referring to ghusal, the Muslim cleansing ritual, at the entrance to a room designated for victims of COVID-19. The body is shrouded, placed in a coffin and buried in a nearby cemetery in Lenasia, a community of about 100,000 people on the outskirts of Johannesburg.For more than 30 years the Saaberie Chishty ambulance service, funded by community donations, has responded to medical emergencies. Now the service has greatly expanded to offer oxygen and home care for those with mild COVID-19 cases, and transport to the hospital for those with more severe illness.Confronted by a growing number of deaths, the organization now provides safe body preparation and burial. Its teams carry out many burials within 12 hours and all within the 24 hours required by Islamic tradition. “When we saw the news stories from overseas, the death toll, mass burials, we asked ourselves, ‘If this disease hits our shores, will we be ready?’" said Aboobaker Sayed, 42, chairman of the Saaberie Chishty Society, named for two Muslim saints in India.Around the world, the pandemic has challenged Muslim communities to bury their dead according to tradition. In South Africa, the charity consulted medical experts on how to safely wash and prepare bodies for burials.“We found that we could follow our rituals, but stay with science to do so safely,” Sayed said. “Volunteers were trained by our imams. It was a passing of the baton to the younger generation because they were not as much at risk as our older generation.”The group also trained and shared its guidelines with Muslim communities in other parts of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Sayed said the cleansing rites also allow family members to see the departed.“One of the worse things of COVID is that family members cannot say goodbye,” Sayed said. “But with the cleansing ritual, they can see the face of their loved one. It helps them to find closure."I didn't realize this would help my own family, that it would help me,” he added.Sayed's father and uncle died of COVID-19 in July, within 24 hours of each other. They were buried next to each other.“The rituals helped me a lot,” said Sayed, still emotional. His father was the president of the organization and his uncle was the chairman. Sayed is now chairman.The society has buried 180 people who died from COVID-19, he said. The cemeteries have increased the number of graves dug so there is adequate space.The Saaberie Chishty ambulance service has also expanded to help those with mild symptoms at home. In collaboration with other organizations, it has 70 oxygen concentrators and doctors for in-home care.Amid South Africa's current resurgence of infections, the society's two ambulances attend to about 14 COVID-19 cases per day, about double the number during the country's first surge.The ambulance service is offered to all residents of Lenasia and surrounding areas, including some parts of Soweto. Because most residents have limited incomes, the fees are waived for those who cannot afford to pay, Sayed said.South Africa, with 60 million people, has had 1.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, accounting for about 40% of all cases in the 54 countries of Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people.The resurgence of COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm many hospitals, health experts say. Responding to a call, paramedic Michael Makhethe drove an ambulance through Lenasia. “We’re having a patient suspected with COVID who is presenting a difficulty in breathing,” he said. Soon he was checking the man's oxygen levels and urging him to breathe more deeply to get more oxygen into his lungs.“You see it’s picking up ... you’re going to feel much better,” he said before taking him to the hospital.Makhethe is one of the 19 staff members of the ambulance service, which also has 20 volunteers. The burial service has four staff and about 80 volunteers.“This is not just a job for me, it is a calling,” said Makhethe, 45. “Helping people, people in distress, that gives me meaning.”Saaberie Chisty provides several other services, including delivering groceries and meals.“The downside of COVID, we all know, is the fear, the separation,” Sayed said. “But the challenge of this disease has increased unity in our community. People have stepped up and are helping each other more than they did before."

Tokyo Olympic Q&A: Officials try to explain how games happen

TOKYO (AP) — With calls for a cancellation mounting, pressure is building on Japanese organizers and the IOC to explain exactly how they plan to hold the Tokyo Olympics in the midst of a pandemic.The International Olympic Committee and the local organizers are expected to roll out “Playbooks” next week that are to provide step-by-step details about how athletes and thousands of others will get safely in and out of Tokyo.Both the organizers and the IOC have been vague for months, opening the door to speculation about a cancellation, or another postponement. Some in the Japanese medical community are voicing alarm, fearful that hospitals — already struggling with local patients — will be overwhelmed when the Olympics open on July 23. The Paralympics follow on Aug. 24.There's also a skeptical Japanese public. Recent polls suggest 80% want the games postponed again or canceled.Tokyo and Japan have seen a virus surge in the last few months, and much of the country is under an emergency order. Japan has attributed just over 5,000 deaths to COVID-19 and has controlled the virus much better than most countries.Q: So what are the “Playbooks” and how will they work?A: They are guidebooks that will be aimed at athletes and others — sponsors, officials, media and broadcasters — to explain about entering Japan for the Olympics. Rules could call for self-quarantines before leaving the home country. For certain, a negative test will be needed before getting on the plane. There will be more testing upon arrival in Japan, transportation in designated vehicles, and more daily testing in the Athletes Village, which — like the venues — will be turned into a “bubble.” The rule books will be updated three times, adding new information as organizers learn more.Q: Why are organizers confident they can hold the Olympics and Paralympics?A: Craig Spence, a spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee, listed four reasons: 1) Unlike 10 months ago, scientists know much more about the virus; 2) sports and health officials have learned how to hold sports events during the pandemic; 3) vaccines are now available; 4) the Olympics and Paralympics don't open for six months, time for the virus surge to ease entering the northern hemisphere summer.“We totally understand the pressure the health care system is under now,” Spence told The Associated Press. “But come the summer, that should not be the case because case numbers should fall.“If you are an athlete or a stakeholder, you will not be able to get on a plane until you provide a negative test,” Spence added. “When you see the number of tests we are going to do (on site), that should reassure people.”Q: What about fans? Will there be any? Any from abroad?A: Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto told a parliamentary session on Tuesday that the decision will be announced “by the spring.” Indoor venues are likely to have fewer fans — if any — than outdoor stadiums. And it appears increasingly unlikely that fans from abroad can attend. Fewer fans means more costs for Japan. The local organizing committee expected to received $800 million from ticket sales. Any shortfall will have to be made up by Japanese government entities.Q: What about vaccines? Will they be required to enter Japan?A: This is a delicate area. Bach has encouraged all “participants” to be vaccinated, but says it will not be required. The IOC and other sports bodies are being warned that young, healthy athletes should not be prioritized ahead of the vulnerable and health care workers. IOC member Dick Pound of Canada got strong push back recently when he suggested the “most realistic way of going ahead” was prioritizing athletes. Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization, has called the Olympics a “wonderful symbol” but adds “we have to face the realities of what we face now — there is not enough vaccine right now to even serve those who are most at risk.”Spence, the IPC spokesman, said some teams had already been vaccinated. He did not name them.Q: How is the Japanese medical community and scientific community reacting to the prospect of having the Olympics?A: There's a lot of open skepticism. A few days ago, the president of the Japan Medical Association sounded a warning when he was asked about the Olympics and possible patients from abroad.“Many people will come from abroad, and it’s a huge number, even with just the athletes,” Dr. Toshio Nakagawa said. "In this situation, if coronavirus patients appear among them as a collapse of the medical system is happening and is spreading, it will not be possible to accept them. ... Unless a miracle happens, such as the vaccine rollout suddenly succeeding, or a cure is suddenly found, we are not able to accept more patients.”With new cases surging, Tokyo and other parts of Japan have been under a voluntary emergency order since early January. It is to end on Feb. 7.“Right now, a situation that can be called the collapse of the medical system has happened in various places, especially in areas where a state of emergency has been declared, and it is becoming a daily reality," Nakagawa said. "If things continue, we may have to do triage, and choose which life has priority over another.”Q: The Olympics have been canceled five times — all during wartime. Why are officials pressing ahead amid the pandemic?A: The last cancellations were in 1944. That was before much money was at stake. The IOC is now a commercial, wealthy sports business that relies on selling broadcast rights for almost 75% of its income. Another 18% is from sponsors. The IOC has only two major products to sell — the Summer and Winter Olympics.Estimates suggest Tokyo is worth $2 billion-$3 billion in broadcast payments to the IOC. It has a reserve fund but must have the TV money. In addition, Japan has spent at least $25 billion to prepare. Lastly, China is to hold the Beijing Winter Olympics just six months after Tokyo ends. Japanese politicians don't want to fail and cede the stage of China.___Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi and Yuri Kageyama contributed to this report.___More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Relative of virus victim asks to meet WHO experts in Wuhan

WUHAN, China (AP) — A relative of a coronavirus victim in China is demanding to meet a visiting World Health Organization expert team, saying it should speak with affected families who allege they are being muffled by the Chinese government.China approved the visit by researchers under the auspices of the U.N. agency only after months of negotiations. It has not indicated whether they will be allowed to gather evidence or talk to families, saying only that the team can exchange views with Chinese scientists.“I hope the WHO experts don’t become a tool to spread lies,” said Zhang Hai, whose father died of COVID-19 on Feb. 1, 2020, after traveling to the Chinese city of Wuhan and getting infected. “We’ve been searching for the truth relentlessly. This was a criminal act, and I don’t want the WHO to be coming to China to cover up these crimes.” China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.The WHO team, which arrived in Wuhan on Jan. 14 to investigate the origins of the virus, is expected to begin field work later this week after a 14-day quarantine.Zhang, a Wuhan native now living in the southern city of Shenzhen, has been organizing relatives of coronavirus victims in China to demand accountability from officials. Many are angry that the state downplayed the virus at the beginning of the outbreak, and have attempted to file lawsuits against the Wuhan government.The relatives have faced immense pressure from authorities not to speak out. Officials have dismissed the lawsuits, interrogated Zhang and others repeatedly and threatened to fire relatives of those who speak to the foreign media, according to interviews with Zhang and other relatives.Zhang said chat groups of the relatives were shut down shortly after the WHO team’s arrival in Wuhan, and he accused the city government of trying to silence them. “Don’t pretend that we don’t exist, that we aren’t seeking accountability,” Zhang said. “You obliterated all our platforms, but we still want to let everyone know through the media that we haven’t given up.”WHO says its visit to China is a scientific mission to investigate the origins of the virus, not an effort to assign blame, and that “in-depth interviews and reviews” of early cases are needed. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment. China initially rejected demands for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the virus, but bowed to global pressure in May for a probe into the origins. On Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease official in the United States, said at the World Economic Forum that the origins of the virus that has brought the world to its knees are still unknown, “a big black box, which is awful.”The mission was repeatedly delayed by negotiations and setbacks, one of which prompted an unusual public complaint by the WHO head. The arrival of the WHO mission has revived controversy over whether China allowed the virus to spread globally by reacting too slowly in the early days. From the beginning, WHO officials have been trying to get more cooperation from China, with limited success.Audio recordings of internal WHO meetings obtained by The Associated Press and aired for the first time Tuesday show that even while the WHO praised China in public, officials were complaining privately about not getting enough information. The U.N. agency has no enforcement powers, so it must rely on the goodwill of member countries.Keiji Fukuda, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong, has called the visit an “image building mission,” with China eager to come off as being transparent and the WHO keen to show it's taking action.“Both China and WHO hope to get some brownie points,” said Fukuda, a former WHO official. “But it all comes down to what will the team have access to. Will they really be able to ask the questions that they want to ask?"___Kang reported from Beijing.

Twitter permanently bans My Pillow CEO

Twitter has permanently banned My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell’s account after he continued to perpetuate the baseless claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Twitter decided to ban Lindell, who founded bedding company My Pillow, due to “repeated violations” of its civic integrity policy, a spokesperson said in a statement. The policy was implemented last September and is targeted at fighting disinformation.It was not immediately clear which posts by Lindell on Twitter triggered the suspension of his account.Lindell, a Trump supporter, has continued to insist that the presidential election was rigged even after U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has begun. Major retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Kohl’s have said that they would stop carrying My Pillow’s products, Lindell previously said. Lindell is also facing potential litigation from Dominion Voting Systems for claiming that their voting machines played a role in alleged election fraud. He had also urged Trump to declare martial law in Minnesota to obtain its ballots and overturn the election.Following the storming of the U.S. Capitol earlier this month, Twitter has banned over 70,000 accounts for sharing misinformation. Trump, who had urged on the mob, has also had his account permanently suspended.

Indonesia's confirmed coronavirus cases exceed 1 million

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia’s confirmed coronavirus infections since the pandemic began crossed a million on Tuesday and hospitals in some hard-hit areas were near capacity.Indonesia’s Health Ministry announced that new daily infections rose by 13,094 on Tuesday to bring the country’s total to 1,012,350, the most in Southeast Asia. The total number of deaths reached 28,468.The milestone comes just weeks after Indonesian launched a massive campaign to inoculate two-thirds of the country's 270 million people, with President Joko Widodo receiving the first shot of a Chinese-made vaccine. Health care workers, military, police, teachers and other at-risk populations are being prioritized for the vaccine in the world's fourth most populous country.Officials have said that Indonesia will require almost 427 million doses, taking into account the estimate that 15% of doses may be wasted during the distribution process in the vast nation of more than 17,000 islands, where transportation and infrastructure are limited in places.Jakarta continues to be hardest hit city in Indonesia, confirming more than 254,000 cases as of Tuesday, including 4,077 deaths. Only 8.5% of a total 8,066 hospital beds in the city were left for new patients as of Tuesday, while beds with ventilators were filled.

Analysis: Brady's NFC championship turned on 2 crucial calls

Tampa Bay’s victory in the NFC championship was one for the aged.Outdueling Aaron Rodgers set up the ageless Tom Brady (OK, he's 43) to become the oldest player ever to play in a Super Bowl. Bruce Arians, 68, earned a shot at becoming the oldest head coach ever to win a Super Bowl after he outcoached 40-year-old Matt LaFleur in the Bucs' 31-26 victory at Lambeau Field on Sunday.The Bucs’ victory over the Packers that sent them home to Raymond James Stadium for Super Bowl 55 against defending champion Kansas City came down to two pivotal calls, one by each coach.The first one came with 13 seconds left in the first half following a Green Bay turnover when Arians summoned his punt team back to the sideline and sent Brady and the offense back out to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the Green Bay 45.“We didn’t come here to not take chances to win the game,” Arians explained. Brady hit Leonard Fournette for 6 yards with 8 seconds remaining and Tampa Bay leading 14-10.On the next play, cornerback Kevin King inexplicably allowed Scotty Miller to race past him in single coverage and Brady hit his receiver for a 39-yard touchdown with 1 second left for a 21-10 halftime lead.“We were going to try to heave it like a Hail Mary type thing,” Miller said. “They played me pretty much man-to-man and my guy didn’t get too much depth, so I was able to just run right by him. Then Tom put a great ball on me like he always does. It was a special moment. I don’t even know if I could have dreamed of it as a kid. It’s just so crazy.”“Yeah, it was man coverage. Definitely not the right call for the situation,” LaFleur said.The aggressive move by Arians was in line with what the Bucs' coaching staff had promised the players.Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich “told us all week we’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to go at them, we’re going to take chances,” Miller said. “That’s what we do. We’ve got so many playmakers. We’ve got Tom at the helm. “It was a risk at the time,” Miller added, “but there was only 13 seconds left, so if we ran a play and didn’t get it, we probably waste six (seconds). Then they probably have to throw a Hail Mary as well, so why not us do it?”The second critical call was LaFleur’s head-scratching decision to kick a field goal rather than go for the tying touchdown and 2-point conversion on fourth-and-goal from the 8 with 2:05 remaining and the Packers trailing 31-23.With a spot in the Super Bowl on the line, he chose to put the game not in the hands of his All-Pro quarterback who’s the MVP favorite, but in those of his defense.“The way our defense was playing, it felt like the right decision to do,” LaFleur said. “It just didn’t work out.”Rodgers never got the ball back as Brady clinched his 10th trip to the Super Bowl and sent Rodgers to his fourth straight conference championship loss one week after ending Drew Brees’ season and probably his career with a win at New Orleans.The Packers had rallied from 18 points down and were in position to tie it with a touchdown and a 2-point conversion. On first-and-goal, Rodgers threw an incomplete pass to Allen Lazard followed by a misfire to Davante Adams. Rodgers might have been able to run it in himself on third down, but pulled up and misfired again to Adams.No worries, he thought, figuring he’d get a fourth crack at it. Fail, and at least Brady and the Bucs would be backed up.Rodgers, however, turned to see Mason Crosby trotting out for a field goal instead.“That wasn’t my decision,” Rodgers said as diplomatically as he could. “But I understand the thinking ... .”Bucs edge rusher Shaq Barrett sure didn’t.“I couldn’t believe it, honestly,” Barrett said, “because there’s no guarantee they’re going to make it back down there again.”After all, Brady is one of the game’s greatest closers, especially when all he needs is a first down or two to go into victory formation. “Our offense has been pretty amazing in four-minute offense this year, not giving the team back the ball so I had the utmost confidence in them,” Barrett said. “If he could take it back he probably wouldn’t do that next time but I appreciate it.”Yes, LaFleur was kicking himself for kicking it.“Yeah, any time it doesn’t work out, you always regret it, right?” LaFleur said. “But it was the circumstances of having three shots and coming away with no yards and knowing that you not only need the touchdown, but you need the 2-point (conversion). We essentially had four timeouts with the two-minute warning. We knew we needed to get a stop.”They couldn’t.King was called for pass interference on third down with 1:41 left and Tampa Bay sealed the win moments later on a third-down run by Chris Godwin.That left Brady with one NFC title to go with the nine AFC championships he won in New England. Rodgers has one NFC championship in 13 seasons as a starter in Green Bay and Brees has one in 15 seasons as the Saints starting QB.“This one does sting,” LaFleur said. “It’s going to take a long time getting over this one.”Rodgers admitted he wasn’t sure how to move on from the disheartening defeat, saying, “A lot of guys’ futures are uncertain, myself included.”“There’s a lot of unknowns going into this offseason now. I’m going to have to take some time away for sure to clear my head and see what’s going on with everything,” Rodgers said. “But it’s really tough right now, especially thinking about the guys who may or may not be here next year.”LaFleur is praying that doesn’t include Rodgers.Asked if he thinks he’ll get another chance to work with Rodgers next season, LaFleur said, “I sure as hell hope so. I mean, the guy’s the MVP of this league. He’s the heart and soul of our football team. So, hell yeah, he better be back here. He’s our leader. “Just so appreciative of him buying into what we’re trying to get done around here and leading that group. His voice carries a lot of weight in that locker room. And just you know, I feel for him, to be in this situation and for us not get it done, man, that hurts.”___Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton___More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

No. 24 Sooners get 2 top-10 tests after return to AP Top 25

Lon Kruger has seen his Oklahoma team play its way to the program’s first ranking in The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll in two years.Keeping that spot won’t be easy, either.The 24th-ranked Sooners face two top-10 opponents this week as part of the AP Top 25 schedule. First up is Tuesday’s trip to fifth-ranked Texas, which comes as Longhorns coach Shaka Smart announced he is in isolation after a positive COVID-19 test. Oklahoma then hosts No. 9 Alabama in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday.Oklahoma is early into a stretch of seven matchups against ranked opponents in eight games.“It’s of course been really difficult every year,” Kruger said Monday. “This year may be a little more extreme, I guess, if you consider the number of teams ranked or nearly ranked. Yeah, it’s a tough league.”The Sooners (9-4, 5-3 Big 12) opened that stretch with a weekend win against No. 15 Kansas. After this week, Oklahoma is scheduled to visit No. 10 Texas Tech (next Monday) with games ahead against No. 2 Baylor (Feb. 10), No. 11 West Virginia (Feb. 16) and a rematch with the Longhorns (Feb. 16).The defenses stand out to Kruger, now in his 10th season with Oklahoma. The Big 12 has a national-best five of the top 20 teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metrics — led by Baylor allowing 86.9 points per 100 possessions — and Oklahoma’s current stretch includes all five.“I think the defenses this year across the league are just a little better, from top to bottom than they’ve ever been,” Kruger said. “And they’ve always been good.”ALABAMA’S RISEAlabama made the biggest jump in Monday’s latest poll, climbing nine spots to earn the program’s highest ranking since last cracking the top 10 in January 2007. That came after the Crimson Tide won nine straight games entering Tuesday’s visit from Kentucky, which lost the first meeting to the Crimson Tide by 20 points at home.Coach Nate Oats said Monday that his players “deserve to be ranked in the top 10” with the way they’ve been playing, as well as their chemistry and leadership.“We’re trying to keep the guys hungry,” senior swingman Herbert Jones said. “So we don’t feel like we’re being hunted. We’re still doing the hunting.”BILLIKENS’ RETURNSt. Louis is set to return from an extended pause.The No. 22 Billikens haven’t played since beating Kansas City on Dec. 23. They paused team activities Dec. 30 and had seven straight games postponed, though they returned to practices Friday and are set to return at home against Dayton on Tuesday night followed by Friday’s game at Richmond.The Billikens cracked the AP Top 25 earlier this month for the first time since the 2013-14 season and have hovered between No. 22 and 25 while being on hold.RANKED VS. RANKEDThe Atlantic Coast and Big Ten conferences each have marquee matchups between ranked teams this week.No. 7 Iowa visits No. 19 Illinois on Friday in the Big Ten, while No. 8 Virginia visits instate rival and 20th-ranked Virginia Tech on Saturday in the ACC. The Cavaliers and Hokies had their first meeting postponed from Jan. 2.AT THE TOPGonzaga and Baylor have been ranked 1-2 atop all 10 polls this season. The Zags, who earned 61 of 64 first-place votes in Monday’s poll, have road games at San Diego on Thursday and Pepperdine on Saturday in West Coast Conference play. The Bears, who earned the other three votes, host Kansas State on Wednesday, followed by Auburn on Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.WATCH LISTBoise State (13-1) was the leading vote-getter for unranked teams. The Broncos have games at Colorado State on Wednesday and Friday as they try to remain unbeaten in the Mountain West Conference.The No. 2 vote-getter among unranked teams was Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bulldogs (13-0) play back-to-back games at Missouri State on Tuesday and Wednesday after having five straight games postponed since beating Southern Illinois on Jan. 4.___Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap___More AP college basketball: http://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25