Whether it’s the bubble of the NCAA Tournament or that in the playoff races of the NBA and NHL, the marginal teams are in the spotlight tonight. TheSportsNotebook’s daily sports talk will run through all three, starting with action in the NBA.
*Milwaukee is currently the #8 seed in the East and has a safe lead on the field in the East. With a big overtime win over Utah last night, the Bucks are threatening the Celtics to escape the last playoff spot and the first-round matchup with Miami. I’ll refer you over to Stat Intelligence and my friend Jeff Fogle for a game recap—and preview of the Horizon League tournament in college hoops—if you scroll down.
Suffice it to say that Milwaukee’s recent winning—they’ve also knocked off Dallas, Houston and Toronto over the past several days—is turning up the heat on Boston, who leads up a TNT doubleheader tonight when they visit Philadelphia at 7 PM ET. And Utah’s loss creates some opportunity for the Los Angeles Lakers, who finish the TNT twinbill with a 9:30 PM ET tip in Oklahoma City. The Lakers are 2 ½ games back of the Jazz for the last playoff spot in the West coming into tonight.
*The NHL is just about to halfway point and in the Western Conference there are six teams tied for the final four playoff berths, with 24 points apiece—not to mention the teams immediately one spot above and below are only separated by a point. Four of the six deadlocked teams are in action. Los Angeles, who got a needed win over Nashville (the team sitting on 23) last night behind a hat trick from Jeff Carter, is hosting St. Louis, who also has 24 points. San Jose takes its 24 points to Vancouver. And the most interesting one is going to be the Minnesota Wild—because they’re in the Windy City, where the amazing Chicago Blackhawks still haven’t lost a regulation game yet this year.
Over in the Eastern Conference it’s not quite as wild, but the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers are only separated by a point for the #8 position in the standings and these two blood rivals go head-to-head tonight. This is the game the country will get the opportunity to see, with a 7:30 PM ET faceoff on NBC Sports Network.
*Let’s conclude with the bubble race that’s hottest and it’s that for the NCAA Tournament. Cincinnati missed a chance last night to solidify its position, losing 67-51 at Louisville. The Cardinals were in lockdown mode defensively, holding Cincy to 35 percent shooting and forcing 21 turnovers. The Bearcats can still play their way in, but we can’t say the same for Baylor. A disastrous Big 12 season for the Bears hit its nadir last night when they played shaky perimeter defense, let Texas guard Myck Kabongo have a nice night and a bad Longhorns team get a 79-70 win. Baylor is 17-13 and even beating Kansas this weekend won’t be enough to save them. It’s win the conference tournament or go home, and I have to think the average Baylor fan is more than ready to just go home at this point.
Looking ahead to tonight, it’s the SEC that will be on the spotlight. TheSportsNotebook took a closer look at a crazy bubble situation that has five teams with their fate up in the air. Arkansas goes to Missouri (7 PM ET, ESPN) with a chance to show they can win a big road game. Alabama-Ole Miss (9 PM ET, ESPNU) features two teams that are likely on the outside looking in and need to win just to keep at-large hopes alive for next week’s conference tournament.
St. John’s is an NCAA longshot, but winning at Notre Dame (7 PM ET, ESPN2) would give them a puncher’s chance. The same goes for Iowa, who hosts Illinois in a Big Ten Network telecast at 7 PM ET. And perhaps no bubble game is more significant than Boise State-UNLV. The Broncos are playing good basketball and in position to nail down a bid if they can win this game, or win this weekend against San Diego State. The Mountain West is, believe it or not, the highest-rated conference in the RPI. I went off about that in my podcast yesterday with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network as we broke down the field, but the numbers are what they are. By the way, if you’re monitoring the NFL offseason, Greg will have a good show today at 2 PM ET with Neil Hornsby, the editor of Pro Football Focus.
Finally, let’s move off the bubble and talk about a team in position to win a conference championship. Indiana has already secured a tie for the Big Ten crown and they can win the league outright if they beat Ohio State (9 PM ET, ESPN). The last time Indiana won the league outright? It was when Bob Knight was on the sidelines, Calbert Cheaney was national Player of the Year and I was still in college, back in 1993. Yeah, that’s been a long time.
BEST GAME(S) TO WATCH: For me it’s easy, because I’m a Celtics fan who lives in Big Ten Country, so I’ll watch the Celts-Sixers and then shift over to Indiana-Ohio State (okay, I may also cheat and sneak in some CBS drama action with NCIS Los Angeles and Vegas too). For someone who was purely objective and wanted to watch the most meaningful games, I would suggest making it an SEC night and watch Arkansas-Missouri and Alabama-Ole Miss in succession. If nothing else, it will remind you that this league does something besides play football.
BEST BET: I lost yesterday on my belief in the New Jersey Devils over Toronto, as the Maple Leafs won 4-2. I’ll try my hand at college basketball tonight and take Alabama (+5) over Ole Miss. The Rebs just lost to Mississippi State and are reeling. I think this line hasn’t factored in how bad Ole Miss has played for the past few weeks and is overstating homecourt advantage. Famous last words.