Friday March 2: WEEKEND EDITION
It’s the final weekend of the college basketball regular season in the major conferences and tournament play is gaining steam in some of the midmajors and almost all of the minor conferences. That’s going to be the main topic on my twice-weekly podcast at PrimeSportsNetwork.com with Greg DePalma at 3 PM ET today.
College hoops is just the centerpiece of a sports weekend that’s getting thankfully busy again after that little February dry spell after the Super Bowl. Here’s what’s coming up at TheSportsNotebook throughout the morning and into the early afternoon…
*NBA weekend preview, starting with the usual busy Friday night schedule.
*NHL weekend preview, as the season is into its final quarter.
*College basketball preview, with a special focus on the big games of North Carolina-Duke in the ACC and Ohio State-Michigan State in the Big Ten.
*TheSportsNotebook calls on its NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, who will get us ready for Sunday’s race in Phoenix.
*And we preview two key horse races in our Road To The Triple Crown series, the John Battaglia Memorial in Kentucky, and the Gotham Stakes in New York. Both go on Saturday.
These features will go up in the order as listed.
Thursday, March 1
Colorado meets Oregon tonight in one of the college basketball regular season’s most significant games. Both teams are squarely on the bubble—the guess here is that Colorado needs a win here, plus something in the conference tournament—while Oregon would have a good shot to make it if the season ended today. It’s as close to a one-game playoff showdown we can get in a subjective selection process, and it’s the biggest game these Pac-12 schools have played since their football teams met in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl when the Buffs were still in the Big 12.
Of course this isn’t a game in the Big East, ACC or Big Ten, so you can’t actually watch it on a national cable network—but it’s a big game. The Pac-12 race overall is one of the best in the country and it will be the subject today’s college basketball feature here on TheSportsNotebook.
Elsewhere, Bucknell held serve as the top seed in the Patriot League tournament. This isn’t particularly newsworthy, but when I was at a sports bar last Thursday to watch Wisconsin-Iowa, I met a couple who had gone out of their way into a Phoenix-area sports establishment and asked to get the Bucknell game on TV, so they could see if the Bison could wrap up the Patriot League regular season. They got the game tuned in. A big thumbs-up to the fans and the bar, and I hope Bucknell can punch their ticket to the Dance.
The NHL’s mediocre Southeast Division race gets a head-to-head battle tonight with Florida meeting Winnipeg. With the fade of Toronto, it’s looking like the Southeast will pick up two playoff berths, but Washington is right there in the mix in this game of musical chairs. Also in the East, Boston has to beat a good New Jersey team or the Bruins can lose first place in the Northeast when Ottawa takes the ice tomorrow. And in the West, St. Louis looks to continue its surge when they play Vancouver.
It’s TNT Thursday in the NBA, with Oklahoma City-Orlando and Miami-Portland the viewing fare. The focus of TheSportsNotebook though is going to be the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant’s troops have defied a lot of unbelievers to this point and kept themselves a viable contender in the West, and we’ll go deeper into the lineup and see how they’re doing it and what lies ahead.
Check back later this morning (early afternoon in the East) for the Pac-12 and LA Lakers features.
Wednesday, February 29
I had a chance to go to the Vancouver-Phoenix hockey game last night while I continue my working vacation out here in Arizona. When the tickets were ordered a couple weeks ago I wouldn’t have imagined we’d be watching two division leaders, much less the two hottest teams in the West. But the Coyotes have made it happen. Two key observations, one on the ice and the other outside the lines…
*Phoenix’s Mike Smith is the kind of goaltender who can win you a Stanley Cup. The stats say he made 39 saves and was roughly even with Vancouver’s Cory Schneider. What the stats don’t tell you is that the shots Smith was getting were a constant assault, replete with screeners, rebounds, everything that makes a goaltenders’ life miserable. Schneider basically dealt with an unimaginative offense that wildly flung the puck at him and hoped for the best. By rights, Vancouver should have two or three goals by the five-minute mark of the third period. Instead they only led 1-0, Phoenix was able to scrape out a tying goal and then win the shootout. The Coyotes don’t look pretty, but that’s the kind of formula that can make a surprise team starting in April and going into June.
*The suburb of Glendale where the sports complex is located (including where the Arizona Cardinals play football and the Fiesta Bowl is hosted) is a very nice entertainment area, but it does underscore that Phoenix is not a sports town. Along with the stadiums are movie theatres, restaurants, etc., which all suggest that the developers weren’t worried about sports fans overwhelming the area. Contrast that with Philadelphia, which has a similar sports complex for its stadiums, but it’s only the stadiums that are down there. In the East, professional sports is a passion and an intrinsic part of the culture. In the West it’s just something to do, and the layouts of Phoenix and Philly represent that perfectly.
Today at TheSportsNotebook we continue our look at the forgotten teams of college basketball—the ones who aren’t going to be conference champs, nor will they be on the bubble. We’ve already stopped in on the Big East & Big Ten, and today it’s the Big 12’s turn, with evaluations of Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State. And in the NHL we look at one of the hot teams in the West that wasn’t on the ice in Phoenix last night—that’s the St. Louis Blues who are poised to steal the Central Division title from Detroit.
Also, be sure to take a look at Memories Of March Madness, an extensive look at some great moments in the NCAA Tournament over the last 35 years.
Tuesday, February 28
Last night’s long-awaited end to the Daytona 500 showed the key to successful sports prognostication. In TheSportsNotebook’s preview of the Sprint Cup season as a whole, and the Daytona in particular, I called on my brother Bill, a NASCAR junkie who knows all of the sports ins and outs. After providing sound breakdown of the drivers and the dynamics in Daytona (including the prescient observation that wrecks were a prominent part of the Daytona landscape), he flinched at making a pick, saying Daytona was too much of a crapshoot for anyone to pick effectively. I jumped in and said that for 20-1 odds I’d take Matt Kenseth, since he’s from the Madison, WI area and drives for the Roush Fenway team, making him the logical choice of someone who roots for teams in The Boston-Madison Corridor With Redskins Indult. So of course Kenseth wins. I could analyze football or hoops, or some sport I allegedly know something about and bang my head against a wall. NASCAR? No problem. If only I’d been smart enough to actually bet those 20-1 odds.
When I select the content for the daily features here at TheSportsNotebook I usually take a lot of care to pick the ones that are most timely and relevant to the audience at-large. Today I’m succumbing to utter self-absorption and making them about my teams. Wisconsin basketball is part of a solid Big Ten Middle Class, right below the Michigan State/Ohio State power group. So the college hoops feature will be a look at the Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan—teams too good for the bubble, not quite good enough to collect conference hardware. And the NBA feature is going to be the Boston Celtics. We looked at them recently, but they’ve done a complete about-face, are in a free-fall and I need to do some research to see if this is reversible. The Celts play Cleveland tonight, as the Cavs are the most likely team to come from the outside and steal the East’s last playoff spot from the C’s. I actually think both features—the Big Ten and the Celtics can make a case for being legitimately timely, but it sounds more fun to say I’m just making it about myself.
Conference tournament action started in college basketball last night with a couple preliminary games in the Big South. One of the good early tourneys goes tonight when the Horizon League tips off. The 10-team conference has a format I like, where the top two teams (Valparaiso & Cleveland State) are automatically seeded to the semi-finals and the other eight play two rounds for the other spots. Then the championship game is at the home of the higher seed and the semis are at the home of the league champ, so Valpo only needs one two home wins for what will be a one-bid league. Of course one of the Other Eight is Butler, who plays Wright State tonight. The Bulldogs should defeat a school known more its solid nursing program than its basketball program, but a potential battle with UW-Milwaukee should be a good one.
Turning the subject back to myself, I’ll be attending the Vancouver-Phoenix NHL game tonight. It’s odd, but I’ve gone to NHL playoff games before, but never made it through a full regular season game (I went to a Washington Caps game two years ago, but a medical emergency pulled me out after one period). I was at Game 6 of the Bruins-Flyers series in 2010, when the B’s were the midst of their epic collapse. And I saw Boston-Montreal Game 2 last year at the Garden with the good people of Suite 604 (a suite where the owners paid for it by scalping most of the seats outside). It was the dark spot before the dawn for the Bruins, who fell behind 0-2 in the series that night and the girl and I who pontificated that it was time to trade Tim Thomas and go with Tuuka Raask in goal were proven wrong.
That’s enough of a personal diary for one day. Check back later this morning (early afternoon in the East) for the Big Ten hoops and Celtics features
Monday, February 27
It’s the last week of the college basketball regular season for the major conferences and for some of the midmajors—notably the Colonial (George Mason & Virginia Commonwealth) and the Horizon (Butler) start their league tournaments. Both are one-bid leagues this year, though the CAA may try to argue for a second slot based on a solid performance over Bracket Busters last weekend. I’ll be on at PrimeSportsNetwork.com with Greg DePalma at 11 AM ET today to talk about the entire NCAA Tournament picture.
Normally the show with Greg is at 1 PM, but with Daytona rescheduled for noon, we’ve rescheduled along with it. As a result, TheSportsNotebook still has its Sprint Cup season preview, plus the Daytona analysis still featured on the home page. I’m also leaving up the NBA All-Star break report, since play doesn’t resume until tomorrow.
TheSportsNotebook features a piece today from contributor Will Fairbanks, who argues the Phillies are still the best team in baseball, in spite of last year’s playoff disappointment, in spite of not being a part of the flurry of big-name offseason moves and in spate of facing improved competition from Miami and Washington, along with usual suspect Atlanta. Let me interject here to say how glad I am the Marlins finally faced reality and named the team “Miami” rather than trying to claim the entire state of Florida. It’s weird getting used to, but like the Angels giving up the “California” tag, the Marlins move is a victory for common sense.
In addition to the Phillies’ piece, you can look for features on the Big East Middle Class—teams like Notre Dame, Georgetown, Louisville and Marquette, who may be in Syracuse’s rearview mirror, but can make major noise in March. And coming up after that will be a look at the Washington Capitals and seeing if they can finally get in gear with a quarter of the season left.
Check back later this morning (early afternoon in the East) for the Big East basketball and Caps’ features. In the meantime, read up on the Phils, NASCAR, the NBA and check out the historical museum were the last two weeks have seen a couple new pieces added—a look at the world of New York sports in 1994 when the Rangers and Knicks kept everyone involved into June. And 1996 in Denver, when the Avalanche won the Cup, and the Broncos and Colorado Buffs made spirited runs of their own.