The Chicago Cubs might not be having the best of seasons, but Wrigley Field always draws both a crowd and the TV cameras, and it’s one of the National League’s great rivalries—Cardinals-Cubbies—that will highlight daily sports throughout this weekend.
Fox will send its #1 broadcast team of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver to Wrigley for Saturday night’s game at 7:15 PM ET. This one of five games the network will send across the country, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get Texas-Detroit instead—a better game, and no McCarver.
The Saturday night Fox game is bracketed by a pair of games on MLB Network. The day starts early in the Bronx with Twins-Yanks at 1 PM ET. And it concludes late on the West Coast at 10 PMET, with most of the country seeing the Red Sox-A’s and those of us who live in the Milwaukee area stuck with Brewers-Diamondbacks.
Then on Sunday its ESPN’s turn to go to Wrigley, as the 8 PM ET telecast of Cardinals-Cubs will be the final game before the All-Star break. Earlier in the day, TBS will carry Texas-Detroit at 1 PM ET. Justin Verlander takes the mound for the Tigers.
You can also watch NASCAR in the 1 PM window on Sunday with TNT’s broadcast of the Camping World RV Sales 301, a name that might rival the Poulan Weedeater Independence Bowl from the early 1990s when it comes to just sounding silly.
The NFL Network has been putting together interesting one-hour features on their league’s history, both recent and a little more distant and one of those features has been one-hour segments focusing on specific personalities who made their mark on the league. “A Football Life” is the name of the feature and starting at 8 PM ET on Saturday night, there’s a run of three good ones.
Ray Lewis is now a part of history, as the Baltimore Ravens linebacker went out on a Super Bowl high last season, and his feature will start off the trifecta. Then it’s Kurt Warner, and concludes with a 10 PM ET look at the fearsome defensive line duo of Reggie White and Jerome Brown, who terrorized opposing offenses with the Philadelphia Eagles in the early 1990s. Both men tragically died young, Brown right in the middle of his playing career.
TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage this week has been focused on statistical snapshots of each division, and that will conclude with a look at the NL West. We’ll also have a look at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, in preparation for Sunday’s race in New Hampshire.
Sometimes the attraction of the daily sports schedule lies in its quantity—a Saturday afternoon of college football or basketball being a good example. And sometimes it’s about the quality of one big game. For example, a Game 7 where a heavy favorite has been pushed the limit by a team that might be an underdog, but has a storied history.
And if the two franchises are bitter rivals on top of it? So much the better. Such as the case on Wednesday night, as the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings play the decisive game of their NHL Western Conference semi-final.
If you’re not into the hockey scene, MLB Network has baseball from the East Coast tonight. It’s either Red Sox-Phillies or Mets-Yankees in the 7 PM ET slot. And if you want to go beyond the game, the NFL Network has an interesting one-hour feature called “A Football Life”, about the late Reggie White and Jerome Brown. Both men were part of some outstanding Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive lines in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Brown was a feared player going all the way back to his days playing college ball at Miami. As for White, he was arguably the best defensive lineman ever to play the game, and would later go on to Green Bay and win a Super Bowl.
TheSportsNotebook will have NBA commentary coming up later today. We’ll look at the Indiana-Miami series, now that the Pacers have evened it up heading back to South Beach from Game 5. And we’ll celebrate San Antonio and look at how the Spurs swept Memphis home in the West.
Major league baseball is in the midst of a run of interleague rivalry games that began yesterday, and ESPN has a bi-coastal doubleheader tonight, starting with Mets-Yankees at 7 PM ET, and then showing Angels-Dodgers at 10 PM ET.
I have to say I’m not sure why MLB insists on taking all the fun interleague series and playing them all at once. The schedule also includes matchups like Orioles-Nationals, Cubs-White Sox, Royals-Cardinals and if you’re from the Midwest, Twins-Brewers has a little juice. Okay, this year, that’s a very little juice.
But the point is that these games are, to varying degrees, the most marketable of all the interleague games. Why jam them all on the same days? When the Houston Astros shifted to the American League, balancing the leagues at 15 teams apiece, and necessitating an interleague series in each schedule sequence, I thought this scheduling oddity would go away. I guess not, and since ESPN assumes the entire world wants to watch New York and Los Angeles, the chance to see some other fun rivalry series will go by the boards.
Intense playoff action continues on the ice and the hardwood for tonight’s daily sports. Game 4 of the Miami Heat-Indiana Pacers series is at 8:30 PM ET on TNT. After Indiana lost Game 3, this has become the game the Pacers need to win, not just for their sake, but to get really tuned into this series. Otherwise, just let me know when the Miami-San Antonio championship battle begins.
There’s no question what the biggest game of the night is, and it’s out in Los Angeles. The Dodgers and Angels might be playing for the city’s baseball heart, but in the NHL, the Kings host the San Jose Sharks in a Game 7 of their second-round series. The puck drops at 9 PM ET on NBC SportsNetwork, and starts a two-day sequence of Game 7s in the Western Conference, including Detroit-Chicago tomorrow.
If you want to watch something beyond the game and are hungry for the NFL, ESPN2 will have a 30-for-30 special on the 1983 NFL draft, the one which produced John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, among others and until 2012, was considered the gold standard for quarterback drafts. It actually still is the gold standard, but the ’12 class of RG3, Luck, Wilson & Co., is the first one to be a viable threat to that status.
The documentary’s been running for a bit now, and it airs again tonight at 7 PM ET. You can also watch the story of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who won the Super Bowl under Brian Billick, at 8 PM ET on the NFL Network.
And then they were Four. Louisville, Wichita State, Syracuse and Michigan all punched tickets to Atlanta and the Final Four over the weekend, and their national semifinal games on Saturday will be the highlight of a sports week that also has all Major League Baseball teams swinging into action today and tomorrow for the first time. We also awake from our NCAA Tournament/MLB Spring Training slumber to see the NBA and NHL closing in on the end of the regular season.
In this space, we’ll have closing thoughts on regional finals action, then see what’s on tap in the daily sports TV action throughout the week, as we build to the big night of college hoops on Saturday.
CUTTING DOWN THE NETS
Syracuse 55 Marquette 39 – This was the first game on Saturday and you’ve likely already heard, read or saw how ugly it was, and I can’t add much more. The Golden Eagles shot a mere 23 percent from the floor. I’ve heard reports that say it’s very difficult to win games when that happens.
Michael Carter-Williams capped a great regionals weekend, as the Orange point guard had 12 points/8 rebounds/6 assists, adding that nice showing to an outstanding effort against Indiana last Thursday. James Southerland’s shooting—6/13 from the floor with 3/9 from behind the arc, was average, but this was a game where average basically amounted to being the second coming of Reggie Miller.
Wichita 70, Ohio State 66 – A continuation of ugly basketball on Saturday, where none of the four teams reached the 40 percent threshold. DeShaun Thomas had 23 points for the Buckeyes, but missed all six three-point attempts. It’s worth noting that Thad Matta was rightfully furious about a call at the end of the first half where Wichita picked up two cheap points on a ticky-tack foul 94 feet from the basket with just a couple seconds left. Those extra points altered the dynamic in the game’s final minutes.
Either way, I was happy to see the Shockers win. It’s the Missouri Valley Conference’s first Final Four appearance since Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979. Perhaps more important, it’s Wichita’s biggest moment in the national spotlight since the 1989 movie Planes, Trains & Automobiles, where John Candy and Steve Martin’s plane was originally grounded there due to a snowstorm in Chicago.
Michigan 79, Florida 59 – Michigan saved the Big Ten from what would have been an embarrassing shutout of the Final Four. It was never close, and the Wolverines buried 10-of-19 from three-point range. It wasn’t Trey Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr. doing the damage as the two guards both struggled shooting. It was the freshman Nik Stauskas who scored 22 and connected all six times he shot from behind the arc. And Burke showed that great players figure out ways to contribute when not shooting well, as he grabbed eight rebounds and dished seven assists.
It’s the third straight year that Billy Donovan and Florida have come up a win short of the Final Four. Although at least the losses to Butler in 2011 and Louisville in 2012 were close. This one never was.
Louisville 85 Duke 63 – So much for my theory that Louisville was not good enough offensively to beat other really good teams. The Cards merely shot 53 percent from the floor and Russ Smith capped off a magnificent weekend, with a 23-point game. Gorgui Deng controlled the interior with 14 points/11 rebounds, and Duke got nothing from Ryan Kelly, who had seven points and two rebounds.
It’s the second straight Final Four for Louisville and the third time they’ve gone under Rick Pitino. The Cards will be the favorites to win their first national title since 1986 when the ball tips in Atlanta.
The Saturday games will be Louisville-Wichita, followed by Syracuse-Michigan. The action will be on CBS and tip off at 6:09 PM ET. TheSportsNotebook will have a complete preview up later in the week.
THE REST OF THE WEEK
In the meantime, we’ve got pro basketball, hockey and baseball to watch and track. TheSportsNotebook wrapped up its preseason MLB coverage on Sunday, and we’ll pick up with a couple more baseball-related features this week. We’ll also get caught up with NBA commentary and NHL analysis, and between these three sports, this will get the lion’s share of the coverage between now and Friday’s Final Four preview. If you’re looking for something to watch, here’s how the daily sports schedule shakes out…
MONDAY: ESPN’s baseball quadruple-header is the highlight of the day, starting with Boston-NY Yanks at 1 PM ET and then rolling right through every third hour, with San Francisco-LA Dodgers, Philadelphia-Atlanta and St. Louis-Arizona. This is what stirs the juices because it’s fresh and new, but if it’s sheer consequence you want, try the NBA-TV doubleheader starting at 7:30 PM ET. It’s San Antonio-Memphis followed by Indiana-LA Clippers. The Spurs are fighting to hold off Oklahoma City for homecourt. Memphis and the Clips join Denver in a three-way dogfight in a seeding fight where all three spots are of significance. Indiana is right on New York’s heels for the two-seed in the East.
The NBC Sports Network has hockey coverage with Colorado-Detroit at 7:30 PM ET, although the more interesting games require the Center Ice package. The New York Islanders are even with the rival Rangers for the final playoff spot in the East. The Isles go to New Jersey (who happens to be in seventh), while the Rangers host Winnipeg. Big night for hockey in the Big Apple.
TUESDAY: TNT brings a big NBA twinbill into your living room and it starts with Melo vs. LeBron at 8 PM ET and is followed by Dallas-LA Lakers. With Melo, LeBron and Kobe playing on the same night at least we know what Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith will fight about on First Take for the next three days. Note that the Mavs are only a game back in the loss column as they chase both the Lakers and Utah for the playoff spot in the West.
The MLB Network has a late afternoon-late night doubleheader of Baltimore-Tampa Bay (3:10 PM ET) and San Francisco-LA Dodgers (10 PM ET). The Pittsburgh Penguins look to keep their 15-game win streak alive when they host Buffalo (7:30, NBC Sports Network).
WEDNESDAY: The city of New York has to decide what they want here. The Knicks visit Atlanta (7 PM ET, ESPN), the Rangers host Pittsburgh (7:30, NBC Sports Network) and the Yanks play their second game of the season against Boston (7 PM ET, ESPN).
THURSDAY: It’s a clash of the titans in the NBA’s Western Conference, with San Antonio-Oklahoma City (9:30 PM ET, TNT). Coming into the week the Spurs lead the Thunder by a game and a half for homecourt advantage. It’s not too much to say this game might decide who plays Miami in the Finals.
I know it won’t come as a surprise that the rest of the night has a New York-Boston feel to it. In addition to the Red Sox-Yanks finale(7 PM ET, MLB), you can see Brooklyn host Chicago in TNT’s early game at 7 PM ET. Or check the Boston Bruins host New Jersey at 7 PM ET on the NHL Network. Night owls can catch a good hockey game with surprising Minnesota visiting the Los Angeles Kings at 10 PM ET (NHLN).
FRIDAY: Please tell me that when ESPN decided to televise the Miami-Charlotte NBA game tonight at 8 PM ET that the schedule made it such that the Heat could tie or break the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers’ 33-game win streak record here? Miami’s bid at history ended last week and that’s the only rationale for putting such a hideous game on the tube, when the Eastern Conference race for #2 has compelling games with the Knicks hosting the Bucks and the Pacers getting a visit from the Thunder. Neither game is nationally televised, and the Houston-Portland game at 10:30 PM ET on ESPN is a yawner.
New York fans won’t have any problem finding something though—the Yanks’ visit to Detroit in the afternoon is televised at 1 PM ET and the Rangers go to Pittsburgh at night (7 PM ET, NHL).
SATURDAY: Fox baseball makes its debut on Saturday. The 4 PM ET slot has three games being shown to regional audiences. There are LCS rematches with Yanks-Tigers and Cards-Giants, to go with an AL West grudge match of Rangers-Angels. It’s a good appetizer for the Final Four feast that starts two hours later.
Surprisingly, ESPN went head-on with the Final Four in showing Sixers-Heat in a 7:30 PM ET NBA game. The NHL Network has its usual Saturday tripleheader with Edmonton-Los Angeles at 1 PM ET, a split showing of Boston-Montreal (both neck-and-neck in the Northeast and for the #2 seed in the East) and NY Rangers-Carolina at 7 PM ET and a yawner in Calgary-Vancouver at 10 PM ET.
SUNDAY: A good matchup for baseball fans as TBS shows the C.C. Sabathia-Justin Verlander duel with Yanks-Tigers at 1 PM ET. Once again, New York teams are all over your set, with ABC having Knicks-Thunders tip off its NBA doubleheader at the same time. And a heavy dose of Hollywood can’t be a surprise—it’s Lakers-Clippers in the second game of that doubleheader, and Angels-Rangers in Sunday Night baseball at 8 PM ET on ESPN2.
In the “Don’t Overlook” category would be NBC’s hockey coverage of St. Louis-Detroit at 12:30 PM ET. The Red Wings aren’t home free for the playoffs yet and the Blues are on the outside looking in as the week starts. And at night it’s Dallas-Portland in 9 PM ET game on NBA-TV. Utah-Golden State also plays, so with the Lakers, Jazz and Mavericks all in action it’s a huge day for the Western Conference playoff race.
Fox baseball makes its debut on Saturday. The 4 PM ET slot has three games being shown to regional audiences. There are LCS rematches with Yanks-Tigers and Cards-Giants, to go with an AL West grudge match of Rangers-Angels. It’s a good appetizer for the Final Four feast that starts two hours later.
The rapid-fire process of paring the NCAA Tournament field to the Sweet 16 concludes on Sunday. TheSportsNotebook’s daily sports focus will be, as it has been all week, to look at the TV agenda for today’s games, and then look back on the eight games from Saturday.
SUNDAY’S AFTERNOON WARMUP
Iowa State-Ohio State (12:15 PM ET, CBS)
Temple-Indiana (2:45 PM ET, CBS)
Comment: It’s a Big Ten-heavy start on a day when four teams from the nation’s best conference will be in action. I wasn’t sold on Ohio State at the start of this tournament, and I’m still not. My own bracket had Notre Dame winning in this spot, but Iowa State messed that up on Friday night. I’ll ride the anti-Buckeye bandwagon and say the Cyclones get it down here. You’ll hear from the announcers how they shoot the three, and that’s true, but they also get really good forward play from Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang.
North Carolina-Kansas (5:15 PM ET, CBS)
Minnesota-Florida (6:10 PM ET, TNT)
Comment: You’ve got the Roy Williams Drama going down in Kansas City, and a game that promises to be really good, especially if Kansas doesn’t rebound better than they did against Western Kentucky. And I’ve knocked Minnesota as much, if not more, than anyone these past several weeks, but the Gophers looked good against UCLA. I’m not picking an upset here, but Florida is very dependent on the three-ball and if the shots aren’t falling…
Florida Gulf Coast-San Diego State (7:10 PM ET, TBS)
LaSalle-Ole Miss (7:40 PM ET, tru)
Comment: Nobody who watched Florida Gulf Coast’s upset of Georgetown on Friday is giving this one to San Diego State. The only question will be whether FGC can play at their rapid rate without committing 20 turnovers.
Illinois-Miami (8:40 PM ET, TNT)
Creighton-Duke (9:40 PM ET, TBS) Comment: I don’t see Miami having much of a problem with an outmanned Illinois team, but Creighton-Duke has the makings of a big battle. I like the Dookies to reach the Final Four, but they have their weaknesses, they’re not a lockdown defensive team and Creighton’s Doug McDermott can score and rebound against anyone. This one is my must-see game of the day.
SATURDAY’S SECOND-ROUND RECAPS
Marquette 74 Butler 72—It was a great battle between guards Vander Blue for Marquette and Rotnei Clark for Butler, with 29 and 24 points respectively. Marquette just makes one more play at the end, and moves on to Washington D.C. next week to face the Illinois-Miami winner. Syracuse 66 Cal 60—My dream of Cal as a 60-1 longshotto make the Final Four goes crashing down. The Golden Bears played on the perimeter and guards Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs were cold, combining for 2-of-10 from behind the arc and just 13 points. If Cal was going to win, they each player to have a minimum of 13. Syracuse went inside and won the game with a 26-12 edge in free throw points. The Orange draw Indiana or Temple next week.
Michigan 78 Virginia Commonwealth 53—The Wolverines are looking like an elite team again. Mitch McGary had 21 points and 14 rebounds, while Glenn Robinson III scored 14 and grabbed nine. This was a Final Four pick of minethat’s actually holding steady, and my hope was that UM’s inconsistent forwards would take advantage of the home crowd to get their mojo back. That happened, and Michigan now awaits the UNC-Kansas winner for their impending trip to North Texas.
Michigan State 70 Memphis 48—What do you expect from a Tom Izzo team except a physical annihilation of one’s opponent built on lockdown defense and dominant rebounding? Sparty awaits the Duke-Creighton winner. Louisville 82 Colorado State 56—Russ Smith scored 27 and Louisville forced 19 turnovers. One complaint—Colorado State shot a healthy 48 percent from the floor, something that Louisville won’t survive against a better team. For now, it’s just something for Rick Pitino to focus on over the next few days of practice. Oregon 74 St. Louis 57—Othern than sloppy ball-handling, with 18 turnovers, Oregon pretty much owned this one every which way all game long. Arsalan Kazemi seems to have morphed into Charles Barkley on the glass. The Duck center had 16 rebounds, completing a weekend run where he had 33 boards against two good teams in Oklahoma State and St. Louis. It’s now a Louisville-Oregon matchup next week in Indianapolis.
Arizona 74 Harvard 51—Mark Lyons scored 27, completing a 50-point weekend. I like the way Arizona is playing, and with my original West pick of Notre Dame out, I like the Wildcats to reach the Final Four. But lest I contradict myself, don’t praise them too quickly. How excited would you have been in December to learn that Arizona won a neutral-site tournament with wins over Belmont and Harvard? That’s all they did here. I like what I see, but don’t anoint what was an underachieving season a success yet, just because the Arizona got a bracket break. The Wildcats get the Iowa State-Ohio State winner next week in Los Angeles. Wichita 76 Creighton 70—It’s easy to say that the Shockers hit 14-of-28 from three-point range and that makes this win a little fluky. I’d buy that if not for the fact that Southern lit Gonzaga up from behind the arc as well. Maybe it’s perimeter defense. I watched this game in full and Wichita had a lot of nice, clean looks. A sad ending for Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk, who had 26 points and 9 rebounds and certainly did all he could. Wichita gets the winner of Ole Miss-LaSalle, a prospective Sweet 16 matchup that surely has CBS execs weeping somewhere.
The NCAA Tournament rolls on with the latter part of the true first round here on Friday. TheSportsNotebook’s daily sports look will break down today’s games by TV time slot, so you can make your viewing plans, and then we’ll close out with some thoughts on Thursday.
Albany-Duke (12:15 PM ET, CBS)
Ole Miss-Wisconsin (12:40 PM ET, tru) Comment: I’m a Wisconsin fan, so I’m all-in on the early game. The Badger defense against Marshall Henderson, the Ole Miss guard who is either unafraid or undisciplined depending on your point of view (probably both) provides an interesting matchup.
Temple-N.C. State (1:40, TBS)
Pacific-Miami (2:10 PM ET, TNT)
Cincinnati-Creighton (2:45 PM ET, CBS)
LaSalle-Kansas State (3:10 PM ET, tru) Comment: The best player in the country, Creighton’s Doug McDermott goes here. I think there are long-term implications on Temple-N.C. State. The winner gets Indiana on Sunday. N.C. State is good enough to beat IU, whereas I doubt Temple is. But the Owls are not underachievers, while the Wolfpack have been. That’s why I like Temple to win this game and give Indiana a bit of a break.
James Madison-Indiana (4:40 PM ET, TBS)
Colorado-Illinois (4:40 PM ET, TNT) Comment: Pretty dry slot, so it’s a good time for commuters to be on the road coming home.
Florida Gulf Coast-Georgetown (6:50 PM ET, TBS)
Iona-Ohio State (7:15 PM ET, CBS)
Villanova-North Carolina (7:20 PM ET, TNT)
Northwestern State-Florida (7:27 PM ET, tru) Comment: I’ve called Florida Gulf Coast as my upset pick of the first round, although I’m worried that Harvard’s win last night might have already taken that honor. The Villanova-North Carolina game is a great matchup, and its programs with some serious NCAA history. They played most recently in the 2009 Final Four. They also played a controversial game in the 2005 Sweet 16, and Carolina won a tough regional final in 1982. Villanova beat the Tar Heels in the regional final of 1985. The winner of those games (three to UNC, one to ‘Nova) all won the national championship.
Oklahoma-San Diego State (9:20 PM ET, TBS)
Iowa State-Notre Dame (9:45 PM ET, CBS)
Western Kentucky-Kansas (9:50 PM ET, TNT)
Minnesota-UCLA (9:57 PM ET, tru) Comment: It’s nerve-wracking time for me, as Notre Dame was the dark horse I took a flyer on to get to the Final Four. And of course the definition of a darkhorse is one that can go out in the first round. Minnesota-UCLA and Oklahoma-San Diego State each promise to be good games. On the off chance that I’m right about my Florida Gulf Coast upset, the beneficiary of that would be the winner of OU-San Diego State in the second round.
LOOKING BACK ON THURSDAY
A run through all of yesterday’s finals with a brief comment on each. The games are grouped by pods, so when they’re listed without a break in between, you know the winners play each other on Saturday…
Cal 64 UNLV 61—Cal’s guards were outstanding as expected, as Allan Crabbe and Justin Cobbs combined for 32 points and controlled play. UNLV’s narrow edge on the glass wasn’t enough to compensate. Syracuse 81 Montana 34—I’ve ready box scores for several years now and seen most statistical anomalies. I don’t think I’ve seen a team shoot 20.4% from the floor, like the Grizzlies did last night. At the very least, everyone on my Wednesday night’s men’s rec league team can know we’re not alone.
Butler 68 Bucknell 56: The Bulldogs spent most of the day on the free throw line, going 25-of-28. Bucknell, in contrast, only went 5-for-8. Pretty tough to overcome that kind of disparity at the stripe. It should be noted that Bucknell shot mostly from the perimeter, whereas Butler went inside, so we shouldn’t assume that free throw differentials only come about through bad officiating. Marquette 59 Davidson 58: The day’s wild ending saw Marquette hit several treys down the stretch and then Vander Blue win the game on a driving layup in the final seconds. The reason MU had a chance to pull off the late comeback was that they dominated Davidson on the boards, holding a 38-23 rebound advantage.
SOUTH REGIONAL Michigan 71 South Dakota State 56—Everyone in Ann Arbor breathes a sigh of relief. Not only do the Wolverines win, in spite of this being a trendy upset pick, but they do it without a good game from Trey Burke (2-for-12 from the floor) and slumping frosh forward Glenn Robinson III came up big with 21 points. Virginia Commonwealth 88 Akron 42—It goes without saying the Rams dominated every statistical category. Forcing 21 turnovers while only committing five was the most obvious. The MAC’s had some notable upsets in recent years, Ohio in 2010 and 2012 coming immediately to mind. Not this time.
MIDWEST REGIONAL Louisville 74 North Carolina A&T 48—a game that went according to form. No Louisville starter played more than 25 minutes. Colorado State 84 Missouri 72—So much for Dorian Green’s bad ankle. After missing the Mountain West tournament, the Colorado State point guard dropped in 26 points last night. Mizzou’s best player, forward Laurence Bowers, was ineffective, with 7 points/4 rebounds.
St. Louis 64 New Mexico State 44—I think St. Loo has to be a little concerned. They were outrebounded decisively, 41-30 and they’re not going to be able to make that up against better teams. For one game anyway, Dwayne Evans hit 11-of-16 shots and scored 24 points. Oregon 68 Oklahoma State 55—I didn’t think Oregon would have the inside strength to exploit Oklahoma State’s biggest weakness. As it turns out, Arsalan Kazemi had 17 rebounds and Carlos Emory came off the bench to grab nine more. So much for that.
Michigan State 65 Valparaiso 54—Don’t be fooled by the respectable final score, this one was a blowout all the way. Michigan State led by 17 at the half, more than doubled up Valpo on the boards and held them to 35 percent shooting from the floor. Great day for Derrick Nix, with 25 points/15 rebounds. Memphis 54 St. Mary’s 52—This was a really ugly game, with the defining ugliness being Matthew Dellavedova’s 3-for-13 shooting game for St. Mary’s, capped off by a missed three at the end.
WEST REGIONAL Wichita 73 Pitt 55—This was a closer game than the score shows, with Wichita gradually pulling away. If you like the three-ball, I hope you didn’t see this live—the two teams combined to shoot 3-for-37 from behind the arc. Yes, 3-for-37. Not a typo. Gonzaga 64 Southern 58—The Zags got everything they could handle and handed the skeptics ammo. On the positive side, Gonzaga survived a game where its opponent shot the three-ball well (10-of-23 from trey range for Southern), while the Zags key players—Kelly Olynyk up front, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell in the backcourt—all played pretty well. You either see Gonzaga as a team that survived hot shooting and one. Or a team that got decent play from its core players and still struggled to beat a 16-seed. Take your pick.
Arizona 81 Belmont 64—This was sheer domination, as Arizona controlled the game throughout. Mark Lyons knocked down 23 points from the two-guard spot to lead the Wildcats. Harvard 68 New Mexico 62—Another NCAA disappointment from the Lobos. Their center, Alex Kirk, played well, with a 22/12 showing, but the backcourt of Kendall Williams and Tony Snell was a non-factor. Harvard hit their threes, going 8-for-18. Can they repeat Cornell’s 2010 feat of reaching the Sweet 16? We’ll look at their matchup with Arizona on Saturday morning. Or Penn’s 1979 run to the Final Four, the last Ivy league team to do it? Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The NBA is going to slide well under the media radar now that March Madness is underway, but the pros are taking full advantage of their Monday night with the TV spotlight. ESPN will be in Boston, as the Miami Heat put their 22-game win streak and run at history on the line against the still-surging Celtics in an 8 PM ET tipoff. That game will be followed by New York-Utah, another matchup of significance in the playoff picture.
TheSportsNotebook’s focus will be on the NCAA Tournament—regional previews will start going online early this evening in anticipation of the play-in games that start Tuesday—with our MLB coverage continuing with team previews, as we build to the April 1 opener. But we can’t completely lose sight of the NBA. By the time the sports world comes up for air when the NCAAs conclude on April 8, the NBA season will have just nine days left and all the races that are compelling right now might be mostly settled. As such, today’s daily sports look will double as NBA commentary, and we’ll summarize the key races within each conference and look ahead at the entire week of pro basketball.
We can pencil in Miami-Milwaukee as a first-round matchup in the Eastern Conference, with the Heat having pulled away with the 1-seed and Milwaukee three games out of seventh, yet well in command of the playoff push. But after that, it’s a crapshoot in the East.
Indiana is 40-26 and in second, but Danny Granger is again dealing with knee problems. New York is tied with the Pacers in the loss column, but have their own injury issues with Carmelo Anthony’s nagging knee troubles, so much so that even Knicks’ head coach Mike Woodson admitted concern in public. Brooklyn is only a game back in the loss column, while Atlanta, Chicago and Boston all have 29 losses, well within striking distance.
Everything is up for grabs and almost every seed level has its own importance. #2 gives you the homecourt path to a shot at Miami in the conference finals. #3 at least gets you opposite Miami in the bracket. #4 will give you a good homecourt to win a playoff series. The only area of strangeness might be the of the 5-6-7 spots, is probably the worst. You’re on the road in the first round, the opponent is not demonstrably easier and even if you win, you can’t get opposite Miami in the draw.
The Western Conference breaks down much more clearly, with three distinct races…
*San Antonio and Oklahoma City look locked into the 1-2 spots and are fighting for homecourt.
*Memphis, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver are in a tight battle for the next three spots, with the odd team out having to on the road for the first round. The winner of this mini-race avoids having to play the other two and gets a first-round opponent one rung down. The Nuggets by the way, are having about the quietest 11-game win streak ever, thanks to Miami’s bold charge at the ’72 Lakers record of 33 straight wins.
*Golden State is in the six-spot and leads up a group of six teams fighting for the last three spots. Houston and the LA Lakers are currently the other two teams, but Utah is tied with Los Angeles in the loss column. Portland and Dallas are still lurking. The Lakers and Jazz have 32 losses, while Portland has 34 and Dallas is at 35. The Blazers and Mavs aren’t finished yet.
Finally, let’s not overlook the race for the overall #1 seed. Miami’s big win streak has put them at 51-14 and in the lead. But the Heat’s slower start to the season (at least relatively speaking) means this is still a race. San Antonio is 51-16 and Oklahoma City is at 50-17. Miami was able to win the Finals last year without the benefit of homecourt, but as anyone who’s watched the NBA playoffs for any length of time can tell you, this isn’t the NCA A Tournament—seed position matters, because homecourt is huge, especially if a series gets to a decisive seventh game.
That’s the context of the NBA race. Now here’s what’s ahead this week…
*Besides the ESPN doubleheader tonight, you’ve got Denver-Chicago and Dallas-Atlanta in a key interconference games.
*Tuesday it’s a good game out West on NBA-TV, when Denver-Oklahoma City tip at 8 PM ET.
*Brooklyn-Dallas get ESPN coverage on Wednesday at 8 PM ET. It’s the headliner of a good night of pro hoops. Utah-Houston is a big game in the Western playoff fight, along with Golden State’s visit into San Antonio. The higher-ups have a key battle with Oklahoma City-Memphis, a tough road assignment for the Thunder coming off the Nuggets game the night before. Out East, Atlanta hosts Milwaukee. And there’s even some soap opera fun—LeBron and Miami go into Cleveland. Now it’s not a question of a hatefest, but whether LeBron will keep laying the groundwork for a return home when he can opt out of his contract the end of next season.
*The NBA then goes dark, like a Catholic church on Good Friday, at least when it comes to TV coverage. They don’t even try and contest college basketball now that the NCAA Tournament hits full gear and nothing is on national TV the rest of the week. Thursday only has one even notable game and that’s Portland-Chicago.
Friday has three noteworthy games of Milwaukee-Indiana, Boston-Dallas and Utah-San Antonio. The same goes for Saturday, with Indiana-Chicago, Boston-Memphis and Brooklyn-LA Clippers. This is an interesting southern road swing for the Celtics. They also have New Orleans mixed in earlier in the week and this comes off what’s likely going to be an emotionally exhausting game with the Heat tonight.
ABC eschews its Sunday doubleheader to give way to the colleges, but League Pass subscribers can still enjoy an Atlanta-Milwaukee rematch in the Midwest, or three games at the bubble of the Western Conference playoff race—Houston hosts the Spurs, Portland goes to OkC and Utah-Dallas go head-to-head.
It’s going to be tough for even passionate sports fans to find time for the NBA over the next few weeks. But don’t let them go completely off the radar, because who plays well know will go a long way to deciding who wins when everyone’s tuned back at the end of April.
The bubble has been interesting all year in SEC basketball, and it’s no different in the conference tournaments. The SEC is one of four major conferences with semifinal action going, and they continue to have the most intrigue. 10th-seeded Vanderbilt knocked off Kentucky yesterday, perhaps pushing the Wildcats into the NIT. Ole Miss beat Missouri and kept their own hopes alive. Now ABC has to be kicking itself, because instead of a Kentucky-Missouri semifinal, they can show Vandy-Ole Miss to the nation at 3 PM EST. It’s anyone’s guess whether the Rebs are in or if they need to keep advancing. There’ s no doubt about the Commodores—it’s cut down the nets Sunday or go home.
On the top half of the draw, Alabama beat Tennessee yesterday, a potential worse-case scenario for the conference. Most projections coming into Friday had the Vols leaning in and the Tide leaning out. Rather than a winner-take-all game for a bid, ‘Bama’s victory might mean that both schools are out—unless of course the Tide beat Florida in the first half of ABC’s doubleheader at 1 PM ET.
The SEC is one part of a big day that can be summarized as semifinals by day, championships by night and a whole lot of small conference action wrapped around and in between. TheSportsNotebook’s daily sportspreview will break it down by time slot, so you can pick the games you want to make a couple hours for…
EARLY: We already mentioned Florida-Alabama tips at 1 PM ET. At the same time the ACC, carried by ESPN, has Miami-N.C. State. A half-hour later you can switch over to CBS Sports Network for St. Louis-Butler in the Atlantic 10, and then at 1:40 PM ET, CBS starts its Big Ten coverage with Indiana-Wisconsin.
Or if you really want to get started early, ESPN2 has the America East championship between Albany and Vermont starting at 11:30 AM ET. Of more consequence to the bubble is Conference USA’s title game between Memphis and Southern Miss, carried by CBS at the same time.
From a bubble standpoint, the teams to watch are Alabama, as discussed above, and Southern Miss. It’s possible both C-USA teams are in the field, but most observers feel the Golden Eagles need to win the tournament. Memphis would not be a lock for an at-large, but their case would be considerably stronger than Southern Miss. So if you’re a fan in a place like Lexington, hunker down and root for Memphis and Florida early.
The Miami-N.C. State game is the most interesting among the secure teams playing for pride. TheSportsNotebook’s conference tournament previews pinpointed N.C. State as a team that’s not played up to its potential this year and that needs to win a tournament like this to at least do something noteworthy before the year is out. Miami’s been sluggish down the stretch and a win here would go a long way to rebuilding some momentum for next week.
MID-AFTERNOON: Besides Vandy-Ole Miss, the other major conference semifinals are North Carolina-Maryland (3 PM ET, ESPN), Michigan State-Ohio State (4 PM ET, CBS), and UMass-Virginia Commonwealth (4 PM ET, CBS Sports Network). If you want small college excitement, ESPN2 has the SWAC final with Southern-Prairie View A&M at 4:30 PM ET, and ESPNU carries the MEAC title game between Morgan State and North Carolina A&T thirty minutes later.
Maryland and UMass both needed big runs in their conference tournaments and both are delivering. The Terps beat Duke for the second time this season and while their hill to climb was steep, Maryland is at least in the discussion for an NCAA bid. Now imagine if they nail North Carolina today. UMass beat Temple, but almost surely needs a win over VCU. The Rams, along with Butler in the early time slot, are teams that should expect to win a tournament to make up for the lack of a regular season title.
EARLY EVENING: Now it’s time to pick up with the championship games in the big leagues. ESPN shifts its coverage to Kansas City, where the Big 12 final has regular season co-champs Kansas and Kansas State tipping off at 6 PM ET. CBS will show New Mexico-UNLV in the Mountain West. Your small conference action has Akron-Ohio in the MAC (6:30 PM ET, ESPN2)
Fans of the bubble teams would be prudent to root for Akron. It might not matter, but the Zips would at least be in the at-large conversation if they lost. I further think UNLV really needs this tournament title—they let New Mexico run away in the regular season and the tourney is in Las Vegas. The Big 12 final is a nice battle for pride of two in-state rivals settling a regular season race that ended without a clear winner.
PRIME-TIME: The Big East reaches its finale with Syracuse-Louisville (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). It’s the highlight of a time slot that’s otherwise marked by small conference championships, with Stephen Austin-Northwestern State (8:30 PM ET, ESPN2), Montana-Weber State (9 PM ET, ESPNU).
I don’t know that there’s a lot at stake here. I haven’t put Syracuse in the category of teams that need to win to redeem the regular season, because I think it was mostly Jim Boeheim’s coaching, rather than talent, that made them as good as they were to begin with. I think the value of a #1 seed is overrated, so that mitigates any importance for Louisville. I’m personally high on Stephen Austin as a possible upset pick, so I guess making sure they advance is the best part of this slot.
LATE NIGHT: If you’re not basketballed-out, or if late in the evening is the time when you can get to the TV set after putting the kids down, check out UCLA-Oregon in the Pac-12 final on ESPN. Tip time is 11:30 PM ET. Oregon helped bubble fans breathe a sigh of relief when they ousted Utah yesterday, and winning the tournament would help the Ducks atone for a last-week collapse that let UCLA take the regular season crown.
NBA & NHL
NBA-TV will show a prime-time doubleheader starting at 7:30 PM ET, with Indiana-Philadelphia and Memphis-Utah. The Jazz need to win, especially after the Lakers got a surprising win in Indiana last night with Kobe Bryant only playing 12 minutes because of his knee injury. Utah is a game back of Los Angeles for the final playoff spot, though the teams are tied in the loss column. Memphis is in a tough three-way fight with the LA Clippers and Denver, with the odd team out ending up as the 5-seed and on the road in the first round.
The NHL Network has a tripleheader that starts at 1 PM ET, with NY Rangers-Pittsburgh, and then the network picks up in prime-time. A split telecast at 7 PM ET has Montreal-New Jersey or Carolina-Tampa Bay. Then the night ends at 10 PM ET with Detroit-Vancouver. The Rangers need wins, as their loss to Winnipeg earlier this week dropped them two points out of a playoff spot.
For all the Championship Week hype going on, I would call Tuesday a pretty quiet night in sports. There are three small-conference championship games with no implications for anyone on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The power conferences start slowly with some preliminary round games in the Big East and Mountain West—if South Florida-Seton Hall or DePaul-Rutgers turn you on, then go to ESPNU for the doubleheader that starts at 7 PM ET. But what tonight’s daily sports docket really adds up to is an evening where hockey deserves to be on center stage.
The Boston Bruins won again last night, beating Ottawa in a shootout and now the Bruins are set up with a nationally televised showdown against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both teams have been under the radar as the minimal coverage the NHL gets has rightfully gone to the amazing start of the Chicago Blackhawks. But the Bruins and Penguins are both championship-caliber teams that look the part. Tonight’s game will be on the NBC Sports Network at 7:30 PM ET. It’s more than just two good teams, it’s a great clash in styles. Pittsburgh brings Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and a talented offense to go up against one of the best defenses in the league, anchored by rising star Tuuka Raask in goal.
Boston-Pittsburgh’s not the only good game in the NHL. Winnipeg is only two points out of the playoffs and goes to Toronto. In the Western Conference there are only two points separating 6th place from 11th place, with three of those six spots making the playoffs. San Jose and St. Louis are two of the six and they go head-to-head. Surprisingly, Vancouver has also played its way to the playoff bubble with four straight losses and the Canucks match up with Columbus. The Blue Jackets are on the rise, having won five straight and are just on the outside of the enmeshed six teams. Phoenix is one point out of the playoffs and hosts Los Angeles. The Kings have stabilized after a slow start, are up to fourth in the West and set for this rematch of last year’s conference finals.
NBA action offers one notable game in Atlanta-Miami (7:30, NBA-TV). The Heat look for their 19th straight win and I would imagine they’ll get it on their home floor. The Hawks are part of a group of five teams fighting for playoff seeding position, the winner of which will net the 4-spot and homecourt in the first round.
Finally, let’s wrap back around to college basketball. The small-conference title games start with Mount St. Mary’s-Long Island Brooklyn at 7 PM ET on ESPN. I’m pulling for the Mount—I used to live an hour’s drive from the campus and it’s a beautiful place to go for a hike. Then at 9 PM, your TV will take you to flyover country. On ESPN it’s Wright State-Valparaiso for the Horizon League title. Valpo won the regular season and holds homecourt advantage. Over on ESPN2 it’s North Dakota State-South Dakota State. This tournament is held in Sioux Falls, but North Dakota State has been a tough out when its best player, Taylor Braun has been healthy. He’s healthy now and that’s why even though NDSU is the 3-seed, I expect them to win and to be a sleeper in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
If you’re just getting caught up with college basketball now, in preparation for March Madness, there’s something you need to be extremely aware of—Butler is in serious trouble. Maybe you caught highlights of their November win over Indiana and their last-second buzzer-beater against Gonzaga. Great wins, to be sure, but within Atlantic 10 play, the Bulldogs have been reeling. They’re 9-5 in the conference, just lost by 32 to Virginia Commonwealth and suddenly face a key game tonight against Massachusetts (7, NBC Sports Network) that I would consider the most compelling on the Thursday daily sports docket.
Butler is projected as a #7 seed by Joe Lunardi over at ESPN.com, which would give them plenty of cushion. But while I’d be surprised if they collapse out of the Big Dance entirely, should we really be shocked? Let’s just consider three very realistic points—Lunardi, as much as I respect his work, can be off by a seed or two. Then let’s say Butler loses to UMass tonight, and then flames out in the quarterfinals of the A-10 tournament—as of today, that opponent would be Xavier, who just beat conference-leading St. Louis last night. Is it then unrealistic that Butler could be the team everyone is in shock over?
That just considers the Butler angle on tonight’s game. How about UMass? With electrifying point guard Chaz Williams, the Minutemen are 18-9 and while they’re on the outside looking in as of today, this is a team that has the opportunity to play its way. Sort of like Villanova had last night, and you saw what happened when the Wildcats upended Georgetown. The folks in Las Vegas certainly see a UMass win as realistic—the Minutemen are installed as a 1 ½ point favorite.
It seems a little surreal that the NBC Sports Network could not only have the biggest sporting event of the night, but that it wouldn’t be a hockey game. Be assured there are some good games in the marquee conferences on ESPN. The Pac-12 race went topsy-turvy for about the eighteenth time this season last night when UCLA and Cal both lost, and now Oregon can close out a league championship. The Ducks won’t have it easy though, going to Colorado (9 PM, ESPN2). It’s another case where the home bubble team is a slight favorite over the conference contender, as Oregon gets 2 ½.
The Big Ten is going down to the last weekend. We know Indiana has a share of the title in hand and can take it outright. We know Michigan controls its destiny to get a share themselves if they beat the Hoosiers. And the winner of tonight’s Wisconsin-Michigan State game in East Lansing (9 PM ET, ESPN) will also still be in contention come the weekend. The early game on ESPN is a must-win game for Kentucky when they go to Georgia. Keep in mind the Bulldogs just slowed down Tennessee’s NCAA push last Saturday.
Normally a Thursday night means the NBA on TNT gets top billing. The mad race in college basketball changes that for a few weeks, but it’s no fault of the schedule offered. The TNT twinbill starts at 8 PM ET with Kevin Durant taking the Thunder into Madison Square Garden, and it ends with LA Clippers-Denver, a key game in the race for Western Conference seeding. Denver is in a fight with Memphis for homecourt in the first round and the Clips can still move up to #2 or down to #4, either of which would be significant.
It’s a Keystone State showdown in hockey as the NHL Network brings us Pittsburgh-Philly at 7 PM ET. The Penguins have gotten themselves in good position, while the Flyers need to win. Pittsburgh sits at #2 in the East, and seeds #1 and #3 go head-to-head with Montreal and Carolina. The Canadiens are a slip away from tumbling down to fifth though—they only lead Boston by a point and Toronto by two points in the Northeast Division and a third-place team can get no higher than #5. The Leafs beat Ottawa last night and have to go into the Boston Garden tonight to face the Bruins as a substantial (+180) underdog.
Here at TheSportsNotebook we don’t cover the NFL draft, but over at Prime Sports Network, draft coverage gets intense today. Former NFL scout Dan Shonka will have a mock draft in a podcast with host Greg DePalma at 2 PM ET. Shonka is the owner of the scouting website OurLads.com, and his NFL depth charts are the source for the same posted at sites like CBSSports.com. In short, he knows what he’s talking about and if you want a good pre-free agency look at the draft, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the podcast.
CLEANING UP FROM LAST NIGHT
It was upsets all over. I mentioned Georgetown, UCLA, Cal and St. Louis. Let’s add to that Miami losing to Georgia Tech. So nothing more than four conference championships were dramatically affected. If you pay a visit to blogger Jeff Fogle at Stat Intelligence, he’ll break it all down for you.
Here at TheSportsNotebook, I lost my best bet of the night, as Michigan’s 80-75 win over Purdue missed the cover by a point and a half. My top play on the board tonight is a little off the radar. Louisiana Tech is leading the WAC, while New Mexico State is in third. They meet in Las Cruces tonight, and La Tech is getting two. I’ll look for the Bulldogs to break the trend of conference leaders losing road games.
Betting Unit Tally: (-1.2)—I assume one unit wagered on each game unless otherwise specified. You can use your imagination as to what the unit is worth. I’m 1-2 right now on even-up spots, so the tally reflects the full unit lost, plus two-tenths for the vig.
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 hasfive 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.
The battle on the NCAA Tournament bubble enters the final week of the regular season for the power conferences, and for a lot of the smaller conferences—including a couple notable mid-majors—tournament play starts up later this week. Two teams in must-win spots are Cincinnati and Baylor and with both teams on ESPN they headline our daily sports talk.
Cincinnati travels to Louisville to start the doubleheader at 7 PM ET on ESPN. The Bearcats got a badly needed home win over UConn on the weekend, and ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has them projected as a #9 seed. I generally defer to Lunardi, although I’d like to note that I’m not nearly as sold on the Bearcats being that comfortable. I’ve got them in if the season ends today, but they’ve got some work to do. I’m not saying they have to beat an excellent team on the road, but I think Cincy still needs to show something. A competitive game tonight, with the 11-point spread serving as a baseline measurement, would be a good place to start. Louisville can still get a piece of the Big East title if they win tonight, beat Notre Dame at home and then hope Georgetown stumbles in its season finale with Syracuse this weekend.
The doubleheader then shifts to the Big 12 where Baylor goes to Texas. The 17-12 Bears have really struggled of late and this is a big underachiever this year. Lunardi currently has them as one of his first four out, and in this case the bracket maven and I are on the same page. It speaks volumes to how bad Baylor has played that they’re only giving a point and a half to a team that’s been an absolute train wreck. This game is just the first of a two-step process for Baylor—they will likely also need to find a way to knock off Kansas on Saturday. I’d be sarcastic and say good luck with that, but Baylor has the personnel, if they just put it together on the floor.
TheSportsNotebook will talk plenty about the NCAA bubble and some of this week’s coming conference tournaments when I appear on Prime Sports Network at 4 PM ET with Greg DePalma. If you want to get caught up on the results from the weekend, I’d pay a visit to Jeff Fogle’s Stat Intelligence, which leads off with a fine analysis of the crazy last two minutes of yesterday’s Michigan-Michigan State game, won by the Wolverines. There was another Big Ten game of note yesterday, where Wisconsin lost to Purdue. As a Badger fan, I’m about to go get electroshock therapy as the loss cost UW a shot at the Big Ten crown.
Tonight’s best game in the NBA is Atlanta-Denver, although it won’t be on TV anywhere. NBA-TV coverage will reserve its coverage for LeBron, who takes the Heat up to Minnesota. Even with LeBron having banged up his knee yesterday, he’s still expected to play, though I would wonder how much. With Miami perhaps resting its star a bit and with yesterday marked by a big come-from-behind win in Madison Square Garden, maybe this is a time to go against the Heat. No, not to lose outright—I’m not going to go crazy with Kevin Love not in the lineup for the T-Wolves. But to grab ten points and hope Miami goes easy? It’s realistic.
As to Atlanta-Denver, I’m not sure why the Hawks are ten-point underdogs. Denver is the better team and playing at home, but they aren’t that much better and there’s no notable injury situations being reported. Other key games include Utah-Milwaukee, with the Jazz needing a road win, as they try and hold off the Lakers. And the Knicks have to lick their wounds and be ready to go in Cleveland.
It’s a light schedule in the NHL, but all the games are compelling. Tampa-Pittsburgh is the main TV event (7:30 PM ET, NBCSN) and features Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby going head-to-head. The NHL Network has a late-night show with Nashville-Los Angeles at 10:30 PM ET, with both teams just on the outside looking for the playoffs—remember, we’re about halfway through the abbreviated schedule, so there’s no time for these teams to waste. If you’ve got the Center Ice package, you can also check Anaheim-Phoenix, where the Mighty Ducks are second-best in the West right now and the Coyotes are on the playoff fringe. And Toronto, featured last week in TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis, hosts New Jersey, with both teams narrowly in the top eight coming into tonight.
BEST TV OPTION: Don’t complicate this one—it’s the ESPN college hoops twinbill of Cincy-Louisville and Baylor-Texas, with preference given to the opener, since there’s both NCAA bubble and Big East title implications.
BEST BETTING OPTION: I’m not a bettor, but if I were, I’d take the Devils (+110) to win in Toronto on the ice.