As basketball fans turn their attention to the March Mayhem, Madness and Mania that is college basketball, the NBA rolls merrily along into the home stretch of the regular season. Its almost three quarters complete. Division races are becoming much clearer, as are the battles for playoff positions.
Opening the season with 10 straight wins, Philadelphia has been the leagues best team. They lead second place Miami by eight games in the Atlantic Division, and are seven games ahead of Central Division-leading Milwaukee for the Eastern Conferences best record. But with the excellent play of the teams out West, Philadelphia holds a two-game edge over Portland for best NBA overall record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Five teams are within 2Â½ games of the lead in the Western Conference. Utah, San Antonio, the Lakers and Sacramento are poised to overtake Portland in the seasons final month and a half. The Wests power is best illustrated by the fact that all eight playoff qualifiers are playing .600 or better. Just three teams in the East can make that claim.
The gap between the playoff teams and the rest of the conference has grown to four games in the West. Additionally, two non-qualifiers are still above .500 and would easily make the playoffs were they in the East. The gap between playoff qualifiers and non-qualifiers is widening. The focus down the stretch will be on positioning.
The competition between the five teams separated by just 2Â½ games, has major implications. The top seed enjoys home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs, but the No. 5 seed wont even get home edge in the opening round.
Although seven Eastern teams are above .500, the eighth and final playoff spot would go to Indiana, though its five games below the break-even mark. Only Boston has a realistic chance of catching the Pacers for the Easts final playoff spot. The Celts have played well since coach Rick Pitino resigned, but have 1Â½ games to make up on Indiana.
Heres a look at three games this weekend.
San Antonio at LA Lakers (Friday) Many predict the Spurs and Lakers will make it to the Western Conference finals. These teams have won the past two NBA titles. This will be their final regular season meeting. The Lakers won the last two games, including a 101-99 road win just two weeks ago. Shaquille ONeal and Kobe Bryant are back in top form. Despite the supposed feud between the two superstars, the Lakers are playing well and enter the week with the same record as San Antonio.
Both teams begin the week just one game behind in the loss column for best conference record. This is a tough scheduling spot for San Antonio. The Lakers are rested. The Spurs are playing their fourth game in five nights and all four games have been on the road, including a visit last night to Portland.
This edge may be reflected in the line that might have the Lakers favored by 4 to 6 points. Yet the preference will be to take the Spurs plus the points if we can get at least 4Â½. San Antonio rarely gets blown away. The tandem of Tim Duncan and David Robinson creates some problems for the Lakers.
Scheduling dynamics suggest the Spurs might try to slow the pace and stay as fresh as possible for the second half. Their last two games had a posted total of 188, yet both games hit for at least 200 points. If linesmakers adjust the total upwards to 195 or higher, the preference would be on the UNDER.
Milwaukee at Charlotte (Saturday) When these teams met a few weeks ago, Milwaukee was playing crisp basketball. Charlotte was slumping. That slump enabled Milwaukee to claim the Central Division lead. More recently, Charlotte has picked up the level of play. The Bucks have slumped just a bit.
This will be the final regular-season meeting between the teams. The road team has won each of the previous three meetings outright, all as underdogs. Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell lead Milwaukee. Each had huge games in recent weeks. Jamal Mashburn, Baron Davis and Elden Campbell pace Charlotte.
The Hornets seem to play better without Derrick Coleman in the lineup, which calls into question team chemistry. Frontcourt edge goes to Charlotte. The Bucks rate the nod in the backcourt. That might be the determining factor, come playoff time. For now, the way to look is with the underdog. It should be Milwaukee. Charlotte figures to be about a 3- to 5-point favorite, but the game handicaps as a toss-up. The preference is for Milwaukee, with our guideline for an Over/Under play at 192.
Utah at Sacramento (Sunday) These teams have developed a nice rivalry since the Kings extended Utah in the playoffs two seasons ago. Its become even more intense this season. Both are fighting for the conferences best record. Utah begins the week with a 1Â½-game edge. The teams have met twice this season, with the road team winning tight games both times. Those were played within a week of each other, less than a month ago.
Please see Bettin on B-ball
Sacramento should have injured Chris Webber back for this game, although the Kings have played well in his absence.
They won seven of 11 games since the All-Star break. Predrag Stojakovic and Vlade Divac have played well for the Kings.
Utah continues to be paced by the Batman & Robin duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton. Donyell Marshall has become much more of a factor for the Jazz over the past two months, taking much of the burden off Malone.
Sacramento is likely to be a slight 2- or 3-point favorite.
Both teams are rested. Each played two nights ago. The preference would be to side with the home team Kings if not laying more than 3 points.
This should also be a relatively high-scoring game, with 194 being the guideline to use in making a play on the Over/Under.
John Bennetts Hoop Picks
Hornets by 8 over Magic
Spurs by 3 over Trailblazers
Clippers by 2 over Rockets
Pacers by 5 over Cavaliers
76ers by 8 over Hawks
Twolves by 3 over Heat
Knicks by 4 over Nets
Wizards by 2 over Celtics
Pistons by 6 over Bulls
Mavericks by 9 over Warriors
Suns by 3 over Jazz
Raptors by 4 over Supersonics
Trailblazers by 8 over Grizzlies
Lakers by 7 over Spurs
Kings by 9 over Nuggets
Wizards by 3 over Nets
Magic by 5 over Twolves
Hornets by 4 over Bucks
Hawks by 7 over Bulls
Warriors by 3 over Rockets
Knicks by 4 over Heat
76ers by 6 over Celtics
Grizzlies by 2 over Raptors
Kings by 7 over Jazz
Pacers by 4 over Pistons
Bucks by 6 over Cavaliers
Rockets by 4 over Suns
Mavericks by 9 over Clippers
Lakers by 12 over Supersonics
Washington St. by 3 over UCLA
Southern Cal by 7 over Washington
Arizona by 3 over Stanford
California by 6 over Arizona St.
Stanford by 16 over Arizona St.
Washington St. by 4 over Southern Cal
UCLA by 11 over Washington
Arizona by 5 over California
Oregon St. by 4 over Oregon
Big East Conference Championship starts Wednesday. Our selections are Boston College, with Georgetown as runner-up.
Conference U.S.A. opens same day. Cincinnati Bearcats, after a miserable start, will win the title
Atlantic 10 opens Wednesday, Temples the favorite, but St. Josephs wins.
Big Twelve Conference games begin Thursday: Kansas U. and Iowa State appear to be the favorites. Two other teams have gone on a hot streak. Oklahoma and Texas will battle for the Big 12 title. The Sooners come out on top.
Southeastern Conference is all cut and dried. The Gators are healthy. Tennessees on the slide. That leaves only Kentucky with an outside chance of winning it all. Arkansas is the dark horse here.
Big Ten Conference will be a dog fight. Michigan State and Illinois hold the edge, but Ohio State and Indiana have been coming strong down the stretch. Our heart says Ohio State, but cold-blooded says Michigan St.
The Atlantic Coast Conference presents a major battle. Duke leads the pack, with Maryland coming on strong, ready to show their wares and win the first ACC title in years. North Carolina fell by the wayside the past three weeks.
In the Mountain West Conference, its Wyoming by default. BYU and Utah are struggling, at best, with the Cowboys a weak choice.
In the WAC, Fresno State and Tulsa fight it out, with Tarks team coming out as the champion.
Key match-ups highlight week
By: Bob Joyce
Ottawa at New Jersey: The Senators are 2-0-1 against the Devils this season. Ottawa has the best record in the Eastern Conference, the fourth best in the league. The Senators have the fifth best record in the NHL on the road. Both teams sport high-powered offenses. Ottawa has scored 207 goals. New Jersey has scored 210 times. In the goals-against department, New Jersey ranks fifth, allowing 154 goals. Ottawa is sixth best in the league with 155 goals against. Ottawa, on a roll for three weeks, should continue to dominate the Devils in a high-scoring affair. Predicted score: Ottawa 5-3.
Chicago at Dallas: This is their third meeting this season. The Stars dominated the first two games, 5-1 and 4-1. Dallas is 20-9-2 at home, sixth in the league. The Blackhawks have a road record of 14-15-3-2, which ranks 16th. Dallas is 9-4-1-1 against the Central Division. Chicago is 4-5-3-2 against the Pacific Division. Dallas has this game in hand and in command. Predicted score: Dallas 6-2.
Colorado at St. Louis: Certainly the match-up of the week. These two high-powered offenses meet for the third time this season. St. Louis won 4-3 in overtime last month in Colorado. They skated to a 3-3 tie back in November. Colorado leads the league with 211 goals. St. Louis is second with 210. Colorado also ranks No. 1 in goals against, 146. The Blues are a close third, allowing only 148. St. Louis has the best record in the league on their home ice. 25-3-3-2. The Avalanche arent too shabby on the road, 17-7-5-1, second best in the league. St. Louis is 9-3-1 versus the Northwest Division. Colorado sports an equally nice record of 9-2-2-2. While playing the Central Division. I said it last week and will say it again: Colorado with the addition of Rob Blake is the best team in the NHL. Predicted score: Colorado 5-3.
N.Y. Rangers at Washington: The Rangers are 2-0 this season against the Capitals by scores of 5-3 and 3-2. However, those games date back to mid-November and early December and shouldnt be considered in final evaluation, especially how well the Capitals have been playing for the last month. Washington has (believe it or not) the fourth-best home record in the league, 18-5-6-2, only trailing St. Louis, Colorado and Ottawa in this category. Meanwhile, the Rangers are 22nd on the oppositions home ice, with a record of 11-17-2. The Rangers have given up 219 goals this season, 28th in the league. Only Tampa Bay (227) and Atlanta (220) have coughed up more. Washington should have a field day against the Rangers porous defense. Predicted score: Washington 5-2.
New Jersey at Philadelphia: First place is on the line in this nationally televised game on ABC (noon Pacific, 3 p.m. Eastern). These two Atlantic Division rivals will slug it out for the fifth time this season. They share the same record of 1-1-2 against each other. Philadelphia has the seventh best home record, 19-8-4. New Jerseys is 15-8-6-3, third best in the league on the road. The Devils went through a terrible slump, but have picked it up a notch the last week and a half. If New Jersey is going to defend Lord Stanleys Cup this year, this is a pivotal game. Predicted score: New Jersey 4-2.
League tourneys to start
By: Ramon Scott
While the "March Madness" moniker was mostly coined for the opening days of the NCAA Division I mens basketball tournament, with furious finishes and wild upsets, the term more aptly fits the week prior with conference tournaments that make this Thursday and Fridays board as wild as any Saturday during the regular season.
Casual sports gamblers have long been known to take a few vacation days during the opening round of the tourney, but only avid punters can associate themselves with the couple dozen weekday games leading up to Sundays seedings.
While ESPN televises games constantly throughout the days, the books will carry lots more, with Full Court satellite coverage for nearly every major conference tourney game. Also, look for most of the books to carry Tuesdays annual Ivy League championship showdown between Penn and Princeton.
While Brown and Yale have thrown a bigger scare than usual at the Tigers and the Quakers, the perennial title foes meet with the hosts in the drivers seat after the surprise contenders were eliminated by the top two last weekend.
Princeton has been a solid cover on its home floor, going 4-1 as a favorite and 8-1 straight up. The Quakes, meanwhile, have been poor against the number all season in league play, but are 2-2 as a road dog this season. Still, no reason why this game shouldnt fall close to the number... Princeton 64, Pennsylvania 57.
Also on Tuesday, streaking Detroit, which has covered six of its last eight, meets Midwestern regular-season champ Butler, which got the money in the first two games against Loyola and Wright State but had failed nine of 11 heading into the event. The home teams got the money in both earlier meetings, but the Titans were a dismal 1-5 as an underdog... Butler 72, Detroit 68.
The Sun Belt final was scheduled to pit North Texas against Middle Tennessee... just kidding wise guys, who seemingly steamed the Mean Green and lost more times than they won this season, except for Fridays mild comeback against Little Rock. Western Kentucky is the favorite to win the title, but South Alabama defeated the Hilltoppers during the regular season.
The Big East starts on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, with champ Boston College coming in with an impressive 15-4-1-spread mark, never failing two in a row. Syracuse nearly folded Sunday against St. Johns on this floor, but still got the money with a small underdog victory, and went 3-0 against the number o