Just over a month remains in the NBA regular season. With teams having just about 20 games remaining, we have our first clinched playoff spot. No surprise.
Philadelphia, the leagues best team right from the start, officially clinched a playoff berth last weekend. The 76ers will set their sights on clinching the Atlantic Division title, then the top overall seed for the Eastern Conference and the NBA finals. Likely MVP Allen Iverson suffered a bruised hip in that win but shouldnt be sidelined for more than a couple of games, if at all.
Fashioning the leagues best record should provide enough incentive to ensure a focused effort from the Sixers the rest of the way. The Sixers have a three-game lead in the loss column over a trio of Western Conference pursuers San Antonio, Utah and Sacramento.
Milwaukee has a hold on the No. 2 seed in the East. They sit atop the Central Division with a 2Â½-game lead over Charlotte. Seeds 3 through 8 belong to Miami, New York, Charlotte, Orlando, Toronto and Indiana. Three teams are bunched closely for the 3 through 5 seeds. The teams that gain the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds will have home-court advantage for the best three-of-five opening series, so expect the Heat, Knicks and Hornets to play hard to avoid the No. 5 seed.
Things remain interesting in the Western Conference. San Antonio and Utah begin the week tied for both the Midwest Division lead and the conference best overall record. Sacramento paces the Pacific Division and trails the Spurs and Jazz by just a half game for the Wests best record, tied in the loss column. Dallas trails the leaders by 3Â½ games in the Midwest. Minnesota is another three games back.
Portland and the Lakers are within a game and a game and a half of Sacramento. Each is two behind in the loss column. The top five teams in the Western Conference are separated by just two games, with Dallas capable of making a run. Dallas holds the No. 6 seed in the West.
Heres a look at three games this weekend.
Sacramento at Philadelphia (Friday) These teams have the top seeds in their respective conferences. Both had remarkable turnarounds over the past few seasons. Sacramento is paced by Chris Webber and Jason Williams, although Doug Christie, Vlade Divac and Pedrag Stojakovic all have blended nicely together to turn the Kings into legitimate contenders.
Iverson leads the 76ers, but their front line of Tyrone Hill, George Lynch and recently acquired Dikembe Mutombo complements Iversons scoring prowess.
The 76ers are favored by from 4 to 6. Look to take the points with Sacramento if getting at least 5 points. The preference is also for the OVER if the line is no higher than 190.
Phoenix at Dallas (Saturday) Both are headed for the playoffs, but wont have home-court advantage in the first round, barring dramatic developments. Dallas has a 2Â½-game edge over Phoenix for the sixth seed. Minnesota is also a factor. The recent acquisition of Juwan Howard by Dallas makes them a formidable threat. Michael Finley and Dirk Nowitzki complete a trio that gives the Mavericks balance and strength.
Phoenix has struggled this past week. Lack of a strong inside game is a disadvantage here. Shawn Marion is legit, but there are questions about Cliff Robinson and Tom Gugliotta and their ability to take a physical pounding. Dallas is likely to be a sizable favorite, perhaps in the 6- to 8-point range. The Suns are worth a play if getting at least 7 points, with the guideline for play on the Total being 192.
LA Lakers at Orlando (Sunday) Shaquille ONeal and Kobe Bryant lead the Lakers as they play the middle game of a five-game road trip. Orlando fans will be all over Shaq and will revel in each missed free throw. Theyve never forgiven Shaq for bailing out on Orlando several years ago after the Magic had reached the NBA finals and appeared on the verge of being an Eastern power for years.
The Lakers should be a small favorite, with the Over/Under in the neighborhood of 202. The preference is to take the points with Orlando if we can get at least a trey. Also look to play the UNDER if the Over/Under line does come in at 202 or higher.
Suncoast to have first-ever handicapping contest
By Adam Soboleski
Suncoast Casino will hold its first Suncoast Invitational horse racing handicapping contest March 28-31.
There is $350,000 in prize money (based on 300 entries). Fee is $1,000. The Suncoast is adding $50,000 to the jackpot. Registration begins March 27 (1 p.m.) and ends March 29 (1 p.m.). There was an early signup in February.
"It should be a great event," said Ricky Herron, Coast Casinos contests director. "First place should be worth over $100,000. (As of late last week), we have 270 signed up. No one ever has had 200 entries for a $1,000 entry pool. I think well get between 300 and 350. We will get a lot of people at the last minute, and some people will play two."
Contestants make 12 individual $100 contest win wagers per day at selected tracks, which include Santa Anita, Hialeah, Aqueduct, Pimlico, Fairgrounds and Sportsmans. More than one horse can be selected per race, but each wager must be $100. Only win wagers are accepted. Full track odds will be paid on the first $20, with the rest paid at a limit of 20-1.
Scratches, worth nothing, must be re-bet. Points accumulate for the three days. Entries limit two per person.
If 300 sign up, the prize money goes as follows: first place is 35 percent ($105,000), second is 17 ($51,000), third is nine ($27,000) and fourth is five ($15,000). Sixth through 10th finishers each earn two percent ($6,000). Eleventh through 20th each gets one percent ($3,000). The next 20 finishers also are paid with 21st through 30th each getting $1,500, and 31st through 40th each earning $1,200.
If there is a tie for a place, lets say second and third places, each wins $39,000.
There are daily prizes, too. First place gets $5,000; second gets $2,000; while third through fifth earn $1,000 each. Daily prize money will be available by 10 a.m.
Tom Timko, Suncoast race book manager, will help Herron with running the contest.
"Im nervous," Herron said. "Its new for everyone (in the casino). Being nervous makes it go well."
Herron runs a similar annual horseracing contest at The Orleans. That contest, which usually runs twice a year, in March and October, will be Aug. 15-18, and will run only once this year.
Suncoast Invitational contestants are offered daily breakfasts and lunches, an opening cocktail party March 27 (7-9 p.m.), and the final awards presentation April 1 at 10 a.m. Contestants will receive a special room rate of $55 (plus tax) a night.
Philly, Colorado want revenge
By bob joyce
St. Louis at Philadelphia: These two clubs meet for the second time this season as the Flyers beat the Blues 2-1 in overtime in St. Louis back in January. Philadelphia is 21-9-4 at home while the banged-up Blues are 14-13-5-2 on the road. St. Louis sports a winnng record against the Atlantic Division at 3-0-0-1 with the only blemish coming from the Flyers in overtime. The Blues are 13-4-1-1 against the Eastern Conference while Philly is only 8-6-3 versus the West. Could these two teams begin talking about Lindros again as the trade deadline ends at the same time this game could end? Predicted score: Philadelphia 3-2.
Detroit at Colorado: Great match-up on tap here for this nationally televised game on ABC (noon Pacific, 3:00 p.m. Eastern). These two Divisional leaders square off for the third time this season as Detroit has downed the powerful Avalanche both times, 5-3 and also a 4-3 overtime victory. Colorado has the best record in the league while Detroit ranks second. The Red Wings are the second best road team (Colorado is first) with a record of 19-8-6-2 and Colorado is second best at home with a record of 23-5-4-2. Both of these teams will collide one more time after this game which will again be on national TV in the final game of the regular season on April 7 and could well set the stage for deciding who will represent the West in the Stanley Cups finals. Colorado needs this game to regain some self-confidence when facing the Red Wings. Predicted score: Colorado 4-2.
Heck with brackets, pick against spread
BY: RAMON SCOTT
Battered and bruised, the Duke Blue Devils have been installed as rather decisive 5-2 favorites to win the NCAA Division I mens basketball championship.
Duke comes in to Thursdays East Region opener with Monmouth on a four-game winning streak. The Blue Devils have won seven of their last eight, including a 26-point thrashing of North Carolina in the ACC title game.
Three of their losses came against Stanford, North Carolina and Maryland. Their other loss was at Virginia, but as 35-point favorites against Monmouth, Duke is just tuning up and getting healthy for its Saturday match-up with the Georgia-Missouri winner.
Monmouth went 11-2 over their last 13 games, beating Princeton Nov. 25, but it lost at UNLV and Gonzaga late in December, so this could likely come close to the number...Duke 90, Monmouth 65.
Georgia lost three of its last four games and was 16-12 against the number playing the toughest schedule in the country, beating Indiana State, Utah, Pepperdine, Georgia Tech and Villanova, while falling to Georgia State, Minnesota, Stanford, Wake Forest, Cal and Fresno State out of the SEC.
Missouri finished the year 7-9 over its last 16 games. The Tigers just 3-8 away, but the they are another team trying to get to full health. They lost to Big 12 champion Oklahoma by a deuce and took Illinois to overtime before falling, but surrendered 79 points per game away...Georgia 75, Missouri 70.
With all previous injured players expected back for both teams, Saturdays second-round game could be closer than expected. Duke could be laying an inflated price to either the No. 8 or the No. 9 seed, but well go against Georgia versus the Blue Devils if it gets by MU. If the Tigers survive, give them a good cover chance against Duke.
Ohio State won eight of its last 11 games and had a 14-12 spread record, but got knocked out of the Big 10 tournament by champion Iowa. The Buckeyes go up against Utah State, which lost back-to-back games in mid-January. They won the Big West tournament, going 3-0 against the number as 19-, nine- and 10-point favorites against Fullerton, Boise State and Pacific respectively. This team went 17-8 versus the number for the season, 5-0 over the last five games. With defense being a key in March, the Aggies have a shot, but the oddsmakers have already reacted accordingly...Ohio State 62, Utah State 56.
UCLA went 16-12 against the spread, and was 7-4 versus the number on the road, but the Bruins lost at home to tourney teams Cal State Northridge and Georgia Tech. UCLA won 16 of 18 before losing two of its final three. The Bruins went 2-5 against the money over the last seven games. However, in February, UCLA played a grueling four-game road stretch against Pac-10 teams. The Bruins upset Stanford on the road and came home from the trip and upset Arizona in OT. Opponent Hofstra will be recognized for coming into the tourney with 17 straight wins. They went 3-0-1 in four board games, so an upset is possible here...UCLA 74, Hofstra 72.
Consider Hofstra to get the money (and possibly another win) against the winner of the OSU-USU game, but go against the Bruins in the second round should they prevail against the Flying Dutchmen.
USC won its last three games, and four of its last five to end the season, going 4-0-1 against the spread. The only loss over that stretch came to Stanford, 70-68 at home. The Trojans were an average 14-13 against the spread, beating Bradley, Utah, Cal-Northridge and BYU out of conference, while losing to Ole Miss and Northwestern.
Oklahoma States berth could never ease the pain of a difficult season, but the team has shown some focus, despite going 6-5 straight-up trying to get back on track following the tragedy. OSU was 11-13 versus the number for the season... Southern Cal 76, Oklahoma State 75.
Boston College completed a worst-to-first run in the Big East and finished 23-4 overall. The Eagles were an underdog seven times. They went 3-4 straight up and 5-1-1 versus the number as a dog, although theyll be favorites in the first two rounds.
BC went 14-5 ATS, but lost at Duke by 40 as a 22-point dog. They would likely meet up with red-hot Kentucky in the third round.
Southern Utah posted a 25-5 record on its way to the Mid-Continent Championship, closing the season with seven-straight wins. Teams from the Mid-Continent Conference dont have a good first-round history... Boston College 88, Southern Utah 68.
Well also consider BC to cover in the second round, taking out Oklahoma State by double digits or USC by six to eight.
Iowa won the Big 10 title to earn the No. 7 seed in that bracket, but finished 13-19 against the spread this season. The Hawkeyes are going up against Creighton (an at-large team upset by Indiana State, 87-74) as a 6-point dog in the MVC tourney.
The Blue Jays have gone 17-11 ATS for the season... Creighton 70, Iowa 67.
Kentucky has lost just twice since Jan. 27, beating North Carolina, Indiana and Notre Dame in its non-conference schedule. The Wildcats get Holy Cross, which got wins over Massachusetts and Fordham, while losing to Providence, Boston College and Princeton during their non-conference schedule... Kentucky 69, Holy Cross 53.
Consider laying the points in the Wildcats second-round game with Iowa, but go-against in a match-up with Creighton.
In the West, Stanford seemed to get the most favorable draw of the top seeds. The Cardinal lost to Arizona and UCLA on their home floor, but should dump UNC-Greensboro... Stanford 85, UNC-Greensboro 62.
Georgia Tech lost four of its last seven games, but beat UCLA and Kentucky during their non-conference schedule. Tech has wins over Wake Forest, Maryland and three over Virginia... Georgia Tech 74, St. Josephs 70.
Cincinnati won 11 of its final 13 games, including consecutive road wins over Southern Miss and Memphis, both times as a dog; and a week later at South Florida as a dog. However, the Bearcats lost to Marquette in overtime as a 10-point favorite ...Cincinnati 76, Brigham Young 69.
Indiana won nine of its last 12 games and was 22-11 against the number, including 8-4 as a dog. Kent State went 14-4 do