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A closer look at 6 teams on the NCAA bubble

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A closer look at 6 teams on the NCAA bubble

From Comcast SportsNet
The college basketball season is winding down and it's time for the NCAA tournament selection committee to zoom in on all those RPIs, SOSs and W-Ls. The final decisions, at least for some of the final spots, will likely come from something beyond the numbers: The eyeball test. In other words, do they look like NCAA tournament teams? So, with the regular season starting to wrap up and the conference tournaments starting next week, the teams on the bubble need to make a good impression. A big win at this point in the season could boost them into the 68-team bracket, a bad loss to the NIT or home. There's still a couple dozen teams in position to make a move and we're taking a closer look at six of those. ------ Iowa State: In a conference that includes No. 3 Kansas, No. 7 Missouri and No. 9 Baylor, the Cyclones have quietly made a case for NCAA tournament consideration. With its win over Kansas State on Saturday, Iowa State has beaten the Wildcats twice and beat then-No. 10 Kansas last month. The Cyclones have won 21 games and are 11-5 in the Big 12, tied with Baylor for third in the conference. Iowa State has an RPI of 31 and has three wins over teams in the top 50 of the RPI rankings. The Cyclones probably still have a little work to do and don't have an easy schedule, with a road game against Missouri on Wednesday and Baylor at home on Saturday. Get one of those and have a decent run at next week's Big 12 tournament, Iowa State should have a decent shot. ------ Arizona: Sean Miller-coached teams always seem to get better at the end of the season and this one has been no different. The Wildcats were inconsistent early in the season as they integrated four freshmen -- three after Sidiki Johnson left the team in December -- and the returning players adapted to new roles with Pac-10 player of the year Derrick Williams gone to the NBA. After sweeping the Southern California schools last week, Arizona has won seven of its past eight games, with its lone loss coming on the road to Pac-12 leader Washington. The Wildcats have won 21 games and are 12-5 in conference, with three of those losses by a combined five points. Arizona could be hurt by a down year in the Pac-12, but with a win over struggling rival Arizona State on Saturday and a decent showing in the conference tournament after that, the Wildcats will likely be headed back to the NCAAs. ------ Alabama: The Crimson Tide should have gone into a downward spiral the past few weeks after coach Anthony Grant suspended four players, including Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green, the team's leading scorers and rebounders. Instead, Alabama has won three straight and six of eight, including a big victory over fellow bubbler Mississippi State on Saturday. Mitchell has been suspended for the rest of the season, but Green returned against Mississippi State. The Tide has 19 wins, is fourth in the SEC at 8-6 and has a strong RPI of 25. Alabama has a relatively easy finishing stretch, with games against Auburn and Ole Miss left, so a halfway-decent run in the conference tournament should be enough to punch its ticket. ------ Harvard: The Crimson looked like a lock for the NCAA tournament after going 14-2 in nonconference. After Saturday's 1-point loss to Pennsylvania, their lead in the Ivy League is down to a half game over the Quakers. Harvard missed out on its first NCAA berth since the Truman presidency by losing a one-game playoff to Princeton last season and could face another winner-goes-dancing game if it finishes the regular season tied with Penn. The Crimson do have a decent resume, with wins over Florida State -- on their way to the Battle 4 Atlantis title -- and Saint Joseph's, but a loss to Fordham doesn't look good. Harvard has a good shot at an at-large bid with wins over Columbia and Cornell in the final two games, but another one-game playoff loss could lead to a lot of Rolaids being passed around on selection Sunday. ------ Colorado State: The Rams picked up what appeared to be a huge win over New Mexico last week, but followed it with a loss to No. 21 San Diego State, a game that really could have solidified their resume. It also didn't help Colorado State much that New Mexico got blown out by TCU in its second game last week. The Rams are just 6-6 in the Mountain West and lost to Stanford and Boise State, teams with RPI ratings over 100. The good news for Colorado State is that it's 27th in the RPI and has 17 wins in a schedule ranked fourth-toughest in the nation. The Rams face what could be a huge look-at-us game against No. 17 UNLV on Wednesday before closing out the season against Air Force on Saturday. Without another marquee win or a strong conference tournament, it could get tight for Colorado State. ------ Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams made an unexpected run to the Final Four last season, have 25 wins and finished a game behind Drexel in the Colonial Athletic Association. Even so, VCU could be left on the outside looking in. The Rams have a win over fellow bubble team South Florida and beat likely MAC winner Akron, but there aren't many other eye-popping wins on the schedule. Their RPI also is a so-so 60th and strength of schedule is 213th. VCU does enter the conference tournament on a good note; the Rams won their final three games, including a payback win over George Mason in the season finale. Win a few games in the CAA tournament, the Rams could solidify their chances. If not, maybe they'll get lucky and the selection committee will decide last year's run and another chance to see coach Shaka Smart work his magic in the postseason will be enough to give them a nod.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.