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Big Ten looks to put ugly 1st half behind it

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Big Ten looks to put ugly 1st half behind it

Shortly after Northwestern survived an ugly performance to beat Minnesota on Saturday and improve to 6-1, two officials sat down in the postgame press conference wearing yellow Fiesta Bowl jackets.

With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason and the Big Ten not having a team currently ranked in the BCS standings, the representatives from one of the premier bowls in the country were asked what interest they had in the Wildcats and Golden Gophers.

``We also have the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl,'' one of them said.

That sounds about right.

The college football season has turned the corner to the second half, and no one is more pleased to put the first half behind than those in the maligned Big Ten.

For a conference that was already being characterized as inferior to the likes of the SEC and Big 12, 2012 couldn't have started much worse for the Big Ten. Ohio State and Penn State - two of the conference's marquee programs - had no shot for postseason play from the get-go because of NCAA sanctions.

Then one of its biggest hopefuls to restore pride to the conference - Michigan - was routed by Alabama in the season opener. The embarrassments kept coming: Iowa losing at home to Iowa State and Central Michigan; Wisconsin had close shaves at home against Northern Iowa and Utah State; and Michigan State was thumped by Notre Dame.

The second half of the season allows the Big Ten to find its collective footing and try to build some momentum toward the bowls, and there are some signs it's happening. Iowa and Michigan are 2-0 in the conference, Northwestern just keeps finding ways to win and Wisconsin appears to have righted itself and gotten back to its power-running ways.

``Early in the year you're just kind of getting into position,'' Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. ``The No. 1 goal for everybody is to win their conference. You're starting to hit that stretch. Just about everyone has six games left. You want to be starting to hit your peak. That's the challenge.''

The Badgers appeared lost over the first three weeks, unable to get Montee Ball and the ground game going, sweating out close home wins over lesser opponents and losing 10-7 at Oregon State. Coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the first game, and the big guys up front have responded in impressive fashion.

Last week, Ball racked up 247 yards in a win over Purdue. Now, with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, the Badgers are in position to represent the Leaders Division.

``We made some fairly significant changes that at the time when we made those choices we knew our guys would have to battle through and endure,'' Bielema said. ``And our players have been able to do that.''

If any team could use a fresh start it's Purdue. The Boilermakers started the season with high expectations but they've been hammered in back-to-back weeks against Michigan and Wisconsin, raising questions about coach Danny Hope's job security.

If anything has gone right for the conference this season, it has happened in Columbus, Ohio and State College, Pa. Penn State has somehow weathered the incredible nightmare of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal and Joe Paterno's subsequent death, winning four of the first six games, including their first two in the conference.

Coach Bill O'Brien has the defense playing like the stingy Nittany Lions' units of old, giving weary fans a reason for optimism going forward.

``If you just watch the tape you see coach O'Brien's impact,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. ``He's a tremendous coach.''

Urban Meyer isn't so bad himself, and his first season at Ohio State is off to a roaring start. The Buckeyes are 7-0 and ranked seventh, joining 23rd-ranked Michigan as the only Big Ten teams in The Associated Press Top 25.

Quarterback Braxton Miller has emerged as one of the best players in the nation and Meyer is already showing dividends on the recruiting trail.

``He understands the offense and manages the offense much better this year,'' Hope said of Miller. ``He's a fantastic athlete and a great competitor and there's nothing he can't do.''

Of course, much of the improvement several of these teams have shown could be coming because they're playing other mediocre teams in the conference.

Then again, better days could be on the horizon. Even after what many would consider a subpar Big Ten season last year, the Wolverines still came away with a win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

And no matter how well things go for Iowa in the second half, Ferentz won't allow his Hawkeyes to forget the struggles of the first month.

``We went through a very, very tough loss and we deserved it. The team we lost to played better,'' Ferentz said of Central Michigan. ``That's not that far in our rearview mirror and that's a good reminder what kind of a team we are. We really have to do everything perfect and that's darn near impossible.''

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

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Warriors will visit D.C. kids instead of White House when they play Wizards

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Warriors will visit D.C. kids instead of White House when they play Wizards

Instead of visiting the White House when they come to Washington this week to play the Wizards, the defending-champion Golden State Warriors plan to hold an event with D.C.-area kids.

Their invitation was rescinded by president Donald Trump following a back-and-forth between the two sides last year. After the Warriors won the title, they openly questioned whether they should follow the tradition given many of the players and coaches disagree with his policies. Trump took the opportunity away before they came to a final decision.

PODCAST: WIZARDS MAKE A FREE AGENT SIGNING

The Warriors' event will be closed off to the media and held at an undisclosed location. It is set for Tuesday, the day before they play the Wizards at Capital One Arena. The Warriors had the option of holding a ceremony with other politicians in the Democratic party, but decided that would send the wrong message. 

"It's their championship. They got disinvited to the White House, so it's up to them what they wanted to do. So they made their plans," coach Steve Kerr said. "I want the players to have a good day and to do something positive and to enjoy what they're doing."

The Warriors are the first NBA team to make this choice since Trump was elected president. Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers held their celebration with president Barack Obama in November. They did so just days after Trump was elected and LeBron James questioned at the time whether he would visit the White House with Trump in office.

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Sports teams visiting the White House goes back to the mid-1800s. The first World Series title team to visit was the 1924 Washington Senators. By the 1960s, NBA teams were going and by the 1980s NFL and NHL teams made it a tradition.

Entire teams snubbing the White House is unusual, but many players have turned down the opportunity. In the NBA, some famous cases include Larry Bird in 1984 and Michael Jordan in 1991, according to Rolling Stone.

Perhaps the Warriors start a trend, or maybe it will be a one-off thing. Regardless, the alternative they chose is a respectable one. 

RELATED: LATEST NBA POWER RANKINGS

 

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Game 62: Capitals vs. Sabres Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

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USA TODAY Sports

Game 62: Capitals vs. Sabres Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

What: Washington Capitals vs. Buffalo Sabres

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: 7:00 p.m. ET

How to Watch: Capitals-Sabres will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (Channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Sabres game on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page.

WHEN IS THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME?

The Capitals (34-20-7) take on the Sabres (18-32-11) Saturday, February 24 at 7:00 p.m. ET in Capital One Arena.

WHAT CHANNEL IS THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME ON?

The Capitals-Sabres game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. Coverage kicks off with Capitals FaceOff at 6:00 p.m. followed by Caps GameTime at 6:30 p.m. Stay with NBC Sports Washington for Caps Extra following the game, Caps Overtime at 10:00 p.m. and Caps in 30 at 11:00 p.m. for all your postgame coverage. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

6:00 p.m. — Caps FaceOff
6:30 p.m. — Caps GameTime
7:00 p.m. — Capitals vs. Sabres
9:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
10:00 p.m. — Caps Overtime
11:00 p.m. — Caps in 30

WHAT ARE THE PROJECTED LINES FOR THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME?

Here are the projected lines for the Caps-Sabres game:

Forwards
Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Evgeny Kuznetsov - T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly - Lars Eller - Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson - Jay Beagle - Devante Smith-Pelly

Defensemen
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Christian Djoos - John Carlson
Michal Kempny - Brooks Orpik

Braden Holtby starts with Philipp Grubauer as backup

Scratches: Alex Chiasson, Madison Bowey, Jakub Jerabek

WHERE CAN I STREAM THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME?

The Capitals-Panthers game, as well as Caps GameTime and Caps Extra, is available to stream live here through NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and is available to authenticated NBC Sports Washington subscribers on desktops, tablets, mobile devices and connected TVs anywhere in the United States.

CAPITALS-SABRES OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals correspondent JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.