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Buckeyes close to perfection; Michigan in way

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Buckeyes close to perfection; Michigan in way

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) All that separates Ohio State from a season for the ages is a contest so big that everyone simply calls it ``The Game.''

Just five teams in the program's 122 previous years have gone through a campaign unbeaten and untied. The Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten) can become the sixth Saturday when they take on archrival Michigan.

Perfection is exceedingly rare, whether for a baseball pitcher, a pearl or a college football team.

``That's the goal for every team. I mean, why not?'' said former NFL and Ohio State All-American offensive lineman Jim Lachey, now a radio analyst for Buckeyes games. ``Everybody dreams about that opportunity.''

Since the schools officially saved the best for last and moved their biggest game to the end of the schedule in 1935, Ohio State has carried a perfect record into the Michigan game 12 times, going 8-3-1.

Some believe that it is more difficult to run the table and win every game now than ever before, due to scholarship limits, spread-the-wealth conferences and even small schools getting a chance to appear regularly on television.

Just last week many experts already had Kansas State and Oregon in the national championship game, virtually conceding that they would win the rest of their games and put up unblemished records.

Instead, they both lost, leaving No. 1 Notre Dame and fourth-ranked Ohio State as the only major unbeatens left in the country.

``You saw last week with Kansas State and Oregon that it's hard to do,'' first-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. ``It's a credit to a bunch of players and assistant coaches who keep that focus in spite of all the distractions. It's such a credit to this team to be in the position they're in. It's hard. It's real hard.''

Ohio State, of course, is trying to preserve its perfect season. But is Michigan motivated by trying to ruin it?

Marcus Ray, a former Wolverines player who is from Columbus, knows a little bit about both sides of it. He played for the last unbeaten and untied Michigan team to beat Ohio State, in 1997. Coach Lloyd Carr's team went on to win The Associated Press national championship.

Ray also played strong safety on teams that twice demolished perfect seasons by Ohio State, the Buckeyes' second-ranked squads that were 11-0 in 1995 and 10-0 a year later.

``It heightens the stakes and makes the game more entertaining to watch because it adds more fuel to the fire,'' Ray said of having an undefeated team in The Game. ``It works against the undefeated team in a rivalry game. If you win, you were supposed to win. If you lose, your rival can say they knocked you off your high horse.''

Michigan coach Brady Hoke said neither team's record matters in such an emotional game.

``It doesn't, to be honest with you,'' he said. ``If you need anything to get amped up more for this football game, then you don't know college football and you don't understand the importance of this great rivalry.''

Earle Bruce succeeded the legendary Woody Hayes as Ohio State's head coach in 1979 and guided his first team to 11 consecutive wins, including a win over Michigan, before losing the national championship by a point to Southern California in the Rose Bowl.

A team that's hoping to make a name for itself by ruining its adversary's faultless record is misguided, he said.

``If that's the case, they're doing it the wrong way, aren't they?'' he said. ``You do it for the good of you, not the detriment of someone else. That's not good focus.''

Michigan's fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer, an Ohio native, believes too much is made of the ancillary things off the field.

``I don't think there's any way to raise or lower the bar for this game,'' Mealer said. ``It's always important, it's always intense.''

If the rivalry takes on even more relevance for Ohio State's players this season, it's because it's their final game. NCAA sanctions for violations committed under former coach Jim Tressel include a bowl ban. So, with no chance to play in the Big Ten title game, the BCS national championship or any postseason game, there is little left except to maintain perfection.

Asked what a 12-0 mark would mean - particularly coming on the heels of an embarrassing 6-7 record including a Michigan loss last year - senior linebacker Etienne Sabino had difficulty answering.

``I don't know if words can (express it),'' he said. ``Every year you set out to win every game. That's your goal. That's the dream for every athlete in every sport. To have a chance to do that ... We're 11-0 with one game in front of us. If, at the end of this game, we can do what we're supposed to do it's going to be amazing.''

It's been 33 years since Bruce's No. 2-ranked Buckeyes took on No. 13 Michigan on a bright but cold day at The Big House.

It seems like just last week to the 81-year-old, as all of the memories from that cherished 18-15 victory come flooding back. Jim Laughlin's blocked punt. Scoring a touchdown against the maize-and-blue for the first time in four years. Climbing to No. 1 in the polls. Clinching a berth in the Rose Bowl.

``Those are the things I remember,'' Bruce said softly.

Perhaps in time such reflections matter. Right now, for those involved, there are more fundamental things to worry about: stopping the run, no mistakes in special teams, reining in the emotion and doing your job.

``I've been coaching for a while now, and there's nothing you can control other than getting ready to go play the game,'' Meyer said. ``You learn that along the journey. If it was the first rodeo, I'd be worried about this, worried about that.

``I am concerned, but you've got to move forward and do the best you can.''

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AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed to this report.

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Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter:http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap

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Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

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USA TODAY Sports

Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

After two games, it looks like Michal Kempny is already moving up in the lineup.

At Sunday’s practice, Kempny played on the team's second defensive pairing, lining up on the left of John Carlson. Previously, the Czech defenseman had been playing on the right of Brooks Orpik. The move to the left allows him to play on his natural side as he is a left-handed shot.

Here are the pairs from Sunday’s practice:

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos
Jakub Jerabek – Madison Bowey

Acquired on Monday from the Chicago Blackhawks, Kempny has played in two games for the Capitals and has received glowing reviews thus far.

“He's a really good pro, that's what sticks out,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He takes care of himself, he works at his game off the ice and with the guys, he has fit in very well.”

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“I've gotten to play a little bit with [Kempny] the last couple games,” Brooks Orpik said. “I think he's a guy that, he moves pretty well and he moves the puck pretty well and likes to keep things pretty simple. He's very consistent and predictable so he's very easy to play with.”

When the Capitals first acquired Kempny, it seemed like the best fit for him would be alongside Carlson. It’s a natural fit with Kempny being a left-shot and Carlson a righty. It also bumps down Christian Djoos to a third-pair role which is preferable to having a rookie in the top-four come the playoffs.

Should Kempny play well with Carlson, that would likely solidify Washington’s top two pairs. The Orlov-Niskanen pair was not going to be changed and Carlson was going to be on the second pair. The only question was who would ultimately play with him in the postseason?

The third pair, however, remains a work in progress.

The Caps will have to wait at least another day for the debut of their second recent acquisition as Jakub Jerabek cannot yet play due to visa issues and will miss Monday's game, reports Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Considering the issues Washington has had on defense, they would not have brought in another defenseman just to be a healthy scratch. He will get his shot to earn a spot in the lineup.

With two new defensemen in tow, obviously the team will need to experiment over the next few days and weeks to find the right combinations.

“We're going to have to probably spend at least the next 10 to 12 games doing that and then we'll have to sort of settle in,” Trotz said. “With eight defenseman, you sort of want to see which guys you’re going to play and who to play as partners and sort of a little bit of ranking. If someone goes down, who's filling that extra role?”

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2018 Big South Tournament Bracket, How to watch, Dates, Preview, Location

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2018 Big South Tournament Bracket, How to watch, Dates, Preview, Location

The Big South conference had a surprising start to their league play this year with preseason favorites UNC-Asheville and Winthrop losing two of their first three games.  Since, things have settled down in the Big South with those two squads separating themselves from the pack late in the season.

This 2017-18 season, the Big South is a single bid conference but does have opportunities to get a couple of teams into the NIT. Depending on how this tournament plays out, there may be two or three teams in the second biggest tournament in the country.

READ MORE: NCAA TOURNAMENT BUBBLE WATCH

Like always the tournament will be hosted at multiple sites. The first round will be on campus-sites with the No.7 and No. 8 teams hosting their respective games. From there, the remaining teams will head to Asheville, NC for two rounds as the Bulldogs earned the No. 1 seed. The highest remaining team will then host the championship game.

Home-court advantage will clearly be a factor for which ever team hosts, but it has also been a theme of the Big South. Combined, the entire conference is 88-38 at their home court. Only Liberty has a winning record on the road at 5-4. The host of the quarterfinals and semifinals, UNC-Asheville, is 13-1 at Kimmel Arena. The lone loss being against Liberty.

Only one year in this format, Winthrop won the championship in 2016-17 as the hosts.

TOURNAMENT INFORMATION:

When is the Big South Tournament?

The Big South Tournament will be Tues. Feb 27, March 1-2, and the Big South championship is on March 4.

Where is the Big South Tournament?
The Big South tournament will primarily be hosted at Kimmel Arena in Asheville, North Carolina. The higher seeds will host the first round match-ups. The Big South Championship will also be at the highest seed’s home court.

How to watch the Big South Tournament?

The Big South Tournament will be televised as a part of ESPN’s family of networks, excluding the first round. The first round can be seen on the Big South Network, the quarterfinals and semifinals will be streamed on ESPN3, and ESPN will televise the Big South Championship.

Who is the defending Big South Champion?

The Winthrop Eagles won the 2016-17 Big South Championship after hosting the main portion of the tournament. It was the Eagles 11th Big South Championship in their history, the most ever in the Big South.

2018 BIG SOUTH TOURNAMENT BRACKET:

First Round – Tuesday, Feb. 27

No. 9 Presbyterian at No. 8 Charleston Southern 7:00 pm (Big South Network/ Roku)
No. 10 Longwood at No. 7 High Point                     7:00 pm (Big South Network/ Roku)

Quarterfinals - Thursday, March 1

7/10 Winner vs. No. 2 Radford                     1:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
No. 6 Gardner-Webb vs. No. 3 Winthrop   3:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
8/9 Winner at No. 1 UNC Asheville              7:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
No. 5 Liberty vs. No. 4 Campbell                  9:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)

Semifinals - Friday, March 2

TBD vs. TBD                          6:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
TBD vs. TBD                          8:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)

Big South Championship - Sunday, March 4

TBD vs. TBD                          1:00pm, higher seed host (ESPN)

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PREVIEW:

Even as the No. 3 seed and losers of their last two games, Winthrop is probably still the favorite heading into the tournament. Their offense is one of the highest scoring in all of college basketball (80.7 ppg), with Xavier Cooks scoring 17.6 ppg (3rd in Big South). However, the Eagles’ offense is not powered entirely behind three-point shooting, it is done with balance on both sides of the ball. They have the best two-point shooting percentage in the league (47.3 percent), lead the Big South in rebounding averages, blocks, and field goal defense. In addition, their guards’ three point shooting ability is pretty good too at 37.5 percent and making 9.5 deep balls a game.

However, when they go quiet from long range or another team matches their three-point shooting for a contest, they are susceptible. Also as defending champs, they have been here before and are motivated to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

As the Big South tournament hosts, UNC Asheville will have a leg up on the competition, but they have not been as dominant as a top seed should be. The Bulldogs are one of the most consistent teams in the conference with all five starters scoring in double figures each game. If one is betting, they are the safe bet to win it all based on what is mentioned above.

While Radford was a pleasant surprise throughout league play, do not anticipate that they will be a contender. They are eighth in scoring in the conference (68.2) and around the same mark when it comes to shooting. Their defense has bailed them out as probably one of the top defensive units in the league, but their leading scorer is a post player, Ed Polite Jr.  (13.6 ppg) and if shut down in the paint, there is no offense.

Liberty is the darkhorse in the Big South Tournament. The do boast the best defensive numbers in the conference (64.0 points against per game) and have a high-powered offense, although it is spotty.  Two players are shooting well above 40 percent or better from behind the arc. Dominating the boards, they limit other team’s second chance opportunities. Do not bet against the Flames in a one-on-one contest.

PICK: No. 3 Winthrop