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Column: An Orange Bowl date NIU couldn't turn down

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Column: An Orange Bowl date NIU couldn't turn down

Many college football fans will awake New Year's Day, glance at the TV listings, and then face a pressing question.

If it's, ``Where did I put the aspirin?'' good luck.

But if it's ``How did Northern Illinois sneak into the Orange Bowl?'' you've come to the right place.

The story of how the Huskies wound playing Florida State in a big-money BCS bowl stretches back more than four decades. But the short version covers just a few days. It began with a 44-37 double-overtime win against Kent State in the Mid-American Conference championship game in Detroit on Nov. 30, and got crazier from there.

The next morning, NIU athletic director Jeff Compher set out on Interstate 94 toward the campus at DeKalb, Ill., with only one thing on his to-do list: Take out his wife Cathy for a 22nd wedding anniversary dinner in Chicago that night.

``That was the first casualty,'' Compher chuckled during a phone interview from Florida, where the Huskies were wrapping up preparations for Tuesday's game. ``It's been rescheduled for February.''

When he set off from Detroit with son C.J. in tow, Compher knew his life was about to get complicated. What he couldn't have known until his cellphone began ringing non-stop was how complicated, and how fast. In the first of a string of good decisions, he turned the wheel over to C.J.

``I knew we'd be going to a bowl, but there were so many combinations in play, I wasn't going to try and figure out which one. In the back of my mind, I thought we might have to find a new coach, because that's how things happen in the MAC. If you've got a good one, and believe me, Dave Doeren is one helluva coach, the big schools come calling quick.''

Quick in this case turned out to be an understatement. One of the first things Compher learned during that Saturday morning drive was that Debbie Yow, his counterpart at North Carolina State, had already beat him back to campus, determined to be the first to interview Doeren. A few hours later, it was a done deal. All Compher asked for was a delay of a few hours so he could be in the room when Doeren told the team. When that meeting ended, he began another one, asking the players what they wanted in a coach, not who.

That's because Compher began working up a just-in-case scenario months earlier, settling on Rod Carey, NIU's offensive coordinator. But he wasn't going to make the call without the players buying in.

``The question in our business, at our level, is how does a good team become a great program? And I've always believed the answer is continuity. We were already a good team. This will be our fifth consecutive bowl appearance. We're one of only two teams (along with Oregon) to win at least 11 games the last two seasons,'' Compher said. ``In this case, the last thing you want to do is rush into a big decision.''

Already exhausted, Compher decided to sleep on it. When he went to bed, NIU was solidly inside the Top 20 and likely to move up with the win over Kent State. Plus, Texas was losing and Wisconsin was en route to an upset over Nebraska. Compher knew a slot in the Orange Bowl was a possibility, but still a dizzying one.

``I dozed off thinking, `I've got to hire a coach tomorrow,'' Compher recalled. ``That's all I knew for sure.''

By the time he awoke Sunday morning, both Texas and Nebraska were out of the picture. Between negotiations on a new contract for Carey, he began checking bowl projections. Word that NIU was going to the Orange finally came in a call from the MAC office in mid-afternoon, with a warning to keep it quiet until the official announcement Sunday evening. That's when Compher decided to add a flourish of his own. He sent an athletic department assistant down to the grocery with instructions to buy 100 oranges and not leak a word about why to anyone.

Just minutes before the bowl selection show began on ESPN, Compher introduced Carey as NIU's new coach. A roar went up, followed by a second a few minutes later as the team learned what Compher already knew: that the Huskies would be the first MAC team accorded a chance to bang shoulders with the big boys in a BCS bowl. A few minutes after that, as ESPN's commentators roundly panned the BCS' decision to include NIU, those oranges Compher sent out for came in handy, just not the way he'd expected. Players hurled them at the TV set.

``Of all the things running through my head, I guess hadn't figured on that,'' Compher said, ``but I understand it. Here, people know the MAC and how good it can be. But the further you get away from Midwest, the less knowledge there's bound to be and the less respect some people have.

``So, yeah, I'm sure there will be some head-scratching when we pop up in the Orange Bowl, some `Who are they?' ... But we've played in some big games before,'' he added, ``and we know we're responsible for representing the MAC. We won't let people down.''

And no matter the final score, there's already a silver lining. As news of Compher's action-packed few days made the rounds, someone at Hilton Hotels heard about it, saw the original cancellation and invited the Comphers to pick a weekend in Chicago as their guests.

``I already owed my wife big-time,'' Compher said, ``so how great is that?''

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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Game 58: Capitals at Blackhawks Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

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USA TODAY Sports

Game 58: Capitals at Blackhawks Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

What: Washington Capitals vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Where: United Center, Chicago, Ill.

When: 8:30 p.m. ET

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

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

You can also stream the game online with no cable TV subscription on fuboTV (try for free!).

WHEN IS THE CAPITALS-BLACKHAWKS GAME?

The Capitals (33-17-7) take on the Blackhawks (24-26-8) Saturday, February 17 at 8:30 p.m. ET in Chicago.

WHAT CHANNEL IS THE CAPITALS-BLACKHAWKS GAME ON?

The Capitals-Blackhawks game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. Coverage kicks off with Capitals FaceOff at 7:30 p.m. followed by Caps GameTime at 8:00 p.m. Stay with NBC Sports Washington for Caps Extra following the game, Caps Overtime at 11:30 p.m. and Caps in 30 at 12:30 a.m. for all your postgame coverage. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

7:30 p.m. — Caps FaceOff
8:00 p.m. — Caps GameTime
8:30 p.m. — Capitals at Blackhawks
11:00 p.m. — Caps Extra
11:30 p.m. — Caps Overtime
12:30 a.m. — Caps in 30

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

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

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

Defensemen
Christian Djoos - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Madison Bowey

Braden Holtby starts with Philipp Grubauer as backup

Scratches: Jakub Vrana, Taylor Chorney

WHERE CAN I STREAM THE CAPITALS-BLACKHAWKS GAME?

The Capitals-Blackhawks 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.

The game is also available to stream, along with all the pregame and postgame shows, on fuboTV (try for free).

CAPITALS-BLACKHAWKS 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.

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2018 NBA All-Star Saturday night: TV and live stream info, things to watch for dunk contest, three-point contest

2018 NBA All-Star Saturday night: TV and live stream info, things to watch for dunk contest, three-point contest

The 2018 NBA All-Star Saturday Night is here with the three-point contest, dunk contest and skills competition set for Los Angeles.

Here is all you need to know: TV and live stream info, tip-off time, plus three things to watch:

2018 NBA ALL-STAR SATURDAY NIGHT

Where: Staples Center
Tip-off: 8 p.m.
TV: TNT
Online with no cable TV: fuboTV (try for free)

PODCAST: ALL-STAR WEEKEND PREVIEW, WIZARDS AT THE BREAK 

Skills competition

Participants: Lou Williams, Clippers; Jamal Murray, Nuggets; Al Horford, Celtics; Spencer Dinwiddie, Nets; Joel Embiid, Sixers; Buddy Hield, Kings; Lauri Markkanen, Bulls; Andre Drummond, Pistons

What to know: This year's crop has a fascinating mix of guards and big men and don't sleep on the seven-footers. Embiid in particular has a unique skillset for his size. Still, it's tough to beat the guards. Watch out for Dinwiddie, who is the best passer of the bunch.

RELATED: BETTING ODDS FOR DUNK CONTEST, THREE-POINT CONTEST

Three-point contest

Participants: Klay Thompson, Warriors; Eric Gordon, Rockets; Devin Booker, Suns; Paul George, Thunder; Wayne Ellington, Heat; Bradley Beal, Wizards; Kyle Lowry, Raptors; Tobias Harris, Clippers

What to know: Thompson and Gordon enter the contest as past champions, as Thompson won it in 2016 and Gordon took it home last year. Thompson has the best three-point percentage among the group and is the favorite, but watch out for Beal, a past runner-up, and George who has the second best percentage. Also, Booker is one of the game's best young players and has a very smooth stroke from three.

RELATED: WIZARDS/BULLETS HISTORY ON ALL-STAR SATURDAY NIGHT

Dunk contest

Participants: Dennis Smith Jr.; Mavericks; Donovan Mitchell, Jazz; Larry Nance Jr., Cavaliers; Victor Oladipo, Pacers

What to know: This is all about the rookies, Smith and Mitchell, who most are predicting to win. Oladipo has been in the contest before, but didn't win. He's also the only All-Star of the bunch. Nance is the only guy who isn't a guard and his father won it back in 1984. It will be interesting to see if he does some sort of nod to his old man, now 34 years later.

RELATED: LATEST NBA POWER RANKINGS