NCAA

Harbaugh wants 49ers to rest their bodies, minds

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Harbaugh wants 49ers to rest their bodies, minds

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) As Jim Harbaugh sent the 49ers into a mandatory three-day break to ``rest their minds, rest their bodies,'' San Francisco's coach and his staff busily began playoff preparations for the NFC divisional round in less than two weeks.

That is, after he took a moment to congratulate his men for another special season. One that is hardly finished in everybody's mind.

The two-time reigning NFC West champions (11-4-1) will now spend much of their energy and efforts studying the Washington Redskins - the one team among the Niners' three possible opponents that they have yet to face this season. Green Bay and Seattle are the other two who could visit Candlestick Park for the Jan. 12 prime-time matchup.

Rarely one to look ahead by even a day, Harbaugh referenced the road he expects the team to take before season's end: reaching the Super Bowl after coming so close last season. San Francisco lost 20-17 in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual champion New York Giants.

``To be back-to-back division champs, worthy champions of arguably the best division in football again this year, I think is quite an accomplishment,'' Harbaugh said Monday. ``Now it's a new focus, a three-game focus, to get our ultimate goal.''

There's another important job, too. Harbaugh must figure out who will be kicking field goals the rest of the way. David Akers struggled yet again Sunday, missing wide left from 44 and 40 yards before connecting on a 43-yarder and 26-yarder in a 27-13 win against Arizona. Harbaugh said it is likely the team will bring in a few kickers for ``some tryouts, have some competition.''

Akers, who made 44 of 52 attempts in his sensational 2011 season, is just 29 for 42 this year. He is only 7 for 13 from 40-49 yards.

The 38-year-old Akers signed a three-year contract as arguably the 49ers' biggest offseason acquisition ahead of the 2011 season aside from the hiring of Harbaugh. And he delivered at nearly every opportunity - until recently.

He had a 21-yard attempt blocked by Red Bryant in a 42-13 loss at Seattle on Dec. 23, and Richard Sherman returned it 90 yards for a touchdown.

Such a dramatic decline for the veteran who surprised himself when he hit a 63-yarder in a season-opening win at Green Bay after the ball bounced off the crossbar. Akers called it ``about like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.''

A six-time Pro-Bowler in his 15th NFL season out of Louisville, Akers scored 166 points last season - far surpassing the 49ers' previous best of 138 accomplished by Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice in 1987.

``Kickers go through, at times, slumps. You see a guy go through it and sometimes he'll come out of it quickly and sometimes it lingers a little bit,'' Harbaugh said. ``Have I been surprised that he hasn't made those kicks? You have to understand, that's the job of the kicker, put it through the uprights.''

Also of added importance with securing the NFC's No. 2 seed and an extra week before opening the playoffs is the chance to get Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith back into the mix after he partially tore his left triceps muscle in a 41-34 win at New England on Dec. 16. Smith's 185-game streak without missing a start ended at Seattle, and Arizona pounded that right side of the line at every opportunity with Smith missing.

``My thoughts are that you watch the strength and how that comes back, and if he can play, do his job, defend himself and be effective,'' Harbaugh said. ``He has made progress each week, significant progress. Hopeful, would be my thought.''

Harbaugh indicated the team would not only rely on Smith's word on whether he feels ready, but also the doctors.

``Nobody knows his body like a player himself,'' Harbaugh said. ``I'm hopeful.''

When it comes to the surprisingly shaky kicking game, Harbaugh provided three potential scenarios - sticking with Akers, bringing in a new kicker altogether or having two kickers and letting them compete.

Whatever plan they go with, the 49ers will need more consistency from that position going forward.

``We want to make the right decision. David's certainly in it,'' Harbaugh said. ``He's done a lot of great things for us. He's made a lot of great kicks, big kicks. He knows it, we know it. Those kicks in the games, you've got to make those kicks. There will always be a level of competition around at any position to find who gives you the best chance to win the next game. Knowing how competitive Dave is, I don't think he'll have a problem with that.''

San Francisco captured consecutive division crowns for the first time since winning four straight West titles from 1992-95. A first-round bye again was an added bonus after Minnesota beat the Packers.

``The bye is great,'' backup quarterback Alex Smith said. ``It gives us a chance to get that much more healthy.''

Harbaugh became the eighth coach in NFL history to win division titles in each of his first two seasons and third to do so after taking over a team with a losing record.

Yet Harbaugh offered a warning of sorts to his players as 2013 approached not to get too excited about what they've done so far.

``The celebration will be after the Super Bowl, not New Year's Eve,'' the coach said. ``I hope guys are smart, I hope they're tame tonight. I tried to ask that, encourage it, almost insist it. You can't make people do things, but if the players are listening, be tame, be tame. Let's rest. I think we need it.''

Notes: RB Kendall Hunter said he underwent surgery on his injured left Achilles and is making progress in his recovery. While still sporting a walking boot, he said: ``I'm getting better. I'll be walking next week. I wish I could be out there.'' ... Aside from the break early in the week, San Francisco players also will have Saturday and Sunday off. ... Harbaugh said CB Tarell Brown played Sunday while fighting a ``fever, the sickness, the flu, the whole works.'' ... The Niners waived RB Brandon Jacobs, who was suspended Dec. 10 for the final three regular-season games.

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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

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Wizards vs. Sixers: TV, live stream and radio info, things to watch

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Wizards vs. Sixers: TV, live stream and radio info, things to watch

Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Jr. and the Washington Wizards battle Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick and the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night.

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

WASHINGTON WIZARDS VS. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Where: Capital One Arena
Tip-off: 8 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Washington (coverage begins at 7 p.m.)
Live stream: NBCSportsWashington.com
Radio: 1500 AM

Another test

The Wizards continue their difficult stretch coming out of the All-Star break against a very dangerous Sixers team. Philly has proven to be very streaky this season, but right now they are rolling. They come to Washington having won their last seven games dating back to Feb. 6 when they beat the Wizards at the Wells Fargo Center. The Wizards are also playing well, having won eight of their last 11, despite their loss to the Hornets on Friday.

The Sixers are currently seventh in the East and appear on track to make the playoffs. If they keep rising the standings, they could meet the Wizards, who are currently fourth, in the first round. 

PODCAST: BIGGEST STORYLINES COMING OUT OF ALL-STAR BREAK

Season series

Speaking of the playoffs, this game could end up looming large for postseason seeding. The Sixers have won two of the three matchups between these teams this year. If they win on Sunday, they will take the season series and own the tiebreaker over Washington.

If the two teams tie head-to-head and end up with the same record at the end of the season, it will then come down to conference record. The Sixers currently have a better record against East teams than the Wizards. But if they can beat Philly this time, the Wizards will have a chance to secure the conference tiebreaker down the stretch of this season.

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Sixers are tough to guard

The Wizards have found out the hard way this season just how difficult it can be to match up with the Sixers, who are led by two emerging stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Embiid is 7-foot-1 with rare abilities to stretch the floor and beat opponents off the dribble. Simmons is 6-foot-10, yet can lead the fastbreak with rare speed and vision to find his teammates with crisp passes.

The mobility for their size is almost unmatched and it has not been easy for the Wizards to answer. In their last meeting earlier this month, Simmons had 15 points, eight assists, six rebounds and three steals. Embiid had 27 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. The Wizards have to try to limit those guys while also dealing with other challenges like Robert Covington, Dario Saric and J.J. Reddick.

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