Abandon bracket for Bulls-Pacers

Joakim Noah has injected himself into the MVP conversation since the Bulls last met Indiana. Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- With no teams from Illinois or Indiana in the NCAA tournament, consider the next four days our regional March Madness.

Two games between the Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers, home and away. A Central Division showdown.

Someone call the Northwestern pep band. Anyone have a question for the "student-athletes"? Bring in Tom Crean to cut down the nets! They're going ... man-to-man.

While their rah-rah days are done, whomever wins these two games, on Friday and Monday (the Bulls get a visit from the Philadelphia 76ers in between), will do a lot of celebrating. Especially if Joakim "We gonna do it big all night" Noah gets a W or two. Maybe he'll even give us a Gator chomp for old times' sake.

Yes, we're talking about regular-season NBA basketball games.

The Bulls, buoyed by their own junkyard-dog resiliency, aren't shy about basking in big regular-season victories, while Indiana could use a couple wins to get over its March Mehs.

The NCAA tournament is always a blast, but top-shelf NBA basketball, when both teams are gunning for each other, is the best basketball in the world, and it's not even close. What fans will see from these two teams is excellent defense, collegiate-like passion and at least one lunatic on the sideline.

Considering all the shots the Bulls miss, maybe it will look a little like college ball. That is, if college centers could dribble the length of the court for a layup like Noah, or had post moves like Taj Gibson.

Coaches from all levels could take a defensive clinic from the two stingiest teams in the NBA, currently separated by one tenth of a point allowed per game -- 92.2 (Indiana) and 92.3 (Chicago). Expect to see some bumping and grinding.

Indiana, 50-18 overall, is 6-5 this month, but still has a three-game lead over equally flagging Miami for first place in the Eastern Conference. Not long ago, the Pacers were the pride of the league, but it's a long season. Nobody is calling for a Paul George statue in Monument Circle right now, and he has been drowned out by Noah in MVP chatter. No one's arguing Roy Hibbert over Noah, either.

Will Frank Vogel use the Bulls' rise to rouse his team?

George could use a pep talk. He's shooting just 40 percent this month. In two games against the Bulls back in November, he shot 27.3 percent. If he does that in May, it's trouble.

While the Heat know they just have to worry about the postseason, Indiana -- as the Bulls did once upon a time -- is still fighting the internal demons of the challenger.

With 14 games left, including a game against the Heat next week, it's time to get mentally ready for the grueling playoff run.

The Bulls and Pacers last played Nov. 16. The Bulls won 110-94 to give Indiana its first loss. Derrick Rose played two more games before tearing his medial meniscus in Portland.

Thanks to the quirks of the schedule, the Bulls missed Indiana during their post-Rose doldrums and haven't been tested by their rivals during their 2014 revival, which has been led in part by D.J. Augustin, who was a reserve for Indiana last season and let go afterward.

After the loss to Oklahoma City on Monday night, reporters were half-jokingly predicting Chicago would lose to hapless Philadelphia and then win in Indiana. That's par for the course for this team. That the Bulls pulled it out against the tanking Sixers was a plus.

The Bulls, 38-30 and in the mix for the third or fourth seed in the East, pride themselves on playing up to competition, much to the chagrin of constantly chagrined coach Tom Thibodeau. The players, confident but not cocky, also still consider themselves the superior, or at least the better equal, to the Pacers. They'll be hyped, as Noah says, to show that Friday.

But the Bulls fear nothing in life but a tongue-lashing call to Thibodeau's office and a Rose jump stop in the lane.

That's why Chicago should want to stay in the fourth spot if Indiana holds the top seed. The Bulls know they can win a game or two against Miami in the playoffs, but they're sure they could out-gruel Indiana in a seven-game series.

While championship dreams are on hold, winning a second-round series and knocking out their erstwhile challengers would make for a happy summer and a prelude to next season.

Speaking of next season, you wonder if the Bulls' brain trust will be scouting Indiana guard Lance Stephenson over these two games. Stephenson, just 23, could be a free agent this summer, and if that Carmelo Anthony dream doesn't work out, the Bulls should make a run for the dynamic guard, even if they won't have enough salary-cap space to bring over Nikola Mirotic. Imagine adding Stephenson to the Bulls' defense and having another guard who can create his own shot.

But that's talk for the summer. Chicago needs to worry about these two games, and planting the seeds of defeat in the Pacers' minds.

While one-and-done bracket-busting is great drama, nothing is better than the NBA playoffs. This could be quite the preview for some May Mayhem.