A look at Thursday’s NCAA Tournament games.
By region in order of tip-off
In Lexington, Ky.
6. Butler (26-8) vs. 11. Bucknell (28-5): A matchup of two really good coaches in Butler’s Brad Stevens and Bucknell’s Dave Paulsen (who used to coach Williams). Neither team will beat itself. This will be an intriguing big-man matchup between Bucknell’s Mike Muscala (19.0 ppg, 11.2 rpg) and Butler’s Andrew Smith (11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg). Overall, both teams shoot well (45 percent). Butler’s best player is dynamic point guard Rotnei Clark (16.7) but glue-guy extraordinaire Roosevelt Jones is important defensively. In the end Butler’s just too good to lose this game.
3. Marquette (23-8) vs. 14. Davidson (26-7): Marquette has no stars and is a true scrappy unit that exceeds its individual talent with great team play. If anyone comes close to a star it’s “Twinkle Toes’’ Devon Garden who’s a XXXXL if there ever was one at 6-8, 290 but he has great footwork that puts that big body in the right places. He nails his free throws too (84 percent). Vander Blue (14.3) is a guard who doesn’t shoot threes well but gets to the basket. Davidson will make this a close game. Wildcats’ coach Bob McKillop is exceptional; his team shoots well, plays smart and defends tenaciously. Jake Cohen, a 6-10 center, can hurt opponents inside and out. If the game is close, remember the Wildcats lead the nation in free throw percentage at 80.
In San Jose, Calif.
5. UNLV (25-9) vs. 12. California (20-11): Back on Dec. 9 these two teams played a tight game with UNLV winning 76-75. It was also the game in which UNLV star forward Mike Moser was injured. A high-flying, high-scorer, he hasn’t been the same since he returned and it’s changed Vegas from a Final Four contender to maybe a Sweet 16 team. Despite that, the Rebels have the best freshman in the country in rugged forward Anthony Bennett (16.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and plenty of offensive threats. They’ve got to play together to be successful. Cal is symbolized by its star Allen Crabbe (18.7), who plays well enough to be Pac 12 player of the year but then can disappears at other times. Crabbe and his teammates need to be focused to have any chance.
4. Syracuse (26-9) vs. 13. Montana (25-6): Some experts see this as a possible upset because of Montana’s guards, Kareem Jamar (14.5 ppg, 4.1 apg) and Will Cherry (13.9). Unfortunately, the Grizzlies lost their leading scorer, Matthias Ward to an injury in February. On paper, Syracuse’s physical presence will overwhelm Montana, the Grizzlies don’t have anyone who will matchup with silky smooth 6-8 forward C.J. Fair or even a pair of 6-4 guards in Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams (watch him dribble, it’s like he’s bending over to pick something off the court).
At Auburn Hills, Mich.
4. Michigan (26-7) vs. 13. South Dakota State (25-9): This is an upset possibility but it will take a huge effort from South Dakota State’s do-everything guard Nate Wolters who leads his team in scoring (22.7), assists (5.8) and also grabs a decent amount of rebounds (5.6), and he only averages 2.3 turnovers. Michigan has to stop him from a career game to avoid the upset. It’ll be interesting how the Wolverines 1-3-1 zone will affect him. Chances are he could get loose for some three-pointers. Michigan could dominate with their great trio of guards, Trey Burke (19.2), Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.8), and Glenn Robinson III (10.7) plus Canadian sharpshooter Nik Stauskus (11.5).
5. Virginia Commonwealth (26-8) vs. 12. Akron (26-6): VCU is known for its full-court pressure; Akron just lost its starting point guard, Alex Abreu, to suspension after he was arrested for buying marijuana. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. With Abreu, the Zips are a formidable unit that put together a 19-game winning streak. Their 7-0 center Zeke Marshall (13 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.7 bpg) can be a force. VCU’s pressure game can make things miserable for opponents especially Briante Weber who averages 2.8 steals per game. Without Abreu that’s almost sure to happen.
At Auburn Hills, Mich.
3. Michigan State (25-8) vs. 14. Valparaiso (26-7): The Spartans will give top effort, defend well (opponents shoot less than 40 percent), and rebound (plus seven margin) but they were a cut below the best in the Big Ten this season. Valpo will have to figure out how to defend the Spartans’ guards, Keith Appling (13.6 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Gary Harris (12.9). Valpo is well coached by Bryce Drew who played for his father Homer at Valpo and hit a buzzer-beating shot against Mississippi that’s still shown by CBS in his tournament teasers. That’s because it was a well-designed play and he appears to be as tactically astute as his father. His best players are two imports, 6-7 Aussie Ryan Broekhoff (15.9) and 6-8 Dutchman Kevin Van Wijk (12.7), who will have to hold their own against the Spartans’ physical big men.
6. Memphis (30-4) vs. 11. Saint Mary’s (28-6): The Tigers have lots of talent on the perimeter with guards Joe Jackson (13.6), Adonis Thomas (11.9), Chris Crawford (10.7), and Geron Johnson (10.5) all serious offensive threats. The big guys, Tarik Black and Shaq Goodwin, are intimidating. They also won 19 straight conference games but when challenged outside the league they lost to VCU, Louisville, Minnesota and Xavier. It makes people doubt. Saint Mary’s would have a season for the ages if it weren’t for Gonzaga, which beat them three times. The Gaels controlled the pace in their first-round matchup and will look to do the same. They need another big game from multi-skilled point guard Matthew Dellavedova.
At Lexington, Ky.
1. Louisville (29-5) vs. 16. North Carolina A&T (20-16): The Cardinals are the overall No. 1 seeded after winning the Big East Tournament in impressive fashion rallying like one of Rick Pitino’s race horses to win going away. The Cardinals have two sometimes stupendous, sometimes erratic guards in Russ Smith (18.1) and Peyton Siva (10.0) plus an intimidating shotblocker in Gorgui Dieng that helps the full-court press. This will amount to scrimmage in preparation for the tough games ahead.
8. Colorado State (25-8) vs. 9. Missouri (22-10): This will be the war on the boards. Colorado State leads the nation with a 12.1 rebounding margin and Missouri is third at 9.6. It will be ColoState’s Colton Iverson and Pierce Hornung vs. Missouri’s Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers. Heck, the guards are both these teams rebound too. To win, Colorado State needs to slow down Missouri point guard Phil Pressey (7 assist per game) who can destroy defenses if he’s allowed to take the ball anywhere he wants. And that’s what he tries to do.
At San Jose, Calif.
4. Saint Louis (27-6) vs. 13. New Mexico State (24-10): Saint Louis is the best defensive team in the country; they like to put pressure on teams in the half-court and squeeze the life out of an offense. Teams just don’t have difficulty scoring against the Billikens; they have trouble just running their offense. New Mexico State would prefer to push the ball inside to their big guys, like 7-5, 360-pound Sim Bhullar and 6-8 Bandia Sy; it will be surprising if they can do it.
5. Oklahoma State (24-8) vs. 12. Oregon (26-8): This is the chance for Oregon to prove the selection committee wrong for their high seed but it’s not going to be easy. Okie State has the second best freshman in the country in Marcus Smart, a sleek slasher who’s not a great shooter but leads by example. His effort and decision making are top-notch. Oregon lost freshman point guard Dominic Artis briefly and slumped. He’s back and healthy. The Ducks’ leading scorer is E.J. Singler, younger brother of former Duke player Kyle Singler.
At Salt Lake City
8. Pittsburgh (24-8) vs. 9. Wichita State (26-8): Pitt has had a good season but remember the only road games the Panthers played were Big East conference games; that didn’t impress the committee or really prepare a team for this tournament. They’re about to go into the grinder. Wichita State is not a skilled offensive team but the Shockers have a philosophy: Solid defense, rebounding and patient offense. Pitt can play that game too so this figures to be low-scoring and close. Not sure if it’s a taffy pull or a rock fight.
1. Gonzaga (31-2) vs. 16. Southern (23-9): Southern has a great season as the program revived to make it back in the tournament. Forward Malcolm Miller is a terrific player but he’s not going to be enough to prevent a rout. The Zags are the most gifted offensive team in the tournament with great outside play from guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell and skilled inside play from Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris.
6. Arizona (25-7) vs. 11. Belmont (26-6): Belmont was a tournament regular from the Atlantic Sun and the Bruins moved to the Ohio Valley this season and won that. The committee was impressed and gave them a decent seed. The Bruins play through two really good guards, Ian Clark (18.1) and Kerron Johnson (13.7). Clark makes 46 percent of his threes. Arizona slumped a bit at the end losing three of their last five but the Wildcats are still really talented especially guard Mark Lyons (14.8) and forward Soloman Hill (13.4).
3. New Mexico (29-5) vs. 14. Harvard (19-9): Harvard’s NCAA bid was a great reward for the unexpected Ivy title. The Crimson would be wise to turn this into a half-court game because they’re going to be giving away size and speed. An upset would be shocking. New Mexico has legitimate Final Four aspirations because of a high-octane offense sparked by guard Kendall Williams, who’s talented enough to score 46 points in one game but also leads the team in assists.
- Michael Vega
- Mark Blaudschun
- Nancy Marrapese-Burrell