Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 9:01 AM
Ready to bust some brackets?
The NCAA Tournament - now officially open for business following North Carolina A&T's hang-on-for-dear-life 73-72 win against Liberty and Saint Mary's solid 67-54 triumph over Middle Tennessee State in Tuesday's "First Four" games in Dayton - is ready to get into overdrive and we don't blame anyone for champing at the bit to see which super-powers go down ... and which ones are in this tourney for the long haul.
Here's what is on the Thursday menu of NCAA Tournament games with a region-by-region look:
At Rupp Arena - Lexington, KY
#6 BUTLER (26-8) vs. #11 BUCKNELL (28-5) - 12:40 p.m. ET
Got a feeling that the country at large believes there won't be any magic up Butler's sleeve in this year's NCAA Tournament? If you happen to be listening to all the experts out there, than you already know lots of folks think the Butler bubble is about to burst as Bucknell has become a very trendy pick to win a game - or two - in this week's "Big Dance" but if the Bison are gonna get "mission accomplished" here than someone must fill up the hoop other than the school's all-time scoring king Mike Muscala (19.1 ppg this year). The 6-foot-11 senior star will face gimmick defenses here and be sure Butler boss-man Brad Stevens has burned the proverbial midnight oil looking to see whom else his Bulldogs must stop.
On the flip side, Butler needs soph G Roosevelt Jones - the guy who bested Gonzaga with that running one-hander back in January - to score here and thus loosen things up for three-ball maven Rotnei Clarke. Hey, bet against Butler at your own peril at this time of the year - and remember Stevens is 11-4 SU (straight-up) in the NCAA Tourney and he's one back-rim, half-court shot away from owning a national championship ring (see Gordon Hayward and the 2010 loss to Duke).
#3 MARQUETTE (23-8) vs. #14 DAVIDSON (26-7) - approximately 3:10 p.m. ET
Last week's one-and-done deal in the Big East Tournament may have worked in Marquette's advantage: This deep team - yes, Buzz Williams gets real-live help from 10 players on his roster - has plenty of fouls to work with here and that's key in dealing with two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year Jake Cohen whose 6-foot-10 frame has no match on the Marquette side.
At HP Pavilion - San Jose, CA
#5 UNLV (25-9) vs. #12 CALIFORNIA (20-11) - 7:25 p.m. ET
It has been a California problem that G Allen Crabbe has "disappeared" for moments at a time this year - we're still trusting coach Mike Montgomery to keep his hands off his star player though - but the stat-sheet stuffing Crabbe (18.7 ppg and 6.0 rpg) is quite capable of being the best player on the floor and here the game plan is to get him 20-plus FG tries and keep UNLV from getting too may transition points. Watch out for UNLV frosh F Anthony Bennett who can step out and drill the 3-ball when you least expect it.
#4 SYRACUSE (26-9) vs. MONTANA (25-6) - approximately 9:55 p.m. ET
Will Syracuse be "shot" by the fact it played four games in as many days last week in that harrowing Big East Tournament - and than being forced to make the three time-zone change to Cali? Maybe if PG Michael Carter-Williams can keep his turnovers to a bare minimum here it won't much matter against an overmatched Montana team but the double-digit dog Grizzlies do wish to make up for last year's 73-49 second-round loss to Wisconsin ... remember?
At The Palace - Auburn Hills, MI
#4 MICHIGAN (26-7) vs. #13 SOUTH DAKOTA STATE (25-9) - 7:15 p.m. ET
Much is being of the fact that the maize-and-blue staggered late in the year and finished with six losses in Big 10 play but maybe the little break between last week's mini-tourney loss to Wisconsin and this tilt here will give G Trey Burke (19.2 ppg) and friends an energy jolt but we sure would like to see better shot selection from Tim Hardaway, Jr. and better free-throw shooting at crunch time - if there is a crunch time here.
#5 VCU (26-8) vs. #12 AKRON (26-6) - approximately 9:45 p.m. ET
Get one thing straight here, folks: The VCU Rams don't generally beat themselves and they simply don't get flustered at tourney time with A+ head coach Shaka Smart ready/willing/able to push/prod this Atlantic-10 team far in this field - but will underdog Akron funnel everything into seven-foot C Zeke Marshall and reject a bunch of shots from guard-oriented VCU here? Hmmm.
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At HP Pavilion - San Jose, CA
#5 OKLAHOMA STATE (24-8) vs. #12 OREGON (26-8) - approximately 4:40 p.m. ET
Count us among the folks who believe there could be a back-in-the-pack power conference team with a real run in 'em in this year's NCAA Tournament as this Oklahoma State Cowboys crew has plenty of ammo including three players that average 15-or-so points a game in G Markel Brown, G Marcus Smart and F Le'Bryan Nash and the fact that all three of these chaps can "create" their own shot helps in close-and-late situations. Toss into the mix the fact that Travis Ford's team won 13 games in the rough-and-tumble Big 12 and this oft-forgotten team nationally could be a major noisemakers but first things first and that's beating a disrespected Ducks bunch that's spent plenty of time talking about this ungodly low seed - although hats off to Oregon head coach Dana Altman who hasn't made an issue of it at all.
Two major game strategies here:
Does Oklahoma State try to tire out Oregon freshman PG Dominic Artis who missed a month of action this year with a foot injury or perhaps do they mess with some zone here and make Artis beat 'em with some triples?
And, secondly, how often does Okie State parade to the free-throw line as this group is adept at sealing games from the charity stripe with Brown/Smart/Nash all shooting 75 percent or better from the line.
#4 SAINT LOUIS (27-6) vs. #13 NEW MEXICO STATE (24-10) - 2:10 p.m. ET
The most heartwarming story in college b-ball this year is that of the St. Lou Billikens who have dedicated this splendid season to late coach Rick Majerus and now here the Atlantic-10 Tourney champs want to keep the roll going with this deep/talented team that can defend you all 94 feet of the floor - but will the emotions of the past few days have sapped Saint Louis for this game and will the recent travel sked - last week in Brooklyn and now this week on the other coast - catch up to 'em here?
At Rupp Arena -- Lexington, KY
#1 LOUISVILLE (29-5) vs. N.C. A&T (20-16) - The U of L Cardinals have become the vogue team to win it all this year and the team's 3-to-1 odds to win all (Indiana's + 350 is next highest, in case you were wondering) seems really "short" for a club that may have run roughshod over its foes in last week's Big East Tournament but weren't Rick Pitino's team behind by 16 points at one stage in the second half against Syracuse? In other words, nothing's a sure thing unless you're discussing this game as PG Peyton Siva (5.9 apg) could have a veritable field day against this A&T bunch that does at least have one marquee player in frosh F Bruce Beckford (16 points and 9 boards in that "First Four" win).
#8 COLORADO STATE (25-8) vs. #9 MISSOURI (23-10) - approximately 9:20 p.m. ET
Talk about your major contrasts: The CSU Rams sport a five-senior starting lineup against a Mizzou squad that relishes a major juco flavor but - if you really want to know - this one's likely to come down to whether or not Tigers' PG Phil Pressey (7.1 apg) can make the right play in the game's final moments and this year Pressey's been way more bust than boom at crunch time. Hey, can you find us a major-college team that's lost more close games than this SEC bunch?
At The Palace -- Auburn Hills, MI
#3 MICHIGAN STATE (25-8) vs. #14 VALPARAISO (26-7) - 12:15 p.m. ET
Okay, Tom Izzo, you got your wish ... no more fellow Big 10 foes (at least for now) but maybe the boss of "Sparty" wasn't thinking such a tough #14 seed would be lying in wait. True, Michigan State has its usual array of board-banging, blue-collar players and Big 10 Freshman of the Year G Gary Harris (13.5 ppg) is a sharpie from downtown but this Valpo bunch plays with no fear as evidenced by the team's thrilling buzzer-beater win against Green Bay in the Horizon League semifinal round. If Australian import Ryan Broekhoff (15.9 ppg and 7.5 rpg) gets into any sort of hot streak here, Izzo might be making another wish.
#6 MEMPHIS (30-4) vs. #11 SAINT MARY'S (29-6) - Now that the Gaels have proven to one-and-all that they did deserve a spot in this year's NCAA Tournament (we never had a doubt ourselves!) we'll see if G Matthew Dellavadova (22 points, 6 rebs and 4 assists against Middle Tennessee State) and mates can shoot down a typical Memphis team that can run and jump out of the building - but making critical free throws and playing smart b-ball ain't always in the cards for Josh Pastner's bunch.
At Energy Solutions Arena - Salt Lake City, UT
#6 ARIZONA (25-7) vs. #11 BELMONT (26-6) - 7:20 p.m. ET
There are three Pac-12 teams in NCAA Tournament action on this first full day of play and so don't blame anyone for saying it's put-up or shut-up time for a league that sported seeds no high than the matching #6 seeds of 'Zona and regular-season champ UCLA. In this second-round game, the U of A Wildcats need transfer Mark Lyons (14.8 ppg) to get streaky-hot against a Belmont bunch that ranked 13th nationally in scoring offense (77.2 ppg) and you better believe the Ohio Valley Conference champions haven't forgotten last year's trip to the "Big Dance" - a 74-59 loss to Georgetown.
In fact, the Bruins - who sport four double-digit scorers in their starting five - have made this a crusade of sorts to win a game or two in this year's NCAAs and the current pointspread (Arizona is favored by just 4 ½ points) suggests the Belmont boys can play.
One key for the Pac-12 'Cats: Sean Miller's squad had five different players register 30-or-more trifectas this season and odds on Arizona must get a couple of three-point shooters heated up here in up-tempo affair ... is key reserve Grant Jerrett (31-of-76 on triples this year) ready to answer the bell here?
#3 NEW MEXICO (29-5) vs. #14 HARVARD (19-9) - approximately 9:50 p.m. ET
Keep in mind Los Lobos yield just 60.4 ppg and so there will be plenty of in-your-grill defense played against Harvard's top scorer Wesley Saunders (16.5 ppg) - but if New Mex shoots 40 percent or worse here than this could be closer than the Las Vegas oddsmakers think.
#8 PITTSBURGH (24-8) vs. #9 WICHITA STATE (26-8) - 1:40 p.m. ET
No doubt the underdog Shockers didn't exactly waltz into this year's NCAA Tournament as "The Valley" gang lost three of its final five games including that Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship Game loss to Creighton when Malcolm Armstead poured in a season-high 28 points to go along with 9 rebounds - but he missed the triple at the buzzer and now W-State is looking to regain its footing. If Armstead can get any sort of help from a Shockers bench that shot 6-of-22 from the floor in that aforementioned tilt against Creighton, than Pitt's stay in this tourney could be short.
#1 GONZAGA (31-2) vs. #16 SOUTHERN (23-9) - approximately 4:10 p.m. ET
Now that the 'Zags are part of the "mainstream" hoops world with their first-ever numero uno NCAA Tourney seed, they have a big target on their backs and so don't be shocked if this Round II tilt against three-TD underdog Southern has some bumps in the road especially if this so-so backcourt isn't hitting its perimeter shots. Safe to say a 20-point/10-board game from Player of the Year candidate Kelly Olynyk should be enough to advance here but remember the Zags haven't played a game since March 11th ... just sayin'!
NOTE: Check with us tomorrow for Friday's NCAA Tournament Game Previews plus more News/Notes.