Syracuse (31-2) vs. UNC Asheville (24-9): The Orange lost center Fab Melo for the tournament because of academics and that could hurt them in the long run. But they have plenty of other talent to overcome it for a while. Jim Boeheim has said he has six players who can score 20 points in a game (now he has five). The Orange lose some inside game but they’re still going to push the pace on offense and befuddle teams with their 2-3 zone. Asheville is a nice unit with three good perimeter players in Matt Dickey (16.5 points per game), J.P. Pimm (15.3) and Chris Stephenson (13.1).
Kansas State (21-10) vs. Southern Mississippi (25-8): Kansas State plays as tough as its coach, Frank Martin, acts and that’s pretty tough. Southern Miss should be prepared for a physical battle, they need to stand up to the Wildcats. The Wildcats hold opponents to 40 percent shooting and they rebound as a group and do it ferociously. Guard Rodney McGruder (15.4) is the leading scorer. He loves to maneuver smaller guards into the lane then jump over them to score. A pair of JC transfer guards, Neil Watson (12.2 ppg) and LaShay Page (11.5), lead Southern Miss..
Vanderbilt (24-10) vs. Harvard (26-4): Harvard has slipped since earlier in the season when they defeated Florida State. Some wins were a struggle and the Crimson lost at home to Penn. It doesn’t bode well. They need to keep the score down and shoot a good percentage. Vandy had big expectations then struggled early before coming on late including a victory over top-ranked Kentucky in the SEC final. The Commodores are athletic and quick. I’m not sure Harvard has an answer for Vandy center Festus Ezeli. They’ll have to slow down John Jenkins (19.9 ppg) who hits nearly half his 3-point attempts.
Wisconsin (24-9) vs. Montana (25-6): The strategy never changes for Wisconsin. The Badgers play tough defense (they led the nation, holding opponents to 52.9 points per game) and they’ll look for good shots inside. The idea is to wear the opponent down and it works more often than not. This isn’t a vintage Bo Ryan team, however. Montana has won 20 of its last 21 and the Grizzlies have a potent backcourt in Will Cherry (16.0 ppg) and Kareem Jamar (13.8).
Gonzaga (25-6) vs. West Virginia (19-13): The Zags are under the radar for a change. Coach Mark Few relies on freshman guards Kevin Pangos (team-leading 13.8 ppg) and Gary Bell (10.0) but they also have a strong, veteran inside game with Robert Sacre (11.7) and Elias Harris (13.1). Depth is good. West Virginia’s has gotten a great season from forward Kevin Jones (20.1 ppg, 11 rpg) but the Mountaineers will need some good play from their guards, who’ve had an awful season shooting, to advance.
Ohio State (27-7) vs. Loyola of Maryland (24-8): Sully’s Court loves Jimmy Patsos, the Loyola coach who will get some serious TV time emoting on the sidelines. No amount of passion can help him, however, because his team is hopelessly overmatched against the Buckeyes. Loyola will have not answer for the standout Ohio State trio of Jared Sullinger (17.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg), Deshaun Thomas (15.4), and William Buford (14.7). Plus point guard Aaron Craft is like a barnacle on defense and a great playmaker.
Kentucky (32-2) vs. Western Kentucky (16-18): You can look at Kentucky’s loss to Vanderbilt in two ways. 1. The loss will motivate them and push them toward the national championship. 2. The loss exposed some weaknesses, including a lack of depth and inspiration. They could actually lose again, but one thing is for sure, the loss won’t happen here. The Hilltoppers had an amazing comeback against Mississippi Valley but they can’t compete with the Wildcats. This is just a warmup for Game 2 against Iowa State or UConn.
Iowa State (22-10) vs. UConn (20-13): Both these teams have been a mystery, looking great one game and ordinary the next. Iowa State has Royce White, the favorite player of Sully’s Court and perhaps the best all-around player in the tournament (you could make an argument for Michigan State’s Draymond Green). He leads the Cyclones in scoring, rebounding and assists. He’ll cause UConn some problems with his ballhandling, passing and physical play around the basket. Iowa State’s weakness is a lack of capable ballhandling by the guards. Scott Christopherson is a dangerous scorer but not a natural point guard. I assume he’ll be harassed for 40 minutes by Shabazz Napier. The Iowa State guards have to be ready to handle the UConn pressure; if they aren’t the Huskies will advance.
Wichita State (27-5) vs. VCU (28-6): Wichita State is the logical candidate to carry the flag for mid-majors in this year’s tournament and they get an ironic opponent in the first round. Wichita has been a dominant team, the Shockers are third in the nation in victory margin (15.3). They have tremendous inside/outside balance with 7-footer Garrett Stutz and guards Joe Ragland and Toure' Murry. This is probably a coaching standoff, both Wichita’s Greg Marshall (already rumored to be leaving for South Carolina) and VCU’s Shaka Smart are outstanding. VCU will play tough defense but they’ve had problems offensively. If the shots aren’t falling, Wichita should roll.
Indiana (25-8) vs. New Mexico State (26-9): Indiana will be missing guard Verdell Jones and this will hurt in the long run but it shouldn’t stop the Hoosiers from advancing. They should dominate upfront with star freshman center Tyler Zeller (15.5 ppg) and junior forward Christian Watford (12 ppg). New Mexico State, coached by former Rick Pitino assistant Marvin Menzies, will try to push the pace and win a shootout.
UNLV (26-8) vs. Colorado (23-11): UNLV has had a tremendous season but had trouble winning on the road. Maybe they can handle neutral sites. When they’ve been good, UNLV has been very good. The Rebels are a well-balanced offensive team that plays an entertaining style with freakishly athletic Mike Moser (14.1 ppg, 10.0 rpg) leading the way. He’s not the only threat, the Rebels have four of five others who can produce big games. Colorado won the Lack 12 tournament title (somebody had to) but the Buffs are another team that faired poorly on the road. I doubt there up to this challenge.
Baylor (27-7) vs. South Dakota State (27-7): The Jackrabbits benefited from an upset in the Summit League tournament (Oral Roberts was the best team in the league) so they should try to enjoy this quick trip to Albuquerque. This should be a Baylor dunkathon, the Bears are loaded with tall, mobile players, most notably Perry Jones III, a likely top 5 pick in this year’s NBA draft.
New Mexico (27-6) vs. Long Beach State (25-8): This could be one of the most entertaining games of the day. New Mexico is a tough defensive unit that holds opponents to 38 percent shooting. It’s not surprising since former Indiana star Steve Alford is the coach. Offensively, the Lobos are led by UCLA transfer Drew Gordon, a 6-9 forward, who averages 13.4 ppg, 10.9 rpg. There’s also sub forward Demetrius Walker (7.3 ppg), who along with his Southern California AAU teammates, was the subject of an outstanding book, ‘‘Playing Their Hearts Out.’’ Long Beach is a veteran team with four starting seniors led by 5-11 point guard Casper Wear (16.9 ppg, 3.3 apg). The 49ers have a chance to be the 12 seed that upsets a five.
Louisville (26-9) vs. Davidson (25-7): Rick Pitino has done a remarkable job with an inconsistent team, winning an unexpected Big East championship. The team rises and falls with guard Russell Smith (11.4), who can frequently be found next to Pitino getting yelled at. Point guard Peyton Siva sometimes suffers the same fate. Despite that, the Cardinals are way too athletic for Davidson. Davidson is extremely well coached by Bob McKillop and they dominated a Southern Conference that was below par this season. The best reference point on Davidson is its Dec. 22 game at UMass. The Wildcats lost 73-65. Despite that, they’re a team that hangs tough on defense and shares the ball on offense. An upset is doubtful but possible.
Murray State (30-1) vs. Colorado State (20-11): It’s been a magical year for Murray State that should continue with a victory here. The Racers’ star guard Isaiah Caanan averages 19.2 ppg and hits 47 percent of his threes. He’s got a dangerous backcourt partner in Donte Poole (14.2 ppg). Freshman guard Zay Jackson usually quickly affects the game when he checks in. They have solid big man in Ivan Aska (10.9 ppg) and Ed Daniel (6.9 [[g plus his outstanding Afro). Colorado State made the tournament based on his home record (14-1). Coach Tim Miles deserved a lot of credit for driving this non-descript bunch into the tournament.
Marquette (25-7) vs. BYU: Marquette has put together a great season behind the duo of forward Jae Crowder (17.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and guard Darius Johnson-Odom (18.5 ppg). The Fightin’ McGuires play rugged defense, holding opponents to 40 percent shooting. The one big weakness is rebounding. That’s where they could get hurt by BYU’s quality big men Noah Hartsock and Brandan Davies, who destroyed smallish Iona in the second half of Tuesday night’s opening round game as the Cougars rallied from an NCAA Tournament-record 25-point deficit.
- Michael Vega
- Mark Blaudschun
- Nancy Marrapese-Burrell