Madison Square Garden is arguably the most famous basketball venue in America, steeped in college basketball, both historical and contemporary. But it’s been over 50 years since this arena last hosted an NCAA Tournament. That comes to an end next weekend, when the East Regional is settled in New York City. What follows are the 16 teams that will spend Thursday thru Sunday fighting for the four spots at MSG, with a snapshot look at their personnel and schedule highlights.
#1: Virginia—It was a slow start to the season for the Cavs, with a home loss to Wisconsin and defeats to UW-Green Bay, Virginia Commonwealth and Tennessee. Then Virginia righted the ship, won its first outright ACC championship since 1981 and its first league tournament since 1976. Team defense is UVA’s hallmark, with wing players Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris providing the scoring punch, while Akil Mitchell does the dirty work on the boards.
#2: Villanova—The Wildcats knocked off Kansas and Iowa in the non-conference schedule and then won the Big East, although getting blown out by Creighton twice and then losing in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament was a definite downer. James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston are all solid backcourt and wing players that average 14 ppg. A key to NCAA success is likely to be whether Daniel Ochefu cleans up the glass.
#3: Iowa State—Very quietly, the Cyclones put together a nice resume. They beat Michigan and Iowa, finished third in the tough Big 12 and then won the conference tournament. Melvin Ejim is a great player on the wings, averaging 18 points/9 rebounds. DeAndre Kane is fantastic all-around, with 17 points/7 rebounds/6 assists, and Georges Niang averages 17/4/4. This is as explosive a Big Three is there is in the entire field of 68 (well, now field of 66 after last night’s two First Four games).
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#4: Michigan State—The Spartans are just getting healthy and the barreled through the Big Ten tournament, with decisive wins over Wisconsin and Michigan. Gary Harris and Keith Appling are a prolific and experienced backcourt, but the key has been getting both Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson healthy at the same time. Collectively, the duo averages 26 points/15 rebounds a game.
#5: Cincinnati–It was a great season, as the 27-6 record will attest. Sean Kilpatrick averaged 20 a game at guard, at forwards Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles chipped on the scoring and led the way rebounding. But Cincy finished a dour note—they lost three of the last six, and two of the wins were narrow escapes over Rutgers and Central Florida, results even more alarming than the losses.
#6: North Carolina—What an up-and-down year it was for Roy Williams. The non-conference schedule saw them lose to Belmont and UAB, while beating Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky. The Tar Heels went 13-5 in league play, but lost early in the conference tournament to Pittsburgh. Who knows what to expect. Marcus Paige is an excellent point guard and renowned for lifting his game in the second half. James Michael McAdoo averages a 14/7 each night on the front line.
#7: Connecticut–The Huskies have the honor of being the last team to beat Florida, the #1 overall seed, back on December 2. UConn lost to Stanford and then finished 12-6 in American Athletic Conference play. Not bad, but it’s the same league record as SMU, who missed the NCAA field because of it. Shabazz Napier only goes 6’1”, but he plays much bigger, averaging 17/6/5 and can singlehandedly take over a weekend of NCAA play. The 6’9” DeAndre Kane is steady down low and Niels Giffey is the kind of three-point specialist than can loom large in one-game shots.
#8: Memphis–Another up-and-down team. They split two games with equally temperamental Oklahoma State, and only lost to Florida by a bucket. Memphis beat Louisville in both conference meetings, but still went only 12-6 in the league. Joe Jackson at guard and Shaq Goodwin at forward are both extremely talented and capable of lifting this team to greater heights.
#9: George Washington—The Colonials knocked off Creighton in non-conference action, though George Washington also lost to Marquette. A balanced attack where all five starters score in double figures is led by Maurice Creek, a player Tom Crean didn’t have any use for at Indiana. Creek is in the Dance, Crean is not. Guess we know who won that battle.
#10: St. Joe’s—It’s a resume that has a lot of question marks on it. St. Joe’s lost decisively to LSU and to a terrible Temple team, with no big wins to make up for it. They had a nice year in the Atlantic 10, going 11-5, although the A-10 is comparable in conference RPI to the SEC. St. Joe’s was surely on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament prior to conference tourney action. Then they stepped up and won the A-10 tournament and removed all doubt. One man about whom there is no doubt is Langston Galloway, good for 17 ppg and hits 43 percent from behind the arc.
#11: Providence–Another team that had a pedestrian season and then won its conference tournament. There’s nothing notable in non-league play, a 10-8 record in Big East games and then a sudden run through Madison Square Garden last week to take themselves off the bubble. Bryce Cotton, LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts provide a good balance of backcourt-wing-frontcourt respectively. One more run through MSG, and Providence will making its first trip to the Final Four since Rick Pitino took them in 1987 with Billy Donovan as the star player.
#12: Harvard—The Ivy League champs pulled a first-round upset in last year’s NCAA Tournament when they beat New Mexico as a #14 seed. This year, the Crimson beat UW-Green Bay and had respectable road losses at Colorado and UConn. Then Harvard blew away the rest of the Ivy. Wesley Saunders averages 14 ppg and perimeter marksman Laurent Rivard will be needed if another NCAA win is to be had. Harvard is aiming to match the feat of Cornell in 2010 and reach the Sweet 16, and then Penn in 1979, who was the last Ivy team to play in a Final Four.
#13: Delaware—Davon Usher and Devon Saddler both average 19 ppg and the Blue Hens only lost by four at Villanova and at least went to Ohio State, where they lost by twelve.
#14: UNC-Central—A victory at N.C. State and a trip to Wichita have at least prepared UNCC for what’s ahead, while lending hope they can compete. Jeremy Ingram averages 21 ppg.
#15: UW-Milwaukee—After a 7-9 season in the Horizon League, the Panthers went on a conference tournament run, beat UW-Green Bay for the second time this season and stole an automatic bid. Jordan Aaron averages 15 ppg.
#16: Coastal Carolina—Elijah Wilson and Warren Gillis make up a productive backcourt, combining for 31 ppg, as Coastal returns to the Dance for the first time since 1993.