The most intense four-day run in sports continues, as NCAA Tournament Boot Camp moves into the second day, with 16 more games that will close out the first round. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at all 16, in the order they’ll appear on your television…
Texas-Cincinnati (12:15 PM ET, CBS): Texas’ junior guard is J’Covan Brown is a great talent, who’s averaged 20 ppg in the tough Big 12 and I believe is even more valuable to his team than stalwarts like Kansas’ Thomas Robinson are to theirs. Brown has led the way for a group of underclassmen who’ve developed well as the season has gone along. Cincinnati also finished the season on a strong note, and has a nice backcourt trio of playmaker Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon. The former two players can shoot the trey reasonably well, while Dixon takes people off the dribble. And on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, good luck should fall on a kid with a name like Sean Kilpatrick.
But in spite of all this, I’m picking Texas. Rick Barnes has done a good job fitting the younger players into roles alongside Brown, he’s a more tournament-seasoned coach than Mick Cronin (my gosh, did I just pick against a second Irish guy on St. Paddy’s Day weekend?!!?). When it comes to momentum I feel like Texas is genuinely peaking and coming together, whereas Cincy just got hot in its run to the Big East tournament final. Hence, the call for the Longhorns. The thing that upsets the applecart in all this is if Cincy forward Yancy Gates goes off for a 20/15 game in points and rebounds, instead of the 12/9 which is around his average.
N.C. State-San Diego State (12:40 PM ET, Tru): I still haven’t figured out how San Diego State merited a #6 seed. They’ve got a good backcourt, with Jamaal Franklin being one of the Mountain West’s best players, and Chase Tapley able to both run the offense and score. In NCAA play, that alone makes you a threat. But it will have to be that alone, because the Wolfpack outman the Aztecs everywhere else. All five N.C. State starters score in double figures, and they all run 6’5” or taller. Its matchup problems on the wings for San Diego State, and no one can stop the Pack’s C.J. Leslie from scoring and rebounding in the paint. N.C. State brings this one home reasonably comfortably.
Creighton-Alabama (1:40 PM ET, TBS): This is the best game of the early segment, and the one that gets primary viewing at the Flaherty household. Alabama has a good power forward in JaMychal Green, but Creighton has an extraordinary basketball player in Doug McDermott, who averages 20 ppg, hits the boards, distributes and scores from anywhere on the floor. ‘Bama has no answer for him, and Creighton is also well-balanced, with Antoine Young at the point and Gregory Echenique in the post. The only thing that gives one pause? Creighton’s Missouri Valley Conference took a hit last night when Wichita State went down, so who knows how those stat lines will translate into a game against an SEC foe. But this isn’t football, so I’m taking the Bluejays to get the win.
Virginia-Florida (2:10 PM ET, TNT): The single best player on the floor is Virginia’s Mike Scott, a power forward extraordinaire, and that always deserves respect in a one-game shot. But Florida is much deeper, much more balanced and of the six best players on the floor, Florida’s got five. Kenny Boynton scores from the two-guard spot, Ervin Walker runs the office. Erik Murphy is a center who can step out and hit the three, and watch for 6’3” Bradley Beal, a scrappy player who runs down rebounds. If Virginia is going to win as a #10 seed then Scott needs some help from the perimeter where Joe Harris, Sammy Zeglinski and Jontel Evans need to control tempo and play well enough that Scott gets some one-on-one chances in the blocks.
St. Bonaventure-Florida State (2:45 PM ET, CBS): Yesterday in this time slot both Wisconsin and Marquette were in action. Today it’s Florida and Florida State. Is this by design or coincidence, because I’m sure it can annoy local fans, especially when a lot of them are at work. Florida State has national championship talent. They have an outside scorer in Michael Snaer, a playmaker in Luke Loucks, a big man who controls the inside in Bernard James, and no less than four other players who can come up big if you sleep on them. FSU went 4-1 this year in games against North Carolina and Duke. If it’s about talent, Florida State wins this one going away. But if it’s about focus, we’ve got issues. There’s a reason FSU is a three-seed and finished third in the ACC in spite of those big wins. They can let games slip away. If they lose focus here, Bonnie big man Andrew Nicholson, the Atlantic 10’s best player, is ready to make them pay, and I’m calling for that happen. St. Bonaventure in a big upset.
Belmont-Georgetown (3:10 PM ET, Tru): Belmont’s a little bit of a trendy upset pick as a #14 seed, and you can understand why. It was in 2008 that they took Duke to the wire in the first round. It was just this year they did the same with Duke in the regular season. Georgetown hasn’t had a good NCAA showing since the Final Four run of 2007, including an embarrassing loss to Ohio in 2010 after this writer picked them to win the whole thing. But Belmont is not as deep as they’ve been in years past, relying mostly on three guards. Georgetown is much more physical up front and Jason Clark does a good job in the backcourt, so I think the Hoyas turn this upset bid back.
Vermont-North Carolina (4:10 PM ET, TBS): I don’t think Vermont has a chance in this game any more than anyone else, but readers don’t need a sports website to tell them North Carolina should win. Instead, let’s find something Vermont has going for them if the miracle is to happen. That something is three-point shooting. The Catamounts have three players—Four McGlynn, Matt Glass and Luke Apel who all hit 40 percent from behind the arc. The latter two stand 6’8” and 6’7” so it’s going to be tough to stop them with guards. If they bring Carolina’s big men away from the basket, it obviously negates the advantage the Tar Heels enjoy on everyone in the tournament. And Four McGlynn is a great name, it sounds like it should be a pub in Dublin. I better stop here before I talk myself into thinking this scenario has more than 1 percent chance of success.
Norfolk State-Missouri (4:40 PM ET, TNT): I really can’t even find a credible scenario here. Kyle O’Quinn is a good post player for Norfolk State with a 16/10 average and given Mizzou’s undersized lineup, I can see O’Quinn having a nice game on the weekend that belongs to the Irish. But Missouri’s speed and depth is too much and unless an underdog can really hit the three or a favorite is obviously vulnerable, there’s no reason to look for an upset. And there’s none here.
St. Louis-Memphis (6:50 PM ET, TBS): Memphis is the team playing better basketball and they have two forwards, Will Barton and Tarik Black who are going to be almost impossible for St. Louis to match up with. Lest you think the Tigers lack backcourt play, Chris Crawford runs the show effectively. Before advancing them on to a date with Michigan State though, let’s give credit to Billikens’ coach Rick Majerus, who’s had four days to try and figure out a way to match up with a team with an edge—although not a prohibitive one in talent. St. Louis can also hit the three, including big man Cody Ellis. Brian Conklin is a threat for a big game at any time from the wings. If St. Louis gets some effective rebounding from Dwayne Evans, they can steal this win. I’m picking Memphis, but like any 8-9 game, it’s far from a sure thing.
Lehigh-Duke (7:15 PM ET): My podcasting partner Greg DePalma over at Prime Sports Network picked the upset in this spot. I didn’t, but the more I look at it, the more I can see where the idea comes from. Duke’s reliance on the three-ball makes them almost a midmajor team in style of play and a cold night makes it interesting against anyone. And if it becomes a three-point shooting contest, Lehigh’s got some gunners of their own, led by C.J. McCollum. If the floor opens up and Gabe Knutson can do to work down low and get Mason Plumlee in foul trouble, an upset is definitely brewing. Now the downside of this is that if Duke hits their threes, they’ll win by forty. But any time hot shooting from long range is the core of your success, you are vulnerable, and that’s what Duke is. One note—if you’re a bettor and want to bet this game individually, forget the pointspread. Go for broke and take Lehigh on the moneyline to win outright, based on the theory if that Duke is hot, they’ll cover any number Vegas puts up on the board, but if they’re cold a magical night and big moneyline payoff is in the works.
Ohio-Michigan (7:20 PM ET, TNT): Michigan’s a vulnerable favorite too because of the lack of an inside game. Ohio has the personnel to exploit it in forwards Reggie Kelly and Ivo Baltic and the Bobcats are the team that upended Georgetown in 2010 and my bracket along with it. Be assured I won’t forget any time soon. From a personnel standpoint, the matchup is ripe for an upset. The issue I have is that the MAC was poor this year, while the Big Ten was outstanding, so our understanding of the personnel is necessarily skewed by that. I’m playing the conference card in this one and sticking with the favorite.
Purdue-St. Mary’s (7:27 PM ET, TNT): A great 7-10 game with St. Mary’s in the favorite’s role against another Big Ten team looking to make a conference statement. Purdue’s got the conference card, as well as the best player on the floor card in Robbie Hummel. But St. Mary’s has played good basketball coming down the stretch, winning the WCC over Gonzaga and BYU, then also winning the conference tournament. I would overlook that in this game, but I can’t overlook the work of point guard Matthew Dellavedova, the kind of floor leader and scorer who can win an NCAA Tournament game for you. It’s a nailbiter, but Dellavedova is the difference in the last couple possessions.
Michigan State-Long Island (9:20 PM ET, TBS): The hopes for a historic #16 seed win rest on the shoulders of Blackbirds’ forward Julian Boyd. He’s one of two good scorers at the forward spot, including Jamal Olaswere, and the one thing Boyd has is the ability to shoot the three. The guards won’t be able to deny him his shot, since Boyd is 6’7”. Long Island’s only hope is to force Tom Izzo into a situation where he has to either bring Draymond Green out to the perimeter to stop a big three-point shooter, or just leave his top rebounder down low and hope for the best on the treys. It’s a thin reed for Long Island to hold on to, but when you’re a #16 seed you grab at whatever you can.
Xavier-Notre Dame (9:45 PM ET, CBS): Xavier is the 10-seed and I’ve griped pretty much non-stop about them being in the NCAA Tournament. That said, the Musketeers are the more talented team. While Notre Dame’s backcourt of Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins is good, Xavier’s guards of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons can match up with anyone in the country. While Notre Dame has a nice power forward in Jack Cooley, Xavier has a game-changing center in Kenny Frease. Saying this leaves it pretty obvious I’m picking Xavier to win this holy war of Jesuit schools that are pretty close to each other, with Xavier’s home town of Cincinnati providing the baseball rooting preferences for a lot of Indiana. The one thing I am concerned about is Frease disappearing from the flow of play. It’s been known to happen and the next time it does will be the last.
South Florida-Temple (9:50 PM ET, TNT): It’s another Big East-Atlantic 10 battle. This time I’m taking the Big East. While Temple has the flash, with its backcourt of Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt, who can take you off the dribble and Juan Fernandez who buries treys, South Florida has the substance. There are no double-digit scorers, but they lock you down on the defensive end, as Big East teams found it in the last six weeks of the regular season, and as Cal found it in the play-in game South Florida never should have been relegated to. Temple deserved a better matchup than this after winning the A-10 and earning a #5 seed, and they won’t survive the South Florida D tonight.
Detroit-Kansas (9:57 PM ET, Tru): Mr. DePalma over at Prime Sports Network is calling another 15-seed upset here—and also has the Titans going to the final eight. When he announced this on our show on Wednesday night I debated the merits of an intervention. But in fairness, Detroit’s got talent, they can run the floor very well and Ray McCallum is a do-everything point guard that can electrify the NCAA Tournament. They frankly deserved better than a 15-seed. I would have had them up at #13, paired them up with Michigan and then we might have an upset special. But not here. Detroit can’t shoot threes and they have no one who can stop Thomas Robinson in the paint.