We’ve looked at the bracket overall. We’ve looked at the places that would be fun to go and watch college hoops this weekend. Now it’s time to dig into the nuts and bolts. Tip-off is at hand, with 16 games set to go on Thursday. Here’s TheSportsNotebook’s brief snapshot of all 16….
Colorado State-Murray State (12:15 PM ET, CBS): The game that gets us going is a great matchup. Both teams bring good backcourt play to the tournament. Colorado State has a solid seven-man rotation, with contributions from everyone, so if the game is played at a fast pace, watch for a depth advantage for the Rams. Murray State’s advantage is that while both teams are on the smallish side, the Racers are a bit taller, and they’ll also likely have a home crowd advantage in Louisville. Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan is the best player on the floor, but Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green are both capable of good games for Colorado State. In the end, I like Murray State thanks to the edges in the frontcourt and a favorable crowd.
Southern Miss–Kansas State (12:40, Tru): K-State is a two-man team with Rodney McGruder outside and Jamar Samuels on the inside, but a balanced two-man game where everyone else understands their roles and the team is well-coached can be potent—everyone understands the team’s identity and I believe that’s why Kansas State is going to win this game. Southern Miss has a good floor leader in Neil Watson, but they haven’t played well down the stretch. If they’re going to reverse the trend, it will start with a big game from 6’10” Maurice Bolden, who has three inches on Samuels and could control the interior.
Louisville-Davidson (1:40, TBS): I don’t see Louisville repeating UConn’s feat of riding a surprise Big East tournament title to an NCAA title, or even a big March run. But I don’t think they’ll lose here. Davidson does have a balanced lineup with all five starters in double figures, and any upset possibility hinges on the ability of 6’10” post man Jake Cohen to both rebound and step out and hit the trey. Louisville is a balanced team as well though, with no obvious weaknesses and they’ll avoid the upset here.
Wisconsin-Montana (2:10 PM, TNT): As a Wisconsin fan I knew I shouldn’t have researched this game, because now I’m nervous as hell. The Grizzlies have a 7-footer in Derek Selvig who not only rebounds, he hits the three-ball. A kid with a name rich in basketball history, Kareem Jamar (ironically from Los Angeles, conjuring up memories of Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabaar), is lights out from downtown. Montana’s got balance in their offense. That’s what worries me. What comforts me is that the Badgers can also get their post man, Jared Bergrren outside for the three and guard Jordan Taylor is the best player on the floor. Still, this is a closer game than the 4 vs. 13 seed would imply.
BYU-Marquette (2:45 PM, CBS): The place I’m going to watch the Wisconsin game here just outside Milwaukee is going to be hopping with both Wiscy and MU playing at the same time. I see upset all over this game. Marquette’s got a great guard with Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder is terrific on the wings, but Davante Gardner is a lonely man down low. BYU has three players, Noah Hartsock, Brandon Davies and Charles Abouo who can make hay down low and that’s why I’m betting will happen. As a 3-seed Marquette was robbed by having to play an opponent of this talent level right out of the gate.
Syracuse-UNC Asheville (3:10 PM ET, Tru)—I’m looking for Asheville to make the top-seeded Orange to sweat this afternoon and get a lot of people tuning in to see if a 16-seed could win a game for the first time ever. If it happens, Matt Dickey is going to have to nail the three-ball. Ultimately though, Asheville plays four starters at 6’4” or smaller. They can get away with that at their level, but not against the Orange. Syracuse’s size helps them survive.
Long Beach State-New Mexico (4:10, CBS): I picked Long Beach as my dark horse Final Four pick, but as the 12-seed they could obviously lose right here, and if that happens New Mexico could pick up the mantle. The battle in the post between LBSU’s T.J. Robinson and New Mexico’s Drew Gordon, the best player in the Mountain West, is going to be great. Each team has a three-point shooter in Larry Anderson and Tony Snell respectively. Each has a playmaker in Casper Ware and Kendall Williams. But it’s Ware, who’s more than just a solid floor leader that makes the difference. The 49er point guard averages 17 ppg and can hit a shot from anywhere on the floor.
Vanderbilt-Harvard (4:40 PM, TNT): Harvard nearly coughed up the Ivy League title by losing winnable home games down the stretch, while Vandy won the SEC Tournament. More importantly, the Commodores are stacked, with Festus Ezeli able to control the post, John Jenkins being a 19 ppg scorer in the backcourt, and solid contributions coming everywhere else on the floor. I don’t see where Harvard has answers, especially given that their floor leader, Brandyn Curry, is a poor shooter so Vandy can back off of him and take away passing lanes on the defensive side.
Western Kentucky-Kentucky (6:50, TBS): The Hilltoppers have no size and no ability to hit the three-ball. If this game is still close ten minutes in, it’s a moral victory for WKU.
VCU-Wichita State (7:15, CBS): I really wanted to pick the Shockers to reach the Final Four, but they’re on path for a Sweet 16 game with Kentucky, and I wasn’t ready to see the Wildcats go out that early. But my podcasting compatriot, Greg DePalma, at Prime Sports Network, went with Wichita. It’s easy to see why. Garrett Stutz is a seven-footer who plays with aggression on the boards and knocks down 14 ppg. The backcourt is a perfect combo with both Joe Ragland and Toure’ Murry able to score and dish. Ragland is fantastic three-point shooter while Murry beats people off the dribble. Ben Smith can hit the trey if defenses don’t account for him and the team goes seven-deep in quality contributors. VCU is no pushover, but I don’t see how they can stop the array of options Wichita has to beat people.
Gonzaga-West Virginia (7:20, TNT): The Zags are the 7-seed and a justifiable favorite in this game, but this one should be a barnburner. WVA has the best player on the floor in Kevin Jones, who averages 20 points and 11 rebounds while playing both inside and out. Darryl Bryant is a 17 ppg man on the perimeter. But one of the Mountaineer keys will be the play of 6’9” Turkish import Deniz Kilicli, who’s had a good year, but faces two very good Gonzaga inside men in Robert Sacre and Elias Harris. For the Zags the key is going to be with the guards. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are lights-out from behind the arc and each can run the offense. They’re also both freshman at the Big Dance…and playing in Pittsburgh, expect a lot of WVA fans to make hour drive north. I’m picking Gonzaga, but this is another coin flip game to be settled on the last couple possessions.
South Dakota State-Baylor(7:27, Tru): I had been looking at South Dakota State as an upset possibility and was also concerned about Baylor’s up-and-down tendencies. But it’s with trepidation that I’m picking the favorite here. Aside from the obvious reason of Baylor’s vastly superior talent, especially across the front line, I don’t believe the style of play of Jackrabbits’ star Nate Wolter lends itself to an NCAA upset. He averages 21 ppg, but he takes a lot of three-point shots in spite of only hitting 24 percent behind the arc. That spells undisciplined to me, and unless he gives the ball up and creates some shots for Griffin Callahan and Jordan Dykstra, players who shoot the three-pointer and actually make them once in a while, South Dakota State will get run out of the building.
Iowa State-UConn (9:20, TBS): An 8-9 game for the right to play Kentucky, this is a great matchup and proof that the Selection Committee did the top-seeded Wildcats no favors. Iowa State’s sophomore forward Royce White is an extraordinary all-around talent, scoring, rebounding and distributing. Scott Christopherson is lights out from treyland, while Chris Allen provides some extra scoring in the backcourt and solid floor leadership. UConn can match and exceed the Cyclones with the backcourt with the explosive combo of Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, each of whom were key parts of last year’s NCAA title run. Where the Huskies have to win this game though, is down low, where Andre Drummond and Alex Oriahki can create a matchup problem that Iowa State would have no answer for. Whether Oriahki comes to play is a big question, but given the personnel edge and Jim Calhoun on the bench I’m taking UConn.
New Mexico State-Indiana (9:45, CBS): It’s a 4-13 game, and one that Indiana should win. NM State has a great forward in Wendell McKines, a 19/11 man, but my problem is that he’s only 6’6” and I question how much rebounding and inside scoring a player like that is going to do when he steps on the floor against a team from a power conference. Especially one with a quality big man like Indiana freshman Cody Zeller. If the Aggies are going to spring the upset, their own true center in Haimdu Rahman has to at least battle Zeller to a draw and see if it can become a battle of the backcourts, where Indiana’s down a man after losing Verdell Jones III for the season, and New Mexico State has a good floor leader in Christian Kabongo and three-point gunner in Hernst Lanche. But the percentages are clearly with the favorite. If Zeller dominates down low it’s an easy win. If he doesn’t, it’s white-knuckles time, but IU can still survive it.
Loyola MD-Ohio State (9:50, TNT): Erik Etherly and Shane Walker are going to have to play the games of their lives for the Greyhounds down low, to prevent Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas from turning this into Rout City. If, by a miracle that happens, then Robert Olson needs to be red-hot from behind the arc, and Ohio State’s William Buford has to go cold on the perimeter. I suppose stranger things have happened in the NCAA Tournament, but not too many.
Colorado-UNLV (9:57, Tru): I’m not sold on either team to survive the weekend (Baylor would be the likely opponent in the second round), but it’s an awfully good first-round game. Colorado’s Andre Roberson is the Pac-10’s best player, a power forward who averages a double-double. Spencer Dinwiddie is major factor in the interior and Carlon Brown is solid on the perimeter. Colorado should never have played their backs to the wall prior to the Pac-12 Tournament. On Vegas’ side, Mike Moser isn’t far behind Roberson in the post, and Chace Stanback can run the baseline effectively. UNLV’s backcourt is superior with Oscar Bellfield an Anthony Marshall, while Dinwiddie gives the Buffs’ the edge up front. When in doubt, go with the guards in NCAA play, and go with a tournament-seasoned coach like UNLV’s Lon Kruger.