The NCAA Tournament starts tonight with the first two of the four play-in games that will take place in Dayton over Tuesday and Wednesday. TheSportsNotebook’s daily sports look is going to be pretty well tied up in college basketball until we get this pared down to the Final Four, so without further adieu let’s dive into tonight’s games.
N.C. A&T vs. Liberty (6:40 PM ET, truTV)—Any team that comes out of a small conference comes into the NCAA on a little bit of a roll since they had to win their league tournament. In the case of these two, the roll does extend a little bit to the end of the regular season—but NC A&T and Liberty won six of their final seven games, including tournament action to get this opportunity tonight.
Liberty got some national renown for making the Dance with a sub-.500 record at 15-20, but they have a very good three-point shooter in Davon Marshall. When you have someone like that who can get hot—he shoots a lot of treys and hits 43 percent of them—you have to respected in a one-game situation against a reasonably comparable opponent like this one. Especially given the NC A&T does not shoot the three-ball particularly well.
This game will come down to a battle of the backcourts. North Carolina A&T looks to be a little bit better getting the ball inside the arc and making things happen, although it’s more on the perimeter as opposed to the post. Liberty needs to get hot from outside. If this were a seven-game series I’d take A&T, but Liberty’s feeling it, so why not take a flyer on Marshall to knock a few down from long range and keep the run lasting one game longer before the Louisville smackdown in the true first round later this week.
St. Mary’s-Middle Tennessee (9:10 PM ET, truTV): This game is for a spot as a #11 seed and a winnable game against Memphis, so a lot does ride on the line here. St. Mary’s simply appears to be a much better team. The Gaels have the best player on the floor in guard Matthew Dellavedova who scores, passes and hits the three-ball. There’s not a great interior presence, but four players collect anywhere from 4-6 rebounds a game. Furthermore, Middle Tennessee does not excel in the paint, so they’re ill-equipped to exploit this part of St. Mary’s.
Middle Tennessee relies on the backcourt. Marcos Knight is the leading scorer and Raymond Cintron is outstanding from behind the arc, hitting 44 percent. If he heats up, the Blue Raiders could pull the mild upset as a three-point underdog. But Cintron is not necessarily more likely to get hot than Dellavedova, and St. Mary’s has the better supporting cast, plus a better recent track record of tournament success. Take the Gaels.
TheSportsNotebook covered the NBA’s week ahead in yesterday’s daily sports look, and tonight has Denver-Oklahoma City (8 PM ET, NBA-TV) for anyone who’s not ready to dive into March Madness just yet. Hockey buffs can check Washington-Pittsburgh (7:30, NBCSN). There’s also good non-national TV games in Boston-Winnipeg and NY Rangers-New Jersey, with Winnipeg and New York in a joust for the last playoff spot.