NCAA tournament 2014: A March Madness viewer’s guide to Friday’s first-round games

With the first true day of the NCAA tournament in the books, with all the requisite upsets, blowouts and madness that usually comes in March, we move onto Friday’s slate. Unbeaten Wichita State is in action, as is national player of the year favorite Doug McDermott and No. 3 Creighton. Out in St. Louis, second-seeded Kansas will forge ahead without big man Joel Embiid for the opening weekend, while Coach John Calipari and No. 8 Kentucky battles No. 9 Kansas State at the same site for, presumably, the chance to dethrone the Shockers.

But none of those games will be mentioned any more, because Friday features an absolutely incredible slate of games. Here are the matchups, upsets and players to watch:

MUST-SEE GAMES

West: No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State in San Diego, 4:40 p.m. (TNT)

Ever since an abysmal midseason stretch of seven straight losses that pretty much torpedoed all chances of a Big 12 regular season title and put Coach Travis Ford firmly on the hot seat, the Cowboys have been playing much better basketball, including a home win over Kansas on March 1. They have been a trendy pick to go far in bracket pools, boasting top 30 efficiency on both ends of the court, but get a stiff test in a Gonzaga team that has won five straight, including three en route to another West Coast Conference title. The Bulldogs have also won opening-round games in five straight NCAA tournaments, while Oklahoma State hasn’t won in March Madness since 2009.

East: No. 8 Memphis vs. No. 9 George Washington in Raleigh, N.C., 6:55 p.m. (TBS)

Analyst Ken Pomeroy has projected this game at an even 50-50 split, so it should be a barn-burner. Filled with international transfers, George Washington has surprised many en route to becoming one of the Washington D.C.-area’s top teams, but Memphis under Coach Josh Pastner also boasts a talented roster with six players averaging at least 8.9 points per game.  The Colonials enter still wondering about the health of guard Kethan Savage, who has played just one total minute since suffering a broken foot on Jan. 18. GW Coach Mike Lonergan said Thursday that he’s game-planning as if Savage is not going to play.

East: No. 6 North Carolina vs. No. 11 Providence in San Antonio, 7:20 p.m. (TNT)

Many have doubts about the ability of Providence’s six-man rotation to succeed over a full NCAA tournament, but how will the Friars handle a six-day layoff after beating Creighton in the Big East tournament? Coach Ed Cooley’s team, which has lost just once over its past seven games, shoots free throws better than all but one team in the nation and has a player in Bryce Cotton who logs more minutes than any player in the country. North Carolina, meanwhile, had its 12-game winning streak halted in the regular season finale against Duke and lost in its ACC tournament opener against Pittsburgh, but hasn’t lost in an NCAA tournament first-round game since 1999.

UPSET ALERT

West: No. 11 Nebraska vs. No. 6 Baylor in San Antonio, 12:40 p.m. (truTV)

Baylor has a massive front line led by 7-feet-1 sophomore Isaiah Austin and grabs an absurd 41.1 percent of its own misses, who doesn’t love a coach who tweets during halftime and leads a movement nicknamed Nebrasketball? The Huskers are battle-tested this season with road wins over the past month at Michigan State and Indiana, followed up by a home victory over Wisconsin.

 

Midwest: No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Massachusetts in Raleigh, N.C., 2:45 p.m. (CBS)

Actually favored in this game by Pomeroy, the Volunteers take the momentum gained during their overtime blitzing of Iowa into the second round, where the Minutemen await. Massachusetts has hit a rough patch recently, losing three of five entering the NCAA tournament, but has one of the nation’s most electric guards in 5-feet-9 senior Chaz Williams. Tennessee will counter with equal experience, led by a starting lineup that features three seniors and two juniors.

South: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. No. 5 VCU in San Diego, 7:27 p.m. (truTV)

Winners of 28 straight since beginning the season 3-2, the Lumberjacks force opponents to turn the ball over nearly one-quarter of the time, while keeping it relatively secure (16.8 percent turnover rate) themselves. This should come in handy against Virginia Commonwealth’s “Havoc” press, which leads the nation in defensive turnover percentage and steal rate. Look for this game to be a low-scoring one with plenty of frenzy.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Melvin Ejim, Iowa State: The Big 12 leader with 22.7 points per 40 minutes, the senior forward has reached double-figure scoring in 28 of 31 games this season for the conference-champion Cyclones. But North Carolina Central boasts some plucky firepower under Coach LeVelle Moton, so look for the three-headed Iowa State monster of DeAndre Kane, Georges Kiang and Ejim to step up in San Antonio. Last month, for instance, Ejim broke the Big 12 single-game scoring record with 48 points against TCU.

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: For some reason, even though the offense didn’t exactly run through Embiid, Wiggins has been the biggest beneficiary of his classmate’s absence. The freshman phenom has averaged 31 points over the past three games, including 41 points in a loss to West Virginia. Without Embiid, the Jayhawks have become a trendy pick for an early exit, though it is unlikely to happen versus Eastern Kentucky. Still, given how versatile Wiggins can be, Friday should be fun to watch.

More NCAA tournament news

Warren Buffett’s billion safer after Dayton upsets Ohio State

American starts strong before fading vs. Wisconsin

ESPN lets rats pick the NCAA tournament winner (video)

Preaching patience, Mike Lonergan has GW back in March Madness

Viewer’s guide for Thursday’s games | What channel is truTV?

NCAA tournament bracket and historical database

Video: How to sound like tournament expert | Upset specials

Play The Bracket Challenge round-by-round

Photos: The best of the Tournament | 68 teams, 68 facts

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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