This time last year, arguments raged over whether VCU deserved one of the last four at-large berths in the NCAA tournament. Of course, the Rams and Coach Shaka Smart put all that to rest when they made an improbable run to the Final Four.
When this year’s tournament begins tonight with two play-in games (or, as the NCAA officially calls them, first-round games) in Dayton, Ohio, it will be Iona that gets a chance to prove its worth to the rest of the country with a 9 p.m. game against BYU (Tru TV). The Gaels were a surprise at-large pick Sunday night because of their tough non-conference schedule outside the MAAC — leapfrogging teams like Washington, Miami and Drexel — and it’s the one decision by the selection committee that has drawn consistent criticism since Selection Sunday.
Led by senior point guard Scott Machado, an NBA prospect, Iona has the sort of top level talent to emulate VCU and make a run. The Gaels also feature forward Mike Glover (team-high 18.5 points and nine rebounds per game) and Arizona transfer Momo Jones, a former Virginia Tech commit who earned honorable mention all-Pac-10 status a year ago.
Because of Mormon missions, the Cougars might have the most veteran team in the field this year. BYU’s starting lineup has just one player (UCLA transfer Matt Carlino) that isn’t at least four years removed from their senior year of high school. And with many of the players that took on secondary roles during the Cougars’ Jimmer-fueled Sweet 16 run last season, BYU still favors a fast pace and finished the season as the most prolific offense in the West Coast Conference.
But no players are more important than leading scorer Noah Hartsock and forward Brandon Davies, who missed last year’s NCAA tournament because he violated the school’s honor code by having sex. Hartsock, meanwhile, has been battling a knee injury during the stretch run of this season but is expected to play Tuesday.
The winner plays No. 3 seed Marquette in a West Region second-round game at 9 p.m. Thursday.
The first play-in game tonight is a South Region battle (6:30 p.m. EDT, Tru TV) between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky to see who faces No. 1 seed Kentucky on Thursday, but there is perhaps more intrigue about the scheduled appearance of President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
For both teams, Tuesday will likely be their only win of the tournament since a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. But you can bet Kentucky faithful will be rooting for Mississippi Valley State, the SWAC champion, since the Delta Devils are coached by former Wildcat Sean Woods.
Woods made what many thought was going to be the game-winning shot with 2.1 seconds left in overtime 20 years ago when Kentucky faced Duke in what some consider the greatest NCAA tournament game of all-time.
But moments later, Blue Devils star Christian Laettner caught a long inbounds pass from teammate Grant Hill and hit a turnaround jumper from the free throw line as the buzzer went off to send Duke to the 1992 Final Four — a replay that has become a March Madness fixture.
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