The first big day of the NCAA tournament has come and gone, and for the most part, only the very brave — like Alex Ovechkin — could possibly have their brackets busted already. Just two lower seeds advanced to Saturday’s round of 32, and perhaps more noticeably, there were no buzzer beaters.
There was officiating controversy when No. 16 seed UNC Asheville put a scare into top-seeded Syracuse. Orange guard Brandon Triche appeared to fumble an inbounds pass out-of-bounds with 37 seconds left but the ball was awarded to Syracuse.
“I’m not going to alibi for the gentlemen in the game. They work their butts off. When you see this call, it’s either a foul or you give it to the other team that didn’t knock the ball out of bounds,” NCAA director of officials John Adams said on TruTV.
The action picked up in the evening, when No. 12 seed VCU held off Wichita State in the best game of the day, and No. 11 seed Colorado helped the Pac-12 maintain some of its dignity by holding off a late charge from No. 6 seed UNLV. We also may have seen the last of defending national champion Connecticut for a while after the Huskies lost to Iowa State in the night session. Barring an appeal, Connecticut likely won’t be eligible for next year’s NCAA tournament because of a poor academic progress rate.
But there’s bound to be fireworks at some point before the weekend is over. Perhaps it will be Friday, when the rest of the bracket begins play. Here’s some of the day’s best games, a couple potential upsets and two mid-major stars who could seize the spotlight.
Midwest Region: No. 8 Creighton vs. No. 9 Alabama, 1:40, TBS
Crimson Tide Coach Anthony Grant went out on a limb this season, suspending four of his best players for conduct detrimental to the team. The move paid off now that Alabama is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. Grant has the Crimson Tide playing some tenacious defense, an interesting contrast to Creighton. The Bluejays rank seventh in the country in scoring, averaging more than 80 points per game. Alabama has a decided size and athleticism advantage on the Bluej ays, but it remains to be seen how the Crimson Tide will deal with Creighton star Doug McDermott, the nation’s third-leading scorer.
West Region: No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 Virginia, 2:10, TNT
The Cavaliers come limping into their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007, with losses in six of their past 10 games and just seven healthy scholarship players. But Virginia has the best player in this matchup, senior Mike Scott, and he needs to put on a dominant performance with the Cavaliers short-handed. Florida made a school-record 328 three-pointers this year, perhaps the ultimate test for Coach Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense. Most importantly, Virginia must stick to its season-long script and not allow the explosive Gators to dictate the pace.
Memphis is bigger and more talented than Saint Louis, and enters Friday riding a seven-game winning streak in which it has beaten opponents by an average of more than 22 points. But the Billikens have Coach Rick Majerus, who is making his first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003, when he was still at Utah. Majerus took the Utes to the Final Four in 1998 playing a methodical style designed to slow the pace, and that’s exactly what Saint Louis will try to do Friday. The Tigers, meanwhile, feature Will Barton and Tarik Black, the type of athlete the Billikens don’t often see in the Atlantic 10. Regardless of whether talent or strategy wins out, this should be a fascinating game to watch.
South Region: No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Xavier, 9:45, CBS
Back at the beginning of January, Xavier was reeling with five losses in six games following an ugly brawl with Cincinnati that left the Musketeers in shambles after they had rocketed up to No. 8 in the national polls. The Fighting Irish weren’t doing so hot either, with a 9-6 record through 15 games. But both teams played some of their best basketball down the stretch to make a return appearance in the NCAA tournament. On his best days, Xavier guard Tu Holloway is the type of scorer capable of taking the Musketeers deep into the tournament. Under Coach Mike Brey, a DeMatha graduate, Notre Dame’s deliberate style can give opponents fits, especially if the Irish guards are knocking down perimeter shots.
Midwest Region: No. 6 San Diego State vs. No. 11 North Carolina State, 12:40, TruTV
The Aztecs are in the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season, but the nucleus of last year’s Sweet 16 team is gone. North Carolina State has even less experience; this is the Wolfpack’s first appearance in the tournament since 2006. But with guard Lorenzo Brown and forward C.J. Leslie, the Wolfpack have the top-end talent to beat any team in the country. After losing four straight games last month, North Carolina State hit its stride during the final week of ACC play and nearly upset North Carolina in the ACC tournament.
Midwest Region: No. 3 Georgetown vs. No. 14 Belmont, 3:10, TruTV
The Hoyas have gone down in the round of 64 two years in a row, and this time they face a Belmont team that shouldn’t be afraid of the moment Friday. This is the second straight NCAA tournament appearance for the Bruins, who lost their season opener this year at Duke by just one point and have three starters back from last year’s squad. Georgetown Coach John Thompson III has downplayed his team’s recent struggles, emphasizing that it’s a new year. But a third upset in a row would be a bad look for the Hoyas, and spoil what has otherwise been a year in which Georgetown has exceeded expectations.
Players to Watch
This scruffy-haired Australian is just the latest product of Saint Mary’s pipeline down under and he’s the main reason why the Gaels overcame rival Gonzaga this year to win both the West Coast Conference regular season title and conference tournament for the first time, making up for a late-season swoon in 2011 that cost them a spot in last year’s tournament. Dellavedova averaged 15.6 points and 6.4 assists per game, and his slick passing skills make him one of the most entertaining players in the tournament who doesn’t regularly appear on national television.
Forward Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure, Sr.
The Bonnies made a surprise run to the Atlantic-10 tournament title and earned the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament largely because of Nicholson, the conference player of the year. A 6-foot-9 NBA prospect, Nicholson is averaging nearly 19 points and 8 rebounds per game this season. But professional scouts will surely be interested in how he fares against Florida State’s experienced front court, led by 26-year-old Iraq veteran Bernard James.
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