After two days of First Four action to ease into the madness, the NCAA tournament begins in earnest on Thursday with 16 games.
With 64 teams left in the field, play is set to begin in Auburn Hills, Mich. at 12:15 p.m. with Michigan State meeting Horizon champ Valparaiso. Games will continue throughout the day in all four regions, including Virginia Commonwealth’s matchup against Akron at 9:45 p.m. on CBS. The slate finishes up with Syracuse taking on Montana at approximately 9:57 p.m. in an East region game in San Jose.
Here are some of today’s highlights:
West: No. 9 Wichita State vs. No. 8 Pittsburgh in Salt Lake City, 1:40 (TBS)
Expect a physical contest when the Shockers and Panthers get together with the winner likely advancing to play top-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday. Since arriving in Utah, both teams have discussed the similarities between deep squads that are comfortable mixing it up inside. Wichita State has been outrebounded just three times this season. With 7-foot Steven Adams and 6-foot-9 Talib Zanna to protect the rim, Pittsburgh ranks sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 55.4 points per game.
Midwest: No. 11 St. Mary’s vs. No. 6 Memphis in Auburn Hills, Mich., 2:45 (CBS)
The Tigers stockpiled 30 wins this season en route to their third straight Conference USA tournament title, but they didn’t beat enough quality opponents to earn a top-five seed. The Gaels, coming off a 67-54 win over Middle Tennessee on Tuesday, should provide a challenge, especially if they shoot from outside like they did against the Blue Raiders. St. Mary’s hit 8 of 14 three-point attempts in that game, led by a 5-of-7 effort from guard Matthew Dellavedova (22 points, six rebounds, four assists).
West: No. 11 Belmont vs. No. 6 Arizona in Salt Lake City, 7:20 (TNT)
After an impressive nonconference run catapulted Sean Miller’s squad to the top of the national rankings, the Wildcats struggled, at times, down the stretch. Arizona took second in the Pacific-12 behind UCLA to safely grab an at-large berth in the field after a one-year hiatus, but its seeding took a tumble as a result. The Bruins’ experience makes them dangerous. Led by four-year starter Ian Clark, they are making their sixth tournament appearance in nine years. Belmont fans hope this squad can break through with the program’s first victory, but they have had their hearts broken before. The team took second-seeded Duke down to the wire in the 2008 tournament only to fall, 71-70.
Midwest: No. 9 Missouri vs. No. 8 Colorado State in Lexington, Ky., 9:20 (TBS)
This matchup showcases contrasting styles. Under first-year coach Larry Eustachy, the Rams have leaned heavily on an inside game led by senior transfer Colton Iverson (14.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg). The Tigers like to push the pace with all five starters averaging double figure scoring. Missouri may have an advantage at point guard where it can turn to Phil Pressey to spark the attack. Colorado State’s floor general Dorian Green is expected to play, but he has been slowed by an ankle injury recently.
South: No. 13 South Dakota State vs. No. 4 Michigan in Auburn Hills, Mich., 7:15 (CBS)
The Wolverines should have a decided home court advantage in this one, but it’s hard to trust a team that scuffled to six losses in its final 12 games. The Jackrabbits, meantime, have a cache of strong shooters and plenty of experience after making their tournament debut last season. The matchup to watch is at point guard where high-scoring South Dakota State senior Nate Wolters will square off with national player of the year candidate Trey Burke.
East: No. 13 Montana vs. No. 4 Syracuse in San Jose, 9:57 (truTV)
The Orange, losers of three of four to close the regular season before a run to the Big East tournament final, had enough to worry about with the Big Sky champion Grizzlies. The team added another headache on Wednesday when reports surfaced of a wide-ranging NCAA investigation into the basketball program. Montana lost its leading scorer Mathias Ward for the season with a foot injury earlier this month, but the team still has conference player of the year Kareem Jamar and shoots better than 47 percent from the field, which could be an advantage against Syracuse’s matchup zone.
Players to Watch
Center Mike Muscala, Bucknell, Sr.
The nation’s leader with 22 double-doubles, Muscala has emerged as a professional prospect at the Lewisburg, Pa., school. In an impressive final collegiate season, he’s averaged 19 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, while maintaining a spot on the dean’s list. It has been seven seasons since the Bison won a game in the NCAA tournament, and they’ll need a strong effort from Muscala to play Cinderella again and break that streak against Butler.
Guard Kendall Williams, New Mexico, Jr.
The Lobos are a chic pick for a deep tournament run after winning the Mountain West Conference regular season and tournament titles, and Williams should hold the key to how far the team can go. The Mountain West Conference player of the year averaged 13.5 points and five assists in the regular season, but the point guard scored 25 total points in three conference tournament games. Williams will try to get back on track when New Mexico faces Ivy champion Harvard on Thursday night.
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