The NCAA tournament’s opening day got off to a fairly quiet start with No. 5 Cincinnati, shorthanded No. 9 Colorado and No. 6 Ohio State being upset Thursday in the early games.
But in the nightcaps, No. 5 Saint Louis was forced to rally furiously to defeat No. 12 North Carolina State, Louisville’s Luke Hancock was clutch against No. 13 Manhattan and No. 12 North Dakota State picked up the first NCAA tournament win in school history against No. 12 Oklahoma.
Saturday’s action tips offs at noon and the last game is scheduled for 9:40. Below are the games you cannot miss, possible upsets and standout players to watch.
East: No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 2 Villanova in Buffalo, N.Y., 9:40 (TBS)
The last time these two teams met on Feb. 6, 2013, the Big East was arguably the best basketball conference in the country. Now the Huskies are in the American Athletic Conference and hungry after being prohibited from postseason play last season. Shabazz Napier will have his eyes set on making a return trip to the Sweet 16; it would be his first trip since 2011 when Connecticut ran the table and won the Big East and NCAA tournament titles. Villanova has been ranked in the top 5 this season and easily handled No. 15 Milwaukee in the first round 73-53 while Connecticut is coming off an overtime win over No. 10 Saint Joseph’s. The Wildcats have six players who can score in double figures on any given night, including senior leading-scorer James Bell (14.5 points per game).
West: No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 2 Wisconsin in Milwaukee, 7:45 (CBS)
Two very different offenses will go-to-toe in a matchup of Pacific-12 and Big Ten schools. Oregon scores 81.8 points per game, which ranks 11th best in the county. Junior guard Joseph Young leads the team in scoring at 18.6 points per game and Dominic Artis is very explosive off the bench. Milwaukee native Elgin Cook looks to be right at home after scoring a season-high 23 points in the Thursday win over No. 10 BYU. Wisconsin’s methodical offense has led the Badgers to wins over Florida, Iowa and Michigan. They easily dispatched of American, so it will be interesting to see how they react to one of the most potent offenses in the country. Junior floor leader Traveon Jackson will have to get the shooters involved early if these turns into a shootout.
Midwest: No. 5 Saint Louis vs. No. 4 Louisville in Orlando, Fla., 2:45 p.m. (CBS)
Both squads avoided upsets in Thursday’s final round, as the Billikens came back from a 16-point second half deficit against No. 12 North Carolina State while the Cardinals needed a couple of Luke Hancock three-pointers to advance. Saint Louis hasn’t seen a team with a back court as fast as the Cardinals’ lethal combo of Russ Smith and Chris Jones. And Montrezl Harrell has turned into a double-double machine and dunks everything around the basket. Saint Louis didn’t find its footing until the second half Thursday, but the Billikens can’t afford another slow start against the defending champion Cardinals. Billikens guard Jordair Jett (13.8 points per game) will need to spark this offense early scoring the ball and distributing.
No. 12 North Dakota State vs. No. 4 San Diego State in Spokane, Wash., 6:10 p.m. (TNT)
The Bison are extremely confident heading into just their third-ever NCAA tournament game. Junior Lawrence Alexander scored 28 points and played all 45 minutes in Thursday’s overtime win. And after their dancing moves in the locker room, the Bison are quickly becoming the fan favorite in Spokane. The Aztecs are looking to avoid a second consecutive loss to a double-digit seed in the round of 32 after falling to upstart Florida Gulf Coast last season. San Diego State has quality wins over Creighton and Marquette and the Aztecs have beaten Kansas on the road.
No. 12 Harvard vs. No. 4 Michigan State in Spokane, Wash., 8:40 (TNT)
Harvard Coach Tommy Amaker has his team playing its best basketball of the season. Sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers is very good at getting the offense to run yet never appears to be in a rush. The Spartans are looking for their third straight Sweet 16 berth and Adreian Payne is coming off a 41-point outing in Thursday’s win over Delaware. Michigan State has beaten opponents by an average of 14 points in its current four game-winning streak that includes the Big 10 tournament title.
No. 7 Texas vs. No. 2 Michigan in Milwaukee, 5:15 (CBS)
The Longhorns Cameron Ridley is a load inside at 6 feet 9 and 285 pounds and will have a 30-pound advantage on Michigan big man Jordan Morgan. All five Texas starters scored in double figures in Thursday’s win against Arizona State, but the Longhorns weren’t able to run the Sun Devils off the three-point line, allowing eight three-pointers. The Wolverines love to shoot the long ball with Canadian sophomore Nik Stauskas (17.4 points per game) who has worked diligently to become a more complete offensive weapon.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Talib Zanna, Pittsburgh: The former Bishop McNamara product is second in the ACC in field goal percentage at 57.5 percent. The 6-9 Zanna has grown into a strong post option for the Panthers and is 27 for 38 (71 percent) in his last four games. It will be interesting to see how he matches up with Florida big man Patric Young, who looks more like a linebacker than a post forward. If Zanna can continue his hot shooting against a stout Florida front line, the Panthers could reach their first Sweet 16 since 2009.
Jerami Grant, Syracuse: Although teammate C.J. Fair leads the Orange in scoring, Grant is just as important to the Orange’s success. His length in the 2-3 zone was key in the Orange’s 25-0 start to the season, and when back spams reduced his minutes the Orange suffered to a 3-5 record to close the season. Grant looked to be at full strength Thursday while scoring 16 points in a blowout win against Western Michigan. The Orange face upset-minded Dayton, but Syracuse is the clear favorite with the amount of talent on its roster.