NCAA Tournament: Friday Afternoon Preview/Predictions
12: 15 EST (Miami): #3 Syracuse vs. #14 Stephen F. Austin (South Region)
The talk about the Orange not having much left in the tank? Much ado about nothing, given the fact that they've had five days in between the Big East Championship final and their first round matchup with the Lumberjacks. "I think we have our legs back; our energy is back, so I don't think that will be a problem," said Syracuse guard Jonny Flynn in today's press conference. Considering the fact that Jim Boeheim's team was on the bubble the last two seasons, only to be left out of the Tournament, they should be more than ready for the Southland champs.
As for the Lumberjacks, they make their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance and will rely on a stout defense in looking to pull off the upset. Stephen F. Austin has to control the tempo, and they've got just the guy to do that in point guard Eric Bell (3.6 apg). He may just stand 5-3 but Bell is the consummate floor general (A/T ratio of 1.92) who understands what his job is: defend and get the ball to Southland Player of the Year Matt Kingsley (16.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg). Kingsley and Josh Alexander (14.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) carry the scoring load for the Lumberjacks, but unless they slow the game to a crawl they won't have enough to deal with the likes of Flynn, Paul Harris, Eric Devendorf and Arinze Onuaku (just to name four). Syracuse moves on, even if they begin the game underestimating their opponent.
12:25 EST (Dayton) #8 Oklahoma State vs. #9 Tennessee (East Region)
This could very well be the most entertaining game of the day given the uptempo style that both teams prefer. With no big man of note the Cowboys weren't expected to play as well as they have in the first year under Travis Ford but here they are. The exact opposite may be said for Bruce Pearl's Volunteers, who went from preseason shoo-in to dominate the SEC to scrapping for a share of the SEC East. But in winning five of their last seven, maybe this experienced team can make a run in Dayton this weekend. Forwards Tyler Smith (17.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Wayne Chism (13.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg) lead the way for Tennessee, but the man to watch on Friday is point guard Bobby Maze (8.3 ppg, 3.2 apg, 1.93 A/T ratio).
How well he handles the full-court pressure (and the man-to-man defense of Byron Eaton) will determine who wins this game. Eaton (14.1 ppg, 5.5 apg) is an outstanding, game-tested point guard who can harass opposing guards into errors. And Oklahoma State has a match for Smith in sophomore stud James Anderson (18.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg), a more athletic player who can get it done from just about anywhere on the floor. The winner of this game will get more from the supporting cast, but Oklahoma State lacks a solid answer for Wayne Chism. In a game that can go either way, look for Tennessee to move on to Sunday's second round.
12:30 EST (Boise) #6 Marquette vs. #11 Utah State (West Region)
Another game where the lower-seeded team winning wouldn't be much of an upset. Stew Morrill is one of the most underrated coaches in America, and his Aggies have already won thirty games this season. Forward Gary Wilkinson (17.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg), who at one time was a high-school dropout who didn't know what his next move in life would be, is the best player in the Big West and a big part of an offensive system that's hard to scout. Utah State's playbook is something that you rarely see outside of the NFL, allowing them to switch from one grouping of plays to another on a moment's notice (via flash cards). Guard Jared Quayle (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.7 apg) runs the show for a team that's arguably the nation's most efficient offensive club.
The Golden Eagles feature on of the most prolific trios in Jerel McNeal (19.7 ppg, 4.0 apg), Wesley Matthews (18.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Lazar Hayward (16.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg). Marquette has lost five of their last six, coinciding with the loss of Dominic James, but what many don't take into consideration are who those five teams were (Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Villanova) when evaluating the chances of the Golden Eagles sticking around. Buzz Williams may be coaching in his first NCAA Tournament game but he's got the horses needed to stick around. Maurice Acker has taken care of the basketball in replacing James; they don't need him to become James with the remaining scorers on the floor. The question is how well the Aggies play in their toughest test of the season; they didn't look too good last month against St. Mary's. The late-season swoon points this game in favor of Utah State, and that's the way this pick goes.
12:30 EST (Minneapolis) #3 Kansas vs. #14 North Dakota State (Midwest Region)
Kansas will play a virtual road game against the Bison, but will it really matter? NDSU has a pair of outstanding players in Ben Woodside (22.8 ppg, 6.3 apg) and Brett Winkelman (18.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg), and they could author an upset of epic proportions should the Jayhawks not take them seriously. But does North Dakota State have a good answer for the Jayhawks' Cole Aldrich (14.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg), the best of a deep corps of interior bodies? The one thing that could work in NDSU's favor is the overall youth of Kansas, but point guard Sherron Collins (18.3 ppg, 5.0 apg) has more than enough experience to lead his team through a rough stretch.
Both teams can score, but Kansas has more depth and that will be the difference. But North Dakota State is more than capable of hanging around and scaring the Jayhawks.
2:45 EST (Miami) #6 Arizona State vs. #11 Temple (South Region)
Two of the best scoring guards in the nation will be on the same floor in Arizona State's James Harden (20.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Temple's Dionte Christmas (19.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg). The question for both teams is what effect Arizona State big man Jeff Pendergraph (14.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg) will have on the outcome. If he's assertive in the paint Sergio Olmos will have a tough time slowing the senior down. But if Pendergraph gets into foul trouble, or the Devils aren't diligent in getting him the ball inside, the Owls have a very good chance to send Arizona State home.
Herb Sendek's matchup zone could pose a challenge for Christmas, but he's shown all year that he can score against just about any defense you throw at him. His supporting cast, most notably Lavoy Allen and Ryan Brooks, has to play the way they did in last week's Atlantic 10 Tournament if Fran Dunphy is to win his first NCAA Tournament game as Temple head coach. An unsung hero for Arizona State this season has been point guard Derek Glasser, tough leader who seems to be right in the thick of the action for all forty minutes. If the game stays in the low-60s the Sun Devils will move on...but it won't. Temple pulls off the upset, gaining a little more respect for the Atlantic 10 in the process.
2:55 EST (Dayton) #1 Pittsburgh vs. #16 East Tennessee State (East Region)
No sixteen seed has ever...you know the end of that statement by now. The Buccaneers may own some upsets in their NCAA Tournament history but that won't be happening here. As good as DeJuan Blair (15.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg) and Sam Young (18.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg) are the question will be the health of point guard Levance Fields, who has been dealing with a nagging groin injury the past few weeks. ETSU has a solid backcourt, led by Courtney Pigram (17.6 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Mike Smith (15.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg), and they could be a problem for Fields when he has to defend.
But by the second half the man in charge will be freshman Ashton Gibbs, who can use the extra time to get prepared for a second round game should Fields be limited on Sunday. No disrespect to either of the Buccaneer guards or forward Kevin Tiggs (21.5 ppg), but the Panthers should take care of business.
3:00 EST (Boise) #3 Missouri vs. #14 Cornell (West Region)
The "fastest forty minutes in basketball" gets its first taste (Missouri style) of the NCAA Tournament, taking on the two-time Ivy League champs. Cornell isn't your stereotypical Ancient Eight "crawl it up the floor" team, but they aren't looking to turn this into a track meet either. Forward Ryan Wittman (18.5 ppg) is one of the best players you don't see on SportsCenter every night, and in guard Louis Dale (13.5 ppg, 3.6 apg) and center Jeff Foote (11.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg) the Big Red have an experienced trio to lean on. Cornell also takes care of the basketball, boasting a team assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.2 and that will come in handy when dealing with the Missouri press.
The Tigers have a pair of senior forwards in DeMarre Carroll (16.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Leo Lyons (14.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) who are more than a handful, and Wittman's going to run into one of the nation's best defenders in J.T. Tiller. Matt Lawrence is one of the better deep shooters in the Big 12, and the Tigers have nine players averaging at least eleven minutes per game on the season. It's that depth, a product of the helter-skelter style they prefer, that will send Missouri on into the second round.
3:00 EST (Minneapolis) #6 West Virginia vs. #11 Dayton (Midwest Region)
The matchup between the Mountaineers and Flyers is an intriguing one, with a lot of athletic players in the 6-5 to 6-8 height range on display. Dayton head coach Brian Gregory comes into this game armed with a long-term contract extension, but he's also got to figure out how to snap his team out of their current slump. The Flyers have lost four of their last seven, most recently in the Atlantic 10 semis to Duquesne. Chris Wright (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Marcus Johnson (12.2 ppg) are spectacular athletes but as a team Dayton struggles from the field (42.8%, 12th in the A-10). Look for Bob Huggins to try and exploit that with a variety of defensive looks, including their 1-3-1 and point drop zone looks.
As for the Mountaineers a future star in the Big East has emerged in freshman Devin Ebanks (10.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg). Always solid this season, the freshman from Long Island City was more assertive in the Big East Championship and as a result was named to the All-Tournament Team. Adding him in with the likes of Da'Sean Butler, Alex Ruoff and classmate Darryl "Truck" Bryant makes West Virginia even tougher to contain. Dayton is one of the best defensive teams in the Atlantic 10 so it will be tough sledding for the Mountaineers. But their offensive efficiency will be the difference in the end; look for West Virginia to move on.