While Thursday was a good start to March Madness – shout out to Yale for knocking off Baylor and Arkansas Little-Rock for coming back to shock Purdue – let’s hope that Friday’s games are even better. Here’s a look at the first slate of games:
7. Dayton – 10. Syracuse (12:15, CBS)
A few things about Syracuse’s coaching legend:
The NCAA on Friday suspended Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim for nine ACC games, took away 12 scholarships, and ordered that 108 wins be vacated as a result of a multiyear investigation into the university's athletic programs.
The NCAA said that the violations, which were self-reported by Syracuse and dated back to 2001, included academic misconduct, extra benefits, failure to follow the drug-testing policy and impermissible booster activity.
Other violations included impermissible academic assistance and services, Boeheim's failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and monitor his staff, and the school's lack of control over its athletics program.
I’m sure he didn’t know about anything that was going on.
Even after those sanctions were announced, he flipped shooting guard Tyus Battle, a 5* potential one-and-done 2016 Michigan commit, under potentially shady circumstances and set off a chain reaction that basically pushed 5* wing Josh Langford to Michigan State instead of Michigan.
The targets of Boeheim's latest bluster are two of his former players, Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant. Ennis left Boeheim and Syracuse after one tremendous season as a freshman; Grant stayed two years but eventually opted for the draft after taking time to consider returning to school. Asked about how his two former players are preparing for the NBA, Boeheim essentially said he's cut off contact with them.
Ennis and Grant signed contracts worth a combined $8 million dollars with NBA teams.
And, from a purely subjective standpoint, he has the annoying 2-3 zone as his staple – as much of a singular stylistic identity as any in college basketball. As Bomani Jones is fond of saying: “zone is for cowards.” He put it on a t-shirt.
This is my completely unsubtle attempt to convince you that Syracuse is Bad. I’m sure you’re rooting for your bracket regardless.
Anyways, as for the actual game itself, it should be a defensive slugfest. Dayton boasts one of the nation’s best defenses – one that’s good enough to mitigate their pretty mediocre offense. Dyshawn Pierre and Charles Cooke anchor the strong interior defense for the Flyers, while sparkplug point guard Scoochie Smith (one of the best names in the tournament), is the go-to guy to make things happen on offense. In the last two seasons, Dayton has made it to the Elite 8 and Sweet 16, so there’s plenty of March experience on the roster. As for Syracuse – who have lost five of their last six games – their 2-3 has been enough of a boost to get them into the tournament by the skin of their teeth; senior guards Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, as well as 5* freshman swingman Malachi Richardson, are players to watch for the Orange.
2. Villanova – 15 UNC Asheville (12:40, tru TV)
UNC Asheville was the surprise winner of the Big South tournament after finishing tied for third in the conference during the regular season, and they shouldn’t be too much of a test for a veteran Villanova team that just fell off the one-seed line. Villanova is one of the rare teams with and offense and a defense that are good enough to win a title, and even though there’s been legitimate reason to be skeptical of the Wildcats in March, a team with Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Jalen Brunson should be able to handle a team like Asheville with ease.
[After the JUMP: less editorializing, I promise]
Gary Payton II
7. Oregon State – 10. VCU (1:30, TNT)
It was a bit of a surprise to see Oregon State seeded so highly after they went .500 in the Pac-12 without any really notable non-conference wins. The Beavers did benefit from the committee’s seemingly overvalued metric this year, conference RPI. Still, they find themselves stuck on that 7/10 line with a fairly comparable team – in fact, VCU is favored by many to win this game. The undisputed star for Oregon State is Gary Payton II (yes, son of that Gary Payton): he has supernatural speed and athleticism for the point guard position, has a solid assist-to-turnover ratio, and – surprise – is a lockdown defender who gets a ton of steals. While Gary Payton fils isn’t quite as good as his dad, he’s still good enough to be the best player on the floor in this game. Outside of Payton and a few others, it’s a young Beaver team, but having a veteran star point guard is invaluable.
The first year of the post-Shaka Smart era is going pretty well for the VCU Rams – after a very tough non-conference schedule, they managed to cobble together a good enough resume during conference play to make it into the tournament easily (which is no small feat in the A-10). Predictably, the Rams still feast on turnovers; Smart’s famed “Havoc” defense has been dialed back a little bit, but with the personnel on the roster and the general style that the program has grown accustomed to, VCU still has a very disruptive defense. The key matchup will be to see if Payton can handle the pressure. The Rams have a team with quite a bit of experience: there are no rotation freshmen and just two sophomores. Melin Johnson and Mo Alie-Cox are a good senior inside-outside duo and reserve Doug Brooks has the highest steal rate in the country.
4. Cal – 13. Hawaii (2:00, TBS)
The last game of the opening window is a classic “body clock” game, as the contest tips off at 11 AM local (PST) time, which is early for Cal, and 8 AM Hawaiian time, which is even earlier for Hawaii. This game has the potential to be one of the more interesting games of the day, because while Cal has two surefire one-and-done talents (including freshman phenom Jaylen Brown – a supercharged GRIII-type – who picked Cal over Michigan and will probably be drafted in the top five), their star point guard broke his hand in practice and won’t be available today for Cuonzo Martin’s Golden Bears. Brown and big man Ivan Rabb may still be too much for the Rainbow Warriors to handle – especially now that they’ve had time to get acclimated to the college game – but Hawaii is a dangerous 13-seed.
The Rainbow Warriors were clearly the class of the Big West conference this year, going 13-3 and winning the conference tournament. Their only non-conference losses came at Texas Tech and at home against Oklahoma – the game against OU came right down to the wire. It’s hard to predict exactly which successful mid-majors that have won a lot of games against weak teams will be competitive against a starkly different level of competition (like Arkansas Little-Rock, for example), but Hawaii has a lot of interesting pieces – senior point guard Roderick Bobbitt and especially junior big man Stefan Jankovic (a Missouri transfer) give the Rainbow Warriors some firepower on offense. Interestingly, former Michigan walk-on Sai Tummala is a redshirt senior backup stretch-4 for Hawaii. Any kid who came into U of M with me in the high school class of 2011 deserves a shout-out.
2. Michigan State – 15. Middle Tennessee State (2:45, CBS)
I’m afraid that MTSU : MSU :: bug : windshield. Moving on.
7. Iowa – 10. Temple (3:10, tru TV)
Iowa’s mired in their now-customary late-season swoon: they’ve lost six of their last eight, including games to Penn State and most recently Illinois, and they fell from what felt like a sure protected seed to the uncertainty of the 7/10 game. I watched their Big Ten Tournament game against Illinois and while Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok played extremely well, they were virtually without help – not a good sign, considering that the Hawkeyes are a deep and very experienced team. While the struggles of the last month or so may be quickly forgotten if Iowa manages to go on a run in the NCAA Tournament, it’s reasonable to expect the Hawkeyes to continue free-falling down the elevator shaft. In any case, Iowa is low key one of the most intriguing teams in the field because of their potential – as evidenced by how dang good they were earlier this year – and their history of choking, coupled with the events of the last months.
Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, Temple is perhaps the most confusing at-large team; even though they won the AAC regular-season title, they rank 90th overall in Kenpom, which is by far the lowest of any team that didn’t automatically get in with a conference tournament championship. They’re prone to long bouts of ineffectiveness on the offensive end, and while their defense is pretty good, it’s hard to see them being able to outscore Iowa unless they drag the Hawkeyes down to their level. Of all the teams Iowa could have faced in this 7/8/9/10 tier of seeds, Temple is probably the most favorable selection.
Maryland vs. South Dakota State
2. Oklahoma – 15. Cal State Bakersfield (4:00, TNT)
OU is one of the potential title contenders this season – they have a top 15 offense and defense per Kenpom and Buddy Hield gives them the requisite elite guard play to make a deep run into late March or maybe even April. Despite losing out to overall one-seed Kansas for the Big 12 regular season and tournament title, the Sooners are very dangerous – they should handle CSU Bakersfield (who are making their first ever NCAA Tournament (take that, Northwestern)) with ease.
5. Maryland – 12. South Dakota State (4:30, TBS)
The UMD Terrapins take on the SDSU jackrabbits in one of the most compelling possible mascot matchups: the tortoise vs. the hare. While the basketball game is highly unlikely to recreate the fable – after all, Maryland is the more high-octane team – it’s still one of those March Madness oddities that make the tournament so fun.
The Terps should be well-known to Michigan fans at this point: it feels like they’re less than the sum of their parts; Melo Trimble hasn’t progressed as many thought he would; Robert Carter has been a pleasant surprise and forms a formidable frontcourt with freshman phenom Diamond Stone. Maryland’s depth isn’t great and they lost to Minnesota – MINNESOTA – but they’re still a pretty reasonable bet to make the Sweet 16 depending on how things shake out. South Dakota State is the class of the Summit League and has put together a pretty interesting mid-major resume – again, one of those teams that haven’t really been tested against quality opposition – but they’re pretty much an unknown. An upset here, considering the preseason hype for Maryland, would be a catastrophe.
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A preview of the first round’s final eight games will be up later.