[Sports] Thursday and Friday games: What to Watch

By Jason King
Call in sick for work. Play hooky from school. Plop onto your favorite sofa or reserve a table at the local sports bar.You’ve been waiting all year for the next two days.

It’s going to be worth it.

For sports fans, the first weekend of the NCAA tournament is as good as it gets. The Super Bowl may receive more hype, and watching your hometown team play in the World Series or NBA Finals is hard to beat.

But on a national level, no event is as highly anticipated by such a wide range of fans as the NCAA tournament. And no sport can match the excitement that will unfold time and time again during the “round of 64” games that take place Thursday and Friday.

Now that most of you have made your picks and turned in your brackets, here are some things to keep an eye on over the next two days.

Five best round of 64 games

No. 8 Iowa State vs. No. 9 Connecticut (South Region) — After finishing ninth in the Big East last season, the Huskies won their final 11 games en route to a national championship. The chances of that happening again this year appear slim, especially with a potential round of 32 game looming against Kentucky. Still, Jim Calhoun’s squad is loaded with NBA talent (Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb) and experience. Its tilt with the Royce White-led Cyclones should be an entertaining one.

No. 8 Creighton vs. No. 9 Alabama (Midwest Region)— Any little league basketball coach should have his team watch Creighton. Greg McDermott’s squad plays the game the right way. The Bluejays share the ball on offense, take high-percentage shots and genuinely relish each others’ success. They also feature one of the nation’s top players in Doug McDermott (Greg’s son). The 6-foot-7 sophomore will be challenged by an Alabama squad that’s known as one of the top defensive teams in the country.

No. 6 San Diego State vs. No. 11 North Carolina State (Midwest Region) — Don’t let the Wolfpack’s low seed fool you. With players such as C.J. Leslie andLorenzo Brown, Mark Gottfried touts the most talented team in the ACC behind North Carolina and Duke. NC State, which is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006, has won four of its past five games. San Diego State, though, will be a tough out. The Aztecs had won six in a row before falling to New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference tournament title game.

No. 5 Wichita State vs. No. 12 VCU (South Region) — VCU became the biggest story of last year’s NCAA tournament when it went all the way from the “First Four” in Dayton to the Final Four in Houston. This year Wichita State hopes to end the Rams’ run before it truly starts. The Shockers are generally regarded as the top mid-major team in America. Gregg Marshall’s squad is a solid seven deep, with underrated point guard Joe Ragland leading the way along with 7-foot center Garrett Stutz. Both players are seniors.

No. 5 New Mexico vs. No. 12 Long Beach State (West Region) — Steve Alford’s New Mexico squad shared the Mountain West regular-season title with San Diego State before winning the league tournament. In Drew Gordon (13.4 points, 10.9 rebounds) the Lobos feature one of the field’s best-kept secrets. Led by Cousy Award finalist Casper Ware, Long Beach State is a senior-laden team that played nonconference games at Kansas, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Louisville. The 49ers won’t be intimidated by the big stage.

Best round of 64 coaching matchups

Gonzaga’s Mark Few vs. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins (East Region) — By their own standards, Few and Huggins have had somewhat “down” years. Gonzaga failed to win at least a piece of the West Coast Conference title for the first time in 11 years. West Virginia squeaked into the tournament despite losing eight of its final 12 games. Still, these are two of the top game tacticians in the country.

Florida’s Billy Donovan vs. Virginia’s Tony Bennett (West Region) — The Gators have won two NCAA titles under Donovan, who likes to push the tempo. Meanwhile, no coach is as good at controlling the pace of a game as Bennett, whose team averages 63.1 points a game. Only one team in the last month (Maryland) has cracked the 70-point barrier against Virginia, and the Terps needed overtime to do it. The contrast in styles between these two coaches should make the game interesting.

Memphis’ Josh Pastner vs. Saint Louis’ Rick Majerus (West Region) — Pastner is the 34-year-old wunderkind who is regarded as one of the profession’s rising stars. Majerus has 516 career wins and took Utah to the NCAA title game in 1998. Beating such a highly regarded coach in the NCAA tournament would do wonders for Pastner, whose reputation has already begun to soar. Memphis has won 11 of its past 12 contests and won the Conference USA title by a commanding two games.

Saint Mary’s’ Randy Bennett vs. Purdue’s Matt Painter (Midwest Region) — Bennett has turned Saint Mary’s into a mid-major power by winning 25 or more games in each of the past five seasons. This season his Gaels became the first team in 11 years other than Gonzaga to win the outright West Coast Conference title. Painter’s Purdue squads are always among the top defensive teams in the country. The Boilermakers aren’t as good as they’ve been in years past, but Painter will have them prepared for Saint Mary’s.

Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall vs. VCU’s Shaka Smart (South Region) — Both coaches are rumored to be in line for bigger jobs (and bigger paychecks) at the end of the season. Granted, they may not want to leave their current schools. Marshall has the Shockers back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. Smart took VCU to the Final Four last season and is hoping for another big run this month.

Best Round of 64 Individual Matchups

Florida State’s Bernard James vs. St. Bonaventure’sAndrew Nicholson (East Region) — The 6-foot-10 James, who averages 2.3 blocks, will have his hands full trying to stop a forward who has averaged more than 16 points in each of the past three seasons. James is fortunate in that he has already faced some of the country’s top big men (Tyler ZellerJohn Henson,Mason PlumleeMike Scott, etc.) in the ACC.

UNLV’s Mike Moser vs. Colorado’s Andre Roberson(South Region) — Two of the nation’s top rebounders will go head-to-head when the Runnin’ Rebels meet the Buffaloes. Moser averages 10.6 rebounds per game, while Roberson snares 11.6 per contest.

Gonzaga’s Elias Harris vs. West Virginia’s Kevin Jones — Jones would’ve likely been the Big East Player of the Year and a first-team All-American had the Mountaineers not floundered so badly down the stretch. With averages of 20.1 points and 11.1 rebounds, the 6-8 260-pounder is one of the most versatile players in the country. His size makes him a tough matchup, but Harris (6-7, 240) is big enough to handle the chore.

Alabama’s JaMychal Green vs. Creighton’s Doug McDermott (Midwest Region) — Green had better get plenty of sleep before his team takes on Creighton. He’ll need all the energy he can muster to keep up with the 6-7 McDermott, who can score from anywhere on the court. McDermott ranks third in the country with a scoring average of 23.2 points per game.

Baylor’s backcourt vs. South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters (South Region) — Wolters averages 21.3 points per game and, at 6-4, he’s a tough matchup for opposing guards. The Bears have plenty of backcourt depth, so expect Pierre JacksonA.J. WaltonBrady Heslip,Deuce Bello and Gary Franklin to take their turns pestering Wolters, who scored 34 points against Washington earlier this season.

Five potential round of 64 upsets

No. 14 Belmont over No. 3 Georgetown (Midwest Region) — The Hoyas lost their opening game in each of the past two seasons and haven’t made it to the second weekend since 2007. Belmont lost to Duke by one point in its season opener at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Bruins, who have won 14 straight, are a strong No. 14 seed.

No. 12 Long Beach State over No. 5 New Mexico (West Region) — The 49ers won at Pittsburgh and lost by single digits at Kansas and North Carolina. They’ll have a chance in this one, but only if guard Larry Anderson (knee) is able to play. Long Beach State is led by former Gonzaga and Minnesota head coach Dan Monson.

No. 13 Montana over No. 4 Wisconsin (East Region) — The Grizzlies have lost just one game since Dec. 10. Wisconsin, which finished fourth in the Big Ten, has had a solid season. The Badgers, however, play a slow style that makes them vulnerable to upsets. Eight of Wisconsin’s last nine wins have been by single digits.

No. 15 Detroit over No. 2 Kansas (Midwest Region) — Kansas’ history of floundering against mid-major teams (Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa, VCU) makes this game interesting. Detroit touts a McDonald’s All-America point guard in Ray McCallum Jr., and 6-foot-10 center Eli Holman began his career at Indiana before transferring to Detroit. He and 6-foot-11 teammate LaMarcus Lowe could create problems for Thomas Robinson.

No. 13 Davidson over No. 4 Louisville (West Region) — This isn’t Stephen Curry’s Davidson team, but Bob McKillop’s squad is dangerous, nonetheless. Davidson defeated Kansas 80-74 in Kansas City back on Dec. 19. And the Wildcats went an impressive 16-2 in their conference. Louisville is one of the country’s best defensive teams, but overall, the Cardinals have a small margin for error.

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