Let the Madness begin.
FIRST ROUND EAST
SMU vs. USC: The Mustangs don’t get much buzz, considering they're 30-4. Nor have they been recognized for another lofty achievement; ending up fourth on the list of what men’s teams were doing while the UConn women were busy winning 100 consecutive games. SMU went 72-14 in that time, behind only Villanova, Gonzaga and Kentucky.
Baylor vs. New Mexico State: Baylor has won 11 games this season after trailing in the second half, so the Bears are not prone to panic. Maybe that’s what happens when all five starters are in their fourth or fifth years. New Mexico State has 28 victories. Last time the Aggies had that many was 1970, and they ended up in the Final Four.
South Carolina vs. Marquette: South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell once scored 44 points with 21 rebounds against Alabama. You might not be surprised to learn that earned him SEC Player of the Week. And probably helped earn him the conference's Player of the Year, for the matter. Marquette’s Katin Reinhardt will become only the second man to ever play for three different schools in the NCAA tournament. He's already been there with USC and UNLV. This is his last chance to actually win a game.
Duke vs. Troy: From No. 1 ranking in the nation to No. 5 seed in the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils have taken the scenic route to March. Ten different lineups were used to get here, but the results have improved. And so has Krzyzewski’s back. One of Troy’s top players is Wesley Person, whose father Wesley and uncle Chuck played in the NBA.
FIRST ROUND MIDWEST
Kansas vs. UC Davis: During Kansas’ glorious 13-year run as Big 12 champions, the Jayhawks have been ousted by a 14th, 13th, 11th, 10th and 9th seed. They won the Big 12 again this season -- just like the sun rose in the east in Lawrence this morning -- but 10 of their league wins were by six points or less. That shows a lot of will. And it might show some vulnerability. Pick them for a long ride if you will -- it’s certainly reasonable with Frank Mason III on the floor -- but you’ve been warned.
Creighton vs. Rhode Island: Creighton was building Final Four contender steam before its adoring home audience -- fifth in the nation in average attendance -- until guard Maurice Watson Jr.’s season was lost. The Bluejays are 8-7 since. Rhode Island charged off the bubble to win the Atlantic 10 tournament, getting here for the first time in 18 years. Let’s see what happens when Creighton 7-foot freshman Justin Patton. second in the nation with a 69.4 field-goal percentage, ventures inside against Rhode Island’s Hassan Martin, who might be a mere 6-foot-7 but has led the league in blocked shots four years running.
Oregon vs. Iona: It's never good news when the tournament is starting and everyone is talking about who you don't have. In the Ducks' case, that's main shot-blocker Chris Boucher, out with an ACL injury. Dillon Brooks, the guy who won two games with buzzer-beater 3-pointers is still around, though. Oregon won the first national championship in 1939, and hasn’t been back to the Final Four since. Jordan Washington is Iona’s leading scorer but is sixth in time on the floor. He’s scoring his 17.9 points in 21.6 minutes a game.
Michigan vs. Oklahoma State: One minute your airplane is skidding off the tarmac. The next, you’re Big Ten Tournament champions, with four wins in four days. “Team of destiny,” is the phrase you might be searching for. Besides being quick out the emergency exit, the Wolverines also lead the nation in fewest turnovers. Oklahoma State went from 0-6 in the Big 12 to turning up the defense and getting a a tournament bid, but comes in on a three-game losing streak. The Cowboys’ Phil Forte III has taken 85 free throws this season and missed four of them. Hence, the nation-leading 95.3 percentage.
Louisville vs. Jacksonville State: Louisville beat champions from four different conferences during the season, usually with a lot of defense. That list of victims, as every person with a drop of Cardinal blood knows, included Kentucky. Minus last season’s self-imposed tournament ban, know the last time Louisville didn’t get to the Sweet 16? Try 2011. And now the Cardinals aim to rain on the Cinderella parade of Jacksonville State, which is in Alabama, not the northeast corner of Florida. The Gamecocks were picked to finish 12th in the Ohio Valley Conference and went from 8-23 to 20-14 in one year.
FIRST ROUND SOUTH
North Carolina vs. Texas Southern: OK Tar Heels, time to start doing something about deleting the Kris Jenkins’ shot from the memory banks. They’ve broken 90 points 15 times and do a lot of damage from the outside with Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II, the first time in 26 years two perimeter-oriented players led North Carolina in scoring. Texas Southern’s schedule included trips to Arizona, Baylor, Cincinnati and Louisville. The record sagged, with eight consecutive losses, but the budget did great with all the guarantees. And the Tigers recovered to win 19 of their last 21. It was 15 years ago that Texas Southern’s Mike Davis coached post-Bob Knight Indiana to the national championship game.
Arkansas vs. Seton Hall: Remember Arkansas’ “40 minutes of hell” when Nolan Richardson was coach? Well, amend that to 20. The Razorbacks have been outscored by six points in the first this season, but outscored their opponents by 203 in the second. Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado gulps down more rebounds a game – 13.1 – than anyone in the country, and matched Swanigan with 26 double-doubles. The Pirates went from losing to Villanova by 32 and 22 during the season to being edged by two in the Big East tournament.
Cincinnati vs. Kansas State: Want to see 12 states from one place? Just look at the Cincinnati roster. Mick Cronin roams to bring in Bearcats, and it must work. This is their seventh consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. That 29-5 record, including a 15-game winning streak and a victory over Iowa State, has been one of the nation’s quietest.
UCLA vs. Kent State: Oh, can the Bruins do things with the basketball. Six players average in double figures, and then there’s the 90 points and 21.5 assists a game, and the 52 percent shooting, all tops in the nation. But the other team gets the ball sometimes, too, and that’s when the trouble can start. The Bruins coughed up an average of 89 points in their four defeats. Speaking of scoring, Kent State came from 17 points behind to beat Central Michigan 116-106 in the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament. Then the Flashes went through the top three seeds in the league, winning by an average of 3.3 points a game. A plucky bunch, and they’ll need to be when the UCLA attack comes at them.
Dayton vs. Wichita State: The Flyers start four seniors, are adept at winning close games -- 34-14 the last four seasons in contests decided by five points or under -- and have the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year in Archie Miller, who will be rumored to be in line to fill the vacancy at (fill in the blank with a bigger fish). And now they must share the stage with the most controversial seeding in the tournament, No. 10 Wichita State, with its 30-4 record, its 21 wins in 22 games, and its 19.4 average victory margin, second only to Gonzaga. The Shockers didn’t play a lot of highly regarded teams. That changes now.
Kentucky vs. Northern Kentucky: They are separated by 69 miles on a map but a couple of light years in basketball stature. This will be the first NCAA tournament for the Norse. This will be the Wildcats’ 174th. This is Northern Kentucky’s first season to even be eligible for the tournament, so while Northwestern waited 78 years, the Norse waited one. But what to do about Malik Monk and all the other of John Calipari’s gifted youngsters, who have had to rally from double-digit deficits in four of the past six games? Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen will think of something. He was a Rhodes Scholar finalist.