What to watch today in the NCAA Tournament:
TOP BILLING: Another great day of basketball is on tap. We’re going to go to San Antonio for today’s featured matchup, though. North Carolina had won 12 consecutive games before a loss on the road at Duke and another to Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament. Still, the Tar Heels have the ability to beat just about any team in the field. They get a chance to get back in the win column against Providence, which needed its run to the Big East tournament title to get in the field. Marcus Paige, a notoriously slow starter, may take some time to get going, but he will look to carry North Carolina past the Friars and into the second round, beginning at 4:20 p.m.
HE’S THE MAN: There is not a player in the tournament who has had a better career than Creighton’s Doug McDermott. His dominance on one end of the floor has helped Creighton to the top of Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency ratings. The senior recently passed the 3,000-point mark in his career and will look to add to that total with a deep run in the tournament. To do that, he’ll have to help his Bluejays get by Louisiana-Lafayette as a 13½-point favorites today.
SO IS HE: Findlay Prep product Nick Johnson is a sensational college basketball player. He does a little bit of everything for top-seeded Arizona, which opens tournament play as a 20-point favorite over Weber State. Johnson averages 16 points, four rebounds and three assists, and his numbers don’t begin to tell the story of how important he is to the team at the top of the West region.
ELITES HIT THE FLOOR: Arizona is not the only No. 1 seed in action today. Two other top-seeded teams, Wichita State and Virginia, make their 2014 tournament debuts. Everyone knows no 16th-seeded team has ever beaten a No. 1, but there have been some close calls. Will Weber State, Cal Poly or Coastal Carolina finally be the one to break through? Probably not.
CHEERS: Speaking of Wichita State, the Shockers may have the most bizarre celebrity fan of any team in the field. Former Cheers star Kirstie Alley is a Wichita native and one of the undefeated team’s most ardent supporters. She even got into a bit of a Twitter rift with CBS college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of Wichita State’s schedule. While Alley will most likely be in St. Louis watching the game, it’s a safe bet Norm and Cliff will be saddled up at the bar watching in Boston.
COACH ‘EM UP: Nobody can question the job Scott Drew has done turning Baylor around from the absolute depths of college basketball to a somewhat consistent winner. Well, maybe his ethics on the recruiting trail have been questioned, but that’s another story. He is known as a great recruiter whose teams have underachieved, however. Drew and the Bears are matched up with one of the best coaches in America in Nebraska’s Tim Miles. Yes, Nebraska. In the NCAA Tournament. Miles is a brilliant coach, in addition to being a must-follow on Twitter. Baylor, a 3½-point favorite, will have better players. Nebraska will be better prepared. What’s more important?
FOREGONE CONCLUSION: There is a groundswell of outrage over the difficult path the committee laid out for Wichita State to make another run to the Final Four. Amateur college basketball experts all around the country point to the fact that the Shockers not only have to potentially get by Louisville and Michigan or Duke, but they’ll have to beat Kentucky just to reach the Sweet 16. One problem. Kentucky has to play Kansas State first. The Wildcats are a 6-point favorite over the, uh, Wildcats, in an 8-9 matchup today, but anytime so many people are on one side of what theoretically should be a toss-up game, show caution.
DOUBLE TROUBLE: If UMass was able to find truTV on the cable system in their hotels in Raleigh, N.C., to watch Wednesday night’s opening round game where Tennessee got past Iowa in overtime, the Minutemen no doubt noticed how impactful Jarnell Stokes can be for the Volunteers. Stokes is one of just three players in the NCAA Tournament averaging more than 10 points and 10 rebounds per game. Stokes had 18 points and 13 rebounds in Wednesday night’s win over Iowa. Trivia question: Who were the two other NCAA Tournament players who averaged a double-double this season. For the bonus, what two non-tournament teams actually had two players average a double-double this season?
STILL SMARTING: Oklahoma State has one last chance to live up to the hype that was bestowed upon the preseason top 5 team. The ability to do so begins and ends with Marcus Smart. The Cowboys have certainly been better since he returned from a three-game suspension for shoving an obnoxious fan at Texas Tech, but Oklahoma State did drop overtime games to Iowa State and Kansas since Smart came back. He will have to be on the court an awful lot for a team with almost no bench to make a deep run. The Cowboys have the talent to play in Dallas in two weeks. They have also shown enough lapses in discipline to take them back to Stillwater tomorrow morning. Today’s game with Gonzaga could be an indication of which Oklahoma State team will be in the tournament.
ON THE HORIZON: A potential Wichita State-Kentucky game is not the only intriguing game that could be set up with the right results today. Wins by Nebraska and Creighton would set up an intrastate rivalry game in the round of 32. Should North Carolina Central find a way to upset Iowa State, the Eagles could find themselves matched up with North Carolina.
TRIVIA ANSWER: Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Shawn Long both averaged double-doubles this season. As for the bonus, you probably should know at least one of them. UNLV’s Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch both averaged double-doubles this season. Also, Quinnipiac’s Ousman Drame and Ike Azotam both accomplished the feat.