If you’re not at a TV set by 12:20 tomorrow, then its safe to say you’ve officially wasted your day. The 2009 NCAA Tournament tips off at 12:20, with Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg calling #8 LSU vs #9 Butler. Here’s a preview of Thursday’s 8 solid afternoon session games:
Regions: South (afternoon) and East (evening)
#8 LSU vs. #9 Butler, 12:20 PM
This game should be an absolute treat, with SEC Coach of the Year Trent Johnson leading the regular season SEC champs into Greensboro, making the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since their Final Four run in 2006. But they’ll have their hands full with a Butler team that, despite losing key players such as A.J. Graves and Mike Green to graduation, won the Horizon League regular season crown outright and wrapped up an at-large bid in comfortable fashion. The Tigers have tournament experience as well, with Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple III being two contributors on that Final Four team. The question is how well the Bulldogs, led by forwards Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward, can deal with LSU’s length.
At first glance you would think that the gap in athleticism is wide, but the Bulldogs have guys who can make plays as well. Hayward, who was named both Newcomer of the Year and First Team All-Horizon, is the only player in the league to rank in the top ten of seven different statistical categories. His individual matchup with SEC Player of the Year Marcus Thornton (they may not be guarding each other, however) will be worth the price of admission, but this close affair will come down to perimeter shooting. Butler can fire away with the best of them, but the Tigers aren’t half bad themselves. At the end of the day, look for Butler to move on.
#1 North Carolina vs. #16 Radford, 2:50 PM
No sixteen seed has ever beaten a one seed in the first round of the men’s NCAA Tournament, so don’t expect to see the Highlanders picked by any pundits. But with Ty Lawson (jammed toe) most likely out since he’s been unable to practice at the level that Coach Williams desires in game preparation, Radford could make sure this game stays on CBS past halftime. One big reason why: Big South Player of the Year Artsiom Parakhouski (16.3 ppg, 11.2 rpg), a native of Belarus who took his new conference by storm after playing two years at the junior college level. But does he have enough to fend off a deep frontcourt led by Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson?
Brad Greenberg (whose brother Seth is the head coach at Virginia Tech, so he may have a nice scouting report on the Heels) has five players averaging at least 9.6 points per game, but even with Lawson possibly out they still cannot match Carolina’s firepower man for man. Bobby Frasor and Larry Drew II are the players to watch on Thursday, because they may have a major role to play on Saturday should Lawson either be unable to go or ineffective in playing. North Carolina will give the partisans a nice show, sending home the Highlanders with another high-scoring performance.
Kansas City, MO
Regions: West (afternoon) and South (evening)
#2 Memphis vs. #15 Cal State Northridge, 12:25 PM
Many judge the Tigers to be the best defensive team in the country, and that’s really bad news for CS Northridge. But the Matadors aren’t too shabby on that end of the floor themselves, leading the Big West in both field goal and three point percentage defense. Northridge is also tops in the conference in rebounding margin, but they lack the overall size and length needed to deal with a team as powerful as the Tigers. Memphis hasn’t lost since December 20th, owning a twenty-five game win streak that coincides with head coach John Calipari’s decision to move freshman Tyreke Evans to the point.
The leading scorer for Northridge is forward Tremaine Townsend (10.9 ppg) with Deon Tresvant out due to legal issues. CSUN still averages seventy-three points per game, but they haven’t faced a team as solid on the defensive end as the Tigers. At every spot on the floor Memphis poses a challenge that the Matadors don’t have a convincing answer for, so look for the “fifth number one seed” to roll in Kansas City.
#7 California vs. #10 Maryland, 2:55 PM
Two of the nation’s better guards will face off in the second half of the afternoon doubleheader in Cal’s Jerome Randle (18.4 ppg, 4.9 apg) and Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez (17.2 ppg, 5.1 apg). Neither team will look inside for the majority of its points, but both have enough talent on the perimeter to put points on the board. Maryland has five players that average at least eight points per game, but when Vasquez is off the Terps are a safe bet to head home with a loss. Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne are solid contributors and forward Dave Neal has played very well over the last month of the season, something that will have to continue if they’re to beat the Golden Bears.
In addition to Randle, Mike Montgomery has a pair of wings in Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson who can score points in a hurry. And there’s also the underrated Jorge Gutierrez, a freshman who doesn’t score much (4.8 ppg) but does the little things that helped Cal finish in a tie for fourth in the Pac-10. Maryland ranks in the bottom half of the ACC in field goal percentage defense, three-point percentage defense and rebounding margin. And with the Golden Bears being one of the best in their conference offensively (third in scoring, second in field goal percentage and first in three-point percentage), they could be in trouble. In a close game, look for Cal to make the big plays offensively in wrapping up their first NCAA Tournament victory since 2003.
Regions: West (afternoon) and East (evening)
#8 BYU vs. #9 Texas A&M, 12:30 PM
Despite an advantage in size the Aggies may be in trouble when taking on the Cougars in the first game in Philadelphia. Texas A&M doesn’t boast the best defensive numbers, ranking eighth in field goal percentage defense and last in three-point percentage defense among Big 12 schools. The Cougars, who tied for the regular season title in the Mountain West with Utah, are ranked either first or second in the league in all shooting percentage categories on both sides of the ball. Not to mention a rebounding margin (+4.2) that isn’t far off from the Aggies’ number (+5.2), and you have to wonder if this is a game in which the nine seed winning would be considered an upset.
The trio of Lee Cummard (16.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Jimmer Fredette (16.2 ppg) and Jonathan Tavernari (15.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg) will be a tough matchup for the Aggies due to their versatility. Josh Carter and Donald Sloan, the top two scorers for Mark Turgeon’s team, will have to play even better on the defensive end because if not Dave Rose’s Cougars can run an absolute clinic at their expense. BYU is better with the basketball, leading the Mountain West in assist-to-turnover ratio and assists per game. And in a one-and-done scenario, the ability to take care of the basketball makes all the difference.
#1 Connecticut vs. #16 Chattanooga, 3:00 PM
These two programs actually have an NCAA Tournament history with each other, with the Huskies blowing out the Mocs in 1995 by a 100-71 final. One of the players who saw time for Chattanooga in that defeat was none other than Terrell Owens, who’s become more known for his exploits on the football field (and in the locker room). This year’s team went through some serious struggles, losing eight of their first ten games and heading into the Southern Conference Tournament with three straight losses to end the regular season. But they got hot at just the right time, with senior guard Stephen McDowell (18.6 ppg) leading the way.
But they’ll encounter an inside presence the likes of which they haven’t seen this season in the form of 7-3 Big East Co-Player of the Year Hasheem Thabeet (13.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg). But to simply avoid the paint would be counterproductive for the Mocs, who also rely on a trio of forwards including Nicchaeus Doaks and Kevin Goffney. The Huskies need to get more from seniors Jeff Adrien and Craig Austrie, who are also the only two players on this roster to contribute to a UConn win in the NCAA Tournament. Point guard A.J. Price is one of the nation’s best and freshman Kemba Walker is a bulldog on the defensive end. Jim Calhoun’s team may pay for the loss of Jerome Dyson at some point in the tournament, but it won’t be Thursday. Connecticut wins, even though McDowell could get hot and make things interesting.
Regions: West (afternoon) and South (evening)
#5 Purdue vs. #12 Northern Iowa, 2:30 PM
Both afternoon games in Portland should be entertaining affairs, beginning with the Boilermakers taking on the MVC champion Panthers. Both teams feature balanced attacks and defenses that rank in the top half of their respective leagues in field goal percentage defense. An important development for the Boilers in recent weeks has been the improved health of Robbie Hummel (12.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg), who struggled with a stress fracture in his lower back for much of the season. The sophomore from Valparaiso didn’t shoot well against Ohio State on Sunday but he did play well in Big Ten Tournament wins over Penn State and Illinois. A breakout star: how about big man JaJuan Johnson, an athletic forward who can run the floor and offer a tough matchup on both ends of the floor.
But Johnson will be tested by the Panthers, who have forward Adam Koch (12.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and center Jordan Eglseder (10.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg) playing well at just the right time. UNI also has solid backcourt play, led by Ali Farokhmanesh (9.6 ppg) and Kwadzo Ahelegbe (11.8 ppg, 3.2 apg). UNI was tied atop the Missouri Valley in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.1), a stat that will be key in facing one of the best perimeter defenders in America in Chris Kramer. Freshman point guard Lewis Jackson had just two turnovers in three games last weekend, a trend that must continue for Purdue to make a run. This won’t be the prettiest game, but the goal this time of the year is to simply “survive and advance”. Look for Purdue to be the team that moves on.
#4 Washington vs. #13 Mississippi State, 5:00 PM
As mediocre as the SEC has been this season, tournament champion Mississippi State may actually have a chance to pull off the upset thanks to the presence of Jarvis Varnado (13.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 4.7 bpg). If you haven’t seen him play, imagine this: Hasheem Thabeet a few inches shorter but with a more advanced offensive repertoire. Varnado put on his best performance of the SEC Tournament in the semifinal against regular season champ LSU, finishing with 19 points, seven rebounds and seven blocks. Winners of six straight, Rick Stansbury’s Bulldogs were nowhere near the NCAA Tournament bubble before they went on a four-game run in St. Petersburg. On the perimeter the Bulldogs have a trio of solid players in Barry Stewart, Ravern Johnson and Dee Bost. MSU isn’t as explosive offensively as the Huskies but they can put the ball in the basket.
Washington led the Pac-10 in scoring with an average of 78.9 points per game, and it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Lorenzo Romar’s team plays an uptempo style, a trait that helps make up for the fact that the Huskies ranked seventh in field goal percentage and ninth in three-point percentage. Combine that with their conference-leading rebounding margin of +8.4 and you have a few reasons why they won the Pac-10 outright. Senior forward Jon Brockman (14.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg) is one of the hardest workers in the game, and the backcourt tandem of Justin Dentmon and Isaiah Thomas can give opponents fits. A freshman from Tacoma, Thomas could end up being one of the breakout stars of this tournament (even Knicks fans could end up cheering for a guy with that name; they aren’t related). The Bulldogs will be competitive, but their poor rebounding numbers will cost them in a Washington victory.