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By Mark Travis
The NCAA tournament is off to a fast paced start with several exciting games already in the books. Perennial tournament competitors like Louisville and Wisconsin have moved on to the second round while the surprise Murray State Racers have made it out of the first round for just the third time in school history. We’ve already seen some great individual performances too, with Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor dropping 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists against the Montana Grizzlies, Kansas State guard Rodney McGruder putting up 30 points on 11-of-16 shooting against Southern Mississippi and Jake Cohen (Davidson, 24 points and 10 rebounds) and Chane Behanan (Louisville, 14 points and 11 rebounds) putting up dueling double-doubles in the Cardinal’s win over the Wildcats.
With just a few games behind us, here are 20 reasons to stick around for another great day of college basketball on Friday.
1. Trey Burke vs. D.J. Cooper – Trey Burke is a phenomenal freshman guard that has garnered a lot of attention during his first year at Michigan. The NCAA Tournament is often dominated by small guards (like Kemba Walker last season) and Burke is a candidate to do that this season. That said, the heralded freshman will have to go through the often overlooked and underrated D.J. Cooper. Cooper is the top defensive point guard in the country and is the leader of the Ohio Bobcats’ squad. The five-foot-11 guard has held his man to 31% shooting this season according to Synergy Sports Technology and he had the highest steal percentage in the Mid-American Conference this season.
2. High Octane Offense – If you are looking for a team that has a decent shot to win the tournament to get behind, look no further than the Missouri Tigers. The Tigers have a plethora of effective guards (Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Michael Dixon and Phil and Matt Pressey), the best offense (by far) in the country according to KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings and a sturdy big man in Ricardo Ratliffe that is shooting a ridiculous 69% from the floor on the season.
3. Opposites attract – Florida and Creighton both have top five offenses based on KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiencies. Virginia and Alabama both have top 10 defenses based on KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiencies. Florida and Virginia and Creighton and Alabama play against each other on Friday.
4. The Green Monster – Michigan State forward Draymond Green is one of the oddest players in college basketball. Green is clearly a power forward. What he lacks in traditional power forward height (he’s just six-foot-seven) he makes up for in girth (he weighs in at 230 pounds, which seems optimistic). But even with his massive frame, he spends quite a bit of time on the perimeter, as he averaged 3.5 attempts from three-point land during the season. It’s not a bad thing, though. Green is a player of the year candidate and his averages of 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists have been paramount in landing the Spartans a number one seed.
5. Memphis Tigers – Josh Pastner’s Memphis program is one of the most exciting groups in college basketball but they don’t get a lot of publicity because of their inferior conference. The Tigers have the moxy of a team that can make a deep run in the tournament because they have a lot of guys that can get on a roll at any time. Will Barton, Joe Jackson, Tarik Black, Adonis Thomas and Chris Crawford can all have the potential to drop 20 on a given night and in the tournament, contributions from all over the place is a valuable commodity.
6. Unknown Stars – One of the best things about the NCAA Tournament is that we get to see the players that weren’t recruited by the traditional power houses and are instead dominating the mid-major ranks take on some of the teams that passed on their talents. Here are the unknown stars to keep your eyes on Friday: Doug McDermott (Creighton), Andrew Nicholson (St. Bonaventure), and C.J. McCollum (Lehigh). Two players that do play in power conferences that you should also keep an eye on are J’Covan Brown (Texas) and Mike Scott (Virginia).
7. Michigan vs That University In Ohio – Wolverines football coach Brady Hoke irked some Ohio University fans when he started referring to Ohio State as “Ohio” or “that University in Ohio” when he took the Michigan job. The Bobcats will have their chance to let Michigan know that they are their own school tomorrow evening.
8. Coming To Blows – The Notre Dame Fighting Irish earn their monicker with their spirited play on both ends of the floor. Their opponent in the first round, the Xavier Musketeers, became the fighting Musketeers earlier this season, but for all the wrong reasons. Xavier star Tu Holloway’s loosejaw led to a fight between the Musketeers and their Ohio rivals, Cincinnati, earlier in the year.
9. 2012 – It has been proclaimed many times that 2012 is the year of the Mayans. What will the Aztecs have to say about that? San Diego State made it to the Sweet 16 last season as a two seed but they lost key contributors like Malcolm Thomas and Kawhi Leonard to the NBA. If the 6th seeded Aztecs are going to make a run this season they will need sophomore guard Jamaal Franklin to have a strong tournament.
10. Duke Fluke? – The Duke Blue Devils earned themselves a two-seed in the tournament this season, making them one of the top eight teams in the country entering the dance. That said, a lot of folks believe the Duke has played worse than their record reflects this season and with Ryan Kelly potentially out with a foot injury, the Blue Devils will have a tough go of things. The pressure will fall on freshman guard Austin Rivers, who was billed as the top recruit in the nation coming into the season, as Duke faces off against one of the most talented guards in the country in Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum during the first round.
11. On A Roll – The national champion in college basketball isn’t always the best team. As the Huskies proved last year, sometimes teams are better off getting hot at the end of the season rather than dominating throughout the year. While Florida State had a better regular season than UConn did last year, they are entering the NCAA tournament on a five-game winning streak, including big wins over both Duke and North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. Armed with one of the nation’s top defenses and the electric Michael Snaer (he hit game-winners against Duke and Miami this season), the Seminoles may be the team that continues to roll into late March.
12. Middle of the pack vs Mid-Major – The best tournament upsets usually come when an unknown school like Northern Iowa takes down a powerhouse like Kansas. While those are always the most entertaining game, it’s also fun to watch the middle of the pack teams from big conferences play against the top teams from mid-major conferences. Friday offers three nice match-ups with North Carolina State (9-7 in the ACC) taking on San Diego State (10-4 in the MWC) Purdue (10-8 in the Big 10) facing off against Saint Mary’s (14-2 in the WCC) and Alabama (9-7 in the SEC) battling against Creighton (14-4 in the MVC).
13. Raining Threes – Creighton (3rd) and Temple (8th) both finished in the top 10 in team-wide three-point field goal percentage this season. Both teams are heavily reliant on the deep ball (they both shoot 18 threes per game on average) but Creighton may be better off in the event that their long shots don’t fall. The Bluejays shot 55% on two-pointers during the season while Temple shot just 50% from two point-range.
14. Whistle Fest – Of the 20 teams that attempted the most free throws per game this season, five of them will be in action on Friday: LIU Brooklyn, Duke, North Carolina, Texas and Detroit. While those teams may be headed to the line the most tomorrow, Lehigh and Missouri are the surest bets to make their free throws. Lehigh and Missouri shot 78% and 77% respectively during the season, both top 10 marks in the country..
15. Cleaning the glass – The North Carolina Tar Heels led the nation in rebounds per game this season, pulling down 45.2 boards a night. They’ll be facing off against the Vermont Catamounts who ranked 123rd in the country with 35.4 rebounds per game. Vermont only has one player over six-foot-seven that plays over 10 minutes per game: center Ben Crenca. The Tar Heels have three players above six-foot-seven in their starting line-up: forwards Harrison Barnes and John Henson and center Tyler Zeller. The nation’s second best individual rebounder – Kansas power forward Thomas Robinson – will also be in action on Friday. He averaged 11.8 rebounds per game this season, nearly double his output from his sophomore season.
16. Thievery – Outside of the Syracuse Orange, who play that famous 2-3 zone, the Ohio Bobcats are the best team in the tournament at coming away with steals. Ohio averaged 9.38 steals per game on the season, the fourth best mark in the country. The Bobcats defensive attacked is spear-headed by D.J. Cooper, who has averaged at least 2.3 steals per game in each of his three seasons at Ohio. In addition to Cooper, John Groce’s aggressive defensive gameplan has inspired wing players Walter Offutt and Nick Kellogg to average over a steal per game themselves this season.
17. Lottery Bound – Thanks to the presence of North Carolina, Duke and Florida, as many as five lottery picks will be on display tomorrow. The Tar Heels have three potential lottery picks on their roster (Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Tyler Zeller) while Duke (Austin Rivers) and Florida (Bradley Beal) each have one.
18. Upset Alert – The last two times that Georgetown has been in the NCAA Tournament they have been upset in the first round by a double digit seed, losing by double digits both times. The last time they were a three seed, as they are this season, was in 2010, when they were upset by the Ohio Bobcats. This year the Hoyas will be taking on the Belmont Bruins. Even though the Bruins are 0-4 in their four previous trips to the dance and even though Georgetown blewout Belmont 80-55 in 2007, this is a different Bruins team and the Hoyas will be on upset alert. Belmont averaged 81.5 points per game this season, the fourth best mark in the country, 17.4 assists per night, the fifth best mark in the country and shot 48% from the field, the 17th best mark in the nation. Georgetown will have trouble dealing with the Bruins pace.
19. Sharpshooters – Two of the best shooters in the country will be on display early Friday afternoon: Doug McDermott of Creighton and Drew Hanley. Both players shot over 100 threes this season. McDermott shot 50% from deep this season while Hanley shot 48% from three.
20. It’s In The Genes – Two sons of former NBA players will face off tomorrow in the Michigan-Ohio game. Wolverines sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (son of Tim Hardaway Sr.) and Bobcats’ sophomore guard Nick Kellogg (son of Clark Kellogg) should see time guarding each other during the game. Perhaps they can share tales of traveling with their NBA dads. Austin Rivers (son of Doc Rivers) and brothers Phil and Matt Pressey (sons of Paul Pressey) will also be in action.
Two players To Watch:
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina Tar Heels – Harrison Barnes started off his freshman campaign rather slowly before picking it up once tournament time came around. After choosing to stay in school for his sophomore season, Barnes will be looking to make sure he didn’t waste a year of NBA salary by coming back. He should come out firing and against a smaller team like Vermont, he should have a field day on the offensive end of the floor.
Thomas Robinson, Kansas Jayhawks – Robinson is one of the most likable players in the country: he works his tail off on both ends of the floor, he’s worked his way from barely playing as a freshman to star of the program as a junior and his backstory is one of the most heartbreaking things you’ll ever hear about. Aside from being a tremendous person, Robinson is an absolute beast on the floor and he averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds per game this season while shooting 53% from the field. Detroit’s small frontline won’t have a chance against Robinson on Friday.