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Previewing Denver: The early games

DENVER -- Here's a look at the afternoon games taking place at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

Louisville (25-9) vs. Morehead State (24-8), 1:40 p.m. ET

How they got here: Louisville didn’t need a year to rebuild after all. Even after entering the season without a returning starter and going through their share of injuries, the Cardinals still managed to tie for third in the Big East and reach the conference tournament championship game before falling to Connecticut. Morehead State won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament and is on a roll heading into the NCAA tournament. Since back-to-back losses to Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky, the Eagles have won 12 of 13.

Storyline: The two Kentucky schools separated by a two-hour drive know each other very well, especially since Morehead State put a scare into Louisville for a while when the Cardinals were a No. 1 seed in 2009. The Eagles only trailed by two points at halftime but ultimately lost by 20. MSU seniors Kenneth Faried and Demonte Harper used the game as a learning experience. “Now it’s totally different for us because we’ve grown physically and mentally,” Harper said.

Players to watch: Preston Knowles (14.8 ppg) and Peyton Siva (5.3 apg) help make up a dynamic backcourt for Louisville that spreads the ball around in the team’s guard-oriented offense. Since losing Rakeem Buckles for the season, the Cardinals have relied on Terrence Jennings for rebounding. Morehead State has the nation’s rebounding leader in Faried, the OVC player of the year for the past two seasons. He averages 17.6 points per game, and the Eagles also get scoring out of Harper (16 ppg).

What to look for: Louisville knows the key is to contain Faried, who not only leads the nation in rebounding (14.5 rpg), but also in field goal percentage (64 percent).

“You don’t see a Dennis Rodman come along anymore, a Dennis Rodman with a jump shot, because this man has a jump shot,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of Faried.

Given the history between the two teams and the respect the Cardinals are showing, Faried won’t take them by surprise. Look for Knowles and Siva to be aggressive from the opening tip in order to protect against the upset possibility.

Vanderbilt (23-10) vs. Richmond (27-7), 4:10 p.m. ET

How they got here: Vanderbilt finished tied for third in the SEC East and recorded its signature win in November, going to Puerto Rico and beating North Carolina. The Commodores also scored a nice nonconference win at home against Saint Mary’s and in league play beat Kentucky and swept Georgia. Richmond enters the tournament on fire, having won seven straight games, including the A-10 tournament. The Spiders went an impressive 13-3 in conference play and also have a win against Purdue.

Storyline: Vanderbilt is hoping to avoid a third straight opening-round upset loss in the NCAA tournament, having fallen to Siena in 2008 and Murray State at the buzzer last season. Meanwhile, Richmond has a long history of staging upsets in the tournament -- and at the same time want to shake the “giant killer” label and earn more respect. “We are trying to shake the giant-killer thing, the mentality out of the Richmond program, because we’ve done a lot of great things since we’ve been here,” guard Kevin Anderson said.

Players to watch: Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins led the SEC in scoring (19.5 ppg) and is dealing with turf toe that forced him to miss an opening-round conference tournament game against LSU last week. Commodores forward Jeffery Taylor is a top-flight athlete who played his best basketball late in the season. Richmond’s Justin Harper is a sight to see, as a 6-foot-10 forward who shoots 46.5 percent from 3-point range and averages 17.9 points per game. Anderson, last season’s A-10 player of the year, has found his stroke again after going through some midseason shooting woes.

What to look for: Vanderbilt wants to use its athleticism with Jenkins and Taylor to run Richmond off the floor, even as the Spiders try to slow down the Commodores with a matchup zone.

“We’re going to try to push the tempo,” Taylor said. “We like to run. We like to push the ball and get shots early on the shot clock.”

Richmond runs a Princeton-style offense, but it’s a version that is relatively fast-paced and relies on transition, so look for Anderson to play a key role. Harper is a matchup nightmare and can be tough to defend.