Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. Today’s edition focuses on the first two NCAA tournament games in the First Four. And how’s this for a storyline? President Obama will be in the building.
BYU (14) vs. Iona (14), 9:10 p.m. ET on TruTV, University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio: This is an intriguing matchup that should spur recollections of VCU’s Final Four run last year. Last year, the Rams endured critics who didn’t buy their case for inclusion in the field of 68. They proved them all wrong with a Final Four run.
Iona was arguably the lone surprise in this year’s field. And many have questioned its invitation. But the Gaels are dangerous. They possess one of the most talented trios in the country. Mid-major, high major, doesn’t matter. Scott Machado, Michael Glover and Lamont “Momo” Jones can play with the best. The Gaels own the No. 1 scoring offense in the country (83.3 points per game). Not only could they advance Tuesday night, but the Gaels have an offensive potency that could lead to an upset of 3-seed Marquette in the second round, too.
If only it were that simple. The Gaels’ defense has been shaky all year. This team can run with anyone and can lose to anyone, too, because its defense is so suspect.
BYU challenged Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s during its first year in the West Coast Conference. The Cougars had the league’s No. 1 scoring offense (78.2 ppg). They also held WCC foes to a 41 percent clip from the field, the No. 1 mark in the WCC.
But BYU has not been the same team since Noah Hartsock (16.7 ppg) injured his knee in mid-February. He’s played through pain but his health has impacted his team and it could affect Tuesday night’s game, too. Iona is the kind of team that can separate itself quickly with its up-tempo offense. BYU will have to slow the Gaels enough to keep the game close. That challenge becomes more difficult with Hartsock’s mobility issues caused by the knee injury.
Iona could turn this matchup into a NASCAR race. Or BYU could force the Gaels to play D and disrupt their rapid tempo and send them home.
Should be a great game.
Mississippi Valley State (16) vs. Western Kentucky (16), 6:40 p.m. ET on TruTV, University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio: The first official game of the NCAA tournament features two of the best storylines. Both Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky have overcome adversity to earn NCAA tournament invites. No. 1 Kentucky awaits the winner. But it’s amazing that these two squads have even reached this point.
Western Kentucky fired Ken McDonald in January after a 5-11 start. Assistant Ray Harper took over as interim coach and instilled a new level of intensity within the program. The Hilltoppers won the Sun Belt tournament despite possessing a 15-18 overall record. They’ve won six straight. Freshman George Fant was a stud in the Sun Belt tournament. He scored 17 points in his team’s title game victory over North Texas.
The Hilltoppers are hot entering their First Four meeting against Mississippi Valley State. But the latter has lost once in 2012. The Delta Devils regrouped after a brutal nonconference schedule that featured road games against Notre Dame, North Carolina, Iowa State, Wisconsin and Florida. They started the season at 1-11 and didn’t play their first home game until early January.
The Delta Devils play that hectic nonconference slate to keep their program afloat financially. It’s a tough task for Sean Woods, who had to use a middle school gym for practice last year due to a leaky roof in his team’s home gym. But players and coaches said competing against some of the best Division I teams in the country made them a better squad. Paul Crosby (13.4 ppg, 7.6 rebounds per game) is the SWAC Player of the Year. The Delta Devils led the SWAC in scoring offense and they were also one of the league’s top 3-point shooting teams.
This might not be the sexiest matchup within the bracket. But I can’t think of a better story.