- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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After a relatively mild third day of NCAA tournament action Thursday, does Friday promise more excitement? Close games? A buzzer-beater? Something?
Beggars can't be choosers, but we can be hopers. As we pray to the basketball gods for all the tournament has to offer, here's what you should keep an eye on as Friday unfolds.
Five best games:
No. 8 Creighton vs. No. 9 Alabama: Arguably the most intriguing stylistic clash in the entire round of 64, this one puts Creighton's all-offense attack up against one of the nation's most athletic and physical defensive teams. The Bluejays' offense and the Tide's defense both rank among the nation's 10 best per-possession in their respective categories, but the inverse is also true: Creighton's defense (ranked No. 180 in kenpom) and Alabama's offense (ranked No. 112) serve as each team's obvious weakness. It's unstoppable force/immovable object stuff, and it should be fascinating to watch.
No. 8 Memphis vs. No. 9 Saint Louis: It's not uncommon to see a team that looks considerably better than its NCAA tournament seed. It is uncommon to see two in the same second-round game, but that will be the case when the streaking Tigers and the defensively stalwart Billikens match up Friday. Both teams are ranked among kenpom.com's top 15 in overall adjusted efficiency. Memphis boasts a hyper-talented lineup led by forward Will Barton; Saint Louis has the benefit of Rick Majerus' tried-and-true defensive style and his strategic tournament superiority. If Saint Louis can keep Barton in check, and find a way to keep forward Tarik Black off the offensive glass (no easy feat, that), it may be able to hold off a Memphis team capable of a very deep run in this field.
No. 6 Cincinnati vs. No. 11 Texas: The Longhorns limped into the tournament, but as a team with talented guards -- like leading scorer J'Covan Brown and steady freshman Myck Kabongo -- and one that challenged the top teams in the Big 12 throughout the season (usually coming up just short), they represent a fantastic value as a No. 11 seed. Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates will have to take advantage of a favorable matchup with Clint Chapman in the post. If he doesn't, Texas has the chops to hang around in this game for 40 minutes -- and maybe even finish with a win.
No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 Virginia: Before we crown Creighton-Alabama with the "most stylistically fascinating" superlative, let's reserve some consideration for Florida-Virginia. The Cavaliers play a drastically slow, packed-in defensive style. The Gators play a spread-out offense that relies primarily on 3-point shooting. Fortunately, they have the players for it, including guard Kenny Boynton, who has put together a quietly remarkable season launching the basketball from range. But Florida's lack of defense leaves it vulnerable if the shooters go cold, and UVa will look to take advantage on the other end.
No. 7 Saint Mary's vs. No. 10 Purdue: Though the Boilermakers would never admit it, they may have breathed a sigh of relief when they saw their second-round tournament matchup. Don't get me wrong: Saint Mary's is for real, an excellent offensive team led by the peerless point guard play of veteran Matthew Dellavedova. But the Gaels don't have much of an interior presence, which is the one personnel area in which the Boilermakers -- who rely on the guard play of Lewis Jackson, Ryne Smith and outside-in forward Robbie Hummel -- are legitimately vulnerable. Expect a lot of fluid motion offense, a lot of outside shots and a close, hard-fought game in Omaha.
No. 5 Temple vs. No. 12 South Florida: More stylistic clash potential! Take three! The Owls -- for years a grind-it-out defensive team under coach Fran Dunphy -- have flipped the script in 2012, morphing into a high-flying offensive juggernaut led by guards Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt. South Florida, on the other hand, looks a bit like Temple used to ... but even uglier and slower and practically impossible to score against.
No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 16 LIU Brooklyn: Just kidding! All due respect to the Blackbirds, it ain't happening. (Just had to make sure you will still paying attention is all.)
No. 3 Georgetown vs. No. 14 Belmont: If America has a favorite sleeper candidate this season -- other than VCU and the now-lamented Long Beach State 49ers -- it is Rick Byrd's Belmont team. The Bruins were a sleeper favorite last season, too, but they caught a bad matchup in the second round in Wisconsin. They're back with much the same team this season, and laptops love them; Belmont ranks No. 9 in LRMC, No. 23 overall in the kenpom.com rankings and No. 35 overall in the BPI. But they've got another tough matchup in Georgetown, which plays a stifling, lanky zone defense that makes everything difficult for its opponents. But if Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth can handle Georgetown center Henry Sims, the Bruins are more than capable of knocking off the Hoyas -- and sticking around for a while, too.
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Lehigh: Do I think this will happen? No. Duke has too much on the perimeter to be shut down by this Lehigh bunch. But could it? Sure. The Blue Devils beat a lot of good teams this season, which helped them to a No. 2 seed, but by per-possession efficiency standards Duke is easily the weakest of the No. 2 seeds. Lehigh, on the other hand, is not your typical No. 15 seed, and it has a secret weapon -- guard C.J. McCollum, one of the nation's most underrated scorers, who at the very least will give Duke's occasionally suspect guard defenders something to think about for all 40 minutes.
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 15 Detroit: Speaking of deceptive 15-seeds, Detroit might be the most talented 15-seed in the history of the tournament. That's because guard Ray McCallum Jr. -- son of coach Ray McCallum Sr. -- turned down a host of elite programs to play for his dad two years ago, while transfer forward Eli Holman, a former Indiana prospect, patrols the middle with more athleticism than you usually see from Horizon League forwards. Kansas should win this game but the Titans have talent and they'll definitely give it a go.
No. 11 NC State vs. No. 6 San Diego State: San Diego State has achieved in remarkable fashion this season, relative to its talent, but will the run come to an end Friday? There's reason to think so: NC State enters the tournament playing the best basketball of its season (it dispatched Virginia and nearly took down UNC in the ACC tournament last weekend), and the young Wolfpack will be eager to prove they are already ready for the bright lights.
Players to watch:
Doug McDermott, Creighton: You know the deal by now: McDermott is at once one of the nation's most productive and most efficient scorers, and his twin abilities to turn on both shoulders in the post or step outside and knock down the 3 makes him a lethal offensive option. But he'll have to be extra-good Friday, as Alabama's JaMychal Green is one of the few defenders in the country able to guard McDermott both inside and out.
Tu Holloway, Xavier: It wasn't pretty, but Xavier made it to the tournament. Now what? This team is still talented, particularly on the perimeter, and if Holloway and running mate Mark Lyons can summon some of what led them to clutch comeback wins over Vanderbilt and Purdue before their brawl with Cincinnati, they could be an interesting out in the West region.
J'Covan Brown, Texas: Brown is always scoring. The question is whether he's getting his points efficiently, and whether the Longhorns' offense is conducive to scores in the flow of the offense. If they are, they can hang with Cincinnati.
Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure: In the Bonnies' A-10 title win over Xavier, Nicholson dropped 26 points, 14 rebounds and 8 -- yes, eight -- blocks. He's an NBA talent with the body to match. But will Nicholson be able to dominate the Seminoles' physical frontcourt? With Bernard James lined up across from him, this will the most difficult matchup Nicholson has seen all season.
Mike Scott, Virginia: If the Cavaliers are going to drop No. 7-seeded Florida in the second round Friday, they're going to have to get a massive effort from Scott, the dominant focal point of their slow, cautious offense. Scott has been hyper-efficient on the offensive end all season, but he could struggle against Florida forward Patric Young, one of the few big men in the nation with the athleticism and height to check Scott effectively. And if Scott doesn't score, UVa's chances are probably slim.