- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for in Thursday’s afternoon games at Pittsburgh:
No. 8 Kansas State (21-10) vs. No. 9 Southern Miss (25-8), 12:40 p.m. ET
Back when he was an assistant at Cincinnati, Frank Martin watched Larry Eustachy try to rebuild both his career and his life at Southern Miss.
The two schools then were Conference USA foes, and let’s just say it wasn’t a fair fight.
“I remember how bad his team was that year, how frustrated he was with that team,’’ Martin said.
Fast-forward and the two are prepping to face one another in the NCAA tournament, Martin as the head coach with Kansas State and Eustachy with the Golden Eagles team he’s cultivated from nothing to the school’s third NCAA tournament berth.
Eustachy, his struggles with alcohol and his ignominious dismissal from Iowa State well documented, returns to the Dance for the first time in a decade a different person, comfortable in his own skin and happy to share his story.
“There’s nobody that’s got more scars on their fanny than me,’’ Eustachy said. “I could do this blindfolded and backwards and every day. So I think my story is a neat story. I think it’s a great story. I think it inspires people.’’
Martin is usually one of those people who gets inspired. But not this week. This week he’s more worried about what the Golden Eagles present than what his peer has overcome.
“For me, to see his team play, especially over the last 72 hours studying his team, it’s hilarious because it’s like watching his old Iowa State teams play,’’ Martin said. “It’s got Larry Eustachy stamped all over it. A lot of folks say we’re the hardest playing team in America. Well, Larry’s teams were the hardest playing teams when he was at Iowa State.’’
Who to watch:
Southern Miss’ Darnell Dodson. Dodson initially signed with Pittsburgh, wound up in a junior college, transferred to Kentucky and is now with the Golden Eagles. He’s a high-major player who has added a much-needed scoring punch to Southern Miss, averaging 11.1 points per game.
Kansas State’s Angel Rodriguez. The freshman point guard has given Martin a few gray hairs, averaging nearly as many turnovers (2.6) as he does assists (3.2). He’ll have to do more of the latter against Southern Miss’ tough group of guards.
What to watch: The Golden Eagles are not a very good shooting team -- they shoot only 40 percent from the floor -- which makes for tough sledding against a Kansas State squad that is tough-minded, particularly on the defensive end, and considerably bigger. Guards Angelo Johnson and Neil Watson need to be especially strong going to the basket.
No. 1 Syracuse (31-2) vs. No. 16 UNC-Asheville (24-9), 3:10 p.m. ET
More than a coach, Jim Boeheim is a basketball fan. He has a working knowledge of what teams are doing -- who’s good, who isn’t.
And while the seed line says his team is playing a walkover, the Syracuse coach knows better.
“They’re shocking to me to be a 16-seed,’’ Boeheim said. “I’m sure most people would say I’m just saying that, but I had seen them play already this year before we got the tapes in. I just think they’re a really good basketball team.’’
The Bulldogs certainly don’t look like a 16-seed, not with 24 wins, a huge cushion in the Big South Conference (winning by four games), an RPI of 91 and a more than respectable nonleague schedule, against the likes of North Carolina, Connecticut and Tennessee.
But the seed is the seed and the only stat that ultimately matters in the end is the obvious one: No No. 16 seed has beaten a No. 1 in NCAA tournament history.
It is the elephant in the locker room that every coach, who preaches that his team believes it can win every game, has to address.
UNC-Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach knows the history better than anyone. Just a year ago, his Bulldogs won in the First Four to set up a 1-16 game against Pittsburgh. The Bulldogs made that interesting, cutting the Panthers’ lead to six before eventually losing by 23.
That team, however, is now a year older and a year wiser. Biedenbach sports a veteran starting five -- four seniors and one junior -- who remember well what happened a year ago.
“All those things are neat, they’re fun and I love the talk shows and the reporters that write about that stuff,’’ Biedenbach said. “But being the first to do that is fascinating, too.’’
Who to watch:
Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas/Baye Keita All eyes will be on the replacement Syracuse big men, given the charge to fill in for Fab Melo. Both have played in spurts, but none significantly or certainly on such a big stage. Neither has to be huge offensively -- that’s up to Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine to get their swagger back -- but they have to be good defensively.
UNC-Asheville’s Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm You can’t say one without the other. The two classmates have achieved more at Asheville than anyone before them, part of the school’s winningest class. More critical to this game, the pair are the premier gunslingers.
What to watch: The pace. UNC-Asheville likes to go, averaging 80 points per game, and it has five guys who can score. All the starters average double figures in scoring. They prefer to get to the hoop or get to the free throw line, where they shoot a strong 76 percent. How that works against Syracuse’s zone, even without Melo, will be interesting.
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