Round of 64 viewer's guide
Admit it. You're still in football mode. Or you're a casual college basketball fan who doesn't tune in until March Madness. Or you'll be watching games with friends at a bar Thursday or Friday and want to sound somewhat informed. Don't worry. I'm here for you. Below you'll find a "viewer's guide" to the round-of-64 contests that will take place the next two days. What are the must-watch games? Which coaches are at their best during March? What about players? And what are some potential upsets for your bracket? It's all available here. Make sure you read this before the games -- or even during them. You'll definitely feel more informed.
Best Round of 64 games
No. 9 Missouri vs. No. 8 Colorado State: Missouri may be one of the better No. 9 seeds in recent NCAA tournament memory -- at least in terms of talent and potential. The Tigers, though, have fallen short of expectations and have a knack for wilting in close games. Two of Missouri's losses were in overtime, and five others came by three points or less.
In fairness, only one current Tigers player (Phil Pressey) played a significant role on last season's 30-win squad, so it's understandable why this team took time to jell. Colorado State returned almost every key piece of last season's NCAA tournament team and hasn't missed a beat under new coach Larry Eustachy. The addition of Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson (14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds) also has helped. Missouri is second in the country in rebounding. Colorado State ranks fourth.
No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State: The Ducks got a serious slap in the face in the form of a No. 12 seed. This is a team that finished second in the Pac-12 and owns two victories over UCLA, which finished first. Oregon also won the Pac-12 tournament and boasts a road win at UNLV.
That's not to say the Ducks, who have a freshman backcourt, are better than Oklahoma State. They're not. But Dana Altman's squad certainly could win this game if Markel Brown has an off night shooting or if enigmatic wing Le'Bryan Nash disappears, which he often does.
One thing you can count on for Oklahoma State is a strong all-around performance from freshman guard Marcus Smart, who is one of the better leaders in all of college basketball. The Cowboys are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010 and haven't advanced past the first weekend since 2005. Oregon is making its first appearance since 2008.
No. 10 Cincinnati vs. No. 7 Creighton: For no other reason, tune in to this game to watch Creighton's Doug McDermott, who is truly one of the elite scorers in the sport. The only thing more impressive than McDermott's 23.1 points per game is that he shoots 56 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range. He can score from anywhere on the court and has a variety of post moves that make him a load to handle in the paint.
Creighton, which relies on veterans such as Grant Gibbs and Gregory Echenique, shoots a national-best 50.8 percent from the field. But as good as the Bluejays have been, they don't see teams in the Missouri Valley Conference as physical, tough and athletic as Cincinnati. The Bearcats have trouble scoring at times, but their relentless defensive pressure often leads to turnovers and easy baskets.
No. 10 Iowa State vs. No. 7 Notre Dame: It's safe to assume that Notre Dame coach Mike Brey cringed when the Fighting Irish drew Iowa State as their opening-game opponent. The Cyclones are one of the top 3-point shooting squads in the nation and have the ability to put up 80 or 90 points on anyone when they're hot. The problem is that that isn't always the case. Fred Hoiberg's squad has struggled on the road, with losses at Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma -- all of whom the Cyclones beat in Ames.
Still, Iowa State's 79.6 points per game rank fourth in the country. Notre Dame boasts one of the better forwards in the Big East in first-team all-league selection Jack Cooley (13.1 points, 10.3 rebounds). And it's hard to ignore the Fighting Irish's victories over Louisville (in five overtimes), Marquette, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (twice). Brey, as always, has done another phenomenal job with this group. He may have to go to his "burn" offense to slow down and frustrate the Cyclones.
No. 10 Colorado vs. No. 7 Illinois: Both of these teams are talented and have pulled off some outstanding wins this season. Colorado won the Charleston Classic in November and has beaten schools such as Colorado State, Cal, Arizona and Oregon (twice). Illinois boasts even better wins against Gonzaga, Indiana, Butler, Ohio State and Minnesota.
Both of these teams also have proved to be vulnerable, and neither can develop any consistency. Colorado has the nation's second-leading rebounder in Andre Roberson, one of the top defensive guards in Spencer Dinwiddie and an excellent freshman forward in Josh Scott.
Best Round of 64 coaching matchups
VCU's Shaka Smart vs. Akron's Keith Dambrot: Smart was an assistant at Akron from 2003 to 2006 and calls Dambrot his mentor and best friend. Dambrot was in Smart's wedding party and, prior to this season's MAC tournament, Smart sent the Zips a message of encouragement via video. Akron and VCU have played twice since Smart became the Rams' coach. VCU won each time.
Both teams play similar styles that focus on menacing, full-court defense. Akron point guard Alex Abreu was arrested on drug trafficking charges last week, but the Zips won the MAC tournament without him.
Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon vs. Wichita State's Gregg Marshall: Dixon has won two Big East titles and finished second three times during his 10-year stint at Pittsburgh. His teams are usually of the blue-collar variety: devoid of lottery picks and high-end talent, but ferocious on defense, physical in the paint and smart with the basketball.
Marshall is one of college basketball's rising stars. The Shockers lost four starters and their five leading scorers from last season's Missouri Valley championship squad, yet somehow managed to finish second (behind Creighton) this season. Much like Pittsburgh, the Shockers play incredibly hard.
Marquette's Buzz Williams vs. Davidson's Bob McKillop: Has anyone gotten more out of his team this season than Williams? Marquette lost its leading scorer (Darius Johnson-Odom) from last season, along with the Big East Player of the Year (Jae Crowder) and replaced them with nothing. How did Marquette respond? By winning a share of the Big East title. Even without Steph Curry, Davidson has remained a mid-major power. The Wildcats are 51-15 overall the past two seasons and 33-3 in the Southern Conference. Williams and McKillop are excellent game tacticians and strong motivators.
Miami's Jim Larranaga vs. Pacific's Bob Thomason: Pacific can't come close to matching Miami's talent, but the Tigers have a secret weapon in Thomason, who is highly regarded in coaching circles for his X's-and-O's wizardry that keeps his team in games. Pacific won first-round games against Providence in 2004 and Pittsburgh in 2005 thanks in large part to Thomason, who has announced his retirement after 25 years at the school. Larranaga, meanwhile, has been named national coach of the year by numerous media outlets after guiding the Hurricanes to the ACC title in just his second season.
Oklahoma's Lon Kruger vs. San Diego State's Steve Fisher: Two of college basketball's elder statesmen will face off. In guiding Oklahoma to the Big Dance in just his second season, Kruger became the first coach in history to take five teams to the NCAA tournament. What's impressive is that Kruger has rebuilt the Sooners largely with players he inherited from the Jeff Capel regime (Romero Osby, Steven Pledger, Andrew Fitzgerald, etc). Fisher helped lead Michigan to the NCAA title after taking over just before the NCAA tournament in 1989. He coached the Wolverines to two other championship games, and in 2011 was named national coach of the year at San Diego State, where he has been since 1999.
Best Round of 64 individual matchups
Michigan's Trey Burke vs. South Dakota State's Nate Wolters: Burke can enhance his chances of winning the Wooden Award with a strong performance against Wolters, who ranks fourth in the nation in scoring with 22.7 points per game. Burke is an elite scorer (19.2 points) and assists man (6.7), but he'll have to be equally good defensively against the Jackrabbits senior, who almost certainly will be checked by other Wolverines players at times, too. Wolters scored 53 points against IPFW on Feb. 7.
Ohio State's Aaron Craft vs. Iona's Lamont "MoMo" Jones: Jones, who began his career at Arizona, ranks third in the nation in scoring at 23 points per game. With 16.6 field goal attempts per contest, he certainly isn't shy about letting it fly. Iona ranks second in the nation with 80.7 points per game. Craft is regarded as the top perimeter defender in the country. He averages two steals a contest and is darn near impossible to penetrate against.
Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono vs. North Carolina's Marcus Paige: Nothing like a battle between two freshman point guards. Who will flourish amid the pressure of their first NCAA tournament appearance -- and who will wilt? Arcidiacono scored just three points in last week's loss to Louisville, but in the seven games prior he averaged 16.4 points. Paige averages eight points and 4.7 assists but shoots just 35.1 percent from the field. But he's probably high on confidence following strong performances against Miami (17 points) and Florida State (10 assists).
Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson vs. Wisconsin's Mike Bruesewitz: Henderson, the outspoken Rebels shooting guard, indicated on Twitter this week that he's looking forward to his matchup with Bruesewitz, who is Wisconsin's top defensive player. Good for Henderson for embracing the challenge. Henderson averages 20.1 points and shoots an average of 10.8 3-pointers per contest. He make 35.7 percent of his attempts from that range. It will be interesting to see what kind of scheme Bruesewitz and Badgers coach Bo Ryan use to slow down Henderson.
Bucknell's Mike Muscala vs. Butler's Andrew Smith: A 6-foot-11 senior, Muscala averages 19 points a game and ranks fourth in the country in rebounding with 11.2 per contest. Muscala has scored in double figures in all but one game this season and has 22 double-doubles. Smith is a senior who has been a mainstay in Butler's rotation the past three seasons. His statistics (11.1 points. 5.7 rebounds) are modest, but Smith has played in a ton of big games against great players. He won't be intimidated or grossly outclassed by Muscala.
Potential upsets in Round of 64
Minnesota over UCLA: In some ways, these look like two teams heading in the opposite direction. The Gophers have lost seven of their past 10 games, while the Bruins won the Pac-12 regular-season title before making it to the championship of the conference tournament.
Still, this is a terrible matchup for UCLA. Ben Howland's squad ranks last in the Pac-12 in rebounding, and hitting the glass -- especially on the offensive end -- is Minnesota's strength. Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams could help the Gophers get a ton of second-chance points.
UCLA also will be playing without second-leading scorer Jordan Adams, who broke his foot in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal.
Saint Mary's over Memphis: The Gaels defeated Middle Tennessee with ease in Tuesday's "First Four" game in Dayton. Matthew Dellavedova is one of the nation's top point guards, and Randy Bennett's squad is full of Australian players who value fundamentals, sharing the basketball, taking good shots and sticking to their principles. Memphis has yet to win an NCAA tournament game under Josh Pastner, but the fourth-year head coach has done a phenomenal job with this group. The Tigers play extremely hard and are more team-oriented and disciplined than they've been in the past.
Belmont over Arizona: The Bruins have been to the NCAA tournament five of the past seven years but have yet to win a game. They lost to Georgetown last season by 15 points and to Wisconsin by 14 points a season before that. This season could be different. Ian Clark (18.1 points), Kerron Johnson (13.7) and Trevor Noack (5.5 rebounds) are all seniors. This is their last chance. Belmont went 14-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference and beat NCAA tournament teams Middle Tennessee and South Dakota State in nonconference play. The Bruins are playing an Arizona squad that regressed a bit after a 14-0 start.
Davidson over Marquette: As good of a job as coach Buzz Williams has done with the Golden Eagles, this is still a pretty mediocre team when it comes to pure talent. Marquette's margin for error is extremely small: 20 of its 31 games were decided by 10 points or less, and its past four wins came by an average of 4.8 points. Also, Marquette shoots just 30.1 percent from 3-point range. Davidson is good enough to capitalize if Marquette isn't playing at a high level.
Cal over UNLV: The Runnin' Rebels defeated Cal 76-75 in Berkeley, Calif., on Dec. 9, but the Golden Bears have made tremendous strides during the past few months and are probably under-seeded at No. 12. Mike Montgomery's squad had won nine of 10 games before dropping its last two. UNLV, meanwhile, is one of the more enigmatic teams in the country. You never know what you're going to get with the Runnin' Rebels, although they are usually putrid away from home. UNLV went 3-5 in MWC road games with losses at Air Force and Fresno State. Played in San Jose, Calif., this contest basically will be a home game for Cal.
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