With the tournament spread out over multiple networks and the vast Internet, keeping up with which games to watch can be more difficult than it was watching much of the pedestrian play in college basketball this season. Which is why we’re serving up a primer on the top five matchups and storylines to watch on Thursday and Friday while you’re “at work.”
5. (12) Oregon vs. (5) Oklahoma State
Thursday 4:40 p.m. ET, TNT
Phil Knight’s money and influence is beginning to finally see dividends in Oregon hoops while OK State alum T. Boone Pickens dropped the largest bundle of cash on an athletic program in U.S. history 10 years ago. The NCAA tournament may result in $134 million of lost worker productivity, but that’s pocket change for Knight and Pickens. Oh, and the game features possible No. 1 overall pick Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State’s insanely athletic roster taking on the slighted Pac-12 tourney champs in a classic 12-5 upset watch matchup. By Thursday night, Pickens or Knight may be a dollar richer.
4. (8) UNC vs. (9) Villanova
Friday, 7:20 p.m. ET, TNT
The Big Blue’s flat-lined season is proof that no entity is too big to fail. In February, UNC appeared to be the next blue giant to get toppled and to miss the tournament. Fortunately, Roy Williams saved UNC’s season by going small. Since moving P.J. Hairston into their starting lineup, the Tar Heels have won eight of their final 10 games and advanced to the ACC Championship Game.
Meanwhile, Jay Wright is used to thriving with guard-heavy lineups. Villanova fans also harbor resentment stemming from their ’09 Final Four loss and the phantom walk in the final minute of their ’05 Sweet 16 loss to the Tar Heels. These two squads represent the growing reliance on guards by Tournament teams, but Villanova is more solid in the paint with Mouphtaou Yarou and Jayvaughn Pinkston roaming the interior. UNC also likes to force turnovers and run, while Villanova gets flustered by the press, so get ready for a high-scoring affair.
3. (6) Arizona vs. (11) Belmont
Thursday 7:20 p.m. ET, TNT
Sean Miller’s Wildcats should be an overwhelming favorite to defeat the Ohio Valley Conference Champ. However, the matchup of weakness versus strengths could compensate for the chasm in talent. If there were one prime ingredient that typically foreshadows a tournament upset, three-point shooting would be first. Ian Clark and Belmont can register from deep, in droves.
Arizona point guard Mark Lyons arrived as a one-year loaner. Not because he’s heading to the NBA lottery, but because he graduated with a year of eligibility in his pocket. Lyons is Arizona’s leading scorer, but his play as Arizona’s primary ball handler has drawn the scorn of fans because of his careless ball protection. Lyons averages nearly as many assists per game as he does turnovers. Conversely, Belmont is the nation’s sixth-best turnover manufacturer in the nation. Offensively, they rank in the top five in field goal percentage and top 15 in three-point field goals drained and point per game. Belmont can’t matchup with Arizona’s Solomon Hill or freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski, so prepare to witness a shock-and-awe barrage of long-range bombs raining down on Thursday night from the Bruins of Belmont.
2. (14) Northwestern State vs. (3) Florida
Friday, 7:27 p.m. ET, TruTV
This showdown of strength vs. strength features the highest scoring offense in college basketball and the best scoring defense in the tournament field. However, Northwestern State may tip the scales with a dose of serendipity. The last time Northwestern State made the tourney, they knocked off 3-seed Iowa in the first round thanks to a desperation corner three by then-senior Jermaine Wallace.
Sixteen No. 3-seeds have knocked off a 14-seed in the last 26 years, but it hasn’t happened since 2010. The current climate in college basketball has the upset alarm blaring and top seeds peaking over their shoulders for mid-majors swinging at their domes. Plus, the Gators are slippin’.They hobbled to a 5-4 finish and are 0-5 in games decided by single digits. On the other hand, Northwestern State sprinted to their conference championship by going 13-2 record after Jan. 17.
1. (12) Ole Miss vs. (5) Wisconsin
When: Friday, 12:40 p.m. ET, TruTV
The contrasting styles and personalities make Ole Miss vs. Wisconsin the most compelling matchup in the Round of 64. This West regional matchup pits Wisconsin’s chopped and screwed pace, ball-control offense against Ole Miss’ up-tempo Flipmode Squad unit. Ole Miss junior Marshall Mathers Henderson is the heel of the tournament. He marches to the beat of his own drum and has the green light to go solo from coach Andy Kennedy.
He also may be everything Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan despises in the college game. Ryan has a stricter transfer policy than Abu Ghraib while Henderson, the SEC’s leading scorer, is playing for his fourth school.
The Badgers strategy will be to eat up the shot clock and limit possessions to keep the Rebels out of rhythm. College basketball’s most conservative unit is 3-6 when allowing more than 60 points in regulation. Doug Gottlieb can’t stuff a cupcake in their faces if they win this one. Wisconsin is a threat to come out the West, but the 12-5 upset is a rite of passage. When you account for pace, Wisconsin has the more efficient lineup, but if the Rebels’ seventh-ranked scoring offense catches fire, they can cause collateral bracket damage.