Must-see opening round matchups

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Just a couple of years ago, it would have been difficult to call any game a “must-see”, simply because television coverage of the NCAA tournament was heavily regionalized. If you lived in, say, Tampa and wanted to watch the Salt Lake City pod, your local channel might not show it. It was off to the local sports bar for you.

Nothing against sports bars, but isn’t it nice that our Big Dance coverage is now split amongst several channels, so we can really watch any game we want to, from the comfort of our own homes? Now that it’s a reality, let’s take advantage. Here are the must-see games of the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Wednesday, March 20

No. 13 Boise State vs. No. 13 La Salle, 9:10 pm ET (tru TV): I know, you don’t often make time to watch the games in Dayton, but this one is worth your while. Two teams from tough mid-major leagues that had to sweat it out until selection Sunday, and now they get to go at one another’s throats. La Salle finished fifth in the A-10, but owns wins over fellow tourney invitees Iona, Villanova, Butler and VCU. The Broncos of Boise State did likewise, taking down Creighton, San Diego State, UNLV and Colorado State along the way. Keep a special eye out for Boise’s Derrick Marks, who has scored more than 30 points three times this season.

(CLICK HERE: Complete preview of Thursday’s games)

Thursday, March 21

No. 6 Butler vs. No. 11 Bucknell, 12:40 pm (tru TV): Butler is known for Rotnei Clarke’s circus shots from outside, but they’re a surprisingly adept rebounding team as well. The Bison – best remembered for their upset of Kansas in 2005 – are built around big man Mike Muscala (19 ppg, 11.2 rpg), but perform exceedingly well on the perimeter. Call this one the “what you see is not necessarily what you’ll get” game of the early going.

No. 8 Pittsburgh vs. No. 9 Wichita State, 1:40 pm (TBS): These two teams are as gritty as the cities they come from. Pitt beat Syracuse by ten at home, battered Georgetown on the road and swept Villanova this season. The Shockers from Wichita won at VCU and came in a very close second to Creighton in the Missouri Valley. Cleanthony Early (13.8 ppg) and Carl Hall (12.8 ppg) give WSU a potent interior combo, but Pitt is relentless on both ends of the floor. It should be a dandy.

No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 13 South Dakota State, 7:15 (CBS): The visceral thrill here is all about the two point guards. Sophomore Trey Burke averages 19.2 points and 6.7 assists per game for a national title contender in the toughest conference in college basketball, which makes him our choice for national player of the year. Nate Wolters does it all for a little-known team in the Summit League, averaging 22.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Michigan may have more going for it overall, but this game has the puncher’s-chance, potential-upset, folk-hero vibe that makes March so exciting.

(CLICK HERE: To browse through the rest of our 2013 NCAA Tournament Previews)

Friday, March 22

No. 8 N.C. State vs. No. 9 Temple, 1:40 pm (TBS): For pure unpredictability, this is the one to watch. N.C. State was picked to win the ACC in preseason polls, because the Wolfpack are loaded with blue-chip talent. All that talent is mostly offense-oriented, however, and defensive lapses cost the team several winnable games. On the other side of the court, Khalif Wyatt has been the one constant for the Temple Owls, averaging 19.8 points per game on volume shooting. This could be one of those games where the team taking the last shot gets to survive and advance.

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 15 Iona, 7:15 pm (CBS): Ohio State’s Aaron Craft is one of the best defenders in all of college basketball. Lamont ‘Momo’ Jones, who went to the Elite Eight with Arizona two years ago, is the nation’s third-leading scorer, putting up 23 points per game for Iona. The individual matchup between the two guards will be a classic unstoppable force vs. immovable object encounter.

No. 8 UNC vs. No. 9 Villanova, 7:20 pm (TNT): A couple of fairly young teams go at it in this one, with seniors in short supply. Both teams are pretty lousy at perimeter defense, so the three-point fireworks alone could make this worth watching. The deep tradition of the two schools and a nice coaching matchup between UNC’s Roy Williams and ‘Nova’s Jay Wright gives it depth and richness beyond the potential offensive shootout.

No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Iowa State, 9:45 (CBS): This choice may not be an obvious one, but hear me out. This is a clash of styles that should be fascinating to watch. For as long as Mike Brey has been in charge in South Bend, the Irish have stood on the shoulders of brutish inside players like Luke Harangody, Tim Abromaitis and, currently, Jack Cooley. Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg has built his team on more of a European model, with mobile face-up shooters like Will Clyburn, Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang making traditional big men pay for packing the middle. Which style wins? You’ll have to watch and find out, just like the rest of us.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

No. 3 Oregon advances after thriller with No. 7 Michigan

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Oregon is returning to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season following a thrilling 69-68 victory over No. 7 Michigan in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City on Thursday night.

The Ducks, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, will face top-seeded Kansas or No. 4 Purdue in the Elite Eight on Saturday.

Jordan Bell was unquestionably the deciding factor for Oregon. The senior big man had 16 points and 13 rebounds. Tyler Dorsey poured in 20 points, continuing his stellar play this month. Derrick Walton Jr., who front-rimmed a potential game-winner at the buzzer, ended his collegiate career with 20 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. Zak Irvin added 19.

WATCH: Steve Alford end practice with half-court shot

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford ended practice on Thursday by drilling a half-court shot on the first attempt.

According to the Associated Press, this has been a season-long battle between the UCLA coaching staff and the players.

“Truth be told, we’ve been getting slaughtered. We’ve got guys like Lonzo (Ball) literally takes a jump shot from the timeline. We were just lucky that they only got one shot at it. I think coaches are down about eight on the half-court shots this year. I told them, though, that the coaches are ahead at the Sweet 16. I don’t think they’re buying it.”

No. 3 seed UCLA is set to play No. 2 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night in Memphis. The Bruins defeated the Wildcats, 97-92, in a non-conference matchup on Dec. 3.

Florida State guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes to enter NBA draft

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Florida State point guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes is entering the NBA draft.

The 6-foot-4 junior made his announcement on Instagram on Thursday and also informed the school of his decision. He did not say whether he intends to hire an agent, a move that prevent him from returning to school.

Rathan-Mayes averaged 10.6 points per game this season and averaged 4.8 assists, which was sixth in the conference. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6-to-1 was third in the ACC.

The All-ACC defensive team selection helped Florida State (26-9) reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. The Seminoles advanced to the second round before a 91-66 loss to Xavier.

Rathan-Mayes averaged 12.4 points in his three seasons with the Seminoles and is the 46th player in school history to reach 1,000 points.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Rutgers guard Corey Sanders to enter NBA Draft

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) Rutgers sophomore guard Corey Sanders is entering the NBA draft.

In making the announcement Thursday, the university said Sanders will not sign with an agent.

Sanders will be able to attend workouts scheduled by NBA teams and will be eligible for invitation to the league’s combine next month. Players have until 10 days after the combine to remain in the draft or return to school, as long as they don’t sign with an agent.

Sanders started 31 of 33 games this season, averaging 12.8 points and 3.2 rebounds.

Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said Sanders needs to make an informed decision on his future.

“My dream has always been to play in the NBA,” Sanders said. “I look forward to determining where I am in that journey.”

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

It took four years, but Sindarius Thornwell has finally put South Carolina on the basketball map

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NEW YORK — If the NCAA tournament ended today, South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell would be named the event’s Most Outstanding Player.

Through two games, he’s averaging 27.5 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and 6-for-12 from three. He’s been the catalyst of an offensive explosion fro the Gamecocks that no one — not Thornwell, not Frank Martin, not anyone — could have seen coming.

South Carolina, a team that ranked in the 130s in offensive efficiency nationally and in the 300s in effective field goal percentage prior to the start of the NCAA tournament, put up 93 points on Marquette and 88 points on Duke. They scored more second half points in their upset win over the Blue Devils — 65! — than they did in ten games this season, five of which they won.

So it may not come as a surprise to you that No. 7 seed South Carolina’s opponent in the East Regional semifinals, No. 3 seed Baylor, have zeroed in on Thornwell as the man they need to slow down on Friday night.

“Coach has broke down every made shot that he’s had and we have all watched at least about three hours of film on just Sindarius,” Baylor senior Ishmael Wainwright said. “He’s just a great player. The whole team, it’s not just me, it’s not just me, but the whole team, we’ll be trying to stop him.”

It’s fitting that Thornwell is the cornerstone of South Carolina’s arrival on the national scene, as the Lancaster native was the most important commitment of Frank Martin’s tenure with the Gamecocks. A blue-chip prospect that ranked in the top 40 of every recruiting service, Thornwell was an in-state kid that was recruited by the likes of Louisville, Indiana and Syracuse. South Carolina, at the time that Thornwell committed, had a new head coach that took over a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in eight years and had the prestige of making four trips to the Big Dance in the previous 38 seasons.

More to the point, it wasn’t clear whether that new head coach, Frank Martin, was there because he wanted to be there or because he simply didn’t want to be at Kansas State anymore, a program where his relationship with his Athletic Director had deteriorated.

Thornwell, who at that point had left Lancaster High School for the more prestigious Oak Hill Academy, had every reason in the world not to go to South Carolina.

But he did.

He wanted to play for his state, for his family. He is loyal, and that loyalty almost kept him from leaving Lancaster for Oak Hill in the first place.

“They had to force him to go, because he did not want to leave his state, did not want to leave his high school team, did not want to leave his high school coach, did not want to leave his family,” Martin said. “His uncle, ‘Big Country’, Dajuan Thornwell, may he rest in peace, who was his father figure basically put him in a car and drove him and said, ‘You’re going to school here. This is for your own good.'”

“And it’s who he has become. The day I got the phone call from him telling me, ‘I want to do this with you,’ when he could have gone to some of the blue bloods. He wanted to help us build. He wanted to surround his heart with the state name that means so much to him and his family’s name on the back of his jersey. And that’s powerful.”

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Thornwell was the SEC Player of the Year in 2017. He was in the mix for a spot on the NBC Sports All-American teams before South Carolina’s late-season swoon. He’s had a sensational senior season individually, but more importantly, he got South Carolina back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004. He led them to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. South Carolina had never won back-to-back in the NCAA Tournament before.

As in ever.

Thornwell did that for his state, and he wasn’t alone. Fellow senior Justin McKie and sophomore P.J. Dozier are both from Columbia, and the Gamecocks have quite a bit of young talent on their roster, as well as a five-man recruiting class headlined by four-star prospect David Beatty and former Delaware guard Kory Holden, who sat out this past season as a transfer.

The South Carolina program is as healthy as it’s been in decades, and Thornwell has as much to do with that fact as anyone.

“I have been born and raised in South Carolina,” Thornwell said, saying that all of the South Carolina natives play “for the same reasons, for our family, for our state. We all grew up in South Carolina. We all have been through the struggles and with the program.”

“For us all to be in the spotlight is just tremendous because we don’t feel like we get the recognition that we deserve.”

The Gamecocks certainly got plenty of recognition last weekend, becoing the focal point of the nation’s glare as they played a the biggest role in putting an end to the soap opera that was Duke’s season.

And Thornwell is going to find himself getting plenty of recognition on Friday night, as the Bears will focus plenty of their attention on slowing down the Gamecock star.

After all, three hours of film on one player is a lot of film.

“They exaggerate so much,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “It was only two and a half.”