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.

Tennessee tops No. 18 Purdue 78-75 (OT) in Battle 4 Atlantis

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Tennessee kept attacking the glass and playing aggressive defense on No. 18 Purdue’s shooters.

Once Grant Williams got going, the Volunteers had enough scoring punch, too.

Williams scored all 22 of his points after halftime and hit the go-ahead shot with 14.5 seconds left in overtime to lift Tennessee past No. 18 Purdue 78-75 in Wednesday’s opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Volunteers (3-0) trailed by 11 points in the first half, needed to make a late 3-pointer to force overtime and fell behind by five in the extra period before rallying for the win.

“I thought we really showed the toughness we’ve been looking for from them,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said, adding: “I thought our guys just kept finding ways to fight back.”

After P.J. Thompson missed a jumper for the lead, James Daniel hit two free throws with 2.0 seconds left to push the margin to three. The Boilermakers had one more chance to tie, but Kyle Alexander intercepted Dakota Mathias’ long inbounds heave to end it.

Williams, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, missed both of his first-half shots and had one rebound while playing eight scoreless minutes with two fouls. But he made 8 of 16 shots with seven rebounds from there while the Volunteers kept running their offense through him at the top of the key and in the post.

“Just keep playing, because when you’re in foul trouble you tend to get out of your mind a little bit,” Williams said. “You’ve just got to stick to it and be yourself, because I knew guys were going to hit shots.”

Tennessee shot just 36 percent but dominated the boards (50-41), finished with 21 second-chance points and scored 20 points off turnovers.

The Volunteers also got a huge lift when Lamonte Turner buried a tying 3-pointer from near his bench with 5.1 seconds left in regulation. Purdue called a timeout, but Carsen Edwards’ 3 for the win hit the front rim as the horn sounded.

Edwards scored 21 points to lead the Boilermakers (4-1), who never got their high-scoring offense rolling.

“We have a skilled team, but we’ve got to win the possession wars,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We’ve got to outrebound our opponent. We have to have fewer turnovers. When you do, now that skill is really going to help you. I thought tonight we gave Tennessee a lot of help.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers were trying for their first 3-0 start since the 2010-11 season, along with earning their fourth win against a ranked opponent under their third-year coach. They certainly found a thrilling way to do it, from Turner’s 3 to Williams’ huge effort after a scoreless first half.

Purdue: Offense sure didn’t come easily for a team that entered as one of the nation’s best offenses. The Boilermakers were averaging 102 points per game and shooting nearly 57 percent from the field. They also were shooting roughly 49 percent from 3-point range after making a school-record 19 3s against Fairfield on Saturday. But Purdue shot just 37 percent and had 18 turnovers.

“We’ve got to do a better job with decision-making,” Painter said. “We’re a good offensive team, we’ve got to allow ourselves to be a good offensive team. When we go too quick or we force things and we turn it over, now we’re not rewarding ourselves.”

BIG SHOTS

Tennessee came up with two huge 3s late, the first from Turner to force overtime.

“Up until that point, I felt like I was losing the game for us,” Turner said.

Then Alexander hit one after Purdue had raced out to a 70-65 OT lead. The 6-11 junior was 1 for 6 from behind the arc in his career before that shot.

LATE REVIEW

There was a bit of end-game confusion and a review with Alexander’s steal and whether he traveled just before the horn. Ultimately, it stood as the final play.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the Western Kentucky-Villanova winner Thursday.

Purdue: The Boilermakers will play the Western Kentucky-Villanova loser Thursday.

Vanderbilt lands five-star forward Simi Shittu

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Vanderbilt continues to build a monster recruiting class under head coach Bryce Drew as five-star 2018 forward Simi Shittu pledged to the Commodores on Wednesday.

The second five-star commitment for Vanderbilt in the Class of 2018, Shittu joins top point guard prospect Darius Garland to form one of the best freshman combinations in the country for next season. The Commodores also have a top-150 forward in Aaron Nesmith.

The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Shittu is coming off of a monster summer in which he became a major problem and top-ten recruit. The No. 8 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2018 recruiting rankings, Shittu is a huge get and an instant starter for Vanderbilt next season.

By landing prospects like Garland and Shittu, Drew is also becoming a major player in a short amount of time as a high-major coach. Always a noted recruiter at the mid-major level at Valparaiso, now Vanderbilt is seeing Drew’s hiring workout as he’s bringing top talent to the program.

If Drew can continue to recruit like this then Vanderbilt could be in position to be in the top half of the SEC as the league has seen some of its rebuilds go poorly over the last few years.

Kansas still without freshman Billy Preston

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Kansas freshman Billy Preston has yet to make his debut for the Jayhawks and it appears he’ll have to wait a bit longer before that happens.

Head coach Bill Self met with media earlier this week to discuss the Preston situation, saying that nothing has changed about his status quite yet. Preston was previously suspended for violating a team rule when he missed the game against Tennessee State. Before Preston was set to debut against Kentucky in the Champions Classic he was also withheld from the contest after the revelation that Preston had been in a single-vehicle accident the previous weekend.

“I have actually been out, until I just pulled back in, so as of this morning, there was no movement. The last time you guys asked me was Friday and so you don’t work on Saturday or Sunday, so there is nothing new on that situation,” Self said.

“Sure, I’m worried,” Self also added. “I’m concerned and I do think that it can work itself, based on what I’ve been told. I also think that it obviously hadn’t happened yet.”

It’s uncertain when the next step in any of this will play out but Self doesn’t appear to be too concerned over it. Kansas has won without Preston so far but they could definitely use his size, scoring punch and overall depth to a team that isn’t very deep right now.

A matchup nightmare, Preston could help the Jayhawk offense while also giving Udoka Azubuike additional help on the glass and protecting the rim.

(H/t: Jesse Newell, Kansas City Star)

Brian Bowen not allowed to play at Louisville

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Louisville announced on Wednesday that freshman wing Brian Bowen will not be allowed to play at the school. The former McDonald’s All-American will be allowed to remain on scholarship but he can’t participate in any team activities.

Bowen was tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball this fall as an adidas company executive is alleged to have been part of a scheme to deliver $100,000 to Bowen’s family, according to court documents.

Bowen hired attorney Jason Setchen to fight the case and seek reinstatement as Setchen had experience dealing with college basketball scandals before. When DeQuan Jones was suspended from Miami after the Nevin Shapiro case in 2011, Setchen helped Jones re-gain his eligibility as Miami.

With this case, Bowen was not allowed back at Louisville as the school has fired head coach Rick Pitino and most of his previous staff. Athletic Director Tom Jurich also lost his job, so the Cardinals are definitely cleaning house and trying to detach themselves from anyone involved.

It will be interesting to see what Bowen opts to do in light of this news. He’s talented enough that other schools could want him, if he’s eligible, but he’s also a former five-star prospect who could have pro aspirations. But since Bowen won’t be playing this season, he also hasn’t had a chance to spotlight his game to potential pro suitors.

 

President Trump fires back at LaVar Ball on Twitter

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The never-ending war of words between President Donald Trump and LaVar Ball escalated to another level on Wednesday morning.

Starting his early-morning tweets with some messages aimed at Ball, President Trump continued to double down on his insistence that he helped play a role in the safe return of three UCLA players arrested in China for shoplifting. LiAngelo Ball, LaVar’s middle son, was one of the three players involved in the international incident as fellow Bruins Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were also arrested. The trio returned to the United States last week after UCLA left China without them following a win over Georgia Tech in the Pac-12 China Game.

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LaVar has drawn the ire of President Trump for downplaying the President’s role in the return of the UCLA trio as Ball maintains that others had more to do with the release. All three UCLA players publicly thanked President Trump and the United States government during their return press conference on Nov. 15. The three players remain suspended indefinitely from all activities with the men’s basketball team.

In an interview with CNN earlier this week, LaVar was critical of Trump’s role in the whole ordeal while also questioning why the President would spend so much time bothering for a thank you from the father of one of those arrested.