Seven must-watch NCAA tournament Round of 64 games

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REGION PREVIEWSEast Region | South Region | Midwest Region | West Region

No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Manhattan — Midwest  — Thursday, 9:50 p.m.

The selection committee didn’t show much love for the newly-formed American Athletic Conference, however, it did give this Round of 64 a great storyline as Steve Masiello, who has led Manhattan into the tournament for the first time in a decade, faces his former coach Rick Pitino.

Masiello certainly has familiarity with Louisville, serving as an assistant to Pitino for six seasons and recruiting guys like Russ Smith and Wayne Blackshear.

But he also has a pretty good team as well. The Jaspers have the perimeter talent in George Beamon and Mike Alvarado while reigning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Rhamel Brown manning the frontline. I’d would have considered going with Manhattan as an upset pick in most games, but Louisville is playing at a high-level at the moment. The Jaspers are still dangerous, though.

No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Dayton — South  — Thursday, 12:15 p.m.

The selection committed made another intriguing matchup, pitting in-state opponents Dayton and Ohio State together in the Round of 64. The Flyers and Buckeyes don’t meet in the regular season, but they will in the South Region. Ohio State has had its well-documented offensive struggles, but Archie Miller’s guys can light it up from beyond the arc. The Flyers are led by Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert and Devin Oliver, both scoring better than a dozen a game.

MORE8 teams that can win it all  |  8 clutch players  |  Guide to perfect bracket pool

No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 13 Delaware — East  — Thursday, 4:40 p.m.

When the Spartans are healthy, they are a national contender, and they sure look that part lately. The four-seed is penciled in by many as the team advancing out of the East Region. But in its first game of the tournament Michigan State will go up against a high-scoring perimeter attack as Devon Saddler (19.7 ppg), Davon Usher (19.4 ppg) and Jarvis Threatt (18.1 ppg) can put up points in a hurry. The Fighting Blue Hens can certainly make this interesting on Thursday evening.

No. 5 VCU vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin — South  — Friday, 7:27 p.m.

The Rams had a six-game winning streak ended in the Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship game at the hands of Saint Joseph’s. Stephen F. Austin hasn’t lost since Nov. 23, winners of 28 in a row.

Like Havoc, the Lumberjacks can really defend. Both force a highest percentage of turnovers. VCU has had trouble shooting the ball from beyond the arc, especially with Melvin Johnson out on Sunday. This could be the 12 over 5 upset.

MOREAll-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

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No. 6 North Carolina vs. No. 11 Providence — East  — Friday, 7:20 p.m.

Marcus Paige vs. Bryce Cotton? Yes, please.

The Tar Heels have lost two straight, including one to Pittsburgh in the ACC quarterfinals. Providence ended up winning the Big East Tournament over Creighton. The Friars are back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2004, and they have an All-American talent in Cotton.

Providence has a lot of momentum heading into the tournament and we’ve seen how up-and-down North Carolina can be this season. This could be an upset in San Antonio.

No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 North Dakota State — West — Thursday, 7:27 p.m.

This could shape up to be an early round matchup that goes down to the final possession. The Bison are no joke. They defeated Notre Dame in South Bend, when the Irish still had Jerian Grant. They have a nice one-two punch with Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund. North Dakota State gets some of the best looks on offense in the country with a 55 percent effective field goal percentage, according to kenpom.com

No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 11 Nebraska — West  — Friday, 12:40 p.m.

Two power conference teams in a Round of 64 matchup will always be one to look out for. The Bears finished the season strong after digging themselves in the Big 12 basement, winning six of their last seven.

Nebraska has been a fun team to watch, back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. How will Cornhuskers handle this stage? They ended the Big 12 Tournament, blowing a double-digit lead to Ohio State, but this is also the same team that defeated Michigan State on the road and Wisconsin nine days ago.

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.”