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NCAA Tournament: Previewing Thursday’s bracket action; picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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GAMES OF THE DAY

No. 12 Nevada vs. 5 Iowa State (-6.5), 9:57 p.m., truTV: This is one of my two favorite first round matchups. I’m not sure there is a hotter team in college basketball than Iowa State. The Cyclones were on the bubble roughly six weeks ago. Now they’re a No. 5 seed that finished second in the Big 12 and won the Big 12 tournament title. Monte’ Morris is playing great and Naz Long looks like a new man. But the Wolf Pack are the most talented double-digit seed in the field. They have a center that will play in the league, a guard that averages 20 and another forward that went for 45 points in a road game against New Mexico. This is going to be a fun, fun basketball game.

PREDICTION: Iowa State (-6.5)

No. 11 Xavier vs. No. 6 Maryland (-2), 6:50 p.m., TNT: This game is fascinating to me because I think Xavier will win this, but also because Maryland always, always, always plays close games. They’re good enough to keep pace with just about anyone in the country, and they have the ultimate closer in college hoops in Melo Trimble, who is 30-8 in games decided by six points or less in his college career. Xavier has just one win over a team not named DePaul since Feb. 4th, but with Trevon Bluiett’s ankle finally healthy and the Musketeers getting used to life without Edmond Sumner, I think they win this game, and I would not be surprised if it came on a buzzer-beater.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+2)

UPSETS BREWING

No. 12 UNC Wilmington vs. No. 5 Virginia (-7), 12:40 p.m., truTV: I’ve written and talked about this plenty, but I have a real concern about UNCW in this game simply because I don’t love the matchup. UNCW wants to press, force turnovers, speed things up and make opponents make mistakes. That’s not an easy thing to do against Virginia. I do, however, think that, given the pace UVA plays at, the Seahawks will have a good shot to cover.

PREDICTION: UNCW (+7)

No. 13 East Tennessee State vs. No. 4 Florida (-10.5), 3:10 p.m., truTV: A bet on ETSU is a bet on Steve Forbes, a former Wichita State and Tennessee (under Bruce Pearl) assistant that has had success everywhere he’s been in the coaching world. He now has a team with some high-major talent and an elite guard in T.J. Cromer, and he’ll be going up against a Florida team that is missing their starting center. Florida is an elite defensive team, and their guards are going to make ETSU work, but I think the Buccaneers have a puncher’s chance here.

PREDICTION: ETSU (+10.5)

No. 12 Middle Tennessee (-1) vs. No. 5 Minnesota, 4:00 p.m., TNT: It feels so weird writing about this game as a potential upset when the team that I think will be doing the upsetting is actually the team that is favored in this game. But since this is all about the tournament and all about the brackets, we can call Middle Tennessee winning an upset without the gambling dorks losing their minds. If there’s anything I’m worried about with Minnesota, it’s that they have a pair of dynamic guards and a couple of big, athletic bodies up front. As good as the Blue Raiders are, I’m worried about the athleticism advantage that Minnesota will have. I’m still riding with Kermit Davis, though.

PREDICTION: Middle Tennessee (-1)

No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast vs. No. 3 Florida State (-12), 9:20 p.m., TNT: So I think Florida-Gulf Coast wins this thing. Florida State is really talented and crazy athletic with a ton of size, but I just don’t trust them. I don’t think they have great guard play and I don’t think that they realize that Jonathan Isaac is the best player on the floor every time he steps on the floor. I don’t even think Jonathan Isaac realizes it. Throw in the fact that FGCU is well-coached and has a really good guard in Brandon Goodwin, and I’ll ride that Dunk City train.

PREDICTION: Florida-Gulf Coast (+12)

HOPEFULLY, IT’S CLOSE LATE

  • No. 12 Princeton vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (-6.5), 12:15 p.m., CBS: Princeton is better than you may realize, controls tempo and should keep this one close. PREDICTION: Princeton (+6.5)
  • No. 13 Winthrop vs. 4 Butler (-11), 1:30 p.m., TNT: I actually think Pat Kelsey’s club has a chance to pick off Butler, who is a team I absolutely cannot figure out. PREDICTION: Winthrop (+11)
  • No. 10 VCU vs. No. 7 Saint Mary’s (-4.5), 7:20 p.m., TBS: Saint Mary’s has a chance to make something of a statement against a program with a reputation in March that is only in the tournament because of a pair of fluky wins. PREDICTION: Saint Mary’s (-4.5)
  • No. 13 Vermont vs. No. 4 Purdue (-10.5), 7:27 p.m., truTV: The Catamounts should keep this close. They’re well-coached, control pace and tough defensively. Staying out of foul trouble will be the key. PREDICTION: Vermont (+10.5)
  • No. 9 Virginia Tech vs. 8 Wisconsin (-5.5), 9:40 p.m., CBS: You know a No. 8 seed has been miss-seeded when they show up as a 5.5 point favorite. And while I love Buzz in a tournament setting, I’ll get my money in on Wisconsin. PREDICTION: Wisconsin (-5.5)
  • No. 13 Bucknell vs. No. 4 West Virginia (-14), 2:45 p.m., CBS: There is no way that Bucknell is going to know what’s coming when they face Press Virginia. They may have prepared for it, but practice and what happens in an actual game are two different things. PREDICTION: West Virginia (-14)
  • No. 9 Vanderbilt (-2) vs. No. 8 Northwestern, 4:30 p.m., TBS: In the battle of the brainiacs, I fully expect a Vanderbilt team with three wins over Florida that is coached by a guy that made one of the most famous shots in NCAA tournament history to be able to handle a Big Ten program playing their first ever NCAA tournament game. PREDICTION: Vanderbilt (-2)

THE ONLY DRAMA IS WHETHER OR NOT THEY COVER

  • No. 16 South Dakota State vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (-22.5), 2:00 p.m., TBS: This matchup is intriguing because SDSU’s Mike Daum is the second-leading scorer in college basketball, but I can’t see this Gonzaga team being the first ever No. 1 seed to lose in the first round when they’ve blown everyone out this year. PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-22.5)
  • No. 16 Mount St Mary’s vs. No. 1 Villanova (-26.5), 7:10 p.m., CBS: Jamion Christian has done a terrific job at The Mount, but there’s a reason Villanova is the reigning champ, even though they’ve been stuck in Buffalo for three days. PREDICTION: Mount St. Mary’s (+26.5)
  • No. 15 North Dakota vs. No. 2 Arizona (-17), 9:50 p.m., TBS: Arizona is coming off of a Pac-12 regular season and tournament title, and Allonzo Trier is playing as well as he has all season long. PREDICTION: Arizona (-17)

 

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.