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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)

 

Indiana hires Dayton head coach Archie Miller

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Indiana is expected to hire Dayton head coach Archie Miller, the school announced.

The deal will be for seven years, according to The Vertical. Miller had spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Dayton, getting to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Elite 8 in 2014, while winning the last two Atlantic 10 regular season titles.

Miller had been targeted by seemingly every high major program with an opening since he reached the Elite 8, but similar to Shaka Smart when he left VCU, Miller simply waited for the right job to come long.

Indiana is the right job.

There had been some speculation that Miller wouldn’t want to take Indiana, that his dream job is Ohio State and that the idea of coaching in a fishbowl like Bloomington is not something that would be all that appealing to him. But Indiana is an elite job. It’s the kind of opening that happens once every four or five years, and if Miller had said no to the Hoosiers now, it’s very possible that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come along for years, if ever.

This hire is surprising, not because it’s the wrong hire — I think they got this right — but because Indiana actually made the right decision.

The overwhelming sentiment since Tom Crean was fired was that UCLA head coach Steve Alford would be named the next head coach at Indiana because the Hoosiers wanted an “Indiana Guy”. Alford was born in New Castle, he played at IU for Bobby Knight, he won a national title with the program. The goal was to get the Indiana fan base back, a fan base that was so estranged from the program that Indiana had to play an NIT game on the road as a higher seed because they were reportedly afraid of allowing ESPN’s cameras to see the empty seats.

But just because a hire appeases the fans doesn’t make it the right hire.

Miller was the right hire.

If they really want to get the fans back, winning is the best way to do it. Archie is as good of a bet to win at Indiana as anyone.

Elite 8 Preview: Saturday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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So Friday got good.

If Zak Showalter’s game-tying three and subsequent discount double-check wasn’t enough, we had Canyon Barry’s chasedown block and, well, this game-winner from Chris Chiozza.

And all that came after De’Aaron Fox took out what felt like a season’s worth of frustration out on Lonzo Ball.

What is on tap for tonight?

No. 1 GONZAGA (-8) vs. No. 11 XAVIER, 6:09 p.m., TBS: Someone is going to be making their way to the Final Four for the first time on Saturday night, as Xavier’s Chris Mack and Gonzaga’s Mark Few square off for the right to play on the final weekend of the season.

And in a way, this is the perfect Final Four game. Both the Zags and the Musketeers are basketball schools in basketball leagues. They come from outside the power structure and have head coaches that have spurned jobs from within the power structure to remain there. They are built for a run like this, even if they were both overlooked on the way here.

Xavier was obvious. Playing without Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis, the Musketeers just haven’t been the team that they were supposed to be this season. That’s why they lost six straight games in February, but things have turned around in March, as Trevon Bluiett has put the program on his back and willed them to the Elite 8. Gonzaga is the opposite. They went 29-0 to start the season, but they have yet to be accepted as a legitimate title contender by most of the people that watch the games.

My guess on Saturday night is that the Zags make their statement and emphatically get into the Final Four.

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-8)

No. 1 KANSAS (-7) vs.  No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., TBS: This matchup is a lot tastier on paper than it is likely going to end up being on the floor. As good as Oregon has been this season, they are, essentially, Kansas light. They play two lead guards together and they play small-ball, with a natural wing lined up at the four.

The problem?

The Kansas guys are just better. Josh Jackson is a better player than Dillon Brooks. His length and athleticism should give the Oregon star fits. Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham are better than whatever combination of Payton Pritchard, Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis the Ducks opt to use.

And, for that matter, no team is playing better right now that they Jayhawks, who beat Michigan State by 20, Purdue by 32 and became the first team to score 90 points in their first three NCAA tournament games since 1995. I think that trend continues on Saturday night.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-7)

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.