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.