GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 10 Kansas (24-8) vs. No. 16 Iowa State (24-7), 7 PM, ESPNU
Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins is going HAM. He’ll never admit that — his seeming modesty preclude the Jayhawk freshman from hyping his accomplishments — but the forward is an offensive juggernaut the past several games, scoring 41 in a loss to West Virginia and then 30 against Oklahoma State in KU’s Big 12 quarterfinal contest. His dominating streak, of course, began against the Cyclones, so it is only fitting the two teams again meet in the conference semis. In late January, the player we all thought would revolutionize the college game (note the hyperbole) dropped 29 on Fred Hoiberg’s club, the final time the two squads met during the regular season. Wiggins was option 1, 1A, and 1B in ISU’s conference tournament scouting report, and while Hoiberg undoubtedly has a game plan for the freshman, it likely will not matter: Wiggins’s play has clearly elevated to another realm. Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim may have been awarded the conference’s player of the year honor, but the Cyclone worth attention is Georges Niang. The undersized forward will likely be labeled as a breakout candidate next season, so study his game now and proclaim yourself an early follower: Niang has an old man game, predicated on deception, jump hooks, and skillfully using his lower body to dislodge defenders. Niang leads the Cyclones in percentage of shots taken, and his efficiency within the field hasn’t significantly dropped (55 percent from within the arc) despite an increased offensive role.
THE OTHER GAME OF THE NIGHT: North Carolina State (20-12) vs. No 11. Syracuse (27-4), 7 PM, ESPN
Unless Mark Gottfried’s team makes April’s first weekend, the topic that will come to define the 2014 Wolf Pack is: should TJ Warren been awarded a continuation foul in State’s close loss to the Cuse? In only their second meeting this season, Warren has a chance to again propel the squad past Syracuse, and luckily for Gottfried and his staff, the ACC player of the year is currently peaking: a streak consecutive 40-plus point games was disrupted by a mundane 24 points last night in a win over Miami, and as Dylan Burkhardt recently posted out on his fantastic Shot Analytics’ site, Warren has elevated his game by his consistent, and effective, use of the floater. The Orange forced ten turnovers in the inaugural match-up, so the recent enhanced play of NC State frosh Cat Barber will be crucial: during the past three games, Barber has handed out 15 assists and no turnovers.
WHO’S GETTING UPSET? No. 14 Creighton (25-6) vs. Xavier (21-11), 9:30, Fox Sports 1
Even through realignment caused the stronger teams (Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati, et al) to flee the Big East, the new-look conference tournament has not disappointed. Seton Hall shocked Villanova, and there could be another upset when Xavier, which outlasted fellow bubble compatriot Marquette, takes on Creighton. The win propelled the Musketeers into the tournament field, and Chris Mack’s program is perfectly suited to counter-balance the Bluejays. Regardless that XU already defeated CU once this season (and their first match-up likely should have been won by Xavier), Xavier is skilled at crashing the defensive glass, diminishing Creighton’s ability to begin their break, and there is some evidence that teams which are very physical with Creighton fare well. All of Omaha had traveled to Madison Square Garden to watch the Bluejays beat down on DePaul, but the Musketeers have a very strong chance of surviving, and outlasting, Creighton’s three-point outbursts.
Get to know all of the NCAA Tournament’s automatic bids here.
MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE DAY: Southern Miss (27-5) vs. Louisiana Tech (26-6), 6:30, CBS Sports Network
Both coaches in this match-up — Donnie Tyndall and Michael White — have been early candidates floated by the national media for the Auburn opening, but that sort of attention shouldn’t diminish what will be a classic contrast: Conference USA’s best offense (USM, 1.12 PPP) versus its best defense (LaTech, .90 OPPP). The deciding factor could be determined at the free throw line: nearly 30 percent of the Golden Eagles’ points come from free throws, a nationally ranked rate that also leads the conference, and the squad is preternaturally skilled at drawing fouls at a rapid clip. And while Louisiana Tech does have a stingy defense, they are graduates of the Frank Martin school of defense, committing a foul on more than 40 percent of their defensive possessions. Senior forward Daveon Boardingham, who leads the team in fouls drawn per 40 minutes and free throw attempts, should have a fruitful day at the stripe.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW
1) Kethan Savage returns to the George Washington (23-7) lineup in their quarterfinal match-up with Massachusetts (24-7). Mike Lonergan told me that the Colonials haven’t been able to really practice this season due to injury concerns — they don’t have enough bodies to compensate for another injury — and Savage, who missed twelve games recovering from a foot fracture, was sorely missed when the team faced UMass in mid-February. Massachusetts outlasted Rhode Island in what was a physical, and at time ugly, game, and while people are currently holding on to the sides of the Minuteman bandwagon, the team can be erratic — consistency has been Derek Kellogg’s bugbear this year.
2) Northern Colorado (18-12) was somehow able to outlast a furious Northern Arizona rally in their opening round game, and the Bears are primed to derail the Big Sky tournament title hopes of Weber State (17-11). At one point in the second half, UNC led by 20 points, and though the LUmberjacks cut the margin to two, UNC, which showed the broad spectrum of their skills (an unreal ability to score points) and deficiencies (little to no attention paid on the defensive side of the ball), prevailed. It is worth noting, as Weber State’s Twitter account pointed out last night, that UNC, along with the other two semifinalists (Portland State and North Dakota), are 1-32 when playing the Wildcats in Ogden.
3) Shabazz Napier has been very busy recently. Not only did the Connecticut (25-7) senior guard have a solid stat-line in a win over Memphis (11 points, seven boards, three assists), but he also clarified his recent AAC player of the year comments about Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, words that will surely be motivation for Cincinnati (27-5) in today’s AAC semifinal. Napier had earlier said that Kilpatrick had played well this season but had help from his senior ‘mate Justin Jackson, and following last night’s UConn win, he added, “I’m not into individual accolades. I don’t want to play Cincinnati just to play Kilpatrick. I’m here for my team, and I’m trying to play against Cincinnati. That’s it.” Even though he may disagree, sounds like someone is happy with the AAC coaches awarding him the POY award.
4) Chris Collins has done a phenomenal job in his first season at Northwestern (14-18), a sentiment further cemented when the Wildcats beat Iowa in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. Can NU keep the momentum? The squad faces a Michigan State (23-8_ team riddled with question marks, and if NU wants another upset, Tre Demps and Dave Sobolewski will have to continue their torrid attack of the basket. The duo scored a combined 30 points — Sobo added ten, the most points he has scored since the beginning of the season — and their ability to deflect defensive attention from Drew Crawford significantly boosts Northwestern’s offense.
5) There are two Pac-12 games tonight, and both feature teams desperate to escape the NCAA bubble. Colorado (23-1), which faces Arizona (29-3) in the semifinals, lost three of their last four entering the conference tournament, but has used stout defense — .91 OPPP against USC and California — to propel the Buffaloes. Stanford (21-11) is matched with UCLA (24-8), and while the Cardinal continuously seem to beguile, and underachieve, under Johnny Dawkins, a win would provide a huge boost.
THE REST OF THE TOP 25:
- No. 6 Virginia vs. Florida State, noon
- No. 8 Michigan vs. Illinois, noon
- No. 18 Saint Louis vs. St. Bonaventure, noon
- No.1 Florida vs. Missouri 1 PM
- No. 24 Ohio State vs. Nebraska, 2 PM
- No. 15 North Carolina vs. Pittsburgh, 2 PM
- No. 23 VCU vs. Richmond, 6:30 PM
- No. 12 Wisconsin vs. Minnesota, 6:30 PM
- No. 5 Louisville vs. Houston 7 PM
- No. 7 Duke vs. Clemson, 9 PM
- No. 8 San Diego State vs. UNLV, 9 PM
- No. 20 New Mexico vs. Boise State, 11:30
- Saint Joseph’s vs. Dayton, 2:30 PM
- LSU vs. Kentucky, 7 PM