Bill Koch, National Columnist
To pick up where I left off on Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament, the worst part about Christmas morning is that you need to wait a full year for it to come again. The first two days of the NCAA Tournament are like having the best holiday of the year twice in a row.
One good night’s sleep and you’re back at it the next day, just like the next 32 teams to tip off on the road to the New Orleans and the Final Four. Day 2 is headlined by the entire Midwest Region and the final two No. 1 seeds in action, with a couple of promising lower seeds who could do significant damage in their select portions of the brackets.
Madness, let’s start all over again.
No. 3 Florida State (24-9, ACC) vs. No. 14 St. Bonaventure (20-11, Atlantic 10) Nashville
The Bonnies are the sort of team who could give the Seminoles a problem. St. Bonaventure is one of the few teams in the field with the physical presence up front to trouble Florida State’s physical frontcourt, a unit led by Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and soon-to-be pro Andrew Nicholson. The 6-foot-9 senior averaged 18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game while displaying enough touch around the basket and on the perimeter to shoot 57.6 percent.
Keeping Nicholson out of foul trouble is the difficulty, and that’s why the Bonnies are seeded here. His minutes per game dipped from 33.8 a season ago to 30.1 in 2011-12, mainly because of his inability to stay on the floor. That’s music to the ears of seniors like Bernard James and Xavier Gibson, who each stand 6-foot-10 or better and should give Nicholson all he can handle in the paint.
The pick – Florida State
No. 6 Cincinnati (24-10, at-large) vs. No. 11 Texas (20-13, at-large) Nashville
Full credit to the Bearcats for turning their season around after the shameful brawl with cross-town rival Xavier. Cincinnati surged down the stretch to play its way into the field, rolling to the Big East Tournament final on the back of victories against Villanova, Georgetown and Syracuse by a combined nine points. Yancy Gates (12.4 points, 9.2 rebounds) is a force in the frontcourt and guards Sean Kilpatrick (14.3 points, 4.6 rebounds), Dion Dixon (13.1 points, 1.6 steals) and Cashmere Wright (10.9 points, 4.6 assists) pose a tough matchup against opponents who don’t value the ball.
The Longhorns are one such opponent. Texas is just 210th in the nation in assists per game and shoot a pedestrian 43.6 percent from the field. This is a team that’s at least a year away – Sheldon McClellan and Myck Kabongo, two of Texas’s top three scorers, are freshmen – and that isn’t good enough to rely on J’Covan Brown to do all the heavy lifting.
The pick – Cincinnati
No. 1 North Carolina (29-5, at-large) vs. No. 16 Vermont (24-11, America East)
The Catamounts used a 2-3 zone to confuse Lamar in the play-in game, but this is a different level of competition entirely. Add the fact that the game is being played in the Tar Heels’ backyard and that North Carolina is sure to be furious coming off its loss in the ACC Tournament and this result could be ugly. Monitor John Henson’s minutes here – his return to health from a wrist injury that he suffered last week will be key to the Tar Heels making a run to the bayou.
The pick – North Carolina
No. 2 Kansas (27-6, at-large) vs. No. 15 Detroit (22-13, Horizon)
Ray McCallum Jr. is as good as any guard you’ll find in this tournament, a sophomore McDonald’s All-American who stayed home to play for his father, also named Ray, who serves as Detroit’s head coach. The Titans can score (72.8 points, 61st in the country) and shoot (45.4 percent, 90th) reasonably well, but that doesn’t cut it against a team like the Jayhawks. Look for Kansas to cruise through this one.
The pick – Kansas
No. 3 Georgetown (23-8, at-large) vs. No. 14 Belmont (27-7, Atlantic Sun)
The Hoyas are the classic example of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts, something that wasn’t the case for last season’s Georgetown team. Henry Sims has matured into a solid big man, Otto Porter is one of the nation’s best rebounders pound-for-pound and the backcourt duo of Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson is solid.
That said, there’s a reason this team was picked 10th in the Big East during the preseason voting of the conference’s coaches. Double-digit losses to non-NCAA qualifiers Pittsburgh and Seton Hall are causes for concern and the Bruins fit the pedigree of an Ohio team that shocked Georgetown in the opening round in 2010. The Bobcats were quick and enjoyed great guard play, something that Belmont shares in common thanks to juniors Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark and senior Drew Hanlen. That trio made up the top three Bruins’ scorers this season and powered an offense that finished fourth in the nation in points per game (81.5) and fifth in assists (17.4). The Hoyas could be headed for trouble here.
The pick – Belmont
No. 4 Michigan (24-9, at-large) vs. Ohio (27-7, Mid-American)
Speaking of the Bobcats, here they are back in the Big Dance for the second time in three years thanks to a one-point victory over regular season champion Akron in the Mid-American final. D.J. Cooper has grown from wispy freshman into sturdy junior and is the unquestioned floor leader, averaging 14.6 points and 5.7 assists per game while leading a defense that forces turnovers opponents to turn the ball over on more than a quarter of their possessions.
The good news for the Wolverines is that Ohio doesn’t have a high-major transfer like Armon Bassett (Indiana) lying in the weeds with Cooper. Bassett and Cooper hit 10 3-pointers in that 97-83 upset over Georgetown, and drilling shots from beyond the arc is Michigan’s game. There are few X-and-O coaches better than the Wolverines’ John Beilein, and his players’ ability to spread the floor at the offensive end will be the key to avoiding the upset.
The pick – Michigan
No. 5 Temple (24-7, at-large) vs. No. 12 South Florida (21-13, at-large)
The nation saw on Wednesday night what the Bulls have done to frustrate Big East opponents throughout the season. South Florida’s victory over California wasn’t just a bad shooting night by the Bears – the Bulls dish out that sort of treatment to every opponent, conceding a league-record 56.9 points per game this season and overcoming an offense that lacks a single double-digit scorer. Reaching 60 points gives any opponent a good chance to win against South Florida, as the Bulls finished just 3-7 in those games this season.
The Owls could be the team to end South Florida’s unlikely run, an offensive group blessed with solid guards and a legitimate big man in center Michael Eric (9.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.0 blocks). Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez all shoot at least 38.6 percent from 3-point range and can work their way into the paint to break down their opponents. Don’t expect anything pretty here, but this tournament is all about surviving and advancing. Temple will get it done.
The pick – Temple
No. 6 San Diego State (26-7, at-large) vs. No. 11 North Carolina State (22-12, at-large)
Both of these teams should consider themselves lucky just to be in the field, but for very different reasons. The Aztecs are the rare mid-major who can simply reload after losing four starters, including NBA first-round pick Kawhi Leonard, and find themselves favorites in their opening round game of the NCAA Tournament the following season. San Diego State rides the grit of sophomore guard Jamaal Franklin, who plays much bigger than his 6-foot-5 listing on the roster (17.2 points, 7.9 rebounds), and junior sharpshooter Chase Tapley (15.7 points, 43.3 percent from 3-point range).
The Wolfpack were the last team to see their name on television when the brackets were released on Sunday night, survivors of a four-game losing streak in February that threatened to end their NCAA hopes. North Carolina State rebounded to win four straight, including a de facto elimination game against Miami and a three-point slugfest with fellow tournament qualifier Virginia to squeeze into the field. Now that they’ve received an invitation, don’t look for the Wolfpack to go away quietly. They rank to the top 55 in the nation in scoring, total rebounding, assists and field goal percentage, making them a favorite to post a mild upset in this one.
The pick – North Carolina State
No. 7 Saint Mary’s (27-5, West Coast) vs. No. 10 Purdue (21-12, at-large)
It’s no secret that we love Gaels’ guard Matthew Dellavedova, and with good reason. The Aussie junior is among the finest floor generals in this field, leading an offense that finished in the top 40 nationally in points per game (74.9), assists per game (15.9) and field goal percentage (47.5). Dellavedova chips in 15.6 points and 6.4 assists to the attack and has the experience of two previous trips to the NCAA Tournament under his belt. Coupled with double-double threat Rob Jones (14.8 points, 10.7 rebounds), Dellavedova and Saint Mary’s have the inside-outside offense to win at least a game or two.
In Purdue’s case, it’s just great to see Robbie Hummel on the floor again. The fifth-year senior has battled back from knee problems to average team highs in points (16.3) and rebounds (7.1) and gives the Boilermakers a go-to scorer. A solid offensive team can exploit the weak Saint Mary’s defense – the Gaels allowed 70-plus points in four of their seven meetings against NCAA foes this season – but Purdue doesn’t possess that sort of firepower.
The pick – Saint Mary’s
No. 8 Creighton (28-5, Missouri Valley) vs. No. 9 Alabama (21-11, at-large)
This is the classic offense-defense matchup, with the sharpshooting Blue Jays facing off against the stingy Crimson Tide. Much like Detroit, Creighton is fortunate to have a coach’s son on the roster – forward Doug McDermott is this club’s unquestioned best player and leader, supplying father Doug with 23.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and terrific 61.0 percent shooting from the field. Creighton’s offense takes its cue from the 6-foot-7 sophomore, as the Blue Jays finished atop the nation at 50.9 percent from the field and were second in assists at 17.9 per game.
Alabama will try to make like its football counterparts in the BCS title game against LSU and pitch a shutout at Creighton’s attack. The Crimson Tide held five of their final seven opponents to 60 points or fewer and relies on senior forward JaMychal Green (14.0 points, 7.4 rebounds) for most of their offensive production. Alabama’s hurdle in this game comes at the offensive end, and the contrast between the two teams provides one of the most interesting matchups of the first round. Look for Creighton to squeeze through in a nail-biter.
The pick – Creighton
No. 1 Michigan State (27-7, Big Ten) vs. No. 16 LIU-Brooklyn (25-8, Northeast)
Don’t waste your time fretting over this one. I’m certainly not going to waste mine.
The pick – Michigan State
No. 2 Missouri (30-4, Big XII) vs. Norfolk State (25-9, Mid-Eastern Athletic)
The guard-heavy Tigers couldn’t have scripted a better opponent for their opening game. The Spartans are 240th in the nation in assists and average 15 turnovers per game, the sort of numbers that a team that presses, traps and pushes the pace loves to see. Norfolk State also counts just a single player taller than 6-foot-8 who ranks in its top 10 players in minutes, posing little threat to Missouri’s weakness on the glass. This one should be over quickly.
The pick – Missouri
No. 7 Florida (23-10, at-large) vs. No. 10 Virginia (22-9, at-large)
No. 8 Memphis (26-8, Conference USA) vs. No. 9 Saint Louis (25-7, at-large)
These two games are grouped together because they share the same deciding factor – tempo. Florida and Memphis are both more talented on paper than Virginia and Saint Louis, but coaches Tony Bennett and Rick Majerus have an ability to slow an opponent to a crawl and neutralize their respective abilities.
The Cavaliers will use The Pack Line defensive look and the paint presence of senior NBA prospect Mike Scott (18.1 points, 8.4 rebounds) to frustrate a lacking Gators’ frontcourt and Florida’s free-shooting guards.
The Billikens will have a bit more trouble with the Tigers thanks to Will Barton, an electric sophomore swingman who leads Memphis at 18.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Barton is the kind of special player who can put his club over the top against a Saint Louis team that played just five games against top 50 opponents this season.
The picks – Virginia, Memphis
No. 2 Duke (27-6, at-large) vs. No. 15 Lehigh (26-7, Patriot) Greensboro
The Blue Devils have been targeted by several experts as the weakest of the top eight seeds in this year’s field, but don’t expect anything crazy to happen here. Mike Krzyzewski’s teams are usually undone in the NCAA Tournament by superior athletes – Arizona’s Derrick Williams, VCU’s Eric Maynor, etc. – but it requires future pros to take down Duke. The Mountain Hawks don’t count anyone like that in their nest.
The pick – Duke
No. 7 Notre Dame (22-11, at-large) vs. No. 10 Xavier (21-12, at-large) Greensboro
The Fighting Irish reeled off nine straight Big East wins during the middle of their conference schedule, a new program best, but regressed to the mean by dropping three of their last five. Mike Brey has done a terrific job this season in the wake of losing leading scorer Tim Abromaitis to a knee injury, authoring a 67-58 upset of previously-unbeaten Syracuse thanks to a masterly display of controlling the pace. Brey has squeezed every ounce out of a team that ranks in the bottom half of the NCAA in points per game and field goal percentage.
Which Xavier team will show up for this one? Is it the group that played its way into the top 10 at the beginning of the season, or is it the club that disintegrated in the wake of its disgraceful brawl with rival Cincinnati? The Musketeers still possess plenty of talent in backcourt pairing Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons and have a presence in the middle in 7-footer Kenny Frease who can slow Notre Dame double-double man Jack Cooley.
The pick – Xavier
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Photos: Nicholson courtesy St.
Bonaventure Athletics; Robinson courtesy Jeff Jacobsen, Kansas
Athletics; English courtesy of University of Missouri Athletics