Teams to watch (and root for) in the NCAA Tournament
With the NCAA Tournament starting in earnest on Thursday, UWDP provides you a quick guide of teams to look for and players to watch this year. We start with some teams that are visiting Seattle this weekend.
Teams to Watch in Seattle
Gonzaga - Usually the Zags come to Seattle once a year to let Huskies fans know that it has the best program in the state of Washington. This year, it gets the opportunity to play 2 more games in KeyArena. It's the 17th straight appearance for the Zags which ties them with Kentucky and Wisconsin for the current streak of most consecutive tournament appearances. If you were wondering, UNC tops the list with 27 straight. Aside from Dayton (which played a home game against Boise State on Wednesday) and Kentucky (which gets to play the second and third rounds in Louisville), the Zags have the best home court advantage for the tournament this week. We shall see if Mark Few can take this team to the Final Four.
UC Irvine - The Anteaters won the Big West Conference tournament and heads to Seattle to play Louisville. The Anteaters played the Huskies last year and soundly defeated Romar's squad 86-72, at Alaska Airlines Arena. It will be easy to spot 7-foot-6 sophomore center Mamadou Ndiaye as he'll guard the middle for UCI. Ndiaye scored 18 points, 9 blocks and 8 rebounds against the Huskies. Aside from Ndiaye, UCI returns three other starters from last year.
Louisville - Another team that plays in Seattle are the Lousville Cardinals. The local tie-in is that former Rainier Beach standout Shaqqon Aaron is a freshman guard for the Cardinals making him the third player from Seattle to play for Rick Pitino (Terrance Williams and Peyton Siva are the others). Led by junior Forward Montrezl Harrell, we should see a battle underneath on Friday with UCI's Ndiaye.
Northern Iowa - We probably recall Northern Iowa as that team that beat then No. 1 seeded Kansas back in the 2010 tournament with Ali Farokhmanesh. The team is back and very good. With only 3 losses on the season, UNI has been a force we never heard of and could be a dark horse to make it to the Sweet 16. UNI, the 5 seed in the East region plays Wyoming in the early game at KeyArena Friday.
Wyoming - Larry Nance, Jr. leads the Cowboys to Seattle. If that name sounds familiar, it should be as his father played for the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1980s. He also was one of the first two dunk two balls in an NBA Dunk Contest. Nance, Jr. leads the Cowboys with his 16 points per game. Expect a battle with UNI's Seth Tuttle Friday morning at the Key.
Some teams to root for that are not Kentucky
Eastern Washington - The Eagles get a favorable draw in that it will get to play close enough to home that it should have some fan advantage over Georgetown. Despite the Hoyas having a 3 seed, it is traveling cross-country and has to deal with Tyler Harvey and an Eagles team that can shoot itself back into games if it gets down. We shall see how much home advantage the Eagles get Thursday.
VCU - Shaka Smart took his 2010-2011 VCU team from the First Four to the Final Four. Most thought that Smart would bolt for a better job as is the usual case. Notably, Smart was linked to UCLA in 2013 but he decided to stay. Yet, Smart has stayed and his team has made it to the tournament the past three years since making its Cinderella run. It appears that Smart has decided to turn his mid-major into a perennial powerhouse (insert Gonzaga reference here). It has a tough test on Thursday night in Portland against Ohio State but Smart's VCU teams are tournament tested.
Ole Miss - Ok, so the Rebels were not going to be on this list until Tuesday night. Coming from 17 down to beat BYU was impressive. Ole Miss Guard Stefan Moody poured in 26 points to lead the 2nd half comeback in which the Rebels scored 62 points. The Rebels play Friday in Jacksonville against 6 seed Xavier. Based on its play Tuesday, it would not be surprising if we see an Ole Miss upset here.
Virginia - Remember Tony Bennett? The former Cougar head coach bolted east to Virginia to take over. He's turned the program around and as a 2 seed in the East has a realistic chance to make it to Indianapolis. If you are going to watch Virginia, don't expect a lot of points scored. In the regular season, the Cavs ranked 1st in the nation in defense with the least amount of points allowed per game. Virginia plays Belmont at noon on Friday.
Some Players to Watch:
Gary Bell, Jr. - The senior guard from Kent will be able to start the end of his college run in Seattle when the Gonzaga Bulldogs play the late game on Friday night against North Dakota State at Key Arena. The Huskies missed out on the former Kentridge High School standout as he's had a solid career with the Zags. Although Bell's scoring is down this year, look for him to play extra hard in front of his hometown fans this weekend.
Tyler Harvey - Who led the NCAA in scoring this season? If you said Eastern Washington's Tyler Harvey, you are an Eagles fan or a hardcore college basketball addict. Harvey's 22.9 pts per game led the NCAA this year. The team, which ranks in the top 20 in the nation in 3 point percentage (39.6%) can shoot too. Harvey shoots almost 43% from beyond the arc. It was Harvey's scoring late in the game against Montana that propelled EWU to the victory. The sophomore from Torrance, California will be a thorn in the side of Georgetown in the Eagles' second round game Thursday night. If it means anything, EWU is the most popular 14-3 upset of the 4 according to some fan polls. EWU plays Georgetown Thursday evening at 6:57p.m. in Portland.
Kevin Ware - Most of us recall the horrific sight of Ware, who was with Louisville at the time, breaking his leg in an Elite Eight game against Duke two years ago. Louisville went on to win the NCAA Championship that year. Despite returning briefly to the team for the 2013-2014 season, he was never the same. He decided to transfer to Georgia State University and played with the Panthers for the 2014-2015 season. Georgia State, a 14 seed, plays 3 seed Baylor Thursday morning at 10:40 a.m in Jacksonville.
Joseph Young - While we hate to give Oregon Ducks props here, Young is an exciting player to watch. He's been on a scoring tear and can be a player that can propel his team deep into the tournament. The Ducks play the Oklahoma State Cowboys in an 8-9 game on Friday afternoon.
Some questions to ponder
Will you be rooting for the Pac 12 solely because they are in the same conference as the Huskies? I don't really subscribe to the argument that if Arizona, Utah, Oregon or UCLA does will in the tournament it lends more credibility to the conference. Maybe my view on this changes if the Huskies were in the tournament. But they are not, so it won't.
President Obama doesn't side with Gonzaga?
In his official bracket, President Obama picked Davidson to upset Gonzaga. Do you agree? Perhaps President Obama did not know that Steph Curry plays for the Warriors now.
Kentucky or the field?
Can Kentucky go wire-to-wire without a loss? Most folks are going with Kentucky in their brackets and it's hard to argue. Will you be rooting for perfection or another team to take them down?
Have fun watching the games!