No. 13 Murray State Racers (30-4, OVC)
No. 4 Vanderbilt Commodores (24-8, SEC)
2:30 P.M EST
HP Pavilion, San Jose, CA
With three games under our belts, we've got our first advertised bracketbuster of the day. The 13th-seeded Racers are one of the handful of the teams that have already been fitted for a pair of glass high tops. And Vandy is a major conference middler that nobody believes in. This one's got all the makings of an upset and no lesser authority than President Obama has tapped Murray State to advance.
According to some formula crafted by the stats folks at the Worldwide Leader, Murray State has a "Giant Killer" rating of 94.5%. That seems like it's probably a good thing even though I'm not really sure what it means. I do understand, on the other hand, that coming up with the ball after 39.5% of their missed shots is a big deal. Murray State does that, even though I didn't know that we had a state named "Murray." Was it annexed like Puerto Rico? Is it a protectorate like Guam?
While a lot of smart folks take point differential heavily into consideration when deciding which teams are actually good and which have just won a bunch of games, I really dig offensive rebounds. They can suck the life out of a team and sap the clock like few things can.
On the other hand, the only thing I like about Vanderbilt is that they play home games at Memorial Coliseum. The court is essentially on a stage in this multi-purpose arena that was built during the 1950s. It always struck me as an awesome venue and one that really suited Nashville (where the school is located). Both teams from the South are far from home, playing California. This truly neutral-court game should favor Murray State since impartial fans gravitate toward the underdog.
Frankly, there's so much hype for the Racers that part of me wants to run the other way. I want to say that for all its weaknesses, Vandy has played a far tougher schedule and has better atheltes. And that they're better prepared physically and emotionally for this game. But I'm going to pencil Murray State into my bracket against that instinct. And this is a strategic play. Even if they win this game, I don't see Vandy sticking around past this weekend. So, I'm going to take a calculated risk by keeping alive a potential Cinderella.
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi: Murray State
SI's Seth Davis: Vanderbilt
President Obama: Murray State
WWOD?: Murray State (for bracket purposes but I'm not putting any money on them)
No. 14 Sam Houston State Bearkats (25-7, Southland)
No. 3 Baylor Bears (25-7, Big 12)
2:52 P.M. EST
New Orleans Arena, New Orleans, LA
Stephen Colbert is likely staying away from this one. Bears vs. Bearkats? Who ya got?
Usually when picking tournament games, I tend to overlook the actual records of the teams in question. This helps when a 30-win Memphis team is going out early but in general it is not wise. But I do it all the time in search of some Rosetta Stone stat (like offensive rebounds or point differential) that is going to unlock the secrets of the game. I repeat: This is not wise. In this case, I'm going to pay attention to regular-season wins and regular-season losses.
Both of these ballclubs are 25-7. Baylor achieved that record playing in the Big 12 alongside Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Texas. Those teams are all playing in the Big Dance. The Bears beat Texas three times, the importance of which can't be overstated for a team that hails from Waco, TX. They split with Texas A&M and beat Missouri when those two tangled. On the flip side, Baylor went 0-2 against the two Kansas powerhouses (lost by a combined 8 points) during the regular season and were dumped out of the Big 12 Tournament by K-State. On the whole, they had a very impressive season before we even examine how they did what they did.
The "Bearkats" don't boast nearly the same resume. The Southland Conference sent one other teams to the dance. That team is the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. Not exactly a world beater. In an unrelated note, I can't shake the fact that I think of Yosemite Same whenever I see the words "Sam Houston State." I'm not exactly sure why, but ... I just ... it just happened again.
This being two Texas teams, I'm guessing/hoping that there is some simmering animosity about whom played high school ball against whom and which schools did or did not recruit so-and-so. There are few things that can even up a matchup like a simmering grudge. SHS has three players that average double digits in points per game. So these guys can fill it up and can't be stopped by one lockdown defender. They've thrown up 90 or more points on 11 occasions this season. That's gosh darn impressive, Yosemite Sam might say. Being able to score 100 points is a mighty fine ability for a team looking to pull an upset if you ask me.
If they weren't facing, the Baylor Bears - the "underdog" favorite of this tournament - then I might be inclined to advance them. But I can't. Not just because Baylor has competed against very good teams all year long. But also because one of the top three players on the team is named Tweety Carter. And he is one of three Baylor upperclassmen to average in double figures. In the age of Twitter, how can you not expect the player named Tweety to break out as one of the darlings of this tournament?
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi: Baylor
SI's Seth Davis Baylor
President Obama: Baylor
No. 15 North Texas Mean Green (24-8, Sun Belt)
No. 2 Kansas State Wildcats (26-7, Big 12)
2:40 P.M. EST
Ford Center, Oklahoma City, OK
To be honest, I hadn't paid much attention to Kansas State until Michael Beasley arrived on campus a few years ago. Before that I knew that the school was based in Manhattan, Kansas. And, I inferred that the University of Kansas was their natural rival. But that's really it.
By watching Beastly two years ago I did learn that coach Frank Martin is a live wire. That dude can yell and gesticulate and freak out with the best of them. Alas, when the Beastley and company meakly bowed out of the tournament in 2008, I mostly stopped thinking about the Wildcats. At least, until the Knicks acquired Bill Walker as part of the Nate Robinson trade. Walker was one of Beasley running mates. He can't shoot particularly well, but the kid is a phenomenal athlete with a nose for the hoop. He's paced the Knicks in scoring on several nights since joining the club. And, yes, I do understand that isn't a major feat. But, Walker has made me realize that Beasley wasn't the lone gifted athlete to come through the Midwest's Manhattan. To continue to be honest about my ignorance, I didn't realize they were getting these sorts of players on campus. This may be old news to someone who actually follows a lot of college basketball but to this guy who mostly sees Big East and ACC hoops, that was news.
The knock on Martin's squad is they dropped all their games against Kansas. This would seem to indicate that they're a notch below the best teams in the country. And, I wouldn't quibble with that. But I would say that they are still very capable of making a deep run.
As far as the Mean Green as concerned, I Iove the nickname. It's the best of the tournament so far. But, I will never ever pick a team that surrendered one of Florida International Atlantic's seven wins. They lost to an Isiah Thomas-coached team. Kansas State advances. And covers.
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi: Kansas State
SI's Seth Davis: Kansas State
President Obama: Kansas State
WWOD?: Kansas State
No. 11 St Mary's Gaels (26-5, WCC)
No. 7 Richmond Spiders (26-8, A10)
Before the finals of the WCC Conference Tournament, Bang the Book (a gambling website) wrote "Poor St. Mary’s is going to be thrown to the wolves once again in this game."
This seemed to be the prevailing attitude before that game. But the Gaels stepped up and rolled favored Gonzaga, nailing 10 of 21 three-point attempts and running away with the game in the second half. One of the many biases that (mis)guide me as I fill out my many tournament brackets is an aversion to mid-major teams that needed a miracle just to be invited. Now, I'm not saying that St. Mary's misses out if they lose that game. They would still have had 25 wins in a respected midmajor conference. And some would say that St. Mary's is the new Gonzaga. But I'm not so sure. I also never saw them play once this year. Which is obviously a huge factor in these games.
I did manage to catch the latter stages of Richmond's OT win over Xavier in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament, though, and I came away very impressed by junior guard Kevin Anderson. The diminutive yet powerful ball handler wouldn't surrender and his team mirrored his intensity. Anderson dropped 27 points on the Musketeers after averaging more than 17 per game for the season. Richmond would go on to fall in the A10 Final to Temple, but I don't hold it against them. The Owls are no scraps and were looking for payback after being routed by the Spiders during the regular season.
Forgetting my crush on Anderson, Omar Samhan of St. Mary's is the best player in this game. He's 6 foot 11 and goes for 20 and 11 per night. Which would lead one to think that Gaels will be able to go inside if they're not knocking down shots like they were in their previous game.
In Richmond's favor, they did play a better conference schedule, with wins over Xavier, Temple and Rhode Island. They also have non-conference triumphs over Missouri, Mississippi State, Old Dominion and Florida.
Lastly, Spiders are scarier than wind. Even gael-force wind.
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi: Richmond
SI's Seth Davis: St. Mary's
President Obama: St. Mary's
WWOD?: Richmond (barely and I'm not putting any money on it)
No. 12 University of Texas, El Paso Miners (26-6 C-USA)
No. 4 Butler Bulldogs (28-4, Horizon)
4:45 P.M. EST
HP Pavilion, San Jose, CA
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi: UTEP
SI's Seth Davis: Butler
President Obama: Butler
WWOD?: UTEP (I'd take the 2.5 or 3 points here since I see this going down to the wire).