Monday, March 14, 2011

Five Best Opening Round Games: Thursday Edition

First, a rant ...

Let's call CBS/TNT and the NCAA out on something that is beyond ridiculous. They are now trying to convince us that the play-in games are legitimate enough to be their own round and that Thursday and Friday's games are actually the "second round."

No, CBS/TNT and NCAA -- your play-in games still only make up the play-in round. If you want to look at as you gave 60 teams a first-round bye, go ahead, but that's a leap you guys are going to make by yourselves.

Rant over.

For those who don't want to take advantage of every single game being aired this year -- CBS, TBS, truTV and TNT are all showing games -- here are the best five games on Thursday when the tournament really gets rolling. Check back tomorrow for Friday's best five games.

Let's roll ...

No. 8 Butler vs. No. 9 Old Dominion
Tip at 12:40 p.m., on truTV

Could everyone's favorite underdog from last year, the Butler Bulldogs, drop out of this year's Big Dance in the first round? I say yes.

Butler (23-9) had another great year and won its conference tournament, but the Monarch of Old Dominion (27-6) may just be good enough to topple last year's runner-up. Led by Frank Hassell (15 points, 9.6 rebounds per game) down low, the Monarchs have the size to give the scrappy bunch from Butler all they can handle. The Monarchs averaged 40.2 rebounds per game as a team, seventh-best in the NCAA; Butler came in 177th this year in team rebounding.   

No. 7 Temple vs. No. 10 Penn State 
Tip at 2:10 p.m., on TNT 

Can our non-Jimmer* local rooting interest -- Penn State's Talor Battle, a Bishop Maginn graduate -- do some damage in his first trip to the tournament? The senior point guard delivered all years for the team from Happy Valley to the tune of 20.1 points per game and upped his game in the Big Ten's conference tournament's later rounds, going for 24.5 points, six rebounds and six assists per game in the semifinals and championship.
No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 Belmont
Tip at 7:27 p.m., on truTV

This one will feature two teams who sure like to play different styles of ball. Slow-it-down, slug-it-out Wisconsin -- coming off a 36-33 loss to Battle's Nittany Lions -- likes to walk the ball up the court and work deep into the shot clock before locking up its opponents on defense; meanwhile, the 30-4 Belmont Bruins love to run-and-gun, averaging 80.4 points per game this season, 11th best in the NCAA. 
Wisconsin has struggled in past tournaments against teams that move the Badgers out of their comfort zone -- the 50s -- so this one could give us the tournament's largest upset, seeding-wise. Even if Belmont cannot pull off the upset, this one will be an interesting watch to see which team's style wins out.

No. 6 St. Johns vs. No. 11 Gonzaga
Tip at 9:45 p.m., CBS

Back in the tournament for the first time in years, the Johnnies are welcomed by a March mainstay, Mark Few's Gonzaga Bulldogs. Steve Lavin's Red Storm lost its best player -- D.J. Kennedy -- for the season in the team's loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament, but this is still a more than winnable game for St. Johns.
No. 5 Kansas State vs. No. 12 Utah State
Tip at 9:57 p.m., on truTV 

One of the night's final games features a potential 12-5 upset, everyone's favorite underdog matchup. This one should not disappoint, as Utah State actually should be the favorite in this one -- Utah State finished the season with an RPI of 15; Kansas State finished at 23.

At this point, we know all about Kansas State. They have an outstanding guard in Jacob Pullen, a crazy coach in Frank Martin and ferocious bigs down low. But Utah State (29-3) is a fantastic team on a great ride this season, winning 24 of its last 25 games. Should be a fun one ... especially if Utah State can pull off the upset so we can watch Martin lose it.

*BYU and Jimmer should easily advance out of the first round, so I didn't include the game. But, Fredette's bunch plays Thursday at 7:15 p.m. on CBS.

-- Michael Kelly


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