NCAA Tournament 2nd Round: Saturday Game Previews

Second-round action starts today and for all the talk about the first-round upsets we saw, keep in mind that Saturday and Sunday destroys far more brackets than Thursday or Friday. Unless you’re the beneficiary of playing in a pod were somebody got taken out early, every opponent is capable of at least a puncher’s chance against anyone else. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at today’s eight games, in the order they’ll appear on TV…

Kansas State-Syracuse (12:15 PM ET, CBS): I’ve argued all year that Syracuse is not an exceptionally talented team, but one that is exceptionally well-coached by Jim Boeheim. It’s similar to Duke in that eventually talent deficiencies are exposed regardless of how good the guy on the sideline is. When you add in the suspension of Syracuse center Fab Melo, you now have a game that’s effectively a toss-up in the 1-8 spot on the bracket. If Kansas State is going to take advantage of the opportunity, then Jamar Samuels needs to show up and play big in the post. The Wildcats were lucky to survive on Thursday when Samuels wasn’t able to produce anything, thanks to guard Rodney McGruder putting up 30 points. McGruder’s genuinely good, but I trust it goes without saying that if they need him to get 30 again today, they won’t win.

The Orange need a big performance from forward Kris Joseph. He’s not normally a big rebounder, but with Melo out, there’s no other choice. When I did my bracket originally, I had Syracuse surviving this game before going out in the Sweet 16. After watching their game on Thursday I’m moving up the execution date and picking Kansas State to advance.

Gonzaga-Ohio State (2:45 PM ET, CBS): Gonzaga played a great basketball game on Thursday night and with Elias Harris and Robert Sacre they have the manpower to match up with Ohio State’s potent combo of Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas. Well, perhaps matchup is too strong, as very few can go even-up with Sullinger when he’s locked in. It should be a good game, but even though Gonzaga’s freshman guards played very well on Thursday, I don’t like that kind of inexperience going up against Aaron Craft and William Buford in the backcourt. The call here is that Ohio State is able to capitalize on some mistakes and ride Sullinger to date in Boston next weekend.

Murray State-Marquette (5:10 PM ET, CBS): The pace should be fast and furious here, as both teams are very good in the backcourt—Isaiah Caan for the Racers and Darius Johnson-Odom are as good as any guards in this tournament, and both can churn out the points. MU needs another big game from small forward Jae Crowder, who had 25 points/16 rebounds against BYU on Thursday. It comes down to the wire, but a hidden intangible is that this game is being played in Louisville, close to the campus at Murray State. Kentucky is also playing here, and I would think their fans probably jump behind Murray State. For being a  #3 seed, Marquette got robbed on the draw (and even though I’m from Milwaukee, I’m the rare Irish Catholic who’s ditched the Golden Eagles in favor of the Badgers so that’s not bias talking) and I think Murray State nips out a high scoring game.

Vanderbilt-Wisconsin (6:10 PM ET, TNT): Since I’m a Wisconsin fan, I won’t make a pick here, but just tell you what I’m worried about and where I’m hopeful. There’s a lot more of the former, because talent-wise this is Vandy’s game to lose. UW can’t match up with Festus Ezeli in the paint. The Badgers’ defense can frustrate prolific scorer John Jenkins in the backcourt, but if Ezeli and forward Jeffrey Taylor are ready to play, there’s not going to be any answers for Bo Ryan. The hopeful side? Vanderbilt has shown a definite tendency to play below their talent level, especially in big games. Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor is as good, if not better, than any individual player Vandy has. And Ryan’s teeth-pulling style can drive any team to frustration. Wisconsin’s losses in the NCAA Tournament in recent years haven’t come to power teams who overwhelm them with talent. Since 2008, Bucky’s been eliminated by Davidson, Xavier, Cornell and Butler—teams not overwhelmed by Ryan’s style. That works in Wisconsin’s favor. I’m ready to hunker down with the corned beef and Sierra Mist and enjoy this one.

VCU-Indiana (7:10 PM ET, TNT): Before Indiana’s first-round game with New Mexico State I wrote that Cody Zeller needed to play a big game in the post, because if it got settled in the backcourt, IU was at least vulnerable. Zeller played well, but not dominant. His team was bailed out by Jordan Hulls scoring 22 points. The Hoosiers won’t survive if Zeller isn’t clearly the best frontline player on the floor tonight. The VCU guards, led by Darius Theus, who runs the show well and hit an off-balance jumper that sealed the win over Wichita State will win a battle of the backcourts. But Tom Crean is a tournarment-toughnened coach just like Shaka Smart, and Crean’s Hoosiers get the win.

Iowa State-Kentucky (7:45 PM ET, CBS): I’m sure John Calipari has been showing his kids tape of Iowa State’s Royce White dominating performance over UConn in an effort to avoid the letdown factor. While UConn was no better than Iowa State all season (in fact the Cyclones were the #8 seed), everyone was looking forward to seeing Kentucky battle the defending champs in a presumed changing-of-the-guard game. As long as Kentucky comes out prepared, they have too much talent for Iowa State, and with players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who’s consistently played his best basketball in the team’s biggest games, to go with Anthony Davis down low blocking shots rebounding, Kentucky won’t lose here.

Colorado-Baylor (8:40 PM ET, TNT): Old Big 12 rivals take the floor in Albuquerque, and there’s some quality frontline players in this one. Colorado has Andre Roberson and Spencer Dinwiddie, but Baylor’s got a little more depth, with Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller. The Bears also have the better floor leader in Pierre Jackson and for that reason they advance to Atlanta next weekend. Take note that the winner of this game draws the Xavier-Lehigh game next week, so a bracket break is ahead for someone.

New Mexico-Louisville (9:40 PM ET, TBS): Perhaps the best game of the day goes last. The Lobos’ Drew Gordon is the equal—if not the superior—of any player Louisville can offer down low. Louisville is much deeper, with seven players getting regular contributions. Even though the game is in Portland I’m expecting a lively crowd. Indiana is right before this, and I have to think their fans will get behind former Hoosier hero Steve Alford and happily pull against Pitino. Maybe a little intangible factor to watch for is whether Indiana wins and the fans stay in the building and in a good mood. Add it all up, and we’ve got a good game and I like the Lobos to advance.