The first day of the Round of 32 features some of the teams that have already become tournament darlings this year. Georgia State and UAB are both in action on Saturday, attempting to pull off upsets for the second straight game. The Panthers are looking for their first ever trip to the Sweet 16, while the Blazers are trying to get back for the first time since 2004.
Saturday also features two of the best individual players in the country on the same court, a pair of what should be great 4-vs.-5 games and Kentucky’s continued quest for perfection, among other intriguing storylines.
The tournament has barely just begun, but any team that wins this weekend can truly set the Final Four in its sights.
12:10 p.m. ET on CBS
South Region: No. 11 UCLA (21-13, 11-7 in Pac-12) vs. No. 14 UAB (20-15, 12-6 in Conference USA)
The Bruins and Blazers pulled off two of the more stunning upsets in the Round of 64 and won by identical 60-59 scores. UAB was a 14 1/2-point underdog to Iowa State, which was five days removed from winning the Big 12 championship, yet the Blazers shut down Cyclones star Georges Niang and did just enough on offense to emerge victorious. UCLA, meanwhile, was a dubious at-large selection, and won thanks largely to a controversial goaltending call against SMU's Yanick Moreira on a would-be three-pointer by Bryce Alford that was clearly not going to be anywhere near going through the hoop.
Now these two will meet for an unlikely spot in the Sweet 16. Alford was the hero against SMU (he had eight threes before the goaltending and single-handedly kept the Bruins alive), and he'll need help from freshman forward Kevon Looney, who only contributed six points on Thursday, though he did have 10 rebounds. If UCLA can win the battle on the glass, UAB, which outrebounded Iowa State by 15 and had 19 offensive boards, will need to do shoot better than their 34.8% effort on Thursday.
2:40 p.m. ET on CBS
Midwest Region: No. 1 Kentucky (35-0, 18-0 in SEC) vs. No. 8 Cincinnati (23-10, 13-5 in AAC)
A win by the Wildcats would make them 36-0, which would set a new record for a Division I men's team. While the Bearcats were impressive in rallying back to beat Purdue, especially without forward Octavius Ellis, who was ejected for a flagrant foul, they aren't the sort of team that can scare Kentucky. Cincinnati is all defense and little offense, preferring to grind out possessions and score in the paint. Are the Bearcats really going to be able to do that frequently enough to beat one of the biggest and best defenses of recent memory?
Cincinnati is weak on the defensive glass, ranking 239th in the country in offensive rebounding rate allowed. Kentucky, meanwhile, racked up the fifth-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the country. The Bearcats also turn it over on 21 percent of their possessions. Basically, they play right into the Wildcats’ hands. This is a mismatch of huge proportions. Expect Kentucky to march into the Sweet 16.
D’Angelo Russell against Stanley Johnson. This is almost certainly going to be the last college basketball game for one of America's best freshmen, with both the Ohio State point guard and the Arizona wing projected to be top-five picks in June’s NBA Draft. The Wildcats are justifiably heavy favorites, but Russell has that game-breaking gene we saw from Connecticut's Shabazz Napier last year. He is almost always the best player on the floor, regardless of who is on the other side. That makes Ohio State dangerous against any team.
Outside of Russell, the two key players for the Buckeyes may be Marc Loving and Amir Williams. The Wildcats have one of the best defenses in the country, but they can get leaky from time to time against the three-ball. Loving is shooting 46 percent from behind the arc this year, and could be that second scorer for the Buckeyes. Arizona is also great on the boards, led by Brandon Ashely and Kaleb Tarczewski. Williams will have to have one of his best rebounding games of the season for Ohio State to advance.
6:10 p.m. ET
West Region: No. 6 Xavier (22-13, 9-9 in Big East) vs. No. 14 Georgia State (25-9, 15-5 in Sun Belt)
Unless there’s a buzzer beater in the national championship game, Georgia State’s father-son duo of Ron and R.J. Hunter may have already given us the lasting image of the 2015 tournament. R.J. drilled what proved to be a game-winning three from 30 feet out with 2.6 seconds left against Baylor, and Ron, who tore his Achilles while celebrating the team’s Sun Belt championship five days prior, fell off his stool in excitement. It doesn’t get much more March than that.
If the Panthers are going to continue the celebration, they’re going to have to figure out a way to slow down Matt Stainbrook. The senior center had 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting in Xavier’s decimation of Mississippi in the Round of 64. Stainbrook could really burn a Georgia State team that only has one rotation player taller than 6’6”. The Panthers are also going to have to control the tempo by slowing it down. Xavier doesn't force many turnovers, so they may be able to do that. Still, if Georgia State can't find an answer for Stainbrook, it may not matter.
7:10 p.m. ET on TBS
East Region: No. 1 Villanova (33-2, 16-2 in Big East) vs. No. 8 N.C. State (21-13, 10-8 in ACC)
There were no shenanigans from the top-seeded Wildcats in their Round of 64 game against Lafayette. They shot 63.2% and got 22 assists on 36 field goals en route to a 41-point victory. Life won’t be as easy on Saturday, but this team is clicking on all cylinders right now.
N.C. State beat Duke, North Carolina and Louisville, this year, so it can step up into Villanova’s weight class. The Wolfpack needs to be wary of trying to shoot with the Wildcats. Behind Ryan Arcidiacono, Dylan Ennis, Josh Hart and Darrun Hilliard, Villanova is 18th in the country in three-point percentage and 17th in two-point percentage. If this game gets up into the 70s, N.C. State will have very little chance to win. They Wolfpack need to pick their spots to run, limit the amount of possessions and get Trevor Lacey and Cat Barber going to pull off the upset. They have to play much better than they did in their Round of 64 win, however. Villanova simply will not let them hang around they way LSU, which missed its last 12 field goals and last six free throws, did.
Both of these teams were popular picks to go down in the first round, and one of them nearly did. And while Utah was able to hold off a late charge from Stephen F. Austin, it showed why it might have trouble getting past Georgetown. The Utes scored just 57 points against a team that ranked 90th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They’re going to need a much better showing to get into the Sweet 16.
As for the Hoyas, they put up one of the most impressive performances of the Round of 64 in the last game of the night. They shot 52.1% from the floor and got 1.22 points per possession, cruising to an 84-74 win over Eastern Washington.
Utah can take advantage of Georgetown’s deficiencies guarding the three. The Utes have a trio of very good shooters in Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor and Delon Wright. If they get cranking, it may be hard for the Hoyas to keep pace. Georgetown isn’t really a team that gets up and down the court, but few teams in the country play slower than Utah. The Hoyas can make the Utes uncomfortable if they control tempo and they have the personnel to do that, led by D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Jabril Trawick.
8:40 p.m. ET on TNT
West Region: No. 4 North Carolina (25-11, 11-7 in ACC) vs. No. 5 Arkansas (27-8, 13-5 in SEC)
Both of these teams were pushed to the brink in the Round of 64, narrowly surviving challenges from double-digit seeds. North Carolina failed to put No. 13 seed Harvard away despite leading by 16 in the second half, and actually had to score the last four points in the game to win by two. In the next game in Jacksonville, couldn’t put any distance between itself and No. 12 seed Wofford, but held off the Terriers, who missed two shots to tie in the final 10 seconds, behind a great game from Michael Qualls, and big-time late-game performance from Bobby Portis.
This should be one of the more exciting games of the Round of 32. Both the Tar Heels and Razorbacks are ranked in the top 20 in adjusted tempo. At the same time, neither is a great three-point shooting team. Expect to see a lot of transition from both teams, with both trying to get into the paint as much as possible.
The key matchup in this game is North Carolina’s offense against Arkansas’ defense. The Tar Heels are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and the Razorbacks struggle to clean up their own glass. On the other hand, North Carolina is just average when it comes to taking care of the ball, and Arkansas ranks 20th in turnover rate on defense. Whichever team comes out on the right side of those battles will likely be headed to the Sweet 16.
Is Notre Dame knocking down shots? How healthy is Roosevelt Jones? If the answers to those questions are “yes,” and “not very,” Butler is going to have an awfully tough time in this game. Butler’s offense isn’t very special even with Jones on the floor. If the knee injury he suffered in Thursday's win over Texas limits him, and all evidence suggests that it will, the Bulldogs are going to have an even tougher time putting the ball in the basket. That’s not good news when you’re playing one of the best offensive teams in the country.
Expect Butler to change up its defensive looks all game in an effort to make the Irish uncomfortable. Remember, Northeastern hung with Notre Dame in the Round of 64 before the Irish went on a spurt and opened up their lead to 14 points in the blink of an eye. Northeastern rallied back and had a chance at the upset in the final minute, but Notre Dame had demonstrated again just how quickly it can turn a close game into a blowout. The Bulldogs rank eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, but with the many offensive options for the Irish—Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson attacking the rim, Pat Connaughton and Steve Vasturia raining threes and Zach Auguste inside—they're awfully tough for any team to slow down. Butler needs to keep this game in the 60s to have a chance to win.