MATCHUP: No. 3 seeded Florida vs. No. 14 seeded Northwestern State in the South Region.
THE OPPONENT: Northwestern State won the Southland Conference tournament and is playing in the NCAAs for the third time under veteran coach Mike McConathy. The Demons lead the nation in scoring at 81 points a game.
KEYS TO VICTORY: The Gators have had trouble closing out close games this season. At times, including in their SEC tournament title game loss to Ole Miss, they’ve been overly reliant on the 3 ball. Patric Young and Erik Murphy have to get more touches in the paint.
Florida’s defense, allowing just 53.7 points a game and .377 shooting will be tested by a team that likes to score in transition.
KEY PLAYERS: Murphy is one of the best inside-outside threats in the country, and when he’s mixing both of those disciplines in the same game, he’s often the best player on the floor. So it was against LSU in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, when he made 11 of 15 shots, including 5 of 7 from 3, scored 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
DeQuan Hicks, a 6-7, 230-pound junior, leads Northwestern State in scoring (14.1 ppg) and is the second-leading rebounder (5.8 rpg) despite playing just 20 minutes a game.
GAME: No. 9 seeded Missouri vs. No. 8 seeded Colorado State in the Midwest Region.
THE OPPONENT: The Rams didn’t miss a beat after former coach Tim Miles left for Nebraska and was replaced by Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy, who led them to a second-place finish in the rugged Mountain West and a national ranking for the first time since 1954.
KEYS TO VICTORY: Like Florida, Missouri struggled in close games. It’s important that point guard Phil Pressey make good decisions, but especially in the last five minutes.
KEY PLAYERS: Senior forward Alex Oriakhi has become an increasingly more important part of the Tigers’ offense, as evidenced by his performance in the SEC tournament, where he made 13 of 14 shots in two games. Oriakhi racked up 13 points and 10 boards against Texas A&M and 16 and nine against Ole Miss.
Colton Iverson became eligible after transferring from Minnesota and led the Rams in scoring (14.7 ppg), rebounding (9.8 rpg), blocked shots (22) and field-goal percentage (.599).
GAME: No. 5 seeded Wisconsin vs. No. 12 seeded Ole Miss in the West Region.
THE OPPONENT: This wasn’t the best team Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has ever put on the floor, especially after losing point guard Josh Gasser before the season began, but the Badgers were up to their old tricks in the Big Ten, finishing tied for fourth and bagging seven victories over teams in the Associated Press top 15, three of them over Indiana.
KEYS TO VICTORY: Wisconsin prides itself on taking away the 3-point shot. Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, who has attempted nearly 11 3s a game this season, can’t force shots from behind the arc. Little known fact: Henderson has also averaged 5.3 free throws and is shooting at an 88-percent clip. He’s more than just a perimeter gunslinger.
KEY PLAYERS: The Rebels’ Reginald Buckner, known primarily as a shot blocker in his four-year career, was engaged during the SEC tournament, earning all-tournament honors and contributing on both ends of the floor. He’s got to be a two-way threat against the Badgers.
Jared Berggren is a typical Wisconsin big man in that he’s an inside-outside threat. But the Rebels need to be aware of guards Ben Brust, a clutch shooter and great rebounder for his size, and freshman Sam Dekker, a freshman who has made some big shots as the Badgers’ sixth man.
NIT REPORT: I once asked former South Carolina coach Dave Odom about the success his teams had in the NIT. Some might consider it a dubious distinction, given that it meant the Gamecocks failed to make the NCAA field, but in Odom’s first five seasons in Columbia, South Carolina was NIT runner-up in 2002 and won the tournament in 2005 and 2006.
The key, Odom said, was convincing his players that they were privileged to be on one of the 90 or so teams still playing deep into March, and that it would behoove them to show up and play hard for as long as the ride lasted. In Odom’s tenure, the Gamecocks played in 15 NIT games.
So far, one of the three SEC teams that made the NIT field in 2013 appears to have taken that advice. No. 1 seeded Alabama’s defense stifled Northeastern on Tuesday night, limiting the Huskies to 33 percent shooting.
Kentucky, also a No. 1 seed, had the misfortune of being sent on the road because NCAA Tournament second- and third-round games are being played in Rupp Arena. The result: a one-point loss at Robert Morris, after which coach John Calipari said his team was “hijacked” this season.
What he meant was that, without much depth, especially after the loss of center Nerlens Noel, he had little choice but to play freshmen who may have needed competition to push them into more consistent effort.
That won’t be a problem next season. In addition to the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, a haul some analysts are saying is the best of all time, some of the freshmen on this year’s team are likely to resist the lure of the NBA and stay around. Guard Archie Goodwin’s response to whether he was leaving was classic. “If any of us are saying we think we should leave, we’re all being delusional,” he told the media.
The final SEC team in the NIT is No. 2 seed Tennessee, which plays host to Mercer on Wednesday night. If the Vols win, they’ll earn a trip to BYU, which defeated Washington on Tuesday night. Tennessee was forced to go on the road in the second round because the Lady Vols are hosting an NCAA tournament regional next week.
Tennessee had held out hopes of an NCAA tournament bid, but a loss to Alabama in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament proved too much to overcome. The NIT trip is the Vols’ second straight, and coach Cuonzo Martin admits he was disappointed by the NCAA snub.
“I'm upset for our guys because I felt like we did the work [to get in the NCAAs],” Martin said. “Last year I wasn't upset. I was hurt for our guys because of the work they put in, but this year is a little bit different. I felt we did the necessary work to be in the NCAA tournament, so that part is unfortunate. You can't get any better scheduling than we got in the preseason."
Can the Vols wrap their heads around playing in the NIT? Mercer won at Florida State and Alabama this season, so the Bears won’t be intimidated. And the Vols better be ready.