Thursday's March Madness Menu
Thursday Early Action wins with Illinois (+2) over Minnesota 51-49 and UCLA (-4) over Arizona State 80-75!
IT'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL'S MINI-TOURNEY WEEK - WE CHECK OUT THE BEST MATCHUPS ON THIS WILD-AND-CRAZY THURSDAY MENU
By Jim Hurley
We'll save you the trouble and let you know that there are 45 on-the-board game today/tonight in the world of College Basketball with conference tournament action comin' your way from places like New York City, Greensboro, Chicago, Kansas City, Tulsa, Brooklyn, Nashville and Las Vegas.
Now, here's what is ahead today in what we deem the best head-to-head showdowns on the card ...
BIG 10 TOURNAMENT - at United Center; Chicago, IL
MINNESOTA (20-11, 8-10 Big 10) vs. ILLINOIS (21-11, 8-10 Big 10) - 12 p.m. ET, Big 10 Network
If you listen around than you do get the sense that both of these teams are on the "inside-looking-out" at an NCAA Tournament bid but we believe this one's truly an elimination game - especially is it's a "bad loss" for either the Minny Golden Gophers or the Illinois Fightin' Illini - and in a game in which Minnesota's a 2-point betting fav at press time a double-digit defeat by either side would be considered a "bad loss".
If Tubby Smith's Minnesota crew wishes to snap its two-game losing streak than ever-active F Trevor Mbakwe (10 ppg and 8.7 rpg) must fill up the stat sheet and lead the hustle brigade as he did in a recent home win against then-No. 1 Indiana - you might recall that Mbakwe starred in that 77-73 win with 21 points and 12 rebounds and that all happened in a mere 25 minutes of individual game time.
For the Illini - also coming in here to the Big 10 Tourney on a two-game losing skid - they need a consistent scoring game from seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey but if all else fails than John Groce's club will count on a spark from reserve Joseph Bertrand who missed last weekend's 68-55 loss at Ohio State with a bum shoulder.
Note that Minnesota and Illinois split their two regular-season showdowns - the oddity was each won on the other guy's home floor:
The Gophers copped an 84-67 win in Champaign back on January 9th; the Illini returned the favor with a 57-53 victory at "The Barn" on February 10th.
BIG EAST TOURNAMENT - at Madison Square Garden; New York, NY
#19 SYRACUSE (24-8, 11-7 Big East) vs. #17 PITTSBURGH (24-7, 12-6 Big East) - approximately 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
No doubt the 'Cuse entered their final Big East Tournament with lots of question marks after the Orange ended regular-season play having lost seven of its last dozen games but a wake-up call following halftime of yesterday's 75-63 win against Seton Hall was answered - now let's see if sharpshooter James Southerland (team-best 20 points versus the Pirates) can find the range here against a Pittsburgh defense that sports the Big East's best defense. Or didn't you know that the Panthers allow just 55.2 points per game this year - and Jamie Dixon's gang zooms into this quarterfinal clash riding a four-game winning streak that includes a triumph over NCAA Tournament-bound Villanova back on March 3rd.
According to the good folks at ESPN, both Syracuse and Pittsburgh can expect NCAA Tournament seeds in the #5-6-7 range but if Jim Boeheim's Orange "come alive" in this mini-tourney and make it to the championship game than we could see 'em shooting up to as high as a #3 seed and so there is reason to play hard:
Major key here is how 'Cuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams (a Big East Conference-record 14 assists and amazingly just 1 turnover against Seton Hall yesterday afternoon) handles the Pitt pressure that features lots of half-court traps.
If Pittsburgh noticed, the Hall shot 10-of-20 from beyond the three-point arc and still lost by a twin-figure margin in yesterday second-round game and so the Panthers must get plenty of points in the paint here and that means a big numbers showing from C Steven Adams who has played limited minutes lately because of a bum foot.
PAC-12 TOURNAMENT - at MGM Grand Arena; Las Vegas, NV
COLORADO (21-10, 10-8 Pac-12) vs. #18 ARIZONA (24-6, 12-6 Pac-12) - approximately 5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network
Fascinating quarterfinal round game in the always-unpredictable Pac-12 and do keep in mind that last year the Colorado Buffaloes came virtually out of nowhere to win the mini-tourney - and already Tad Boyle's guys are off to a good start with yesterday's 74-68 win against 6-point pup Oregon State featuring a 20-point performance by Spencer Dinwiddie and another strong defensive showing as the not-so-eager Beavers were held to 23-of-58 shooting from the floor (that's 39.7 percent).
Can the Buffs now suffocate an Arizona attack that averaged 73.4 ppg this year (second in the Pac-12) and starring dynamic G Mark Lyons (14.9 ppg) ... and will underdog Colorado thrive with its us-against-the-world attitude that keyed four wins in as many days in last year's Pac-12 Tournament?
One thing to watch for here in the best game on this Pac-12 Tourney card is how Arizona's defensive energy can be measured. In the Wildcats' regular-season-ending 73-58 win against archrival Arizona State, the U of A guys got after it while forcing 17 turnovers that led to 21 points as the 'Cats jumped the passing lanes and made some key steals.
If Arizona can get to the Pac-12 Tournament title game than Sean Miller's crew will get no worse than a #4 seed in next week's NCAA Tournament - so plenty to play for here!
BIG 12 TOURNAMENT - at Sprint Center; Kansas City, MO
BAYLOR (18-13, 9-9 Big 12) vs. #14 OKLAHOMA STATE (23-7, 13-6 Big 12) - approximately 9:30 p.m. ET
Here's a Big 12 quarterfinal round game dripping with intrigue ... and here's why: The Oklahoma State Cowboys - often forgotten when folks begin to speculate as to who might "steal" this year's wide-open national championship - could well be in the market for a #2 NCAA Tourney seed line should Travis Ford's club click this weekend in KayCee and win this fierce Big 12 Tourney.
On the flip side, the Baylor Bears could launch themselves back into NCAA Tournament conversation with a pair of wins here - as you can see that would give the Waco crew 20 victories this season - and Scott Drew's squad still has the parts to make things happen with PG Pierre Jackson (19.4 ppg and 6.6 apg) sparking last weekend's one-sided 81-58 upset win against 4 ½-point fav Kansas with his electrifying stat line of 28 points and 10 assists.
Oklahoma State - which split its two regular-season games against Baylor with a tight 69-67 home win on February 6th following Baylor's 64-54 home win back on January 21st - sports three players averaging between 14.2 and 15.6 points a game - that's Markel Brown, Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash - and all three of 'em can get their own shots which is ultra-key in close-and-late situations.
P.S., from the look-who's-hot department: Okie State's won 11 of its last 13 games while dating back to January 26th.
The first day of the Big 12 Tourney brought one upset - see Texas Tech's last-second 71-69 triumph over 8 ½-point favored West Virginia - and so the Pokes better be ready from the jump ball.
Okay, so here's our little Jim Sez list of other mini-tourney teams that are in must-win-or-else situations on this busy Thursday:
Maryland (20-11), Tennessee (19-11), Arkansas (19-12) and Iowa (20-11) - the way we see it here at Jim Sez, if any of these teams gets beaten today/tonight than it's turn-out-the-lights time for their NCAA Tournament lives. Got it?
Among Wednesday's mini-tourney stars ...
Notre Dame's 69-61 win/cover against 7 ½-point dog Rutgers didn't come without a couple of scares but the Irish can thank sniper G Pat Connaughton and unsung F Tom Knight who each scored season-highs with 21 and 18 points, respectively, with Connaughton canning 6-of-8 trifectas on a night when ND's big man star Jack Cooley managed just one made field goal for the night ...
On the left coast, Arizona State's Jahii Carson poured in 34 points in a scintillating 89-88 overtime triumph over 3 ½-point favorite Stanford.
Carson scored half of ASU's 10 overtime points and wound up the matinee tilt with 14 field goals in 22 attempts. Now, Arizona State (21-11) can officially lock up an NCAA Tournament berth with a win or a close loss this afternoon against UCLA.
NOTE: Lots more College B-Ball Conference Tournament action in the next edition of Jim Sez and get all our NCAA Tournament goodies beginning with our Sunday column!
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