Six-pack of intriguing NCAA hoops games

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:12 PM ET

TORONTO - March Madness got underway earlier than usual this year, but as always, most people won’t really start paying attention until the more heralded programs tip off on Thursday and Friday.

Don’t expect to see a No. 16 seed knock off a top seed or a No. 15 take out a No. 2, but there should be some good games on display.

There are 16 games to watch on Thursday. These six should be the most intriguing:

No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Morehead State: On paper, this seems like a rout in the making. Legendary Louisville bench boss Rick Pitino takes his 14th-ranked team up against an unheralded school making just its fourth tournament appearance.

But don’t be fooled. Eagles big man Kenneth Faried just broke Tim Duncan’s NCAA record for rebounds in a career and is a demon on defence. Morehead State grabs 9.2 more boards than its opponents and gives up just 61.7 points per game. By contrast, the Cardinals average only 0.5 boards more than opponents so appear to be set up to get crushed on the glass.

No. 6 St. John’s vs. No. 11 Gonzaga: St. John’s put itself back on the map with a strong season, but Gonzaga has been on the cusp of greatness for years now. If Elias Harris can find his lost game and North Vancouver’s Robert Sacre attacks the glass the way he hasn’t too often in his career, the ’Zags can pull off the upset. To muddle matters further, St. John’s is coming off of a defeat, while Gonzaga has won nine in a row. Plus Gonzaga scores 11.6 more points per game than opponents, while St. John’s is just +3.7.

The Bulldogs have made 13 straight tourney appearances - including a win over Thursday’s opponent as a 10-seed back in 2000.

No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 Michigan State: Arguably the best basketball coach in the world, Tom Izzo will not let the Spartans go down easily. MSU is an underrated squad that is healthier than the one that made it to the Final Four a season ago.

However, UCLA is the higher-seeded team for a reason. They score more and give up less points and were .500 on the road, unlike 4-8 Michigan State.

The 9:20 start will be more favourable to the Bruins.

No. 8 Butler vs. No. 9 Old Dominion: How will the ultimate Cinderella from a year ago fare without its Cinderella? Gordon Hayward is on the Utah Jazz and nobody left on the roster is anywhere close to as talented.

Not much separates these clubs, which should make for one of the best early games. Both have won nine straight, both have stingy defences and sneaky offensive punch.

Butler’s magical ride to the championship game a year ago should give it an edge based on experience.

No. 3 Connecticut vs. No. 14 Bucknell: We’re not sure how he’ll fare in the NBA, but UCONN’s Kemba Walker might be the most exciting NCAA player in this whole extravaganza. Breathtaking speed, creativity and stage presence make Walker a potential featured athlete on the “One Shining Moment” montage that’s to come.

Bucknell has pulled off a shocker before — taking out No. 3 Kansas in 2003 — and its second-leading scorer and top shooter is Pictou, N.S.’s Bryson Johnson. UCONN is probably still tired from its incredible run to Big East tourney glory, so Bucknell can make a game of it by jumping on the Huskies early.

No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 13 Princeton: This should be more of a walk than the other games, but Kentucky is always an entertaining team to watch, thanks to John Calipari’s pro-style offence and athletic standouts.

The Wildcats horribly underwhelmed last year and this edition does not have the awe-inspiring talent base of that group, but Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight are lethal performers who can excel at either end of the floor.

But as Calipari told reporters on Wednesday: “You can’t count on freshmen ... how they’ll respond to this situation, I have no idea.”

Expect the Wildcats to be just fine.


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