Alabama is the tournament’s top overall seed and is set up to play two games in Birmingham. That home cooking is important after the Crimson Tide were regularly jeered away from home after police revealed star Brandon Miller transported the gun to what became a murder scene.
No. 2 seed Arizona reached the Sweet 16 last season before losing and figures to advance at least that far this time. Third-seeded Baylor won the NCAA title two years ago but is a prime team to be sent packing early this time after losing four of its last six games.
Tony Bennett-coached Virginia (No. 4 seed) can go either way — the Cavaliers won a title in 2019 and were the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed (UMBC) 12 months earlier.
Alabama (29-5) will be under pressure throughout March Madness due to the ugly incident in which Jamea Harris was shot and killed on Jan. 15. The school botched the public relations side and coach Nate Oats’ “wrong spot at the wrong time” comment regarding Miller assured this won’t be a feel-good title run. Miller (19.7 points, 8.3 rebounds per game) has kept up his high standard of play under the scrutiny and he will need help from Mark Sears (12.8 ppg) and Noah Clowney (10.3) during the expected tourney run. No matter how good this edition of the Crimson Tide looks, it can’t be forgotten that they were sent home by No. 11 seed Notre Dame in the first round last March.
No. 2 seed Arizona (28-6) is set up to make a deep run behind star big man Azuolas Tubelis (19.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg), sidekick Oumar Ballo (14.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 45 blocks) and three other double-digit scorers. The Wildcats share the ball superbly — three players have topped 100 assists — and have two long-range bombers in Courtney Ramey (83 3-pointers) and Kerr Kriisa (82). The Wildcats were a No. 1 seed last season when they were dispatched by Houston in the Sweet 16. Arizona opens its run against Princeton of the Ivy League.
GAMES TO WATCH:
4 Virginia vs. 13 Furman. A clash in styles as the Cavaliers prefer a slower pace and the Paladins look to run up and down the floor. Virginia often gets the slower pace it desires and that’s why it limited 17 of 32 opponents to 60 or fewer points. The “Dins” topped 90 points nine times while averaging 82.1 per game. A big key for the Cavaliers will be keeping Furman stars Mike Bothwell (18.0 ppg) and Jalen Slawson (15.7 ppg) in check. Do that and the score will be the type Virginia likes — low.
7 Missouri vs. 10 Utah State. The Tigers were streaking with five straight wins before losing to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals and have the look of a team that could make a surprise dash. Having Kobe Brown (15.8 ppg) and D’Moi Hodge (14.8) both clicking would be preferable against a Utah State team that went 0-3 against Mountain West champ San Diego State and 26-5 against everyone else. The presence of star guard Steven Ashworth (16.3 ppg, 109 treys) makes the Aggies capable of slaying an SEC team.
3 Baylor vs. 14 UC Santa Barbara. The late-season slump makes the Bears beatable with the Gauchos of the Big West certainly feeling like they can notch an upset. While Baylor has three solid scorers in Keyonte George (15.8 ppg), Adam Flagler (15.5) and LJ Cryer (14.5), its defense has often sprung leaks and is allowing 70.3 points per game. Santa Barbara is red hot with seven straight victories and Big West Player of the Year Ajay Mitchell is ready to make some March Madness noise with averages of 16.4 points and 5.1 assists.
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–Ryan Kalkbrenner, Creighton: The 7-foot-1 center is averaging a team-best 15.4 points and leads the nation by shooting 71.4 percent from the field. All five Bluejays starters average over 11 points but nobody is more important to the team than Kalkbrenner. He also has added motivation because he injured a knee in the first-round victory over San Diego State in last year’s NCAA Tournament and missed the second-round loss against eventual champion Kansas.
–Erik Stevenson, West Virginia: The sharpshooter runs hot and cold and the Mountaineers could rack up two wins in Birmingham if the good version shows up. Stevenson (15.5 ppg, 77 treys) recently averaged 24.6 points over a five-game stretch immediately after averaging 5.3 over a three-game span. He also topped 30 points twice during a three-game stretch earlier in the season after being 18 of 67 (26.9 percent) from the field over the previous six contests.
–Nathan Mensah, San Diego State: The Aztecs annually take pride in their defense and the rock behind that philosophy is Mensah, who is the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the second time. With guard Matt Bradley (12.9 ppg) the only double-digit scorer, Mensah’s contributions (6.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 50 blocked shots) are as valuable as anyone’s on a 27-6 team. Mensah ranks second all-time in rebounding (860) and second in blocked shots (221) in San Diego State history.
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–Creighton (-5.5) went 4-4 down the stretch and was whipped by 22 points by Xavier in the Big East semifinals. But North Carolina State finished 4-5 and was creamed by 26 by Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinals. Look for the Bluejays to cover.
–Baylor (-10.5) hasn’t been playing like a Scott Drew-coached team as of late. Though the Bears should win the game, a hot team like Santa Barbara that hasn’t lost since Feb. 20 will likely cover the spread.
–West Virginia (-2) won four of its past six games with both losses coming against Kansas. Maryland has lost three of its last four games with two of the setbacks coming by double digits. Expect the Mountaineers to prevail.
OUT OF THE SOUTH: Arizona.
Will the pressure get to be too much for Alabama? Last season’s first-round loss is surely on the minds of some of the holdover players. Arizona has the look of a team ready to win this region. Virginia also is a club that could make a deep run. West Virginia could make an Elite Eight run if it is the club that knocks off the Crimson Tide.
–Field Level Media