Residents of San Jose may have some March Madness luck in 2013. Not only do they get some of the seed pairings that produce some of the most exciting upsets, but they also have some local flavor with a pair of Pac-12 teams in town. Top that off with a legendary program and two strong teams from rising conferences, and the action at HP Pavilion is sure to be compelling.
No. 13 New Mexico State vs. No. 4 Saint Louis, 11:10 a.m. (TNT)
The Billikens got the shaft last year in seeding, landing in a dreaded 8/9 game. That meant an early-exit at the hands of No. 1 Michigan State. This year, Saint Louis can reach the Sweet 16 before seeing a No. 1, and they have the talent to do so with undersized forward Dwayne Evans leading the way. Evans is tenacious down low, and at 6'5 is one of the best rebounders in the country. He's also able to get opponents into foul trouble, drawing six fouls per 40 minutes.
Rebounding may be a little tougher for Evans against New Mexico State's frontcourt, which features 7'5, 360-pound freshman Sim Bhullar. The giant finished 27th nationally in block percentage, sending away over 10 percent of opponents' two-pointers while he was on the floor. Bhullar will make Saint Louis work for defensive rebounds, as he takes up space and snatches 13 percent of offensive board opportunities.
There should be no shortage of free throws in this game, with both teams top 20 nationally in free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt).
The real advantage for the Billikens that will allow them to pull away in the game comes in the turnover battle. Saint Louis forces opponents into giveaways on 23 percent of possessions, while turning it over themselves just 17 percent of the time. NMSU is the opposite, giving it up 22 percent of the time and forcing opponents to do so on just 19 percent of possessions (D-I average is 20 percent).
No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State, 1:40 p.m. (TNT)
The 5-12 pairing produces plenty of drama every year, and this game should be no different. The Ducks were pegged as an 11-seed, but dropped because of bracket construction problems. Most thought Oregon should be even higher than an 11, and there isn't a huge gap between them and the Cowboys.
Oregon brings a tough defensive squad to San Jose led by do-everything big man Arsalan Kazemi. The senior transfer from Rice made a big impact in his only year as a Duck. Kazemi played a key role in helping the Ducks finish second in Pac-12 play in defensive rebounding percentage. Kazemi's rebounding ability allowed 6'11 Tony Woods to hunt for blocks, and his block percentage was the Pac-12's seventh-best.
The Ducks aren't the only defensive-minded squad in this matchup, as Oklahoma State was even stingier during the 2012-13 regular season. The Cowboys finish 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and were the second-best defense in Big 12 play. Oklahoma State sent away 13 percent of opponents' two-pointers and few teams protect the rim better. The combination of Michael Cobbins, Kamari Murphy, and Philip Jurick make life in the lane hard for opposing offenses.
Like New Mexico State before them, turnovers may prevent Oregon from springing an upset. The Ducks are adept at forcing turnovers, but they also give plenty away themselves. Oklahoma State has done well in taking care of the ball, and that may be the difference on Thursday.
No. 12 California vs. No. 5 UNLV, 4:27 p.m. (truTV)
The Cal Bears were hot down the stretch, beating tournament-bound Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, and Colorado during a seven-game winning streak that gave them an opportunity to grab the Pac-12 title in their final game. Unfortunately, the Bears lost to rival Stanford then lowly Utah in the conference tournament, leaving them a little more stressed on Selection Sunday.
Turns out that win streak was enough, and now Cal enjoys near-home court advantage as the No. 12 against No. 5 UNLV. The Rebels beat the Bears in Haas Pavilion in December, and this sets up an unusual first-round rematch.
UNLV used a dominant defensive rebounding performance to sneak by Cal last time, and they'll be hoping super freshman Anthony Bennett can help do the same again. Bennett pulled down 10 defensive rebounds, and 13 total, to help overcome a fantastic shooting night for the Bears. Cal was also unusually bad from the free throw line, hitting just 15 of 28.
Thursday is likely to bring out another hotly-contested game between the two sides. Both came up big late in the season and are playing as well as they have all season. Each defends well inside, so UNLV's ability to rebound may prove to be the difference once again.
No. 13 Montana vs. No. 4 Syracuse, 6:57 p.m. (truTV)
Underdogs always need to have something remarkable break their way to advance against a superior opponent, as Montana certainly fills the role of underdog here. However, the Grizzlies have one key attribute that creates some of the most random and unpredictable results in college basketball: three-point shooting.
Montana has seven guys who have taken over 50 three-point attempts this year, and four of them are hitting better than 40 percent of their long-range shots. There are plenty of shooters on this team, and they could be dangerous if knocking threes down.
Of course, Montana hasn't seen a defense like Syracuse all year. The Orange perennially defend the three-point well. It's tough to limit three-point percentage on a game-to-game basis, but even Ken Pomeroy believes that Jim Boehiem's zone may be the exception.
This might be a bad matchup for the upset-minded Grizzlies. They are sure to be beaten athletically, and finding opportunities at leveling the playing field from beyond the arc may be tough to come by.