It's only going to get better from here.
The opening round of the NCAA tournament, which typically isn't even regarded as part of the "real" Big Dance to many, was surprisingly entertaining. Albany vs. Mount St. Mary's was a thrilling contrast of styles, T.J. Warren put on a transcendent individual performance and Tennessee vs. Iowa went to overtime.
If those games were any indication, we are headed for a thrilling tourney.
The Madness is at its best during the round of 64, so let's take a look at Thursday's schedule along with my picks and games to watch.
Note: All advanced stats and rankings courtesy of kenpom.com (subscription needed), unless noted otherwise.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
Schedule and Picks
|2014 NCAA Tournament Schedule - March 20|
|2nd Round||Time (ET)||TV||Live Stream||Pick|
|(11) Dayton vs. (6) Ohio State||12:15 p.m.||CBS||March Madness Live||Ohio St.|
|(15) American vs. (2) Wisconsin||12:40 p.m.||truTV||March Madness Live||Wisconsin|
|(9) Pittsburgh vs. (8) Colorado||1:40 p.m.||TBS||March Madness Live||Pittsburgh|
|(12) Harvard vs. (5) Cincinnati||2:10 p.m.||TNT||March Madness Live||Harvard|
|(14) Western Michigan vs. (3) Syracuse||2:45 p.m.||CBS||March Madness Live||Syracuse|
|(10) BYU vs. (7) Oregon||3:10 p.m.||truTV||March Madness Live||Oregon|
|(16) Albany vs. (1) Florida||4:10 p.m.||TBS||March Madness Live||Florida|
|(13) Delaware vs. (4) Michigan State||4:40 p.m.||TNT||March Madness Live||Michigan St.|
|(10) Saint Joseph's vs. (7) Connecticut||6:55 p.m.||TBS||March Madness Live||Saint Joseph's|
|(15) Wofford vs. (2) Michigan||7:10 p.m.||CBS||March Madness Live||Michigan|
|(12) NC State vs. (5) Saint Louis||7:20 p.m.||TNT||March Madness Live||Saint Louis|
|(12) North Dakota St. vs. (5) Oklahoma||7:27 p.m.||truTV||March Madness Live||Oklahoma|
|(15) Milwaukee vs. (2) Villanova||9:25 p.m.||TBS||March Madness Live||Villanova|
|(10) Arizona State vs. (7) Texas||9:40 p.m.||CBS||March Madness Live||Arizona St.|
|(13) Manhattan vs. (4) Louisville||9:50 p.m.||TNT||March Madness Live||Louisville|
|(13) New Mexico St. vs. (4) San Diego State||9:57 p.m.||truTV||March Madness Live||New Mexico St.|
Games to Watch (as if you aren't watching all of them)
No. 12 North Dakota St. vs. No. 5 Oklahoma
Are you a fan of basketballs going through baskets? Does efficient defense tend to upset you? Then this is certainly the game for you.
This is an intriguing clash in tempos. According to bbstate.com, Oklahoma averages 73.3 possessions per 40 minutes, while North Dakota St. clocks in with a much more plodding 65.0. Despite that contrast in pace, though, both teams know how to score in a hurry and struggle to stop opponents.
En route to the 13th-best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country, the Sooners light it up from outside. Led by Buddy Hield, six different players have knocked down at least 25 three-pointers this season, and as a team, they shoot a scorching 37.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Of course, that's not all they can do. Hield recently talked to The Oklahoman's Ryan Aber about showing more versatility:
I’ve just got to keep on mixing my game up and show defenses I can do a bit of everything. Look for me to be more aggressive as well. I’m going to start attacking the basket more and try to develop a mid-range game.
But if the three-ball is there, I’m not going to shy down from it.
Throw in brute force Ryan Spangler on the inside cleaning up misses and racking up double-doubles, and the Sooners are difficult to keep off the scoreboard.
On the other side of the ball, the Bison counter with one of the best 1-2 punches in the country. Taylor Braun is a 6'7" guard who can score from all three levels, while Marshall Bjorklund controls the post but can also step out to hit the mid-range jumper.
Patrick Stevens thinks the duo could lead the upset:
That may or may not happen, but with each team outside the top 150 nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense, this matchup is likely to finish in the 70s or 80s. At the end, you likely won't care who wins.
No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Manhattan
For those who like narratives, this one certainly isn't lacking in that department.
Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello played under Rick Pitino for a year at Kentucky before serving as his assistant coach for six more seasons with Louisville.
“The emotions are out of it after the first game,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, a fellow Pitino protege, via the New York Daily News' Kevin Armstrong. “Now Stevey just wants to kick his butt.”
With Russ Smith, who Masiello recruited to Louisville, looking like the best college player in the nation not named Doug, and the Cardinals looking like a legitimate national title contender, butt-kicking may be out of the question.
But it will sure be fun to watch the Jaspers try.
Using the same philosophies employed at Louisville, Masiello has his team pressure the ball full court, speeding up the tempo and forcing turnovers. The Cardinals and Jaspers both rank in the top 60 in the country in adjusted tempo and top 40 in defensive turnover percentage.
Of course, neither coach is all that thrilled about playing the other, via The Courier-Journal's Adam Himmelsbach and Jeff Greer:
For everyone else, though, this will be a thrilling track meet.
No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 10 Saint Joseph's
This one doesn't have anything to do with offensive efficiency or fast-paced tendencies. It has to do with the players.
On Kevin Ollie's side, we have Shabazz Napier. You may have heard of him. He's small in stature (6'1", 180 pounds), but he's an electrifying leader who can pretty much get whatever shot he wants and has a knack for scoring at key moments:
Connecticut has been slightly inconsistent this season, but Napier is the type of galvanizing senior playmaker who can take over any contest.
For Saint Joseph's, there are two players to watch: Langston Galloway and Halil Kanacevic.
Galloway is a tremendous offensive player. He can light it up from deep (43.9 percent shooting on 7.2 three-point attempts per contest), but perhaps more impressively, he takes unbelievable care of the ball. In 1,186 minutes this season, the senior has taken 415 shots and been to the foul line 132 times, yet committed just 26 turnovers.
That's a minuscule 0.8 giveaways per game.
Of course, it helps to have Kanacevic, a 6'8" senior forward who does a little bit of everything, including handling the ball and distributing. The A-10 tournament Most Outstanding Player finished in the top 10 in the conference in rebound rate, assist rate and block rate, per bbstate.com, an extremely unusual achievement.
If you're looking for standout individual performances, this is a game you won't want to miss.