NCAA Basketball Tournament 2014: Picking Winners for Friday's Closest Matchups

Alex Espinoza@AlexEspinozaIVCorrespondent IIIMarch 21, 2014

New Mexico's Cameron Bairstow dunks during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Fresno State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Las Vegas. New Mexico defeated Fresno State 93-77. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

The 2014 NCAA men's basketball tournament got off to a rousing start Thursday.

In the first game to go final in the second round, No. 11 Dayton claimed a 66-65 victory over No. 6 Ohio State in a thrilling game that featured a wild finish. Ultimately, Vee Sanford's layup with less than four seconds left was enough to get the upset win for the Flyers, as Aaron Craft's last second layup clanked off the backboard and rim as time expired.

If the first day of true March Madness was any indication, we should be in for another wild one Friday with a slate full of 16 contests. Here's a look at Friday's entire TV lineup and predictions for matchups that figure to come down to the wire.

All Your Bracket Essentials:

March 21 NCAA Tournament Schedule
Time (ET)SchoolSchoolTV
12:15 p.m.(14) Mercer(3) DukeCBS
12:40 p.m.(11) Nebraska(6) BaylortruTV
1:40 p.m.(10) Stanford(7) New MexicoTBS
2:10 p.m.(16) Weber State(1) ArizonaTNT
2:45 p.m.(11) Iowa/Tennessee(6) UMassCBS
3:10 p.m.(14) La.-Lafayette(3) CreightontruTV
4:10 p.m.(15) Eastern Kentucky(2) KansasTBS
4:40 p.m.(9) Oklahoma State(8) GonzagaTNT
6:55 p.m.(9) George Washington(8) MemphisTBS
7:10 p.m.(16) Cal Poly/Texas Southern(1) Wichita StateCBS
7:20 p.m.(11) Providence(6) North CarolinaTNT
7:27 p.m.(12) Stephen F. Austin(5) VCUtruTV
9:25 p.m.(16) Coastal Carolina(1) VirginiaTBS
9:40 p.m.(9) Kansas State(8) KentuckyCBS
9:50 p.m.(14) N.C. Central(3) Iowa StateTNT

South: (7) New Mexico over (10) Stanford

Where: St. Louis

Time: 1:40 p.m ET


Live Stream: March Madness Live

Stanford (21-12) has a well-rounded offense that will give New Mexico (27-6) some problems on the defensive end, but the Lobos' big, physical lineup will likely be too much for the Cardinal to handle.

While New Mexico had a disappointing early exit last year in their first game, coach Steve Alford is gone and former assistant Craig Neal has his team playing at a high level right now.

Alford's UCLA squad recently shellacked Stanford 84-59 in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, and Neal has been picking his predecessor's brain. Via Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal:

Unless you guys get my phone records, I’m going to say I haven’t really talked to him. No, I’ve talked to him plenty. I talk to him at least three times a week during the year, and I’m sure I’ll talk to him three times a day or four times a day until we play. They played ‘em three times and had success. That’ll be helpful.

Leading the charge for New Mexico is athletic 6'9" Australian Cameron Bairstow, who averages a team-high 20.3 points on 55.6 percent shooting from the floor while pulling down 7.4 rebounds per game.

The Lobos also have a talented 7-footer in center Alex Kirk (13.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.7 BPG) who should be able to bully his way around the paint against Stanford. The Cardinal have size of their own with with 6'10" Dwight Powell and 6'11" Stefan Nastic down low, but those two players aren't on the same level as their counterparts in this game.

Add in explosive New Mexico point guard Kendall Williams (16.4, 4.9 APG, 3.5 RPG), and it looks like they have an advantage in terms of pure talent in this matchup. Behind Bairstow, this team has a chance to go deep in the tournament but would likely have to get past Kansas in the third round.

West: (6) Baylor over (11) Nebraska

Where: San Antonio

Time: 12:40 p.m ET

TV: truTV

Live Stream: March Madness Live

Both of these teams enter the Big Dance on a hot streak, but look for the Baylor Bears (24-11) to control this game with their imposing front line and explosive backcourt.

In the middle of the action is 7'1" center Isaiah Austin (11.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.3 BPG) who can be a major force at both ends of the floor. Other notable athletes that make major contributions to the Bears include starters Cory Jefferson (13.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 49.9 FG%) and Royce O'Neale (7.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 53.3 FG%), while backup forwards Rico Gathers (6'8", 270 pounds) and Taurean Prince (6'7", 210 pounds) also bring a physical presence off the bench.

Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal Star relayed the unique coaching techniques Nebraska coach Tim Price has considered when trying to mimic Baylor's length.

Tim Miles initially thought of giving his frontcourt scout team players broomsticks to hold during practice.

Somebody else mentioned tennis racquets.

Then Miles had another idea.

'I’m thinking about doing the foam finger thing, giving Kye two foam fingers,' Miles said at his Tuesday news conference. 'Like, seriously.'

In Kenny Chery and Brady Heslip, Baylor also has two guards that can put pressure on opposing teams with their scoring ability.

Ultimately, I think Nebraska's inconsistent offense will be responsible for a loss after a hard-fought game Friday. While the knock on Baylor's team is that its defense is too easy to score on, the Huskers (19-12) were among the nation's worst teams in terms of scoring (67 PPG) and field-goal percentage (42.7) this year, and the physical Bears should be able to find create space and get buckets on the other end.

There's no doubting Nebraska's momentum right now, though. The Huskers have gone 9-1 in their past 10 contests with marquee wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin, so they'll definitely be a tough team to put away.

But Baylor looks like the more complete team, is playing at a high level right now and should be able to advance to the third round to play the winner of No. 3 Creighton/No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette.

West: (9) Oklahoma State over (8) Gonzaga

Where: San Diego

Time: 4:40 p.m ET


Live Stream: March Madness Live

Star power can go a long way in the NCAA tournament and Oklahoma State has one of the best players in the nation in Marcus Smart.

The talented guard has been a polarizing player this year as he's made headlines for his buzzer beaters, altercations with fans and flopping. Still, Smart is projected to be a top-5 caliber pick in the upcoming NBA draft if he decides to leave after his sophomore season.

John Helsley of The Oklahoman recently spoke to Smart, who said another chance to compete in this tournament was a big reason why he came back to Stillwater.

The NBA fame and fortune, ballin’ with the big boys, even taking on LeBron James and Kevin Durant — all that was put on hold, in part because of what happened last March in the NCAA Tournament, when Oklahoma State was quickly ushered out by Oregon.

'Oh man, that motivates me a lot,' Smart said this week. 'I didn’t like that feeling at all. That’s one of the reasons I came back. So I’m going to do everything in my ability to make sure that doesn’t happen again.'

He needs to have a big game if OSU wants to overcome a well-balanced and efficient Gonzaga squad. The Bulldogs ranked fifth nationally in team field-goal percentage (49.8) and have a quartet of double-digit scorers in Sam Dower (15.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 59 FG%), Kevin Pangos (14.1, 3.7 APG, 3.3 RPG), Gary Bell (11.2 PPG) and Przemek Karnowski (10.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 59 FG%). 

But Smart isn't alone, Oklahoma State's explosive offense also includes Markel Brown (17.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG), Le'Bryan Nash (14.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 52.2 FG%) and sharpshooter Phil Forte (13.3 PPG, 3.0 3PG, 44.5 3FG%).

I expect the 6'4", 220-pound Smart to bounce back strong from his poor performance against Kansas in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals and show up big as he tries to drive up his draft stock.

We've seen stars carry teams on their back in the tournament before, and we should see it again starting on Friday with Smart and Oklahoma State.


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