If Thursday's slate of NCAA tournament games is any indication, several of the round of 64 matchups on Friday promise to be tightly contested and come down to the wire.
Four contests went to overtime on Thursday, and while that is a tough number to match, there is little doubt that the bulk of Friday's games will be decided in the final few possessions due to the amount of parity that is present.
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Several games look like virtual coin flips on the surface, but there are always a couple factors that ultimately decide things in the end. Pinpointing them isn't easy, and that is why selecting an accurate bracket has already proven difficult.
With that said, here are winning predictions for three tough-to-call matchups on Friday's round of 64 schedule.
No. 9 Oklahoma State over No. 8 Gonzaga
From an entertainment standpoint, the battle between Oklahoma State and Gonzaga could very well prove to be the best of the entire second round. The Cowboys entered the 2013-14 season as national title hopefuls, but a rough stretch forced them to go on a late-season run in order to even make the tourney. Conversely, the Bulldogs were rock solid all season long, as has become customary over the years.
The wild card in this entire situation, of course, is Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart. Many questioned Smart's decision to return to school rather than enter the NBA draft following last season, and the results have been a mixed bag. Most of his per-game averages have improved, but there are now character issues present after he was suspended for pushing a fan.
Which team is most likely to win its round of 64 game?
Since returning from that suspension, however, Smart and the Cowboys have looked fantastic. They enter the tournament having won five of their past seven games, including a victory over Kansas. Both losses came in overtime and were against quality opponents in the form of Kansas and Iowa State.
Smart has looked like a true leader in recent weeks, and he seems locked in on the NCAA tournament rather than his NBA future, according to Cliff Brunt of The Associated Press.
"I'm just focused on this team right now," Smart said. "We've got Gonzaga Friday, so that's really our main focus. I'm pretty sure — I feel like I've made a pretty good mark on Oklahoma State, but that's not really my main focus."
While Smart is Oklahoma State's biggest star, the Cowboys are far from a one-man team. Markel Brown, Le'Bryan Nash and Phil Forte are all dangerous scorers as well, so Gonzaga can't simply focus on Smart and let the others run rampant.
Due to Oklahoma State's impressive depth of scoring, it will take down the Zags on Friday and perhaps go much further than that as well.
No. 8 Memphis over No. 9 George Washington
Although the Memphis Tigers are the definition of a Jekyll and Hyde team this season, they are capable of hanging with anyone when they are on top of their game. Memphis is only a No. 8 seed, but they beat elite squads such as Oklahoma State, Gonzaga and Louisville during the season. In fact, it beat the Cardinals twice and lost to No. 1 Florida by just two points.
No. 9 seed George Washington has been more of an under-the-radar team, but it is impressive in its own right. A nonconference win over Creighton proves that the Colonials aren't pushovers; however, they struggled at times against quality teams within their own conference, such as VCU, Saint Louis and Massachusetts.
In terms of offensive efficiency, Memphis is among the nation's top teams. During the season, the Tigers averaged nearly 78 points per game, shot almost 48 percent from the field and had the third-most assists in major college basketball. In addition to that, the Tigers have a secret weapon in the form of senior forward David Pellom, who transferred from George Washington, according to Jon Rothstein of CBSSports.com:
Round of 64 story line --- Memphis' David Pellom transferred from GW after last season. Tigers and Colonials in 8/9 game in East Region.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 17, 2014
Although Pellom only plays around 14 minutes per game, his intimate knowledge of the Colonials figures to be a big help. The play of senior guard Joe Jackson on the court will be the biggest key for the Tigers, but look for the Pellom factor to work in Memphis' favor in a winning effort.
No. 6 North Carolina over No. 11 Providence
With losses to lesser teams like Belmont and UAB during the regular season, it is tough to buy into the North Carolina Tar Heels completely. At the same time, they have beaten some of the best teams in college basketball. With wins over Louisville, Michigan State, Kentucky and Duke, North Carolina is a squad that can go on a deep run if it gets hot.
The Tar Heels are definitely prone to upsets, though, which makes Providence an interesting round of 64 opponent. Providence enjoyed one of its best seasons in recent memory as it won the Big East tournament to earn a spot in the March Madness fray. There is no question that the Friars will be motivated to make some noise in the NCAA tourney, especially when you consider that they haven't made the Big Dance in a decade, per Harold Gutmann of the Durham Herald-Sun:
UNC's first opponent, Providence, making its first NCAAT appearance since 2004— Harold Gutmann (@haroldgut) March 16, 2014
Also, Providence boasts arguably the best offensive player in this game. Senior guard Bryce Cotton leads the Friars with over 21 points per game, and he figures to give Roy Williams' team some fits. At the same time, though, North Carolina is a supremely talented team that can explode at any moment.
Sophomore guard Marcus Paige rivals Cotton in terms of scoring ability, while junior forward James Michael McAdoo has already proven to be a big-time tournament performer in the past. When push comes to shove, North Carolina is the better team when both play up to their full potential.
There is no guarantee that the Tar Heels will play their best basketball on Friday, but that potential is enough to roll the dice on them.
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