The first two days of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament featured a flurry of close games and upsets, setting the tone for what's sure to be an entertaining first weekend of the tourney.
There are only 32 teams left fighting to get to the Sweet 16, and things figure to be heated throughout the action on Saturday and Sunday.
Here's a look at three of the most intriguing third-round matchups on the docket for the weekend.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
East: (2) Villanova vs. (7) Connecticut
UConn may have left The Big East and these two programs may be in different conferences now, but Villanova and UConn have a rich history of college basketball competition the past few decades.
In the latest reprisal of these two East Coast powerhouses, you have two teams heading in opposite directions. While the UConn Huskies have been playing at a high level, the Villanova Wildcats are still trying to shake off the inconsistency that has held them back all year.
Still, there should be a high level of basketball displayed on Saturday in Buffalo.
“It’s going to be another Big East game, even though they’re not in the Big East anymore,” Villanova sophomore forward Daniel Ochefu said, via Steve Serby of the New York Post. “It’s going to be real physical and tough.”
Villanova looked slow to start its second round game against Milwaukee, but eventually came back to earn a solid 73-53 victory. Coach Jay Wright can't be pleased with his team going 3-for-20 from the field to start the game in an early hole, but must be encouraged by the strong second half.
Meanwhile, UConn jumped on the back of talented guard Shabazz Napier on Thursday. He scored seven straight points in overtime to lead the Huskies to an 89-81 victory over St. Joseph's.
In the tournament, it often comes down to who has the best player on the floor, and Huskies fans know that better than others. As Serby wrote, Napier's performance (24 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals) might have brought back memories of former Huskies greats as UConn tries to make it to Madison Square Garden, the site of this year's East Regional.
It is difficult not to feel nostalgic about playing at the Garden when you leave the Big East for the American Athletic Conference, and you better believe it will be added incentive, especially for the Huskies and their star Shabazz Napier, who took over the game in overtime (seven straight points) for Ollie the way Kemba Walker and Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton always took over the games for Calhoun.
When considering Villanova's early exit in the Big East Tournament to Seton Hall, the Wildcats haven't been playing their best ball of late. But Wright still has a bunch of talented players on his team, led by forward JayVaughn Pinkston, who put up 13 points and eight rebounds in the opener.
The Wildcats can ill afford to get off to another slow start against UConn, or Napier, DeAndre Daniels and Co. will bury them.
Midwest: (4) Louisville vs. (5) St. Louis
Following nearly a month of lackadaisical results, the St. Louis Billikens finally rallied on Thursday afternoon to hold off No. 12 North Carolina State in one of the day's four overtime games.
Led by Rob Loe's monster 22-point, 15-rebound performance and smart coaching by Jim Crews, the Billikens earned an 83-80 victory. Actor and sports fan Rob Lowe couldn't help but notice Loe's big-time performance.
St. Louis entered the NCAA Tournament on a bit of a slump—with just one win in five games—but overcame a 14-point deficit, thanks in part to 17 missed free throws by N.C. State. Crews noticed the deficiency with a few minutes left in the second half and instructed his players to foul, eventually turning the momentum St. Louis' way.
Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated broke down Crews' unique coaching decision.
As a result, we get to have guys named Grandy Glaze and Jordair Jett in our lives for at least two more days. Who knows what might have happened had Crews played it safe and run only the defenses that the Billikens had practiced? A moment of desperation produced a moment of brilliance, and Saint Louis is still here.
For Louisville, the second round also featured a scare from No. 13 seed Manhattan, but the Cardinals escaped with a 71-64 victory behind two late 3-pointers from Luke Hancock. Reigning national champ Louisville has been a trendy pick to reach the Final Four with its talented roster and coach Rich Pitino, but the unheralded Jaspers might have given St. Louis a blueprint for this matchup.
Manhattan held close by spreading out Louisville on the perimeter and playing stingy defense, something the Billikens are certainly capable of doing. Mark Long of the Associated Press passed along comments from Pitino on the job Manhattan coach and former Louisville assistant Steve Masiello did on his team.
"That's one of the best coaching jobs that I have seen in my 39 years," Pitino said. "He just made us have to guard on the perimeter with four guards."
But as long as Russ Smith is running the show for Louisville, they have to be considered the favorites in this one. Not to mention Hancock has a history of stepping up his game on the big stage, as he was named the 2013 Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
Loe's emergence gives the Billikens a whole 'nother beast to worry about down low, as the 6'11" big man only topped the 20-point mark once during the regular season. Teaming him with Jordair Jett and Dwayne Evans gives St. Louis a chance to compete with anybody.
Expect this game to come down to the wire now that St. Louis is back to its winning ways.
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