April 24, 2024
North Carolina guard RJ Davis shoots a layup in front of Notre Dame guard Markus Burton.

North Carolina guard RJ Davis shoots a layup in front of Notre Dame guard Markus Burton during a game on March 5.

(Chris Seward / Associated Press)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA: Second-year coach Hubert Davis bounced back from missing last year’s tournament by steering the Tar Heels to a top seed. Guard RJ Davis and forward Armando Bacot helped North Carolina win the ACC regular season title.

No. 2 ARIZONA: The Wildcats have been inconsistent all season, mixing big wins with losses to underdogs such as USC. Arizona pushes the tempo and has a balanced collection of stars that includes North Carolina transfer Caleb Love, but the heat will keep rising for coach Tommy Lloyd if he fails to deliver a deep tournament run.

No. 3 BAYLOR: The Bears have six players who average double-figure scoring, but defense and turnovers caused problems during the final stretch of the regular season. Baylor needs guard RayJ Dennis to be more dependable under pressure to avoid an early exit.

No. 4 ALABAMA: The Crimson Tide lead the nation in scoring, averaging 90.8 points, and are an especially strong three-point shooting team. Alabama has scored 100 points in at least nine games this season, but sometimes sacrifices control in favor of speed. If the team can limit turnovers and poor decision-making, the Tide could make a deep tournament run.

Cinderella search

Guard Tyon Grant-Foster (19.8 ppg, 1.4 bpg) leads a potent Grand Canyon team that beat fellow NCAA tournament team San Diego State earlier this season.

Players to watch

Aidan Mahaney, guard, Saint Mary’s: The sophomore averages 13.9 points and has played a key role in the Gaels’ two wins over Gonzaga during the regular season and conference tournament.

Mark Sears, guard, Alabama: The senior is one of many players who help the Crimson Tide push the tempo, averaging 21.1 points.

RJ Davis, guard, North Carolina: The dynamic playmaker averages 21.4 points and put up 30 points during North Carolina’s ACC championship game loss to NC State.

Rim shots

  • Rick Pitino protested St. John’s missing out on an NCAA tournament bid, but his son, Richard Pitino, is in the Big Dance leading a hot New Mexico team that won the Mountain West tournament title.
  • Long Beach State is arguably the best story of the tournament, with players rallying around coach Dan Monson after the school announced it would part ways with him at the end of the season. The team was much stronger from three-point range during a Big West tournament run.
  • Clemson is an inconsistent but dangerous team that has wins over Alabama and North Carolina but paired them with a string of forgettable ACC losses. Senior center PJ Hall could help the Tigers make a surprise run.

TUESDAY — DAYTON

No. 16 Howard (18-16, Mid-East Atlantic champion) vs. No. 16 Wagner (16-15, Northeast champion): Former Duke player Kenny Blakeney is coaching a Bison team pushing to stay in the tournament. The Seahawks, led by Melvin Council Jr. (14.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg), are arguably the weakest team in the tournament but got hot at the right time during the conference tournament and has already delivered a March surprise.

THURSDAY — CHARLOTTE

No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 16 Play-in winner (see matchup above): The Tar Heels were riding an eight-game win streak before falling in the ACC tournament championship. North Carolina runs into trouble in high-scoring games, losing three times this season when it has given up 80 or more points.

No. 8 Mississippi State (21-13, at-large) vs. No. 9 Michigan State (19-14, at-large): The Bulldogs play formidable defense that could help keep them in games. The Spartans return much of their roster from last season’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 run and coach Tom Izzo typically wins close games in March.

THURSDAY — SALT LAKE CITY

No. 7 Dayton (24-7, at-large) vs. 10 Nevada (26-7, at-large) — The Flyers’ three-point shooting (40.4%) makes them a threat in any game. Steve Alford’s Wolf Pack went 10-1 to close the regular season and are confident from long range (36.5%).

No. 2. Arizona (25-8, at-large) vs. No. 15 Long Beach State (21-14, Big West champion) — The Wildcats failed to win the Pac-12 tournament title, but they do have signature wins over Duke and Alabama. Long Beach State’s shooting percentage improved during its surprise run to the Big West tournament title.

FRIDAY — SPOKANE

No. 5 Saint Mary’s (26-7, West Coast champion) vs. No. 12 Grand Canyon (29-4, Western Athletic champion) — Both teams could be called dangerous underdogs, with Saint Mary’s showing its strength against conference leader Gonzaga and Grand Canyon impressing by ranking in the top 20 nationally in field-goal defense while averaging 79.8 points.

No. 4 Alabama (21-11, at-large) vs. No. 13 Charleston (27-7, Coastal Athletic champion) — The Crimson Tide players always have the green light to shoot, ranking No. 3 nationally in three-pointers per game (11.1). The Cougars are confident after playing San Diego State close in last season’s NCAA tournament and are riding a 12-game win streak entering their showdown with the Tide.

FRIDAY — MEMPHIS

No. 6 Clemson (21-11, at-large) vs. No. 11 New Mexico (26-9, Mountain West champion) — The Tigers have pulled off big wins behind center PJ Hall, who earned first team All-ACC honors but have disappeared during long stretches of conference play. Guard Jaelen House (16.1 ppg, 2.3 spg) helped ignite the Lobos’ run to the Mountain West tournament title

No. 3 Baylor (23-10, at-large) vs. No. 14 Colgate (25-9, Patriot League champion) — Expect lots of three-pointers. Coach Matt Langel has led the Raiders to five consecutive NCAA tournament bids. This season’s team shoots well from long range. The Bears, meanwhile, have six players who average double-figure scoring and are very comfortable beyond the arc.

— Iliana Limón Romero

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