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Monday, April 15, 2024

SI:AM | The Five Most Intriguing First-Round Men’s Games

Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. I have so many questions about the firing of Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara.

In today’s SI:AM:

💫 Potential Cinderellas

Ohtani caught up in scandal

🏈 Caleb Williams’s pro day

If you’re reading this on SI.com, click here to subscribe to receive SI:AM in your inbox every weekday.

Almost time for tipoff

The best sports day of the year is here, as March Madness gets underway with 16 games over more than 12 hours. Here are the five games today and tomorrow that I’m most looking forward to.

No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Samford (9:55 p.m. ET Today on TBS)

The news that senior guard Kevin McCullar will miss the NCAA tournament with a knee injury means the Jayhawks are officially on upset alert. McCullar led the team with 18.3 points per game this season and was second on the team with 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. (Kevin Sweeney broke down what his absence will mean for the Jayhawks.)

There is also concern about 7-footer Hunter Dickinson, who did not play in the Big 12 tournament after dislocating his shoulder in the final game of the regular season. Dickinson was eighth in the nation this season with 10.8 rebounds per game while also averaging 18.0 points. The good news for Kansas is that coach Bill Self has given no indication that Dickinson won’t be able to go.

Losing a ballhandler like McCullar could be especially worrisome for Kansas against a Samford team that terrorizes its opponents with hellacious defense. The Bulldogs forced the fourth-most turnovers of any team in the country this season. They also have one of the best offenses, ranking fifth in points per game and 22nd in offensive efficiency. They would have been a trendy upset pick even against a full-strength Kansas team. With the Jayhawks shorthanded, Samford’s chances are even better.

No. 5 Gonzaga vs. No. 12 McNeese State (7:25 p.m. ET Today on TBS)

Running up a 30–3 record has made McNeese a popular upset pick this year. The Cowboys are one of four men’s teams with at least 30 victories (along with UConn, Houston and James Madison) and have few weaknesses. They rank seventh nationally in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency. They’re also led by an experienced coach in Will Wade, the former LSU coach (who was fired due to recruiting violations).

So what’s the catch? Well, McNeese has hardly been challenged this season. It played the 26th-easiest schedule this season. The Southland is one of the weakest conferences in Division I, and the Cowboys’ out-of-conference schedule included games against College of Biblical Studies, Champion Christian, LeTourneau University and Mississippi University for Women. They do boast a road victory over AAC champion UAB, but Gonzaga will be by far the best team they’ve faced so far.

No. 7 Washington State vs. No. 10 Drake (10:05 p.m. ET Today on truTV)

Drake has all the makings of a classic March Madness Cinderella. It’s a double-digit seed from the Midwest that plays in a one-bid conference and is led by a star player who’s also the coach’s son.

But there’s plenty of reasons to like Washington State, too. The Cougars were picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 this season but shocked everyone to go 14–6 in conference play. They’re making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008—the year before Klay Thompson arrived in Pullman. Plus, it’s tough not to feel sympathetic for Wazzu after the school got left out in the cold during the recent breakup of the Pac-12.

The player to watch in this one is Drake’s Tucker DeVries, the son of coach Darian DeVries. The 6′ 7″ guard is sixth in the nation with 21.6 points per game.

No. 8 Florida Atlanta vs. No. 9 Northwestern (12:15 p.m. ET Friday on CBS)

Florida Atlantic entered the season with high expectations after making a Cinderella run to the Final Four last year. The Owls were ranked 10th in preseason AP poll, and while they picked up some impressive wins this season (over Texas A&M and Arizona on neutral courts, to name a couple), they also had some head-scratching losses, including defeats against Bryant and Florida Gulf Coast. Still, they did enough to earn a no-brainer at-large bid in the tournament.

The main thing standing between FAU and another March Madness victory is Northwestern star Boo Buie, who is taking advantage of the extra COVID-19 year of eligibility and playing his fifth season for the Wildcats. He led the team in scoring this season for the second year in a row, averaging 19.2 points per game, and is especially lethal from long range. He’s sixth in the nation this season with a .443 three-point shooting percentage. But Northwestern also has plenty of depth behind Buie, with three other players averaging more than 11 points per game.

No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 James Madison (9:40 p.m. ET Friday on CBS)

What a year it’s been for the James Madison athletic department. First, the football team went 11–2 in just its second season in FBS. Now, the men’s basketball team has compiled a 31–3 record and is a popular pick to pull off a 12-5 upset.

The Dukes’ signature victory this season came in their season opener on the road against Michigan State. While the Spartans weren’t as great as expected (they were ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP poll but went 19–14), the win announced JMU as a team that needed to be taken seriously.

James Madison has excelled on both ends of the floor, ranking 20th nationally in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency. And if you’re someone who believes experience matters in March, the Dukes have plenty of it. Four of the Dukes’ six leading scorers are fifth-year seniors. Top scorer Terrence Edwards is a fourth-year junior. No team in the nation has been tested as thoroughly as Wisconsin, though. The Badgers played the hardest schedule in Division I and still managed to go 22–13.

The best of Sports Illustrated

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

The top five…

… things I saw last night:

5. Giancarlo Stanton’s three home runs in a spring training game.

4. The reception Isaiah Thomas got after checking into his first NBA game in two years.

3. Eddie Lampkin’s tip-in to beat the shot clock buzzer late in Colorado’s First Four win over Boise State.

2. These two nasty dunks by Chet Holmgren.

1. Auston Matthews’s goal just 16 seconds into the game against the Capitals. He scored another one later and now has a league-leading 57.


Who was the first player in NCAA Division I basketball history (men’s or women’s) to record 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in their career? (Today is the anniversary of when they achieved the feat in a March Madness upset.)

  • C.J. McCollum
  • Skylar Diggins
  • Courtney Vandersloot
  • Matthew Dellavedova

Yesterday’s SIQ: The first televised NCAA men’s basketball championship game took place on March 20 of what year? Hint: It was tape-delayed.

  • 1954
  • 1960
  • 1972
  • 1979

Answer: 1954. La Salle beat Bradley, 92–76, in the title game. The tape-delayed broadcast of the game was carried by whichever local stations decided to pay the NCAA’s $7,500 syndication fee. That’s about $87,000 today. CBS now pays about $1 billion per year to air the men’s tournament.

According to an article in The American Historian by J. Samuel Walker, even the station in La Salle’s hometown of Philadelphia didn’t air its broadcast of the game until 11 p.m., well after prime time.

La Salle, led by future Hall of Famer Tom Gola, got back to the title game the next year but lost to Bill Russell’s San Francisco team.

The other interesting thing about the 1954 tournament is that even though La Salle won, it didn’t finish the season ranked No. 1 in the country. AP voters picked Kentucky as the top team in the nation. The Wildcats went 25–0 that season but decided not to play in the NCAA tournament as a form of protest over their three top players being ruled ineligible.

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