It's 90 minutes before the first of four games tips off at the United Center in Chicago. Yesterday was a day of discovery, a chance to catch up with tournament teams both familiar (Purdue, Notre Dame) and strange (St. Peter's, Virginia Commonwealth). Every team has a story, as Rod Stewart might say, and if you're a fan of amateur athletics, all of them are interesting. Today, I'll be filing an analysis of each of the Chicago quartet of the tourney games, with a special emphasis on one key storyline for each team. Right now, I want to set the plate.
If there was one overriding theme from yesterday's media day it was the drama surrounding players who are taking the court, who might be taking the court and are definitely not taking the court.
In the first case, Georgetown welcomes star guard Chris Wright to the lineup. Wright has been out since Feb. 23 with a broken left hand, or his non-shooting hand. As Kevin Pelton pointed out in his Southwest Regional preview (http://basketballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1557), the Hoyas have been a markedly worse team with Wright out of the lineup, losing their last four games and five of six. It's not the way you want to be playing entering March Madness.
"It's big," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said about getting Wright back. "on many different levels, not just the tangible stat sheet contributions that he makes. Just to have his presence back out there on the court, to have his leadership is something that we missed."
Yeah, that and his 13 points per game.
In the second case, you have Florida State's Chris Singleton, who hasn't played in a game since Feb. 12 because of a broken right foot. Singleton, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, has several practices under his belt and went through Thursday's shootaround. However, Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton was playing coy regarding Singleton's availability for Friday's tough opener against Texas A&M.
"That really has not been determined yet," Hamilton said. "He's had some pretty good practices. Obviously, when you're out for a whole month without having any physical contact and a lot of repetitions in practice, you can't--there's an adjustment period for you, and he's probably going through that a little bit.
"We'll go through a limited workout today, and we'll sit down and have a discussion with him and just kind of see where we are and see how he feels with the involvement of our team physician, and then we'll make a determination."
Finally, there is the Purdue player that won't take the court, and we're not talking about Robbie Hummel, who was lost for the season before the campaign ever got going. Earlier this week, Boilermakers coach Matt Painter suspended top reserve Kelsey Barlow for an unspecified disciplinary reason. Barlow isn't a core player, but he is the guy that Painter had declared his perimeter stopper, a role he inherited from Chris Kramer. As it is, the third-seeded Boilermakers have lost two straight entering the tournament, including a bad loss at Iowa to finish the regular season. Losing Barlow probably won't be a big deal in Friday's game against St. Peter's, but it could be a problem on Sunday if Purdue takes on the tough perimeter trio that a healthy Georgetown team can feature.
There were only two games in the Southwest yesterday, and they were both nail-biting upsets, with Richmond knocking off Vanderbilt and Morehead State shocking Louisville. That sets up a fun third-round matchup between the No. 12 seed Spiders and the 13th-seeded Eagles. It's fun, but it also means that No. 1 seed Kansas now has an awfully clear path into the Elite Eight. If that holds true, the Jayhawks will face one of the eight teams taking the floor today. By the end of the weekend, we may know if there is a team here that can derail the KU train from another trip to the Final Four.
Here are the storylines I'll be following:
No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 15 Akron, 1:40 p.m. EST
In the Gerry Faust Bowl, this will be the start of another run for one of the country's most-experienced teams in Notre Dame, which has its highest seed since 1981, when the second-seeded Irish were knocked off by BYU on a mad dash and buzzer-beating layup by Danny Ainge. The Irish are trying to get back to their first Final Four since 1978, when Digger Phelps coached a Kelly Tripuka-led squad to the national semifinals. I'll be focusing on the Irish offense, one of the nation's most efficient, which actually improved this season despite the losses of Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson. Mike Brey really has his program up and running. As for Akron, the Zips will attempt to offset Notre Dame's efficient offense with a defense that features seven-footer Zeke Marshall at the back. Marshall is one of the country's top shot blockers, but will that matter against Notre Dame's motion attack?
No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 10 Florida State, approx. 4:15 p.m. EST
If it wasn't for Texas and Kansas, the Aggies might have been a top 10 team. As it is, A&M still has a lot to prove when it comes to beating top competition in key games. How will a middling offense, led by Khris Middleton, fare against the Seminoles' No. 2-ranked defense? For FSU, it's all about Singleton. Will he play? Is he healthy? I overheard Hamilton yesterday telling somebody, " We haven't had our rotation together all year." If Friday turns out to be the day that every one is available and the rotation comes together, what is the ceiling for this dominant defensive group? Where will the points come from?
No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 14 St. Peter's, 7:20 p.m. EST
I go back to this year's College Basketball Prospectus for my theme here: Who will be Purdue's Third Man? With Hummel out of the lineup, the Boilermakers got by offensively with the outstanding duo of JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore carrying the vast majority of the load. No one really emerged as the third threat we believed was necessary for the Boilermakers to advance deep into the tournament. With Barlow out of the lineup, and also John Hart and Ryne Smith battling injury problems, who is going to step up to support Purdue's core? We might not find out that answer against St. Peter's, but we may find out Sunday if Purdue takes on Georgetown.
No. 6 Georgetown vs. No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth, approx. 9:55 p.m. EST
I've already outlined the story for Georgetown and it's a simple one: Can Wright lift the Hoyas out of their recent tailspin? As for VCU, I've got my eye trained on head coach Shaka Smart, who has suddenly emerged as a rising star in his profession. I watched all or parts of seven mostly listless shootarounds yesterday, then found myself suddenly brought to life when the Rams took the floor to finish the day. Smart, 33, is one of the guys, not just in the way he looks but in the way he interacts with his players. The VCU walkthrough was the most amazing bit of uncontrolled hoops chaos I've seen, and they really seem to be having fun. Everyone was in motion all at once, dribbling in every which direction, up and down the floor, weaving in and out, laughing and yelling, with Dave Matthews of all things playing on the sound system. At one point I glanced at the clock, assuming 15 or 20 of the 40 allotted minutes had expired. Seven minutes had gone by since the moment they hit the court. It's chaos all right, but carefully planned and sneakily efficient. The most energetic group of the day was the one that should have been the most tired. Will that translate to the game today?
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.