March Madness

2014 NCAA Tournament Preview: (5) Saint Louis vs. (12) North Carolina St.

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Saint Louis Billikens 26-6, 13-3

This has been one of the best years in Saint Louis basketball history. Back on February 20, they climbed all the way up to the top 10 of the national poll, a feat they hadn’t accomplished in 50 years. They also won their second consecutive Atlantic-10 regular season championship, but this team has backed their way into their ninth NCAA Tournament appearance. Losers of four out of their last five, including their first game in the A-10 tournament to St. Bonaventure, there’s now reason to seriously question whether or not the Billikens are going to be able to survive past the opening weekend for the first time in program history. They played the 62nd toughest schedule in the country, with their top wins coming against Virginia Commonwealth, Massachusetts, George Washington and Saint Joseph’s. They played Wisconsin and Wichita State closely, but that was way back in 2013. For the Billikens everything revolves around their defense, which still comes in as one of the best statistically in the field. The Billikens only gave up 60 points a game on 39 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent from distance, the top mark in the country. In their four recent losses, though, they allowed the opposition (Duquesne, VCU, Dayton and St. Bonaventure) to score 70 on average. With five seniors in Billikens head coach Jim Crews’ eight-man regular rotation, including the A-10 Player of the Year in Jordair Jett, the experience is there for a quick turnaround. In their defense, those games meant much more to their opponents than them, but the switch flipping game is a dangerous one to play at this time of year.

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North Carolina State Wolfpack 21-13, 9-9

Almost all of the top bracketologists had the Wolfpack on the outside looking in and NIT bound, but the committee felt they were deserving of an at-large bid. The Wolfpack played the 33rd most difficult schedule in the country and had the 55th ranked RPI. The case against the Wolfpack was built around their 1-7 mark against the RPI top 25, 15 of their total wins coming against teams outside of the top 100 and a 5-5 record in their last 10. However, nobody is going to complain about being able to watch T.J. Warren, one of the best offensive players in the country. Warren, who passed on likely being a first round pick in last year’s NBA Draft to come back and play a featured role, is the third leading scorer in college basketball with 24.8 points a game. He also averages 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals; his status as a potential first round has only been cemented this year. This is the Wolfpack’s 25th tournament appearance all-time and third in a row. Only one other member of the Wolfpack, Ralston Turner (10.2 ppg), averages double figures along with Warren. As a team they average 71 a night, but allow nearly as much at 69.9. The Wolfpack’s hope to survive and advance are clearly contingent on Warren. Opposing teams are going to be focused solely on slowing him down and forcing the Wolfpack to launch from distance, where they struggle. Warren is one of the most difficult covers in the game, though, and cannot allow himself to be denied. This is the stage where stars become legends and he’s as good as anyone on it. If he shines under the bright lights, the Wolfpack could justify what many are calling an undeserving at-large bid.