Selection Sunday is over. The brackets are set. Your bosses and family members likely won’t let you watch every first round game during the NCAA tournament this week — but you can plan on a reasonable number. Say, five.
Circle these five games on your calendar, think hard about who you’re picking in the office pool, then sneak out of work to enjoy them.
No. 4 Louisville — No. 13 Manhattan, Midwest Region, Thursday
The hoops selection committee often seeks out mentor vs. mentee pairings, if for no other reason than to torture the relationship. Someone has to lose. Louisville-Manhattan fits the bill. Manhattan coach Steve Masiello served as a ball boy for the New York Knicks in the late-1980s, when Pitino was coach. After Pitino left the Knicks to coach Kentucky, Pitino offered Masiello a spot on the team as a walk-on. Masiello’s last job before becoming head man at Manhattan in 2011: assistant coach for Pitino at Louisville.
The Jaspers won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference but they’ll have a rough time against the Cardinals, the defending national champs who probably deserved a higher seed. But at least Masiello is an entertaining sideline performer — he’s always about to jump out of his suit. Not sure he learned that act as a ball boy.
No. 5 Cincinnati — No. 12 Harvard, East Region, Thursday
It doesn’t take a Harvard grad to figure that playing an East Region game in Spokane, Washington sounds stupid. But Harvard and Cincinnati will do exactly that on Thursday. The NCAA — which, in fairness, runs a pretty fun and popular event, this March Madness — has always been geographically challenged. For years, Denver played in the Sun Belt Conference. And remember when San Diego St. almost joined the Big East?
Maps aside, watch out for Harvard. The Crimson won a first round game last year against New Mexico, and this year’s team — which finished 26-4 — is even deeper and more experienced. Junior guard Wesley Saunders won Ivy League player of the year honors: he finished top 10 in the league in scoring, assists, steals and field goal percentage. If Harvard can sneak by Cincinnati, the Crimson would likely face Michigan St. in the second round. An Ivy in the Sweet Sixteen? Cornell did it back in 2010.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: The Crimson first has to contend with Bearcat guard Sean Kilpatrick, one of the best players in the country.
No 6. North Carolina — No. 11 Providence, East Region, Friday
Root for Providence coach Ed Cooley. In 2011, he left Fairfield for his dream job: coach of his hometown team, the Providence Friars. But by this summer, he was stressed out — the win-or-you’re-fired mentality of college coaching can do that to you. Cooley’s weight ballooned to 344 pounds. He had weight-reuction surgery, fixed his diet and exercise regimen and lost 100-plus pounds. Good for him, right? But then in January, a house fire severely damaged his home. His family was OK, but they’ve all been living out of a hotel these last few months.
Cooley’s year just got even more memorable, but this time, it was for a positive reason: his Friars beat Creighton in the Big East final this weekend to secure the team’s first spot in the tournament since 2004. Next up, North Carolina. And the Friars are on fire.
No. 5 VCU — No. 12 Stephen F. Austin, South Region, Friday
Speaking of streaking teams, keep an eye on Stephen F. Austin out of the Southland Conference. The Lumberjacks have won 28 games in a row. Both Stephen F. Austin and its opponent, fifth-seeded VCU, love forcing turnovers, but Stephen F. Austin’s guards do a nice job handling the ball.
Stephen F. Austin will be a trendy upset pick, and you can’t help but get your hopes up. Remember when VCU, under coach Shaka Smart, came out of nowhere to make the 2011 Final Four? Could the Lumberjacks pull a VCU — starting out by beating VCU — and make a deep run in this year’s dance?
No. 4 UCLA — No. 13 Tulsa, South Region, Friday
For fans of a certain age, this one’s a throwback: Two NCAA tourney icons now engaged in a sideline chess match. Steve Alford, in his first year coaching UCLA, played for Bob Knight at Indiana: Alford’s team, thanks in large part to the seven 3-pointers he hit against Syracuse in the national final, won the 1987 NCAA championship. The next year, Tulsa coach Danny Manning carried the 6th-seeded Kansas Jayhawks, coached by Larry Brown, all the way to a surprise championship. That team’s nickname: “Danny and the Miracles.”
Does Manning have a few more up his sleeve, in his first NCAA tournament as a head coach? The Golden Hurricane won’t go all the way. But Tulsa has won eleven in a row, and could be another sexy upset pick.
Hey, don’t stress too much about your picks. If you’re sneaking away to watch these games, you can’t go wrong. Win or lose.