Billikens, Zips teams to watch in second round and beyond - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

NCAA tournament: St. Louis' memorable climb not over yet

Interim coach Jim Crews, right, has skillfully guided St. Louis from tragedy to triumph after the death of former coach Rick Majerus. (Source: St. Louis University Athletics) Interim coach Jim Crews, right, has skillfully guided St. Louis from tragedy to triumph after the death of former coach Rick Majerus. (Source: St. Louis University Athletics)
Dwayne Evans (21) has been carrying St. Louis on his shoulders all season, but especially lately when it has mattered most. (Source: St. Louis University Athletics) Dwayne Evans (21) has been carrying St. Louis on his shoulders all season, but especially lately when it has mattered most. (Source: St. Louis University Athletics)

(RNN) – Basketball fans, meet the St. Louis Billikens, the team in the Midwest Region that could give No. 1 overall seed Louisville the most trouble getting to the Final Four.

Yes, more than Duke, Michigan State, Oklahoma State or Memphis.

St. Louis has gotten here the hard way. The group bounced back after coach Rick Majerus died in December following a medical leave of absence. Even their first Atlantic 10 tournament title brought some hardship. The team bus was stuck in New Jersey traffic, and they watched the selection show in a Best Buy.

Aside from that, there has been practically no stopping them.

This is a team that should have gotten in, even without a conference championship, as their No. 4 seed attests to. Balanced scoring and a top 20 defense will pose a problem for any opponent.

Leading scorer Dwayne Evans was unreal in the conference tournament, averaging almost 22 points, nine above his season average. Reserve forward Cory Remekun plays 18 minutes and leads the team in blocks, showing just how deep this lineup runs.

First on the menu for the Billikens: 13th-seeded New Mexico State.

Midwest – St. Louis (4) vs. New Mexico State (13), 2:10 p.m. ET Thursday

The good news for the Aggies is they're peaking at the right time. They started a five-game winning streak by beating Western Athletic Conference top dog Louisiana Tech in the final week of the regular season and then won the WAC tournament.

The bad news is senior forward Tyrone Watson, their third-leading scorer, is questionable for the game after injuring his ankle against Louisiana Tech on March 7. It was only his second game back since coach Marvin Menzies suspended him when he was charged with felony battery.

But that hasn't seemed to faze them much. To steal a high school coachism, these guys can fog up the backboard. Sophomore forward Daniel Mullings leads the team with 14 points per game and contributes five rebounds every night. They also get a lot of production from their bench.

But boy, that defense. To put it politely, they simply don't have the manpower to stop a team that can score from anywhere on the floor.

Other games of note from each region:

East – Butler (6) vs. Bucknell (11), 12:40 p.m. Thursday

Is this mid-major heaven? No, it's Lexington, KY.

Aside from their proximity in the alphabet, these two teams have some things in common. They are both tough defensive units that shoot the ball efficiently, and they've been racking up wins this season.

Butler is the clear favorite. The Bulldogs have beaten good teams all over the map – Indiana, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Marquette and Temple. The one hint of a question mark comes from their three losses to St. Louis, who we already know is a fantastic team.

Andrew Smith is a low-post force for Butler and can stretch the floor by stepping behind the arc. He doesn't make a lot of them, but the threat is there.

The knock on the Bison is they haven't played anybody. Their seeding was more a nod to their Patriot League championship than anything else.

You can count on center Mike Muscala for a double-double, but otherwise, their scoring is streaky and top-heavy. So if the shooters are having an off night, this will get ugly quick.

However, Bucknell doesn't have many bad losses. Excluding a 12-point defeat at Princeton in December, their other four losses were by a combined nine points. The selection committee clearly fell in love with that, and if you're looking for a bracket buster, this should be your first stop.

West – Pittsburgh (8) vs. Wichita State (9), 1:40 p.m. Thursday

What's the safest way to get a win in basketball? Do it from the inside out.

The Panthers take the OWN approach to 3-point shooting – only when necessary. Their scoring inside the arc is as good as anyone in the nation, and they step it up on defense as well.

Senior point guard Tray Woodall is the offensive fire starter because of his scoring and passing ability. Steven Adams, despite being a freshman and coming off the bench, is a major key for Pitt due to his presence as a 7-footer. He leads the team in rebounding and blocked shots.

Pitt was 5-7 this season against teams that made the tournament. Granted, that was against the likes of Louisville, Michigan, Marquette, Syracuse and Notre Dame. No doubt, with that experience and a week to prepare, the Panthers will be ready for this game.

Super sixth man Cleanthony Early is Wichita State's leading scorer (13.6 ppg), and he did exactly nada during the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Despite that, the Shockers lost to Creighton by two in the championship game. You could take it as a good sign, but I wouldn't recommend it. Early is streaky, and when he is down so is his team.

Wichita State needs a good game from just about everyone. It's not improbable, but Pitt is the nation's fifth-best scoring defense for a reason. The Shockers' offense is not pretty to watch at times, and they won't win a rebounding battle against the more physical Pitt team.

South – Virginia Commonwealth (5) vs. Akron (12), 9:45 p.m. Thursday

This could become the next addition in the line of epic No. 5 vs. No. 12 matchups. Think of this game as a dream come true for hoops fans who like to have their cake and eat it, too.

Want offense? Check. Want defense? We got that, too. Want great story lines? Puh-leez.

Admittedly, this game does not pass the eyeball test for a competitive battle. VCU's full-court press is more smothering than a desperate competitor on The Bachelor, and Akron is playing without the glue holding the team together.

Point guard Alex Abreu was suspended indefinitely after a drug trafficking arrest in early March.

But consider this. Ohio, a Sweet Sixteen team last year and the runaway choice to win the Mid-American Conference, took neither the regular-season nor the conference championships because Akron beat them – three times. It's hard to beat a scrimmage team three times, let alone a program that won 24 games.

Akron has big interior and wing players, and their defense is better than advertised. Their ball handling has been by committee in three games without Abreu, which could help them when trying to break the press.

VCU is, well, VCU. They have improved the things that took them to the Final Four two years ago, and their regular-season schedule was stronger than just about every mid-major team aside from Butler. They are probably a safe bet to win this game, but they may have more trouble than most people think.

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