A senior point guard is the equivalent of a world traveler. He has seen almost everything, with experiences that are invaluable. Monte Morris is that guy for Iowa State.
In the past six weeks, Morris has been to Allen Fieldhouse and beat Kansas, he conquered the Big 12 tournament and he led the Cyclones to a first-round NCAA Tournament win. Where will he go next?
A trip to the Sweet 16 is on the line today when Iowa State (24-10) faces Purdue (26-7) in Milwaukee. The Boilermakers, Big Ten regular-season champions, are 1-point favorites. The separation between the teams is razor thin, but the underdog has one important edge.
A senior point guard — and Morris is among the nation’s best at the position — knows how to navigate the road to winning high-stakes games in March. In a matchup hyped as size versus speed, Morris is the speed.
Purdue has almost everything a team needs to go deep in the tournament. Caleb Swanigan is a 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward who has so many double-doubles (27) he could be a pitchman for In-N-Out Burger. Isaac Haas is 7-2 and blocks out the sun. Five players shoot 40 percent or better from 3-point range.
Still, great guard play is usually more valuable in the tournament, and Morris is the type of point man the Boilermakers are missing. Morris totaled 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the Cyclones’ 84-73 victory over Nevada on Thursday.
And he’s flanked by three more senior guards, including Deonte Burton and Matt Thomas. Burton is so explosive he seems to be 6-8 instead of 6-5, and Thomas hits 44.4 percent of his 3s. In this matchup, I’m betting on the senior guards and siding with the ‘dog that runs a little better.
Iowa State is the hotter team, winning 10 of its past 11 games, and peaking at the perfect time. The Cyclones’ current form and style of play compares to Michigan, which knocked Purdue out of its conference tournament last week.
There are no crazy Cinderella stories in this tournament — Princeton had a shot to knock off Notre Dame and narrowly missed — but it’s not a disappointment. There are good stories. Northwestern still is alive for the first time ever, either Butler or Middle Tennessee will reach the Sweet 16, and a Kentucky-Wichita State grudge match is looming.
In the Thursday-Friday games, favorites went 26-6 straight up and 14-17-1 against the spread. The underdogs are covering, but only one ‘dog of more than two points (Southern California) has won.
Jawun Evans sank the most dramatic shot so far, as far as the Las Vegas sports book crowds were concerned. Evans’ buzzer-beating 27-footer Friday morning impacted the point-spread result in Oklahoma State’s 92-91 loss to Michigan. The Cowboys were 2½-point ‘dogs.
It was a bad beat for some, but I was on the good side of that shot, and it was the difference in a winning day. In addition to Iowa State, here are three more plays for Saturday:
Notre Dame (plus-3) over West Virginia: The Mountaineers rattle most teams with their defensive pressure, but they also foul a lot. Matt Farrell and the Fighting Irish’s experienced guards can handle pressure, and Notre Dame ranked No. 1 in the nation in free-throw percentage (79.9) in the regular season. Look for Bonzie Colson, a 6-5 forward who has some Charles Barkley in his game, to be the best player on the floor.
Middle Tennessee (plus-4) over Butler: Never underestimate the Bulldogs and their toughness. But I believe the 12th-seeded, 31-win Blue Raiders are for real. JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw combined for 47 points in an 81-72 victory over Minnesota that was not an upset. This shapes up as a back-and-forth battle that goes down to the last minute.
Arizona (-5) over Saint Mary’s: Sean Miller is heading to his first Final Four, and I’m sticking with that prediction. The Wildcats have strong guards and an imposing front line. Arizona is just as good, if not better, than Gonzaga. The Gaels have lost four games this season, and three of those came to the Zags by margins of 23, 18 and 10 points. It’s a bad matchup for the underdog. The Pac-12 favorite is deeper and too talented.
Friday: 4-2 against the spread