SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Max Rice remembers the excitement he saw watching Northwestern win its first NCAA Tournament game six years ago.
Now, Rice wants to do the same for his Boise State team that is looking for its first tournament win when the 10th-seeded Broncos take on the seventh-seeded Wildcats in a West Region game in Sacramento on Thursday.
“I think the last couple years we’ve done a lot of checking off boxes that this program has never done before,” Rice said. “That’s one of the last boxes I think would be huge for this program, to check off an NCAA Tournament win. I know Northwestern did that a couple years ago, I think. I remember watching that. That’s something that has been our goal all year."
In a West Region filled with powerhouses like defending champion Kansas, UCLA, Connecticut and Gonzaga, the Wildcats and and Broncos are clearly lacking.
Northwestern (21-11) has made it to this stage for just the second time, beating Vanderbilt in the first round in 2017 before losing to Gonzaga.
Boise State (24-9) has been to this stage a lot more, making its ninth trip. But the Broncos have lost their opening-round game the previous eight times, including 64-53 to Memphis last year.
“It would mean so much for our fans,” coach Leon Rice said. “I want it so bad for our players to keep them going. I want to keep this group together as long as I can keep this group together.”
After making the tournament for the first time back in 2017 in what coach Chris Collins said was viewed by many fans like a Final Four at other schools, success has been harder to come by.
The Wildcats followed that up with five straight losing seasons before breaking through again this year with a second-place finish in the Big Ten that Collins hopes lays the groundwork for more seasons like this.
“I think coming a second time, it’s gratifying because if you go once, it’s great, but it can almost be like kind of the one-hit-wonder type of deal,” Collins said. “To be able to now stamp it and be back a second time, hopefully that will help us as we continue to build for the future.”
In the other games Thursday in the West Region, second-seeded UCLA (29-5) takes on No. 15 seed UNC Asehville (27-7) in Sacramento; while in Des Moines, Iowa, top-seeded Kansas (27-7) takes on Howard (22-12) with hopes that coach Bill Self will return from a stint in the hospital, and No. 8 seed Arkansas (20-13) faces ninth-seeded Illinois (20-12).
Terrence Shannon Jr. will get another crack at Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament, this time with Illinois.
Two years ago, when he was at Texas Tech, Shannon scored a team-high 20 points in a 68-66 second-round loss in Indianapolis.
Shannon leads the Illini with 17.1 points per game and has wowed crowds with electrifying dunks.
Davonte “Devo” Davis is the only current Arkansas player who appeared in the game against the Red Raiders. Davis led the Razorbacks with 15 points that day.
“Once I found out we had the Arkansas matchup, he’s the first person that came to mind because he hit big shots my sophomore year when I was at Texas Tech, and he’s one of the best defenders in the country,” Shannon said.
Davis, who guarded Shannon two years ago and expects to be assigned to him again Thursday, said the Illini point guard’s game has changed since the last time they met.
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“Now he’s got the ball in his hand more and he’s ball dominant,” Davis said. “It’s not just me guarding him, it’s the whole team.”
Last year's tournament is front and center for UCLA and UNC Asheville.
The Bruins want to avoid another first-round scare after surviving 57-53 against Akron on the way to the Sweet 16.
The Bulldogs are trying to repeat the run St. Peter's went on as a 15th seed, making it to the Elite Eight.
“Who wouldn’t want to be in that situation? They had a great run last year,” forward Drew Pember said. “Could we be the Cinderella team? Only the Lord knows that. It could happen.”
While UNC Asheville has never advanced beyond the round of 64, they feature a lineup that includes the school's all-time leading scorer in Tajion Jones and Pember, who averages 21.2 points.
“They’re not scared,” Bruins guard Tyger Campbell said. “They’re here for a reason. So we’re going into this game, we just got to prepare like it’s any regular game.”
Howard is the opponent for No. 1 seed Kansas on Thursday, on the five-year anniversary of UMBC’s victory over Virginia that remains the only win by a No. 16 seed in a non-play-in game in NCAA Tournament history.
The Bison would love to be the next one, but they’re playing for a bigger purpose as the perhaps the most prominent member of the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
At his news conference in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday, coach Kenneth Blakeney proudly listed all of the school’s famous alumni – from Kamala Harris to Thurgood Marshall – and his efforts to lead his players in social justice causes and other experiences off the court.
“I just really feel we have to develop and we have to have well-rounded young men,” Blakeney said. “If we’re not doing that off the court, then I’m not doing my job.”
Illinois freshman Jayden Epps, who collapsed in practice on Feb. 28 and later was diagnosed with a concussion, is “good to go” against Arkansas, Illini coach Brad Underwood said.
Epps missed two games and played two minutes and scored three points in a 79-76 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament last week.
Epps collapsed after he took an elbow to the jaw in practice and was hospitalized overnight.
UCLA will be without defensive stopper Jaylen Clark (Achilles) for the tournament, but could get big man Adem Bona (shoulder) back after he missed the Pac-12 title game.
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