Preview | Pittsburgh welcomes Sister Jean, Collin Gillespie and more for March Madness


AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

Ohio State sophomore guard Eugene Brown (3), right, vies for a rebound during a game against Michigan State on Thursday, March 3, in Columbus, Ohio.

By Kyle Saxon, Senior Staff Writer

While none of the Division I programs from the Pittsburgh area will be participating in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the City will still be majorly involved in the beloved madness of March.

For the fourth time in the past 10 years, and the sixth time since 1997, Pittsburgh will host first- and second-round tournament games at PPG Paints Arena. The City has a rather rich history of monumental upsets throughout its time as a host site, and there’s potential for more of them this year.

Pittsburgh will host an extremely enticing group of teams this weekend, ranging from storied, powerhouse basketball programs to mid-major teams that have pulled off historic upsets in previous NCAA Tournaments. Here is a preview of this weekend’s slate in the Steel City.

No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 10 Loyola Chicago: Friday at 12:15 p.m.

Coming off a crushing loss to Penn State in this year’s Big Ten Tournament and a historic upset loss to No. 15 Oral Roberts in last year’s NCAA Tournament, Ohio State is in desperate need of a tournament win. Head coach Chris Holtmann’s team is currently dealing with several nagging injuries, but still features two-time All-Big Ten First Team junior forward E.J. Liddell, as well as one of the top first-year talents in the country in guard Malaki Branham.

On the other side, the Ramblers will look to continue the magic of the Cinderella runs from their previous two appearances, reaching the Final Four in 2018 and the Sweet 16 last year. While head coach Drew Valentine may be in his first year at the helm, star senior guard Lucas Williamson was a part of both of those teams and leads a talented roster with plenty of returners from last season.

While Ohio State may have more sheer talent, Loyola Chicago is one of the best collective defensive units in the country. Liddell is the star for the Buckeye offense, but Branham has proven to be the X-factor, as he possesses the best pure shot-creating ability on the roster. But he faces a nightmare matchup in Williamson, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Offensive woes will lead to another first round exit for Ohio State, and Sister Jean’s magic will prevail in what should be the best matchup of the weekend.

Prediction: Loyola Chicago 68, Ohio State 64

No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 15 Delaware: Friday at 2:45 p.m.

The next game features Pennsylvania’s own Villanova Wildcats, who arguably boast the best head coach and backcourt in the country. The Wildcats will take on junior guard Jameer Nelson Jr. and the Delaware Blue Hens. Both of these teams enter this contest as winners of their respective conference tournaments.

Villanova is a popular pick to reach the Final Four — and deservingly so. The Wildcats feature senior guard and Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie, who joins junior guard Justin Moore to form one of the most feared guard pairings in the nation. Head coach Jay Wright has directed Villanova to two national championships in the past five NCAA Tournaments and certainly has a chance at another this season.  

While Delaware played very well in the CAA tournament, its stay in the NCAA Tournament will be quite brief. Villanova is a national title contender, and simply outmatches the Blue Hens in every aspect of this game. The Wildcats comfortably advance past Delaware and Loyola Chicago and reach the Sweet 16.

Prediction: Villanova 83, Delaware 58

No. 4 Illinois vs. No. 13 Chattanooga: Friday at 6:50 p.m.

While the Illini depend heavily upon junior center and national player of the year candidate Kofi Cockburn, they are far from one-dimensional. Illinois can also burn its opponents from outside with an extremely explosive group of guards in sophomore Andre Curbelo and seniors Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer.

But the Mocs have a rather similar roster construction with a pair of dynamic perimeter scorers in sophomore guard Malachi Smith and senior guard David Jean-Baptiste, along with an imposing interior force in Kansas transfer Silvio De Souza.

Illinois outmatches Chattanooga from a talent perspective, but the Mocs match up better with the Illini than any other team in their general range of seeding. The Illini will squeak out a win, but it won’t be without a scare.

Prediction: Illinois 72, Chattanooga 66

No. 5 Houston vs. No. 12 UAB: Friday at 9:20 p.m.

The Houston Cougars are one of the most interesting teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament, as they lost their three best players to season-ending injuries during the season. While it is still a very talented team, with four all-conference players in their starting lineup, the Cougars looked vulnerable without their stars at points in American Conference play.

UAB, on the other hand, is peaking at the right time. After earning the No. 2 seed in the C-USA tournament, the Blazers pulled off three thrilling victories behind unbelievable performances from junior guard Jordan “Jelly” Walker, who scored 93 points across the three contests.

The Cougars are to be respected, but UAB has the look of a dangerous upset candidate with a game-changing player in Walker along with several high-major transfers in the frontcourt. The Blazers will pull the upset in a thrilling conclusion to the first round, but ultimately fall at the hands of Illinois in the next round.

Prediction: UAB 73, Houston 72