It feels like Christmas for college basketball fans. The 68-team field for the NCAA Tournament was announced on Sunday, and the play-in games continue Wednesday.
Thursday morning, March Madness gets officially underway with first round action all day and continuing through Friday. In Minnesota, it was a college basketball season to forget with just eight wins in Richard Pitino’s third season. It was a year marred by senior Carlos Morris getting dismissed from the team, three player suspensions and enough injuries to prevent any consistency.
But there are enough Minnesota connections to the Big Dance to keep local fans engaged in the action if your brackets aren’t enough.
Tubby Smith (Texas Tech)
It’s bad enough that the Gophers aren’t dancing, but their former coach and his new squad are. Tubby Smith was named the Big 12 Coach of the Year after the Red Raiders finished 19-12, including a 9-9 mark in league play. They’re a No. 8 seed and face No. 9-seeded Butler Thursday morning. Some local fans are wondering if it was a mistake to let Tubby go three years ago.
J.P. Macura (Xavier – Lakeville North)
J.P. Macura almost singlehandedly led Lakeville North to a state championship his senior year. He was somewhat overlooked in a recruiting class that included Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis. The Gophers tried to get him late, but he ultimately chose Xavier. The Musketeers are having a great season and are a No. 2 seed with a 27-5 record. Macura has played in every game, is averaging more than 20 minutes per game and is scoring 9.6 points per game. Xavier faces Weber State in the opening round Friday.
Cullen Russo (Fresno State – Kennedy)
Former Bloomington Kennedy standout Cullen Russo ended up at Fresno State after two years at New Mexico Junior College. The Bulldogs finished 25-9 and earned an automatic bid to the Big Dance by winning the Mountain West Conference title. They’re a 14 seed and will face No. 3-seeded Utah Thursday night. Russo played in 33 games, starting in 14. He’s playing more than 25 minutes per game and scores about eight points to go along with six rebounds per contest.
Alex Illikainen (Wisconsin – Grand Rapids)
Alex Illikainen was a prep star in Grand Rapids for three years before heading east to prep school for what would be his senior year. He was the No. 2 player in Minnesota behind Jarvis Johnson. The Gophers ran out of available scholarships with other commitments, and Illikainen ended up at Wisconsin. The Badgers, despite an early-season coaching change, are a No. 7 seed and face No. 10-seeded Pittsburgh Friday night. As a freshman, Illikainen has played in 30 games and averages about 10 minutes. He’s scoring 2.3 points per game and 1.5 rebounds.
Ian Theisen (South Dakota State – Osseo)
Ian Theisen helped lead Osseo to a state championship in 2012, and he’s now a sophomore forward for the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. They’re 26-7, earned a No. 12 seed and will face No. 5-seeded Maryland in first round action Friday afternoon. Theisen has started all 33 games for the Jackrabbits, scoring 6.2 points and grabbing 3.5 rebounds per game. South Dakota State won the Summit League title to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Marquel Curtis (Tulsa – Armstrong)
Marquel Curtis is a senior guard at Tulsa who played at Armstrong. The Golden Hurricanes are 20-11 on the season and earned an at-large bid out of the American Athletic Conference. They are a No. 11 seed and will face No. 11-seeded Michigan in a play-in game Wednesday night. Curtis has played in 30 games this season, starting five. He’s averaging 6.5 points per game and 4.2 rebounds.
Justin Dahl (Northern Iowa – Holy Family)
Justin Dahl was a prep star at Holy Family Catholic in Victoria and is now a freshman center at Northern Iowa. The Panthers, at 22-12, are a No. 11 seed and face No. 6-seeded Texas Friday night. Dahl has not seen any game action with the Panthers this year. They won the Missouri Valley Conference title over Evansville to earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance.
So while the Gophers are nowhere to be found during March Madness, there are still plenty of local connections to keep an eye on during the NCAA Tournament.