A record eight New Zealand basketball players are heading to the NCAA Big Dance.

A record eight New Zealand basketball players are heading to the NCAA Big Dance.
A record eight Kiwis will be playing in the 2018 NCAA Division 1 Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments beginning later this week.

The Tournaments, often referred to affectionately as March Madness or the Big Dance, bring together the top 68 men’s college teams and top 64 women’s teams. With close to 350 Division 1 basketball programmes in the States just reaching the Big Dance is a major achievement.

Jack Salt, a co-captain and starting centre for the University of Virginia Cavaliers, heads the Kiwi men’s trio.

Having won the Atlantic Coast title at the weekend Virginia were guaranteed a spot in the 68-team knockout tournament. They were picked by many to be seeded number 1 in the country and that ranking was confirmed when the draw was published on Monday (NZ time).

The Cavaliers (31 season wins and only two defeats) will play University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the first round on 17 March. This will be Virginia’s sixth NCAA Tournament appearance under three-time Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year Tony Bennett. A former NBA player, Bennett played for Harbour Vikings in the New Zealand NBL in the mid-nineties.

A day earlier the University of Miami Hurricanes, with freshman forward Sam Waardenburg playing an important role off the bench, will play Loyola-Chicago in Dallas. The Hurricanes are playing in their third consecutive NCAA Tournament and their fourth in seven seasons under head coach Jim Larranaga.

Also on 16 March Matt Freeman, who is a former North Harbour representative like Waardenburg and Salt, will suit up for the University of Oklahoma Sooners and face Rhode Island in Pittsburgh. It will be the fifth time the Sooners have attended the NCAA Tournament under the stewardship of head coach Lon Kruger. It is also the second time Freeman, a sophmore, has been involved in the National Tournament as Oklahoma went all the way to the Final Four in 2016 when the former Westlake standout was a redshirt freshman.

The contingent of five Kiwi women competing at the 2018 Women’s Tournament includes Cantabrian Tessa Boagni. The California State University Northridge Matadors senior deservedly won the Big West Conference Tournament MVP award after averaging 19 points and 8.5 rebounds across four games last week.

The Matadors will have their work cut out against the No 1 seed University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish when the two teams meet on Saturday

Seattle University Redhawks are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in programme history after winning the Western Athletic Conference for the first time. Former Paraparaumu College standout Jacinta Beckley is a key player in the Redhawks starting five.

Seattle have been pitched against formidable opponents in the opening round - Pac 12 Conference winners the University of Oregon Ducks.

Also making their first NCAA Tournament appearance are Northern Colorado University Bears. The Big Sky Conference Tournament champions boast two Kiwis in their lineup. Waikato’s Krystal Leger-Walker is a starting guard with former North Harbour rep Tiarna Clarke providing scoring punch off the bench.

The Bears (26 wins, 6 losses) will play a first round game against the University of Michigan in Waco, Texas on Saturday.

In contrast the University of California Berkeley Golden Bears are headed to their 13th Tournament appearance and their sixth in the last seven years. For Rangitoto College and Waitakere Basketball alumni Penina Davidson, a starting forward for the Golden Bears, it will be her third appearance in her four-year career at Cal.

The Golden Bears will be quietly confident ahead of their first round game against University of Virginia Cavaliers despite having to travel across four time zones to South Carolina for their tournament opener.

Summary of first round games (NZ dates and times)

Friday March 16, 5.15am, Oklahoma (Matt Freeman) v Rhode Island 
Friday March 16, 8.10am, Miami (Sam Waardenburg) v Loyola-Chicago
Saturday March 17, 10.00am, California State Northridge (Tessa Boagni) v Notre Dame
Saturday March 17, 10.00am, Northern Colorado (Krystal Leger-Walker & Tiarna Clarke) v Michigan
Saturday March 17, 10.00am, California Berkeley (Penina Davidson) v Virginia
Saturday March 17, Noon, Seattle (Jacinta Beckley) v Oregon
Saturday March 17, 2.20pm Virginia (Jack Salt) v Maryland, Baltimore County 

Note ESPN via Sky Sport is showing up to five live games per day throughout the tournament, although it is currently unknown if the teams with Kiwi’s will be featured on their telecast (Sky Channel 60). Otherwise you can follow all the action on the NCAA tournament website including live stats, news, results and much more.

NCAA Women's Division I webpage.

NCAA Men's Division I webpage.