2018 NFL Draft Grades: Round 1

What a wild 1st Round that was last night. We knew it was going to be unpredictable, but I don’t think anybody realized exactly what that would result in.

Personally, I expected a few trades to occur very early on. However, the first trade didn’t happen until the Bills moved up to #7. After that, all hell broke loose.

Some highly rated prospects fell. Some lower rated prospects were reached for. For the first time in modern era Draft history, four QBs were taken in the Top-10. For the first time since 2011, no wide receivers were taken in the Top-20. And I have no official stat, but it sure seemed like one of the largest numbers of offensive linemen drafted in the 1st Round.

It was a very fascinating start to the 2018 NFL Draft, and I have no shame in admitting that I was very wrong in my predictions. With that, here are my grades for each team in the 1st Round of this year’s Draft.

 

Cleveland Browns

Pick 1.1 – QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Pick 1.4 – CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State

Grade: B

The Browns got their quarterback and an impact defender. That’s what they needed to have with these picks. But they get a B from me because I don’t think either is the player they should have taken. Mayfield could be a star, but he could also be a complete bust. That’s not a #1 overall pick. And Ward is the best corner in this class, but Bradley Chubb should be more an impact player. The Browns have a chance to do really well in this Draft with three 2nd Round picks tonight.

 

New York Giants

Pick 1.2 – RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State

Grade: A-

Saquon Barkley is my top player in this class, so I have no issue with the Giants taking a running back this high. They likely won’t pick this high again for a while, so they missed out on a chance to grab their QB for the future, but I think GM Dave Gettleman thinks this team can compete for a playoff berth as currently constructed, so adding Barkley to an offense with Odell Beckham Jr. is a great move.

 

New York Jets

Pick 1.3 – QB Sam Darnold, USC

Grade: B+

The Jets traded three 2nd Round picks to move up here and get their quarterback. I don’t know if they realized that Darnold would be available here, but they pounced, and they were smart to do it. I prefer Rosen as a prospect, which is why they only get a B+ from me. But I do think Darnold over Allen was the right move. Darnold probably has the safest floor of the QBs in this class, but his ceiling also isn’t quite as high as some of the others. He enters a good situation in New York.

 

Denver Broncos

Pick 1.5 – EDGE Bradley Chubb, NC State

Grade: C

This is not a knock on Chubb as a prospect, as I believe he is the top defensive player in this class. This grade is more based on team needs. The Broncos had an awful year, and have needs all over the field, including in the secondary, offensive line, and quarterback. There were great players to be had at all of those positions. Chubb and Von Miller will form a fantastic pass rushing duo, but the Broncos had a real chance to fill a need and get a great player at the same time, which teams rarely have a chance to do, and they whiffed.

 

Indianapolis Colts

Pick 1.6 – OG Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

Grade: A

The Colts have needs at every position that’s not quarterback (assuming Andrew Luck is healthy), and they got my 2nd best player in this entire class. Priority number one should be to protect Luck, and Nelson is a potential Hall of Famer at guard. The Colts have three 2nd Round picks tonight, so they can address needs on defense with at least two of those picks. So far, so great for the Colts.

 

Buffalo Bills

TRADE – BUF receives Picks 1.7, 7.255; TB receives Picks 1.12, 2.53, 2.56

Pick 1.7 – QB Josh Allen, Wyoming

TRADE – BUF receives Picks 1.16, 5.154; BAL receives Picks 1.22, 3.65

Pick 1.16 – LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech

Grade: C+

Everybody knew the Bills were looking to move up to get a quarterback. However, to give up two 2nd Round picks to go up just five spots is a hefty price, and I’m not sure if Allen is going to be a successful NFL QB. They then moved up again to grab the slipping Edmunds, and while he will help them, they gave up another premium pick, this time a 3rd Rounder. They now have just one pick tonight, near the end of the 3rd Round, and they have a lot of holes on their roster. They get a QB and a good linebacker, but gave up too much in my opinion.

 

Chicago Bears

Pick 1.8 – LB Roquan Smith, Georgia

Grade: A-

I think the Bears were hoping that Quenton Nelson would fall to them, but they got a great consolation prize in Smith. Whether he plays inside or outside, he could be the next in a long lineage of star linebackers to play for the Bears. Linebacker might not have been the most glaring need for the Bears, but this value was too good to pass up.

 

San Francisco 49ers

Pick 1.9 – OT Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame

Grade: B

It’s clear with this pick that John Lynch’s #1 priority is to protect Jimmy Garoppolo, and he got the best tackle prospect in this class to help do that. McGlinchey will start at right tackle from the get-go, and could eventually move to left tackle. That’s exactly what the 49ers need. The value wasn’t great, as this is a weak offensive tackle class, so that’s why it gets a B grade from me.

 

Arizona Cardinals

TRADE – ARZ receives Pick 1.10; OAK receives Picks 1.15, 3.79, 5.152

Pick 1.10 – QB Josh Rosen, UCLA

Grade: A

This was a fantastic move by the Cardinals. They needed a QB of the future, and they got my top QB prospect in this class. And do do it, all they had to give up was a 3rd and a 5th. They hand onto their 2nd Rounder and get a potential star quarterback. That’s an A grade if I’ve ever seen one. I think Rosen’s “off-field issues” won’t be a problem down in Arizona.

 

Miami Dolphins

Pick 1.11 – S/CB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

Grade: A-

Fitzpatrick was a Top-5 prospect in this class for many evaluators, so the Dolphins got tremendous value snagging him at #11. With the Top-4 quarterbacks off the board, the Fins were smart to not reach for Lamar Jackson or Mason Rudolph, and rather draft a much needed impact player for the back end of their defense.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

TRADE – TB receives Picks 1.12, 2.53, 2.56; BUF receives Picks 1.7, 7.255

Pick 1.12 – DT Vita Vea, Washington

Grade: B+

I think the Bucs did really great in trading down with the Bills, picking up two 2nd Round picks to go back just five spots. I also think that Vea will be a very good pro player. However, I think the Bucs have much more pressing needs, and there were better players available (Tremaine Edmunds and Derwin James to name a couple). That is why they get a B+ and not an A or A- from me.

 

Washington Redskins

Pick 1.13 – DT Da’Ron Payne, Alabama

Grade: B-

As far as filling needs goes, this is a great pick for Washington. Payne is a five-technique that can play inside or on the edge, and he’s arguably the best run-stopper in this draft class. However, I think this was a slight reach, which is why it gets the lower grade. I saw some mocks that had Payne falling to the 2nd Round. He’s sort of one-dimensional as a tackle, not showing much of an ability to rush the passer.

 

New Orleans Saints

TRADE – NO receives Pick 1.14; GB receives Picks 1.27, 5.147; 2019 1st Rd

Pick 1.14 – EDGE Marcus Davenport, UTSA

Grade: F

I debated whether or not I wanted to be this harsh, but this trade/pick combination makes no sense to me. If they would have made this exact trade and taken Lamar Jackson, as everybody expected when they made the move, they would have gotten an A from me. Davenport could be a great pass rusher in this league, but the key words there are “could be.” He’s a project, and to trade a future 1st Round pick to move up and take a project, for a team that is a Super Bowl contender, just seems ass backwards to me.

 

Oakland Raiders

TRADE – OAK receives Picks 1.15, 3.79, 5.152; ARZ receives Pick 1.10

Pick 1.15 – OT Kolton Miller, UCLA

TRADE – OAK receives WR Martavis Bryant; PIT receives Pick 3.79

Grade: B-

I decided to include the trade for Martavis Bryant when grading the Raiders because they used the 3rd Round pick they got in the trade with Arizona to acquire him. I love the trade for Bryant. He gives the Raiders one of the most fearsome WR corps in the league. I don’t love the Miller pick. He was a reach at this point, and there were a lot of impact defensive players available that they could have had. It’s clear with these moves that Jon Gruden is running the show.

 

Los Angeles Chargers

Pick 1.17 – S Derwin James, Florida State

Grade: A

This is who the Raiders should have taken. If you told the Chargers that they’d have the opportunity to draft Derwin James without moving up, they probably would have called you crazy. But here we are. James has been compared to Kam Chancellor, but faster. That is the exact type of player the Chargers’ defense needs. As a Raiders fan, it sucks to say it, but the Chargers were probably my biggest winner of the 1st Round.

 

Green Bay Packers

TRADE – GB receives Picks 1.27, 5.147, 2019 1st Rd; NO receives Pick 1.14

TRADE – GB receives Picks 1.18, 7.248; SEA receives Picks 1.27, 3.76, 6.186

Pick 1.18 – CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville

Grade: B+

The Packers were one of the most active teams on Thursday night, first moving back from 14 to 27, then moving back up from 27 to 18 to get one of the top cornerbacks in this class in Alexander, who had been flying up draft boards due to his speed and ball skills. Through two trades, the Packers basically gave up a 3rd and a 6th and moved back four spots in the 1st Round to get a 5th this year, a 1st next year (which is huge) and still got the player they probably would have taken at 14. I still think it’s a slight reach for Alexander at 18, so that is why they only get a B+. Despite that, it was still a fantastic first night for Green Bay.

 

Dallas Cowboys

Pick 1.19 – LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State

Grade: B-

The Cowboys had a chance to get the wide receiver of their choosing with this pick, which they need badly, but they instead chose to take the eventual successor to Sean Lee in Vander Esch. Some teams were scared by some neck issues, and the fact that he only really had one productive season at Boise, but he can play inside or outside and is a fierce competitor. I like the pick, just think they should have gone receiver instead.

 

Detroit Lions

Pick 1.20 – C Frank Ragnow, Arkansas

Grade: B-

I expected the Lions to take an offensive lineman here, I just didn’t think it would be Ragnow. He is a good player, but he was expected to last until the 2nd Round, so it was a reach. It does fill a need though, so I won’t downgrade this move too much. He’ll help their run game immensely.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

Pick 1.21 – C Billy Price, Ohio State

Grade: B

Back to back centers in the 1st Round, that may be a Draft first. The Bengals have needs across their offensive line, so this pick makes a lot of sense. Price tore his bicep at the Combine, and many expected that to affect his draft stock, but he actually went just as high as he might have prior to the injury.

 

Tennessee Titans

TRADE – TEN receives Picks 1.22, 6.215; BAL receives Picks 1.25, 4.125

Pick 1.22 – LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama

Grade: B+

The Titans move back from the 4th Round to the 6th Round in order to move up three spots and get one of the top linebackers in this class. The label of “Alabama Linebacker” is enough to scare anyone given their recent track record, but Evans is a clean prospect, and he’s probably the best pure inside linebacker in this class. He’s a thumper, and he adds a necessary punch to the middle of the Tennessee defense.

 

New England Patriots

Pick 1.23 – OG/OT Isaiah Wynn, Georgia

Pick 1.31 – RB Sony Michel, Georgia

Grade: B+

I hate giving the Patriots credit, but they did a really good job with their two 1st Round picks, landing the pair of roommates from Georgia. Wynn projects best as a guard, but the Pats have taken guys with similar measurables and skill sets and turned them into good tackles. Meanwhile, they lost Dion Lewis to the Titans, so they replace him with a better version of the same player in Michel. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be one of the most electrifying players from this class.

 

Carolina Panthers

Pick 1.24 – WR D.J. Moore, Maryland

Grade: C-

The Panthers have a lot of needs for a team picking this high. They could use some depth at pass rusher, or they could have taken a linebacker as insurance for the oft-injured Luke Kuechly. I expected them to solidify their back end with a corner or safety. Wide receiver was a need as well, but to take Moore over Calvin Ridley is a mistake in my mind. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think Ridley would have been much better opposite Devin Funchess.

 

Baltimore Ravens

TRADE – BAL receives Picks 1.22, 3.65; BUF receives Picks 1.16, 5.154

TRADE – BAL receives Picks 1.25, 4.125; TEN receives Picks 1.22, 6.215

Pick 1.25 – TE Hayden Hurst, South Carolina

TRADE – BAL receives Picks 1.32, 4.132; PHI receives Picks 2.52, 4.125, 2019 2nd Rd

Pick 1.32 – QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Grade: A

What a start to this draft for the Ravens, and I don’t think anybody saw it coming. They traded back twice, going from 16 to 25, picking up 3rd and 4th Round picks in the process. They then took one of the most talented tight ends in this draft class. After that, they had an opportunity to move back into the 1st Round and land one of the most polarizing QB prospects in recent memory. Joe Flacco has no more guaranteed money after this season, so they can groom Lamar Jackson and turn the reins over to him in 2019. A fantastic 1st Round for Baltimore.

 

Atlanta Falcons

Pick 1.26 – WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama

Grade: A

I can’t give out an A+, because to me, that means perfect, and I don’t think anybody had the perfect day on Thursday. The Falcons might have been the closest to an A+ though. For Calvin Ridley to fall into their laps is bonkers to me. I expected the Falcons to consider going WR with this pick, but I didn’t think there’d be any way Ridley would be available. They now have a tremendous 1-2 punch at the receiver position with Julio Jones and Ridley.

 

Seattle Seahawks

TRADE – SEA receives Picks 1.27, 3.76, 6.186; GB receives Picks 1.18, 7.248

Pick 1.27 – RB Rashaad Penny, San Diego State

Grade: D+

This is nothing against the player whatsoever. I like Penny and I think he can be a very productive running back in the NFL. I think he’ll help on special teams a bunch from the get-go as well. This gets such a low grade because they probably could have had him in the 3rd Round. I have no problem with taking a potentially transcendent running back in the 1st Round, like Saquon Barkley. Penny is not Barkley, and the Seahawks could have done so much else with this pick.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pick 1.28 – S Terrell Edmunds, Virginia Tech

Grade: C

I don’t want to knock this too much because seeing Ryan Shazier walk out on stage to announce this pick was just awesome. I hope he can fully recover one day and possibly even play football again. But when you look at the actual pick, it’s a mistake to me. They need a safety badly, and they filled that need, but there were about five or six other safeties available that are better prospects than Edmunds. Trumaine and Terrell are the first pair of brothers to be taken in the same 1st Round of the Draft, so that’s pretty cool I guess.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Pick 1.29 – DT Taven Bryan, Florida

Grade: B-

I really thought the Jags would take Lamar Jackson and develop him for a year behind Blake Bortles. That would have gotten a much higher grade from me. I like Bryan a lot. He’s raw and he’s still learning the position, but he’s got all the measurables and potential. I just don’t think defensive tackle was a major need for this team. They would have been better off taking one of the many offensive linemen that are still available.

 

Minnesota Vikings

Pick 1.30 – CB Mike Hughes, UCF

Grade: B

This is another team that I thought should have addressed the offensive line with this pick, especially with guys like Will Hernandez, Tyrell Crosby, James Daniels and Connor Williams still on the board. But instead they looked at their secondary, saw the aging Terence Newman, and decided to take his replacement in Hughes. Like Newman, Hughes is a little undersized, but he should be effective in the slot from day one and eventually join Xavier Rhodes on the outside with some development.

 

Philadelphia Eagles

TRADE – PHI receives Picks 2.52, 4.125, 2019 2nd Rd; BAL receives Picks 1.32, 4.132

Grade: A-

The rich get richer. Dropping 20 spots seems like a lot, but I tend to think that most of the prospects that will go in the 2nd Round are rated very close together, so they’ll still get a very good player with the 52nd overall pick. To pick up a 2nd Rounder next year to make that move is huge.

 

Teams Without a Pick Yesterday:

Kansas City Chiefs (traded to Buffalo)

Houston Texans (traded to Cleveland)

Los Angeles Rams (traded to New England)

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2018 NFL Mock Draft – Version 2.0

It’s Thursday April 26th, and that means it’s time for the 2018 NFL Draft! This may be the most unpredictable draft in recent memory.

Usually by this point, we have a pretty good idea how the Top-5, or at the very least, the Top-3, is going to shake down. However, this year, nothing is set in stone. Most reports coming out of Cleveland over the last week have said that they were deciding between Sam Darnold and Josh Allen for the #1 pick. But waking up this morning, the news is that many in the league believe that Baker Mayfield will be the 1st pick.

Lots of teams want to trade down, and lots of teams are exploring a trade up. That should make for a very exciting 1st Round.

Yesterday I gave you my personal mock draft, and now today, leading into the Draft tonight at 8:00, I give you Version 2.0 of We Love Sportz’s 2018 NFL Mock Draft.

For this mock, my good friend Jeff Greco and I went back and forth, putting ourselves in the shoes of these teams’ GMs, saying what we would do with the picks if we were them. Sidebar: Follow Jeff on Twitter @Uncle_Pony for some good sports takes and some better memes.

Jeff took the odds, I took the evens. We also negotiated a couple trades. With the trades, Jeff picked for odd teams that ended up with an even-numbered pick by way of trade, and vice-versa.

And with that, here is Jeff and Jay’s 2018 NFL Mock Draft!

 

1 – Cleveland Browns

Pick: RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State

Jeff – The Browns have a chance to get a legitimate workhorse running back AND a potential franchise quarterback with their first two picks. There’s no way I’m not taking Barkley, who in the minds of some is a better prospect than Ezekiel Elliott. Plus he doesn’t wear that awful belly jersey.

 

2 – New York Giants

Pick: QB Sam Darnold, USC

Jay – I don’t think there’s any way the Browns don’t take a QB at #1, even though I agree with Jeff that they should take Barkley. This scenario would play out the same if the Browns take Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield. I don’t see the Giants passing on Darnold if he’s available. He’d be a great heir apparent to Eli Manning.

 

3 – New York Jets (from Indianapolis)

Pick: QB Josh Allen, Wyoming

Jeff – I think Allen has the second best skill set of this year’s rookie class. He can have some time to learn and develop behind Teddy Bridgewater and hopefully the Jets can come out on the other side with their best QB since Pennington. Plus this website exists.

 

4 – Cleveland Browns (from Houston)

Pick: QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Jayson – After landing Barkley at #1, I have my choice between Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield. While I think Rosen is the better prospect, I’m not sure that his style will play well in Cleveland. Enter Baker Mayfield, who has the swagger necessary to succeed in the NFL, but he could wind up being Johnny Manziel 2.0.

 

5 – Denver Broncos

Pick: OG Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

Jeff – Nelson is the next best available prospect and it just so happens that he fits right into what the Broncos need to bolster their offensive line. They allowed 52 sacks last year (3.25/game, 31st in the NFL) and really need to protect their quarterback, whoever it may end up being this year.

 

6 – Indianapolis Colts (from NY Jets)

Pick: EDGE Bradley Chubb, NC State

Jayson – It’s pretty simple for the Colts here. They’ll try to move back, but their consolation prize is the best defensive player in this draft class. He’s not rated as highly as Myles Garrett was last year, but if it wasn’t for the number of top QBs in this class, he’d be a surefire Top-3 pick.

 

7 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pick: S Derwin James, Florida State

Jeff – If Nelson doesn’t drop this far, Tampa Bay needs help in their secondary. They allowed 260 passing yards per game (32nd) in 2017 and could really use a boost to at least 31st. James is a talented playmaker who should be able to cap off longer routes.

 

8 – Chicago Bears

Pick: CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State

Jayson – The Bears would love to see Quenton Nelson fall here, but they have needs on defense that they can address as well. Ward is a tad undersized, but he makes up for it with great speed and ball skills. He will match up well with a lot of #1 receivers.

 

9 – San Francisco 49ers

Pick: LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech

Jeff – Please for the love of anything that is good in the world get Reuben Foster off this team. He is flat out a bad person (domestic violence) and doesn’t deserve to have his job anymore. EVEN IF Foster isn’t cut/suspended they could use the help.

 

*TRADE ALERT*

New England receives Pick 1.10

Oakland receives Picks 1.23, 1.31, 3.120, 2019 4th Rd Pick

With the fall of Josh Rosen, the Pats see their chance to move up and get the eventual successor to Tom Brady’s throne. They give up a lot to get him, but the Raiders refused to give this pick to their arch rivals without getting a King’s ransom in return.

 

10 – New England Patriots (from Oakland)

Pick: QB Josh Rosen, UCLA

Jeff – Rumors are the Patriots love Rosen and they would need to trade ahead of Miami/Buffalo to get him. After all the Brady turmoil, they will be wanting to look for a successor. Besides, the value they lose in the picks they traded away will be made up by some white car salesman they sign off the street to play as their slot receiver.

 

11 – Miami Dolphins

Pick: LB Roquan Smith, Georgia

Jeff – Miami needs a lot of things, but with the top-4 quarterbacks gone, I think Smith is one of the better players left on the board. Miami could use some help at the strong side getting pressure to the QB (30 sacks 2017, 26th NFL).

 

12 – Buffalo Bills (from Cincinnati)

Pick: QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Jay – It’s probably a little early value-wise to take Jackson, but he has the potential to change the way we view the quarterback position in the NFL. He’s a better version of the QB that took the Bills to the playoffs last season. I think come tonight, they will have to move up to get him, as I expect five QBs to go in the Top-10.

 

13 – Washington Redskins

Pick: CB/S Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

Jeff – Washington has filled most of their needs offensively, so I think they go DB here. I think Fitzpatrick is a steal at this point in the draft. He can help their 21st ranked pass defense from the get-go. His playmaking ability, along with the addition of Alex Smith, can help this team be one of the best in the league in turnover differential.

 

14 – Green Bay Packers

Pick: EDGE Marcus Davenport, UTSA

Jay – Green Bay is picking higher than usual, and that gives them the chance to get an impact player. Davenport is raw as a prospect, but he has all the potential in the world. The Packers could use a better pass rush, and Davenport should help early while he develops the rest of his game.

 

15 – Arizona Cardinals

Pick: CB Josh Jackson. Iowa

Jeff – Arizona is filled with needs at this point, but with Top-5 QBs gone, they will have to wait another year to find their future signal caller. Enter Josh Jackson, a standout DB from the Big Ten who can pair well with Patrick Peterson after Mathieu’s release.

 

16 – Baltimore Ravens

Pick: WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama

Jay – Ozzie Newsome loves his Alabama players (he took Marlon Humphrey in the 1st Round last year), and his team has a need for a #1 receiver. Ridley is the safest WR in this draft, and he’ll instantly become the #1 target for Joe Flacco.

 

17 – Los Angeles Chargers

Pick: OT Mike McGlinchey

Jeff – Phil Rivers got sacked 43 times in 2017 and still threw for 4500+ yards. Imagine if they had a capable right tackle to help protect him and make room for Gordon, whose YPC numbers have been pretty awful since he’s been drafted.

 

18 – Seattle Seahawks

Pick: OT/OG Connor Williams, Texas

Jay – It’s time for the Seahawks to stop ignoring their offensive line early on in drafts. They acquired Duane Brown last season to man the left tackle position, and here they can get Williams who can play right tackle, or if he struggles due to his height and arm length, can easily slide inside to center or guard. I’m tired of watching Russell Wilson run for his life, I want to see what he can do with time in the pocket.

 

19 – Dallas Cowboys

Pick: WR Courtland Sutton, SMU

Jeff – After cutting their only decent wideout in the last 10 years, the Cowboys signed Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson. Neither of them projects to have many targets and they need a legitimate number one to take some pressure off Ezekiel Elliott and the ancient Jason Witten.

 

20 – Detroit Lions

Pick: OG Will Hernandez, UTEP

Jay – The defense made huge strides last season, so I think they should focus on improving their offensive line. They need to keep Stafford upright and open some holes for their running backs. Hernandez is a mean, nasty MF’er, and he will improve their offense from the get-go.

 

21 – Cincinnati Bengals (from Buffalo)

Pick: C/OG Billy Price, OSU

Jeff – Cincy needs an O-line to protect their new workhorse back, Joe Mixon. Their line is pretty abysmal, with backs only averaging 3.6 YPC last season. Anyone else who fits a need for this team seems like a reach to me, and Price is as good a center prospect as they come.

 

22 – Buffalo Bills (from Kansas City)

Pick: C/OG James Daniels, Iowa

Jay – Jeff just said anyone else at a need position for Cincy would be a reach, but as bad as the Bills’ offensive line is, the reach is worth it. I’d also be slightly worried about the torn bicep that Price suffered at the Combine. Daniels will surely be ready to go from day one, and will protect Lamar Jackson or AJ McCarron very well. I’m sure LeSean McCoy would be a fan as well.

 

23 – Oakland Raiders (from LA Rams via New England)

Pick: LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State

Jay – Every year, I hope that the Raiders go linebacker in the 1st or 2nd Round, and every year, they don’t, and it’s frustrating. The defense has good players, they just need somebody who can control the middle of the field and lay the lumber when needed. That is Vander Esch. He can play inside on running downs and outside on passing downs. I think he’ll be a great three-down linebacker in this league.

 

24 – Carolina Panthers

Pick: CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville

Jay – Another team that tends to ignore a position of need early on in drafts. Alexander is flying up boards due to his impressive Combine numbers, and I think the Panthers would be very lucky if he was available at #24. He’s fast, he has great ball skills, and he’ll help on special teams as well. This would be a great pick.

 

25 – Tennessee Titans

Pick: EDGE Harold Landry, Boston College

Jeff – Kevin Dodd doesn’t look like he will pan out, and Brian Orakpo is already declining and over 30. If I’m the Titans I bolster the defense here with the best player available that best fits their needs. Landry has to tools to disrupt the quarterback and give nightmares to offensive linemen.

 

26 – Atlanta Falcons

Pick: WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

Jay – This might be a slight reach, especially considering D.J. Moore is still on the board, but the Falcons’ offense is at its best with a dynamic slot receiver. Taylor Gabriel is gone, so they replace him with the best slot receiver in this draft class. If teams want to double Julio Jones, Matt Ryan and Christian Kirk will make them pay.

 

27 – New Orleans Saints

Pick: OG Isaiah Wynn, Georgia

Jeff – Now this guy definitely won’t help you tackle Stefon Diggs, but he’s a physical guy who can block with the best of them. I am not too concerned about his height (6’2 is short for an O-Lineman), as long as he can stay strong and agile and protect Brees in his later years.

 

28 – Pittsburgh Steelers

Pick: LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama

Jay – Unfortunately, Ryan Shazier will not play this year. I hope that is not the case down the line, but the Steelers must replace his production. Evans is the closest thing they’ll get to Shazier at this point. He’s a physical inside linebacker, and he’s smart enough to take on the team leader role that Shazier held. He’s not like other recent Alabama linebackers (I hope I don’t regret saying that down the line).

 

*TRADE ALERT*

Washington receives Picks 1.29, 4.129

Jacksonville receives Picks 2.44, 4.142, 2019 2nd Rd Pick

The Skins trade multiple 2nd Round picks to move up and get a guy that I admittedly had completely forgotten about.

 

29 – Washington Redskins (from Jacksonville)

Pick: DT Vita Vea, Washington

Jeff – So I think most of us forgot that Vea existed until I got my final pick. I decided that Washington may as well give up a little to get a player that is ranked well higher by many experts. Vea is a huge, physical presence who will stuff any runner that comes within arms reach.

Jay – I am human, so I make mistakes. I completely forgot about Vea. If I could have a do-over, I believe either the Chargers at 17, Seahawks at 18 or Lions at 20 would take him if given the chance. There’s no way he’ll get past the Lions.

 

30 – Minnesota Vikings

Pick: CB Mike Hughes, UCF

Jay – They have more pressing needs on offense, but Hughes could take over for the aging Terrance Newman and give the defense a whole lot more. He has some character concerns, but that shouldn’t be an issue with Mike Zimmer. He runs a pretty tight ship, and should be able to get the most out of Hughes. He’s a little undersized, and he’s still developing as a corner, but he could be a shutdown guy in a couple years time.

 

31 – Oakland Raiders (from New England)

Pick: DT Maurice Hurst, Michigan

Jay – Hurst was red flagged at the Combine by many teams for heart irregularities. That is a major concern. However, if he tested okay for the Raiders, he is exactly the kind of player they need. He has the most pass rushing potential of the defensive tackles in this class, and he would make life a whole lot easier for Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.

 

32 – Philadelphia Eagles

Pick: RB Sony Michel, Georgia

Jay – The Eagles have the luxury, given their deep roster, to take the best player available. Michel is electric with the ball in his hands, and while knee issues are a concern, that kind of thing has never stopped the Eagles from taking a risk on a player. If healthy, Michel is the ideal complement to Jay Ajayi, and would be a fantastic pick to conclude Round 1.

2018 NFL Mock Draft – Version 1.0

Did this year’s NFL Draft sneak up on anybody else? If just seeing this post shocked you, I have news, the Draft starts TOMORROW! Taking place in Dallas this year, the 1st Round is tomorrow night, with Rounds 2 and 3 on Friday night, and Rounds 4 through 7 on Saturday afternoon.

This is as intriguing a 1st Round of a Draft that I can ever remember. There are five major quarterback prospects… Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson (in no particular order). There are teams with picks in the Top-5 who are almost definitely going to take one of those guys. There are also plenty of teams outside the Top-5 who may look to trade up to grab them.

It’s a bit of a top heavy 1st Round, with about 12-14 guys who are considered blue chip prospects, and then a lot of guys that could make a big impact, but could just as easily be a bust.

For this mock draft, it’s a mix of what I think will happen and what I would do if I were picking for these teams. I have decided to predict some trades that may happen, I think I wind up with four trades in the 1st Round. I’ve also mocked the 2nd Round here as well.

Tomorrow afternoon, just a few hours prior to the Draft, I will have Version 2.0 of my NFL Mock Draft, where myself and my good friend Jeff Greco went back and forth picking for the teams in the 1st Round, so stay tuned for that.

Without any more discussion, here is Version 1.0 of We Love Sportz’s 2018 NFL Mock Draft!

1st Round

1 – Cleveland Browns

Team Needs: QB, OL, DB

Pick – QB Sam Darnold, USC

If you ask me, they should take the best player in the draft (Saquon Barkley) and see what QB is there when they pick again at #4. But they have the chance to get the QB they love the most, and they will. You can miss me with all the smokescreens too. Darnold probably has the highest floor of the QB prospects in this class, especially given he has no off-field concerns. He’ll benefit from sitting for a season behind Tyrod Taylor.

 

2 – New York Giants

Team Needs: DL, OL, RB

Pick – RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State

Taking Eli Manning’s eventual successor makes a lot of sense here. So does replacing Jason Pierre-Paul with the best D-Line prospect (Chubb). However, the Giants know they need to nail this pick, and Barkley is a superstar. The G-Men haven’t had a superstar at running back since Tiki Barber. Barkley will add a dynamic threat to an offense that struggled mightily at times last season.

 

3 – New York Jets (from Indianapolis)

Team Needs: QB, DL, OL

Pick – QB Josh Allen, Wyoming

This is going to be a quarterback. There’s no ifs, ands or buts. The Jets traded three 2nd Round picks (two this year, one in 2019) to move up three spots, ensuring them one of the top three QBs in the class. It’s hard to predict which one they’ll take, but Allen is your prototypical NFL quarterback as far as size and measurables go. He has the highest ceiling in this class, but also the most bust potential.

 

4 – Cleveland Browns (from Houston)

Team Needs: OL, DB, RB

Pick – EDGE Bradley Chubb, NC State

The Browns got this pick by trading back in last year’s 1st Round, with the Texans moving up to grab Deshaun Watson. After securing their quarterback of the future at #1, Cleveland finds themselves in a spot where they can give their team one of the most fearsome defensive lines in the league. Myles Garrett on one side, Bradley Chubb on the other. Roethlisberger, Flacco and Dalton could be in for a world of hurt if this comes to fruition.

 

5 – Denver Broncos

Team Needs: DB, OL, WR

Pick – QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

The Broncos could replace Aqib Talib by taking the top cornerback in the class, or they could snag Quenton Nelson and add an impact player to a putrid offensive line. However, despite signing Case Keenum to a 2-year deal this offseason, taking a QB is still very much in the cards. Baker Mayfield could be a superstar in the NFL. He could also be a massive bust if he doesn’t change off the field. I think John Elway will be willing to take the risk.

 

*TRADE ALERT*

We now have our first trade of the mock draft. The Colts are reportedly looking to move down again, in order to stockpile picks and go through a massive roster overhaul. That makes a ton of sense. Meanwhile, with three QBs off the board already, there should be teams looking to move up. The Bills have a ton of ammo and a major need at the position, so I believe they would be the team to make the move.

Trade Details:
Buffalo receives Picks 1.6 and 2.37
Indianapolis receives Picks 1.12 (via CIN), 1.22 (via KC) and 2.56

The Colts pick up another 1st Rounder, giving them two 1st’s and three 2nd’s in this draft. In order to get both of the Bills’ 1st Round picks, they move back 19 spots with one of their 2nd Round picks. This trade makes a lot of sense for both teams.

 

6 – Buffalo Bills (from NY Jets via Indianapolis)

Team Needs: QB, OL, WR

Pick – QB Josh Rosen, UCLA

In a perfect world, I think the Bills would move up to #2 and take whichever of Darnold or Allen are available after the Browns pick. I just don’t think the Giants trade down unless they get a king’s ransom. Instead, the Bills move up to #6 and grab who I believe is the best pure quarterback prospect in this class. There are off-field concerns around Rosen, as well as durability issues, but as far as playing football goes, there isn’t a better QB coming out in 2018. The Bills could comfortably start him right away, or let him sit behind AJ McCarron for a season.

 

7 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Team Needs: DB, RB, OL

Pick – S Derwin James, Florida State

It was a disappointing 2017 season for the Bucs, but I still do not think they are very far off from contending in the NFC. Running back is the biggest hole on their roster, but there are good prospects to be had there later on. Derwin James is a popular name right now, moving past Minkah Fitzpatrick on most boards. He’s a big, physical safety who will add a necessary punch to the back end of the Bucs’ defense.

 

8 – Chicago Bears

Team Needs: OL, DL, DB

Pick – OG Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

I would like to go on record as saying that there is absolutely zero chance Quenton Nelson gets past the Bears at #8. It’s just the perfect draft pick. A future Hall of Fame offensive guard going to a team with a massive need on the offensive line and just happened to have signed the previously mentioned player’s offensive line coach from college. Nelson might be the best “football player” in this draft class. It would be a fabulous pick for the Bears if he lasts this long.

 

9 – San Francisco 49ers

Team Needs: DB, DL, OL

Pick – LB Roquan Smith, Georgia

After trading for Jimmy Garoppolo last season, the Niners were one of the best teams in football. Expectations are super high for them this upcoming season. In order to reach those expectations, they must improve on defense. While not one of their top needs, linebacker could become a hole on their roster, with the legal troubles of last year’s 1st Round pick Reuben Foster. Smith is a sideline-to-sideline thumper who can play inside or outside for the Niners.

 

*TRADE ALERT*

I believe that another trade would occur here. I get the feeling that the Raiders love a few prospects that they don’t want to take this high. Meanwhile, there’s one more QB on the board that some teams may fall in love with, and the Dolphins at #11 have a need at the QB position. Rather than sit back and risk Miami making the plunge, I believe the Patriots would move up and get a player that they are reportedly very intrigued by, to eventually take over for Tom Brady.

Trade Details:
New England receives 1.10
Oakland receives 1.23, 2.43 (via SF), 3.95, 2019 5th Round Pick

In this scenario, rather than demand both of New England’s 1st Round picks, the Raiders are happy to pick up a second pick in both Rounds 2 and 3. They have a lot of holes on their roster to fill, and these days, any pick in the first three rounds is an expected starter. The future 5th Rounder is a throw-in to seal the deal. The Raiders won’t make a deal with their dreaded rivals for the appropriate value, they will have to overpay. The Patriots get to move up and get their guy while still holding on to their other 1st Rounder. A great trade for them.

 

10 – New England Patriots (from Oakland)

Team Needs: OL, DB, LB

Pick – QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Is this a little high for Jackson? Yeah, probably. But #10 was considered too high for Patrick Mahomes last year, but the Chiefs like him so much that they let Alex Smith walk. #12 was considered too high for Deshaun Watson last year, but I bet the Texans don’t regret that pick. Lamar Jackson could very easily be the next Michael Vick. The Pats can afford to groom him and let him learn some tricks from arguably the greatest QB to ever play the game. As a Patriots hater, I do not want them to get Lamar Jackson. I like him too much. But I do think it’s a very real possibility.

 

11 – Miami Dolphins

Team Needs: DL, LB, QB

Pick – DT Vita Vea, Washington

It would be mildly disappointing for the Dolphins to miss out on the top quarterbacks in this class, but they do still have Ryan Tannehill. He’s coming off an injury and he has yet to come close to his potential, but who knows what could happen this year. Rather than reach for a QB, the replace the departed Ndamukong Suh with another monster in Vea. The things that he can do at his size are extraordinary, and he won’t be a character issue like Suh was.

 

12 – Indianapolis Colts (from Cincinnati via Buffalo)

Team Needs: OL, DL, LB

Pick – LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech

I only listed three needs here, but outside of quarterback (assuming Andrew Luck is at least somewhat healthy), the Colts need to upgrade every position on the roster. They start with the uber-athletic Edmunds. He is one of, if not the, best pure athletes in this draft class. He played a lot of inside linebacker at VT, but NFL people think he projects best as an outside guy. The Colts need help inside and out, so Edmunds fits the bill.

 

13 – Washington Redskins

Team Needs: DL, LB, DB

Pick – CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State

The Skins think they are fairly set on offense, especially with Alex Smith replacing Kirk Cousins. They never appreciated Cousins like they should have. Anyway, their defense needs a lot of work. Luckily for them, with the way the board fell here, the top corner in the class falls right into their lap. Ward is a tad undersized at 5-10, but he has great ball skills and the speed necessary to keep up with NFL receivers. He’ll fit in nicely opposite Josh Norman.

 

14 – Green Bay Packers

Team Needs: DB, OL, LB

Pick – CB/S Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

It’s rare to see the Packers drafting this high, but it affords them a chance to add one of the top prospects in this class to a loaded roster. They could upgrade their protection for Aaron Rodgers, but the way the board has fallen, a player that many consider a Top-5 prospect is available, and I’d expect them to jump. The Packers have one great defensive back from Alabama, why not add another? Fitzpatrick can play all over the field, and Green Bay will do a great job maximizing his talents.

 

15 – Arizona Cardinals

Team Needs: QB, DB, OL

Pick – CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville

Cardinals’ fans cannot feel comfortable heading into this season with Sam Bradford as their starting QB, and I expect they’ll be involved in talks to move into the Top-10 to get one of the big QBs. I feel they’ll be outbid, so they’ll stay put and improve their defense instead. Their defensive backfield was very leaky last season, and Jaire Alexander would be a massive improvement at the cornerback position. He is undersized like Denzel Ward, but he is extremely quick and reactive. He ran a 4.38 40 at the combine.

 

16 – Baltimore Ravens

Team Needs: WR, LB, OL

Pick – WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama

Ozzie Newsome loves Alabama players. John Harbaugh could use a #1 receiver. A match made in heaven. Despite the additions of John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead, the Ravens’ offense lacks a true star at the receiver position for Joe Flacco. Ridley has the potential to be that star. He is a lot like another Alabama receiver, Amari Cooper. Not super tall, not super quick, but a great route runner and very talented after the catch.

 

17 – Los Angeles Chargers

Team Needs: OL, DT, DB

Pick – OT Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame

The Chargers would love to see one of the class’s top safeties, Fitzpatrick or James, fall to them at #17, but I don’t see that happening. They’ll improve in the trenches with this pick instead. A pass-rushing defensive tackle would help out Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the edges, but they are still committed to Philip Rivers for at least one more season, so they should look to improve their poor offensive line. McGlinchey may not be good enough to move to left tackle, but he’ll be an above average right tackle for a long time in this league.

 

18 – Seattle Seahawks

Team Needs: DL, OL, TE

Pick – EDGE Marcus Davenport, UTSA

It seems kind of weird, but the Seahawks are going to be in a bit of a rebuilding mode this season. They are making a ton of changes on the defensive side of the ball, and could use some pass rushing help after losing Sheldon Richardson and trading Michael Bennett. Davenport is raw, but he has all the athletic traits necessary to be a premier pass rusher in the NFL.

 

19 – Dallas Cowboys

Team Needs: LB, WR, DB

Pick – WR D.J. Moore, Maryland

You can argue whether it was the right decision or not, but the Cowboys have moved on from the volatile Dez Bryant. That leaves them in desperate need for a #1 receiver for Dak Prescott. The defense has some needs, but they can be addressed later on. With Ridley off the board, I think there’s only one other potential #1 WR in this class, and that’s the rising Moore out of Maryland. Like his fellow Terrapin Stefon Diggs, Moore is a big body with great speed and above average hands. Diggs was a 5th Round pick, but would be a 1st Rounder in hindsight.

 

20 – Detroit Lions

Team Needs: DL, OL, RB

Pick – OG Will Hernandez, UTEP

The Lions’ defense was much improved last season, and they don’t have a lot of areas of need on that side of the ball. A defensive tackle or edge rushing depth could be the move here, but I think they should try to improve their run game early and often in this draft. It’s a deep running back class, so in the 1st Round, they can improve the middle of their offensive line. Hernandez is probably the nastiest offensive lineman in this class. He will help open up some holes for whoever is in the backfield with Matthew Stafford next season.

 

21 – Cincinnati Bengals (from Buffalo)

Team Needs: OL, WR, DB

Pick – OG/C James Daniels, Iowa

The Bengals traded back to this spot during the offseason, acquiring offensive tackle Cordy Glenn from the Bills along with this pick for the #12 pick in this year’s draft. The defense will go through some changes with DC Paul Guenther leaving to take the same position on Jon Gruden’s staff in Oakland. However, there are more pressing needs on the offensive side of the ball. Acquiring Glenn should not stop the Bengals from adding to their line, and Daniels is the best center in this class.

 

22 – Indianapolis Colts (from Kansas City via Buffalo)

Team Needs: OL, DL, LB

Pick – LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama

In the scenario created here, the Colts move back to #12 and #22, and they double dip in the linebacker position. They have three 2nd Round picks, so they have the luxury to be able to do that. Their first pick, Tremaine Edmunds, projects as an outside linebacker, so the Colts scoop up Evans to man the inside. Many teams may have hesitation with Evans due to the recent history of Alabama linebackers, but Evans is as clean off the field as they get. And he’s really good on it.

 

23 – Oakland Raiders (from LA Rams via New England)

Team Needs: DT, LB, DB

Pick – OT Kolton Miller, UCLA

Yes, I just listed three defensive positions as the Raiders’ three biggest needs but have them taking an offensive tackle. Hear me out. Trading back gives them a few extra picks, so they can address the defense often in this draft. They are paying Derek Carr too much money not to protect him, they’ve been weak at right tackle for a while, and left tackle Donald Penn probably doesn’t have many years left. Miller is likely to be the best left tackle in this class, so Jon Gruden jumps all over him here.

 

24 – Carolina Panthers

Team Needs: DB, OL, WR

Pick – S Justin Reid, Stanford

I like the idea of the Panthers getting a top receiver or tight end to help out Cam Newton, but I don’t think there are any worth taking here. Instead, they plug a hole on their defense with the rising Reid out of Stanford. He projects as a better player than his brother Eric, who was also a late 1st Round pick. Justin has great size, speed and ball skills. He’s exactly what the back end of the Panthers’ defense needs.

 

25 – Tennessee Titans

Team Needs: DL, LB, WR

Pick – EDGE Harold Landry, Boston College

It was a fantastic season for the Tennessee Titans, and I believe that they are just a few pieces away from becoming real contenders in the AFC. They have some weaknesses in the front seven, and I expect them to use multiple picks early to address it. Landry was looking like a Top-10 pick before injuries derailed him last season. But if you look at him pre-injury, he shows the ability to be a double-digit sack guy on a regular basis in the NFL.

 

26 – Atlanta Falcons

Team Needs: DL, WR, TE

Pick – DT Taven Bryan, Florida

The Falcons, as long as they have Dan Quinn at the helm and Matt Ryan at quarterback, will be contenders in the NFC. I believe that affords them the opportunity to shoot for the moon with this pick. Defensive tackle is a major position of need for this team, and while there are players who will give better production from the get-go, there might not be a DT with a higher ceiling in this class than Bryan. He is still learning the position, but with Dan Quinn able to coach him up, he could end up being the best defensive player from this draft.

 

27 – New Orleans Saints

Team Needs: TE, QB, OL

Pick – TE Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State

I guess part of me could see the Saints making a move up to take a QB-in-waiting behind Drew Brees. A lot of people would love to see Lamar Jackson end up in New Orleans. I think that could be a lot of fun as well. But I don’t see the Saints moving up as far as it would take to get him. Since trading Jimmy Graham, Brees has not had a reliable option at tight end. The Saints get him one here in Goedert, the small school tight end who can line up in the slot as a big wide receiver. He can be exactly what Jimmy Graham was to the Saints.

 

28 – Pittsburgh Steelers

Team Needs: LB, DB, WR

Pick – LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State

As long as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are wearing the black and gold, the Steelers will be Super Bowl contenders. They have some holes on defense that they are likely to fill early in this draft. Vander Esch is somebody that experts believe could wind up as the best linebacker from this draft class. He can play inside or outside, and that versatility will be very attractive to Mike Tomlin and company.

 

29 – Jacksonville Jaguars

Team Needs: WR, OL, TE

Pick – OT/OG Connor Williams, Texas

The Jaguars were just a couple plays away from a trip to the Super Bowl last season. They re-signed Blake Bortles because they think they can win with him at QB. I think they’ll draft a developmental quarterback in this draft, but not this early. They can either get Bortles a weapon or help keep him upright. Connor Williams played left tackle at Texas, but he could start his NFL career inside at guard. The Jags will find a spot for him along their line.

 

30 – Minnesota Vikings

Team Needs: OL, DB, TE

Pick – OG Isaiah Wynn, Georgia

The Vikings were just a win away from a trip to the Super Bowl last year, and they just replaced Case Keenum with Kirk Cousins. Most people will pick the Eagles to repeat as NFC champs, but I believe that the Vikings should be the favorites. Dalvin Cook will return healthy, and to help him out, the Vikings grab Wynn, who can slot in all across the line. He’s a little short for tackle, but he’s a super-athletic guard. He’ll open up plenty of running lanes for Cook.

 

*TRADE ALERT*

Trade #3 of the 1st Round happens right here, with the Cardinals moving up to the back end of the 1st Round to grab a QB after missing out on one of the Top-5 passers.

Trade Details:
Arizona receives 1.31
New England receives 2.47, 3.79

The Pats gave up a 2nd and a 3rd to move from 23 to 10 in the 1st Round, so they recoup those picks by giving up their other 1st Rounder. The Cardinals give up their picks in those rounds in an effort to get two impact players in the 1st Round. A fair trade-off.

 

31 – Arizona Cardinals (from New England)

Team Needs: QB, DB, OL

Pick – QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State

After the first five quarterbacks, number six is a gunslinger out of Stillwater named Mason Rudolph. He did not play in a pro-style offense at Oklahoma State, but that has not always been a negative. He’s a big kid with a big arm, and he can learn some things from Sam Bradford. The hope here is that Bradford stays healthy enough to give Rudolph the developmental year that he needs.

 

*TRADE ALERT*

A lot of years we see some late trades in the 1st Round, most often so teams can go grab a slipping prospect or a quarterback that they don’t want to wait for. I believe we get one more trade here, but this time, it’s for a player with some medical red flags that could be one of the biggest steals of this draft if the health stays in check.

Trade Details:
Oakland receives 1.32
Philadelphia receives 2.41, 3.95 (via NE)

The Eagles do not have picks in the 2nd or 3rd Rounds this year, but with a lot of solid prospects to be available in those rounds, they’ll happily trade this pick at the end of the 1st. Meanwhile, the Raiders give up their own 2nd Rounder and the 3rd they picked up in the earlier trade with New England.

 

32 – Oakland Raiders (from Philadelphia)

Team Needs: DT, LB, DB

Pick – DT Maurice Hurst, Michigan

At the NFL Combine, Hurst was red flagged by a lot of teams for some irregularities with his heart. That will surely scare some teams off. However, the Raiders have such a need for a pass rushing defensive tackle that they should be willing to move up to grab this guy. A risk, certainly, but one worth taking. Hurst has incredible get-off at the snap, and while he is a little undersized, he has the most pass rushing potential among the defensive tackles in this draft class.

 

2nd Round

*Picks in Bold are based on trades that occurred in my mock draft*

  1. Cleveland Browns – RB Derrius Guice, LSU
  2. New York Giants – OT Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh
  3. Cleveland Browns (from Houston) – CB Mike Hughes, UCF
  4. Indianapolis Colts (from NY Jets) – C/OG Billy Price, Ohio State
  5. Buffalo Bills (from Indianapolis) – S Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
  6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – RB Sony Michel, Georgia
  7. Chicago Bears – EDGE Lorenzo Carter, Georgia
  8. Denver Broncos – CB Isaiah Oliver, Colorado
  9. Philadelphia Eagles (from Oakland) – DT Da’Ron Payne, Alabama
  10. Miami Dolphins – TE Hayden Hurst, South Carolina
  11. Oakland Raiders (from San Francisco via New England) – RB Ronald Jones II, USC
  12. Washington Redskins – RB Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
  13. Green Bay Packers – EDGE Sam Hubbard, Ohio State
  14. Cincinnati Bengals – CB Donte Jackson, LSU
  15. New England Patriots (from Arizona) – CB/S M.J. Stewart, North Carolina
  16. Los Angeles Chargers – S Jessie Bates III, Wake Forest
  17. Indianapolis Colts (from Seattle) – WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
  18. Dallas Cowboys – TE Mike Gesicki, Penn State
  19. Detroit Lions – DT Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama
  20. Baltimore Ravens – C/OG Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
  21. Buffalo Bills – WR Courtland Sutton, SMU
  22. Kansas City Chiefs – CB Josh Jackson, Iowa
  23. Carolina Panthers – CB Anthony Averett, Alabama
  24. Indianapolis Colts (from LA Rams via Buffalo) – OT Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
  25. Tennessee Titans – DT Poona Ford, Texas
  26. Atlanta Falcons – WR D.J. Chark, LSU
  27. San Francisco 49ers (from New Orleans) – TE Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
  28. Pittsburgh Steelers – WR Daesean Hamilton, Penn State
  29. Jacksonville Jaguars – QB Luke Falk, Washington State
  30. Minnesota Vikings – CB Carlton Davis, Auburn
  31. New England Patriots – EDGE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma
  32. Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia) – OT Geron Christian, Louisville

2018 NCAA Tournament Preview: First Round – Friday 3/16

Radford and St. Bonaventure advanced to the First Round last night, and tonight two more teams will move on before the First Round kicks off on Thursday.

I gave you a look at the first day of games yesterday, and now I’m back with Day 2, another 16 NCAA Tournament games taking place in Charlotte, Nashville, San Diego and Detroit.

*All statistics mentioned are courtesy of KenPom.com and ESPN*

Friday, March 16

Early Afternoon:

Charlotte, NC (West Region)
#7 Texas A&M vs #10 Providence
12:15 pm, CBS
Spread:
Texas A&M (-3.5), O/U 139

texas am.jpg

Texas A&M Aggies
Record: 20-12
Leading Scorer: Tyler Davis (14.5 PPG, 8.8 RPG)
Other Key Players: Admon Gilder (12.2 PPG), Robert Williams (10.3 PPG, 9.0 RPG)
Key Stats: 12th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; 11th in Defensive Block%; Average height of 78.8 inches (5th tallest team in Tournament)

The season kicked off in a major way for the Aggies when they dominated West Virginia 88-65 in Germany in the first game of the college basketball season. They would win 11 of their first 12 games in all, and were well on their way to being a force in the SEC. Then things came crashing down, with Texas A&M losing their first five conference games and seven of their first nine, dealing with a host of injuries and suspensions. When they have been at full strength, the Aggies have been a force, including wins over Kentucky, Alabama and a major road win over Auburn. Their height has given a lot of teams fits this season.

providence

Providence Friars
Record: 21-13
Leading Scorer: Rodney Bullock (14.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG)
Other Key Players: Alpha Diallo (13.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG), Kyron Cartwright (11.8 PPG, 5.7 APG)
Key Stats: Opponents shoot just 32.2% from 3-point range (22nd best in the nation); 77.2% Minutes Continuity this season (only two Tournament teams have a higher percentage)

Like Alabama, the Friars entered the postseason in a very precarious position on the Bubble. They needed to defeat Creighton, and they did (in overtime). Then in the semifinals, a win over Xavier would clinch their berth in the Tournament, and they beat them (in overtime). A title game win over Villanova would have sent the Friars into the Tournament with a ton of momentum. They didn’t get the job done (also in overtime), but this is a very scary 10-seed. They don’t have a ton of size, but there aren’t many teams in the country this year that have more pure athleticism than Ed Cooley’s bunch. They have a win over Villanova and two victories against Xavier, so we know they are capable of taking down the giants.

Matchup – Providence has returned a lot of production from the team that lost to USC in the First Four last season, so those players will be motivated to have some success in this go-round. Meanwhile, you have a Texas A&M team that is looking to finally reach the potential that many thought they had entering this season. If the Aggies can dominate the boards, the Friars could have a really difficult time coming out on top.

 

Detroit, MI (East Region)
#2 Purdue vs #15 Cal State Fullerton
12:40 pm, TruTV
Spread: 
Purdue (-20.5), O/U 145.5

purdue

Purdue Boilermakers
Record: 28-6
Leading Scorer: Carsen Edwards (18.5 PPG)
Other Key Players: Isaac Haas (14.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG), Vincent Edwards (14.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG)
Key Stats: 2nd in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; 2nd in 3-point Percentage (42.0%, best among Tournament teams)

Purdue was expected to be one of the top teams in the country this year, and they did not disappoint. They went 1-2 in the Battle 4 Atlantis, losing to Tennessee and Western Kentucky before getting a big win over Arizona. They then went on to win 19 straight games before a three-game losing streak in early February. They fell to Michigan in the Big Ten title game, so they have not played in over a week. They are a team set up for Tournament success though, as the best 3-point shooting team in the field with a lot of height and a solid defense. They really make their opponents work hard to get good looks on offense.

BWest Cal State Fullerton UC Irvine Basketball

Cal State Fullerton Titans
Record: 20-11
Leading Scorer: Kyle Allman (19.4 PPG)
Other Key Players: Jackson Rowe (12.2 PPG, 6.8 RPG)
Key Stats: Opponents shoot 76% from the free throw line (only one Tournament team is worse); Shoot nearly one free throw for every two field goal attempts (highest FTA/FGA rate in the country)

It’s really incredible what has taken place in the Big West lately with regards to their NCAA Tournament representative. There are nine teams in the Big West, and with CS Fullerton’s win in the title game this year, eight different teams have earned a Tournament berth out of the Big West in the last eight years. Cal State Northridge is the only team that has not won the conference in the last eight seasons. The Titans upset 1-seed UC Davis in the semis and 3-seed UC Irvine in the title game to get here. They are an extremely aggressive offensive team, which leads to their high number of free throws, but also their poor offensive turnover percentage.

Matchup – If Purdue comes out a little rusty, I could see CS Fullerton getting aggressive and taking an early lead, and then who knows what could happen? Purdue is a great 3-point shooting team, and that always helps come Tournament time. I think the Boilermakers just have too much firepower for the Titans, but stranger things have happened.

 

San Diego, CA (East Region)
#4 Wichita State vs #13 Marshall
1:30 pm, TNT
Spread: 
Wichita State (-12), O/U 165.5

wichita state

Wichita State Shockers
Record: 25-7
Leading Scorer: Landry Shamet (15.0 PPG, 5.1 APG)
Other Key Players: Shaq Morris (14.0 PPG)
Key Stats: 5th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; Average experience of 2.36 years (most experienced team in the Tournament); 80.1% Minutes Continuity this season (2nd most among Tournament teams)

Wichita State made the move from the Missouri Valley to the American this season in hopes that it would improve their strength of schedule, in turn improving their chances to earn a higher seed in the Tournament. Mission accomplished, as a 25-7 Wichita State team would have never been a 4-seed if they played in the MVC. The Shockers proved that they can hang with some of the best teams in the country, scoring wins over Houston and Cincinnati in conference play. They are one of the best pure offensive teams in the nation. They average over one assist for every two made baskets, the second best rate among Tournament teams.

jon elmore

Marshall Thundering Herd
Record: 24-10
Leading Scorer: Jon Elmore (22.8 PPG, 6.9 APG, 6.0 RPG)
Other Key Players: C.J. Burks (20.5 PPG), Ajdin Penava (15.5 PPG, 8.6 RPG)
Key Stats: 6th in the nation in Adjusted Tempo (only two Tournament teams play faster); 15th in 2-point FG percentage (56.1%)

Middle Tennessee was the team everyone expected to win the Conference USA title and play in the Tournament, but teams like Western Kentucky and Old Dominion were seen as teams that could potentially upset the Blue Raiders and earn a berth. Everybody sort of wrote off Marshall, despite their season sweep of Middle Tennessee. Thankfully for them, Southern Miss was able to knock of MTSU in the quarters, allowing the Thundering Herd an easier game against the aforementioned Golden Eagles in the semifinals, and they then grinded out a victory over Western Kentucky in the title game. Head Coach Dan D’Antoni, older brother of Houston Rockets Head Coach Mike D’Antoni, has taken some principles from his brother, leading a very high-octane offensive team. Jon Elmore is one of the best all-around players in the entire country, so that helps as well.

Matchup – This could easily end up the highest scoring game of the First Round, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Defense optional in this one. Wichita State is good enough to make a deep run in the Tournament, but I think a lot of people are sleeping on Marshall. This game is going to start at 10:30 am local time in San Diego, and I think that could play a major factor. If the Shockers come out slow, the Herd could pull off the upset.

 

Nashville, TN (South Region)
#2 Cincinnati vs #15 Georgia State
2:00 pm, TBS
Spread: 
Cincinnati (-14), O/U 130.5

cincinnati

Cincinnati Bearcats
Record:
30-4
Leading Scorer: Gary Clark (13.0 PPG, 8.5 RPG)
Other Key Players: Jacob Evans (12.9 PPG)
Key Stats: 2nd in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; 3rd in Offensive Rebounding percentage (38.1%)

What a year for Mick Cronin and the Cincinnati Bearcats. This is probably the best team Cronin has had during his Cincinnati tenure. They started 7-0 before losing back-to-back games to Xavier and Florida. After that, they won 16 straight before back-to-back losses to Houston and Wichita State. And now they enter the Tournament having won seven in a row, including a gritty 56-55 victory over Houston in the American title game. This team is incredibly tenacious on the defensive end, Top-10 in the country in both 2-point percentage and 3-point percentage defense.

ron hunter

Georgia State Panthers
Record: 24-10
Leading Scorer: D’Marcus Simonds (21.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.5 APG)
Other Key Players: Devin Mitchell (12.2 PPG)
Key Stats: 22.1% of minutes played from non-starters (only two Tournament teams have a lower percentage of bench minutes); Shoot 39.1% from 3-point range

Ron Hunter is back in the Tournament! If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the Georgia State coach who back in 2015, injured his leg celebrating his team’s Sun Belt championship, then fell off his stool when his son RJ drilled a game-winning 3-pointer in the Tournament against 3-seed Baylor. Hunter is healthy this time around, but his team has a much taller task ahead of them. Luckily for him, he might have a player even better than his son in D’Marcus Simonds. A tremendous scorer, if he gets hot, Georgia State could get another shocking NCAA Tournament victory.

Matchup – Georgia State’s upset win over Baylor was an early start time game as well, so it wouldn’t surprise me all that much to see them join the ranks of 15-seeds who beat 2-seeds in the Tournament. However, Cincinnati is a much different animal than Baylor was back in 2015. The Bearcats are suffocating on defense, and I just have a hard time believing the Panthers will be able to score enough to win this game.

 

Late Afternoon:

Charlotte, NC (West Region)
#2 North Carolina vs #15 Lipscomb
Approx. 2:45 pm, CBS
Spread: 
North Carolina (-19.5), O/U 161.5

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Notre Dame

North Carolina Tar Heels
Record:
25-10
Leading Scorer: Luke Maye (17.2 PPG, 10.1 RPG)
Other Key Players: Joel Berry II (17.1 PPG), Theo Pinson (10.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 4.8 APG)
Key Stats: 4th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; Played the toughest schedule in the country this season

It is incredibly rare to see a team with this many losses as high as a 2-seed, but that’s what we get with the amount of parity in the game this season. Despite 10 losses, North Carolina is a clear contender to repeat as National Champions. Luke Maye is a great big man, Joel Berry is one of the best floor generals in the country and Theo Pinson does a little bit of everything for Roy Williams. Oh, and all of those guys were on the Championship team last year, so they know what it takes to make a deep Tournament run. There aren’t a lot of teams better offensively than the Tar Heels.

lipscomb

Lipscomb Bison
Record: 23-9
Leading Scorer: Garrison Mathews (22.1 PPG)
Other Key Players: Rob Marberry (16.0 PPG)
Key Stats: 5th in the nation in Adjusted Tempo (only Oklahoma plays faster among Tournament teams); Get shots blocked on 12.2% of offensive possessions (worst among Tournament teams)

The Lipscomb Bison are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, defeating Florida Gulf Coast 106-93 in the Atlantic Sun title game. 106 points is a lot of points, so let it be known that the Bison can score some points. They’ll have to if they’re going to defeat UNC. Lipscomb plays an extremely up-tempo style, so if they can force some misses and get out in transition, they’ll have a chance.

Matchup – Remember what I just said about Lipscomb having a chance? Just forget about that. I don’t see there being any way Lipscomb wins this game. I’d love for them to prove me wrong, because I can’t stand the Tar Heels, and Bison is a great nickname, but yeah, take UNC in your bracket and you likely won’t regret it.

 

Detroit, MI (East Region)
#7 Arkansas vs #10 Butler
Approx. 3:10 pm, TruTV
Spread: 
Butler (-1.5), O/U 152.5

arkansas

Arkansas Razorbacks
Record:
23-11
Leading Scorer: Jaylen Barford (18.0 PPG)
Other Key Players: Daryl Macon (16.9 PPG), Daniel Gafford (11.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.1 BPG)
Key Stats: 19th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; Shoot over 40% from 3-point range, but under 68% from the free throw line

I feel like this is the same team Arkansas has every year. You don’t really think about them as a good team, but then you watch the Selection Show and see them as a 7-seed with 23 wins, go and look at their resume, and see all of the good wins the accrued over the course of the season. This year, they beat Oklahoma (when they were good), Tennessee and Auburn while suffering no truly bad losses (a season sweep by LSU is not good, but also not awful). They have multiple NBA prospects in leading scorer Barford and Daniel Gafford, who is a physical freak with a number of highlight reel plays this season. I’m hoping he adds one to the reel in this game.

kelan martin

Butler Bulldogs
Record: 20-13
Leading Scorer: Kelan Martin (20.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG)
Other Key Players: Kamar Baldwin (15.5 PPG)
Key Stats: 22nd in the nation in Free Throw Percentage (77.1%, 5th best among Tournament teams); Shoot about one free throw for every four field goal attempts (only three Tournament teams shoot FT’s at a lower rate)

It was a very successful debut season for former Butler star LaVall Jordan as the head coach of his alma mater, leading the Bulldogs to another NCAA Tournament. They had a good collection of wins, knocking Villanova from the ranks of the unbeaten back on December 30, putting up 101 points on the eventual Big East champs. They also scored victories over Ohio State, Creighton and Seton Hall over the course of the season. I am very interested in the statistics that I mentioned above for the Bulldogs. Free throw shooting is a major factor come March, and while Butler is one of the best free throw shooting teams in the Tournament, they don’t shoot a whole lot of them. Might be in their best interest to be more aggressive and try to get to the line more often.

Matchup – It’s easy for me to say Butler should be aggressive and try to get to the line more often than usual, but with Daniel Gafford protecting the rim, that’s reason enough for Butler to stay away from the paint. This is one of the instances where the lower seeded team, Butler, is actually rated the better team in this matchup by KenPom. This game will probably be high scoring, and the team with the ball last could come out on top.

 

San Diego, CA (East Region)
#5 West Virginia vs #12 Murray State
Approx. 4:00 pm, TNT
Spread: 
West Virginia (-10.5), O/U 145.5

jevon carter

West Virginia Mountaineers
Record:
24-10
Leading Scorer: Jevon Carter (17.0 PPG, 6.6 APG, 2.9 SPG)
Other Key Players: Daxter Miles Jr. (13.0 PPG), Sagaba Konate (10.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.3 BPG)
Key Stats: 2nd in the nation in Defensive Turnover% (force turnovers at a higher rate than all but one Tournament team); Top-10 in both Defensive Steal% and Block% (only two other teams in the country can claim that, neither made the Tournament)

Press Virginia, as the kids like to call them, does exactly what their name suggests. Bobby Huggins’s team will pressure you on defense for all 40 minutes, and that can wear teams down big time. I did not look this up, but I have to think they’re the only team in the country that has one player averaging three steals per game (2.9 is close enough) and another player averaging over three blocks per game (that is an absurd amount of blocks). What makes this Mountaineer team special is not only are they great defensively, but they are 14th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency! They can outscore teams, and that makes them a scary Tournament team.

murray state

Murray State Racers
Record: 26-5
Leading Scorer: Jonathan Stark (21.8 PPG)
Other Key Players: Terrell Miller Jr. (14.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG), Ja Morant (12.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 6.4 APG)
Key Stats: Opponents shoot just 30.8% from 3-point range (4th best among Tournament teams)

Murray State made several NCAA Tournaments in the 2000s and early 2010s, but they are back in for the first time since 2012. Their list of coaches since the early 2000s is impressive. Mick Cronin left the Racers for Cincinnati, then he was succeeded by Billy Kennedy who left for Texas A&M, and then Kennedy was followed by Steve Prohm, who ended up at Iowa State. If the trend continues, current Head Coach Matt McMahon could be on his way to a major program sooner rather than later. The Racers defeated Jacksonville State and Belmont in the OVC Tournament, avenging their only two conference losses in the regular season.

Matchup – Murray State is a talented offensive team led by a number of skilled guards, but they haven’t faced a defense this season that is anything like what they’ll see when they take on West Virginia. Jevon Carter wants to leave West Virginia a winner, and I believe he will have an incredible Tournament. He alone should be too much for Murray State to handle.

 

Nashville, TN (South Region)
#7 Nevada vs #10 Texas
Approx. 4:30 pm, TBS
Spread: 
Pick Em, O/U 144

nevada

Nevada Wolfpack
Record:
27-7
Leading Scorer: Caleb Martin (19.1 PPG)
Other Key Players: Jordan Caroline (17.9 PPG, 8.8 RPG), Cody Martin (13.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.6 APG)
Key Stats: 10th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; 3rd in Offensive Turnover percentage (only two teams turn the ball over at a lower rate than NEV)

The Nevada Wolfpack have had a lot of success in three years under Head Coach Eric Musselman. In 2016, they defeated Morehead State two games to one to win the CBI (College Basketball Invitational, it’s third on the postseason tournament totem pole, after the NIT). Then last year, they won the Mountain West Tournament, reaching the Big Dance but losing to Iowa State in the First Round. They did not win the Mountain West this year, but they didn’t have to thanks to a great resume that included wins over Rhode Island, Davidson and a season sweep of Boise State. They had just five losses this year before losing to San Diego State twice in the last week of the season, but that’s nothing to hang their heads about. Led by Jordan Caroline and the Martin twins, who transferred in from NC State, this Wolfpack team is not to be slept on.

Mo Bamba

Texas Longhorns
Record: 19-14
Leading Scorer: Dylan Osetkowski (13.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
Other Key Players: Mohamed Bamba (12.9 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 3.7 BPG), Kerwin Roach II (11.9 PPG)
Key Stats: 10th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; Shoot just 31.5% from 3-point range (worst among Tournament teams)

You see the 19-14 record, and it’s easy to wonder how Texas made the Tournament, let along fairly comfortably as a 10-seed. Playing in the Big 12 helped, but they also beat Butler and Alabama in non-conference play. I believe Tournament selection should be more about who you beat, but just look at some of the Longhorns’ losses: Duke (in OT), Gonzaga (in OT, two days after the Duke game), Michigan (by just 7), Kansas (by just 6), Texas Tech (in OT), Baylor (in 2OT). Yes, they are all still losses, but they were oh so close to victories in all of those games. Just two of their 14 losses came to teams that missed the Tournament, and those were against Baylor and Oklahoma State, two teams that many people believed should be in the Tournament. This Texas team is very dangerous.

Matchup – I think the outcome of this game hinges on the health of Mo Bamba for Texas. The freshman is the best shot blocker in the country, and they are simply a better team with him on the floor. He did not play in three of their last four games, and he played only 14 minutes in their Big 12 Tournament loss to Texas Tech. If Bamba is at least close to his normal self, I think Texas wins. If not, I like Nevada. Regardless, it should be one of the better First Round contests.

 

Early Evening:

Charlotte, NC (South Region)
#8 Creighton vs #9 Kansas State
6:50 pm, TNT
Spread: 
Creighton (-1.5), O/U 144.5

marcus foster

Creighton Bluejays
Record:
21-11
Leading Scorer: Marcus Foster (20.3 PPG)
Other Key Players: Khryi Thomas (15.3 PPG)
Key Stats: Shoot 59.3% from 2-point range (2nd only to Villanova among Tournament teams); 21.8% Offensive Rebounding rate (worst among Tournament teams)

It’s kind of been a tale of two seasons for Creighton. They started an impressive 15-4 with wins over UCLA, Butler and Seton Hall. Unfortunately, they lost star forward Martin Krampelj for the season following the win over Seton Hall, and they just weren’t as effective after that, going just 5-7 against Division I competition following the injury. They did score a big overtime victory over Villanova in overtime on February 24, but they really miss Krampelj. Marcus Foster and Khryi Thomas will really need to step up for the Bluejays to have postseason success.

kansas state

Kansas State Wildcats
Record: 22-11
Leading Scorer: Dean Wade (16.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG)
Other Key Players: Barry Brown (16.0 PPG)
Key Stats: 6th in the nation in Defensive Steal% (2nd best among Tournament teams); Give up offensive rebounds to opponents at the 2nd highest rate among Tournament teams (32.2%)

Kansas State is one of those teams that just quietly goes about their business and wins games, and then they make the Tournament, and you wonder how their season went because you paid no attention to them. This is a solid team that just couldn’t get the big one all year long. They have good wins, beating Baylor, Texas and TCU each twice, but they also lost to West Virginia and Texas Tech twice each and Kansas three times this season. They came close to winning a few of those games, but just couldn’t get over the hump. That has me worried about their ability to make a deep run in this Tournament, especially with a likely Second Round matchup with Virginia.

Matchup – These are two teams with some good wins this year, but both have had their struggles late in the season. This game could be a grind ‘em out affair, with the grittier team (shoutout to PFT Commenter) coming out on top. K-State star Dean Wade missed their Big 12 Tournament loss to Kansas due to injury, and if he misses this game on Friday, I don’t think they have enough to beat Creighton.

 

Detroit, MI (Midwest Region)
#3 Michigan State vs #14 Bucknell
7:10 pm, CBS
Spread: 
Michigan State (-14), O/U 148.5

Photo Copyright: Matt Mitchell/MSU Athletic Communications

Michigan State Spartans
Record:
29-4
Leading Scorer: Miles Bridges (16.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG)
Other Key Players: Nick Ward (12.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG), Cassius Winston (12.6 PPG, 6.8 APG)
Key Stats: Most assists per field goals made in the nation; 9th in the nation in both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency; Shoot 41.3% from 3-point range (only Purdue is better among Tournament teams)

On sheer talent, it’s hard to argue against Michigan State as the best team in the nation. Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, star freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., 6th man Matt McQuaid, TumTum Nairn, Gavin Schilling, Josh Langford, this team is stacked. However, we truly don’t know how good they are because their resume is not like most Michigan State teams in recent memory. They have just two wins all year over teams that made the Tournament, beating North Carolina and Purdue. They have only lost to three teams, losing to Michigan twice (3-seed), Ohio State (5-seed) and Duke (2-seed). This team has no bad losses, but they also don’t have a lot of great wins. It’s an interesting case, one unlike I can ever remember. I think this team is just as likely to win the National Title as they are to lose before the second weekend.

bucknell

Bucknell Bison
Record: 25-9
Leading Scorer: Zach Thomas (20.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG)
Other Key Players: Nana Foulland (15.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG), Stephen Brown (14.9 PPG)
Key Stats: 77.2% Minutes Continuity (more than all but three Tournament teams); Average nearly one free throw for every two field goals (only three Tournament teams shoot free throws at a higher rate)

All season long, when experts have been asked about a mid-major team that could make some noise in this year’s Tournament, Bucknell has been the team that a majority of them chose. They are solid on both ends of the floor, and they like to play a fast pace. Fast paced teams tend to have more success in March. Zach Thomas is one of the best mid-major players in the land, and he is good enough to carry this team to an upset or two in this Tournament. The Bison have only lost two games since mid-December, and one of those was in overtime. They were dominant in the Patriot League Tournament, beating Boston in the semis by 31 and Colgate in the finals by 29.

Matchup – This is a tough draw for Bucknell, but remember 2015? Michigan State was a 2-seed and an extremely popular pick to win the title (they were my pick that year, and I never even considered anybody else). They went and lost in the First Round to 15-seed Middle Tennessee, busting my bracket and many brackets nationwide. They are very good, but so is Bucknell. Don’t be surprised if the Bison pull off the shocker.

 

Nashville, TN (West Region)
#1 Xavier vs #16 NC Central/Texas Southern
7:20 pm, TBS
Spread:
TBD

Naji Marshall

Xavier Musketeers
Record:
28-5
Leading Scorer: Trevon Bluiett (19.5 PPG)
Other Key Players: J.P. Macura (12.2 PPG)
Key Stats: 7th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; 6th in Free Throw Percentage (79.0%, 2nd best among Tournament teams)

I don’t think it’s a stretch in the slightest to say that it has been one of the greatest seasons in the history of Xavier basketball. Chris Mack has had a lot of good teams, but this is probably the best one. 28 wins including a rivalry victory over Cincinnati. Their only Big East losses this year came to Villanova (twice) and Providence (twice, once in the Big East semifinals). Having that much success in a league as good as the Big East is this season, you have to put Xavier on the short list of teams with a legitimate chance to win the championship. They are extremely good on offense, and they are one of the top free throw shooting teams in the country. That could carry them a long way in this tourney. Some lower-seeded Xavier teams have made deep runs in recent history. Can a 1-seed Xavier do it as well?

Matchup – Will be updated following the conclusion of NC Central/Texas Southern

 

San Diego, CA (Midwest Region)
#4 Auburn vs #13 Charleston
7:27 pm, TruTV
Spread: 
Auburn (-11), O/U 148.5

auburn

Auburn Tigers
Record:
25-7
Leading Scorer: Mustapha Heron (16.6 PPG)
Other Key Players: Bryce Brown (16.2 PPG), Jared Harper (13.7 PPG, 5.7 APG)
Key Stats: 21st in the nation in Adjusted Tempo (only four Tournament teams play at a faster pace); Shoot 78.6% from the free throw line (only two Tournament teams are better); 23.2% of points come from the free throw line (only three Tournament teams have a higher percentage)

It’s been a tale of two seasons for the SEC regular season champion Auburn Tigers: Pre-Anfernee McLemore injury and post-Anfernee McLemore injury. McLemore averaged 2.7 blocks per game, one of the top rim protectors in the country. With him on the court, Auburn was 23-3 this season. McLemore was injured in a loss to South Carolina on February 17. Including that loss, the Tigers were just 2-4 without him. They now lack an interior defensive presence, allowing teams to attack the paint and have a great deal of success. The one thing that gives them a chance to make a run is their free throw shooting. They shoot a bunch of them, and they’re really good at it. They need to stay aggressive on offense and they could be a sleeper.

charleston

Charleston Cougars
Record: 26-7
Leading Scorer: Grant Riller (18.7 PPG)
Other Key Players: Joe Chealey (18.5 PPG), Jarrell Brantley (17.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
Key Stats: 86.2% Minutes Continuity this season (highest percentage in the nation); Opponents steal from them on just 5.9% of possessions (best among Tournament teams)

It was a great season for the College of Charleston, ending with an overtime victory over Northeastern to earn their first Tournament berth since 1999. The trio of scorers I listed above could be a better collection than any team in this Tournament. Not only are the effective scorers, but they protect the ball better than a lot of teams. They can frustrate a defense into a lot of fouls (21.1% of points come from the free throw line), and they shoot over 76% from the line, a great recipe for winning Tournament games.

Matchup – This game will be a big-time clash of styles, with Auburn wanting to get out in transition and Charleston preferring to grind the game to a halt. Both teams are great from the free throw line, so it may come down to which team is able to get there more often. Advantage Auburn there. The Tigers have not been the same team lately, and that has led to a lot of experts viewing Charleston as one of the top upset picks in the First Round.

 

Late Evening:

Charlotte, NC (South Region)
#1 Virginia vs #16 UMBC
Approx. 9:20 pm, TNT
Spread: 
Virginia (-22.5), O/U 121.5

virginia

Virginia Cavaliers
Record:
31-2
Leading Scorer: Kyle Guy (14.1 PPG)
Other Key Players: Devon Hall (12.0 PPG)
Key Stats: 1st in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; Slowest tempo in the nation; Only turn the ball over on 14.1% of possessions (only three Tournament teams are better)

For many years now, Virginia has been a fantastic regular season team under Tony Bennett, but they fail when it comes to the Tournament. The 2017-2018 Cavaliers might be the best team Bennett has had in Charlottesville, and they are looking to continue that in the postseason and buck the trend of past Virginia teams. This team is no joke, and they are without question the best defensive team in the country. It is so difficult to score on them, but what puts them over the top is that they are highly efficient on the offensive end as well. Unfortunately, they were dealt a massive blow yesterday when it was announced that 6th man DeAndre Hunter will miss the remainder of the season with a wrist injury suffered in the ACC Tournament. Depth is so important in March, so the loss of Hunter could be a death knell for the Cavs’ chances at a national title.

umbc

UMBC Retrievers
Record: 24-10
Leading Scorer: Jairus Lyles (20.2 PPG)
Other Key Players: K.J. Maura (11.4 PPG, 5.2 APG)
Key Stats: 40.7% of their points come from 3-point range (2nd highest percentage among Tournament teams); Shoot just 65.0% from the free throw line (2nd worst among Tournament teams)

A big time upset in the America East title game got UMBC their spot in the Tournament, going to Vermont and beating the Catamounts 65-62 on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Jairus Lyles. Lyles is small, but he’s one of the best pure scorers in this Tournament. They have not seen a team anything close to Virginia this season, but their great 3-point shooting could give them a shot. If the Retrievers make their open shots, they have a chance to at least keep it close against the Cavaliers.

Matchup – It’s hard to envision UMBC becoming the first 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed, especially when they drew the #1 overall seed Virginia. The game is in Charlotte, so I’m sure a lot of UMBC fans will be able to make the trip, but I’m not sure how much that will help. Like I said, if they hit open shots, they could keep this thing close, but I don’t think there’s any way they can come out victorious.

 

Detroit, MI (Midwest Region)
#6 TCU vs #11 Arizona State/Syracuse
Approx. 9:40 pm, CBS
Spread: 
TBD

TCU

TCU Horned Frogs
Record:
21-11
Leading Scorer: Vlad Brodziansky (15.1 PPG)
Other Key Players: Kenrich Williams (13.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG), Alex Robinson (9.1 PPG, 6.8 APG)
Key Stats: 8th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; Opponents shoot 37.9% from 3-point range (only North Carolina’s opponents shoot better from 3 among Tournament teams)

TCU started this season red hot, winning their first 12 games of the year. Then Big 12 play started. They struggled at times in conference play, especially after the season-ending injury to point guard Jaylen Fisher, but the Horned Frogs had some great wins, beating West Virginia and winning at Baylor. They were 9-9 in Big 12 play, which is nothing to shake a stick at. On paper, this team has a good resume, deserving of a 6-seed in the Tournament. However, when you watch this team and give them they eye test, I’m not so sure. I think they are a good team that is capable of getting to the second weekend, but I also see them as very susceptible in this first game, no matter who wins the First Four game between Arizona State and Syracuse.

Matchup – Will be updated following the conclusion of Arizona State/Syracuse

 

Nashville, TN (West Region)
#8 Missouri vs #9 Florida State
Approx. 9:50 pm, TBS
Spread: 
Pick Em, O/U 148

michael porter jr

Missouri Tigers
Record:
20-12
Leading Scorer: Kassius Robertson (16.2 PPG)
Other Key Players: Jontay Porter (10.1 PPG, 6.8 RPG), Michael Porter Jr.
Key Stats: 39% of points come from 3-point range (only four Tournament teams have a higher percentage); Have shots blocked on over 12% of their possessions (only one Tournament team is worse)

It’s been an up and down season for Missouri right from the get-go. Expectations were understandably high with Cuonzo Martin taking over as head coach and securing the commitments of the Porter brothers, Michael and Jontay. Michael was the #1 recruit in the country, and it was expected that he would lead the Tigers to the top of the SEC standings. Unfortunately, he played just two minutes in the regular season, injuring his back in the opener and sitting out the entire year. He returned in the loss to Georgia in the SEC Tournament, only playing 22 minutes and ultimately struggling. However, that’s to be expected in his first game action since November. The fact that he is playing again has people really excited to see what this Missouri team can do. A potential Second Round matchup with Xavier could be a lot of fun.

florida state

Florida State Seminoles
Record: 20-11
Leading Scorer: Terance Mann (13.2 PPG)
Other Key Players: Phil Cofer (13.1 PPG), Braian Angola (12.9 PPG)
Key Stats: 28th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; Shoot under 69% from the free throw line

I’d be willing to bet that you watched the Selection Show, saw Florida State as a 9-seed, and wondered how, having never heard a peep about the Seminoles all season. I think that’s exactly how Head Coach Leonard Hamilton would like it, his team flying way under the radar, but when you look at their resume, it was a great season for FSU, especially considering the amount of production they lost from last season. The main reason the Seminoles are in the Tournament is their success away from home. They won at Florida, Virginia Tech and Louisville. In addition, they scored home wins over North Carolina, Miami and Clemson. There isn’t anything really special about this team, they are just solid, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Matchup – There isn’t a whole lot of excitement around this matchup, especially considering it’s going to be second-to-last for the First Round, 31 games in for the round. However, getting to see Michael Porter Jr. play in the Tournament is worth getting excited for. He’s a future NBA all-star, and if he gets hot, Missouri could make a deep run in this Tournament.

 

San Diego, CA (Midwest Region)
#5 Clemson vs #12 New Mexico State
Approx. 9:57 pm, TruTV
Spread: 
Clemson (-5.5), O/U 134

clemson

Clemson Tigers
Record:
23-9
Leading Scorer: Marcquise Reed (15.9 PPG)
Other Key Players: Gabe DeVoe (13.2 PPG)
Key Stats: 8th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; Opponents shoot just 44.3% from 2-point range (Top-10 in the nation)

One of the most unexpectedly great teams this year was the Clemson Tigers. Unfortunately, the injury bug that bit a bunch of teams this year got to them as well. Star forward Donte Grantham suffered a knee injury 19 games into the season, and the team struggled at times without him. They started the year 14-1, but were just 7-6 in games without Grantham. Now, they did beat North Carolina after the injury, so while not as good, this Clemson team that we will see in the Tournament is still capable of knocking off the big dogs.

new mexico state 2

New Mexico State Aggies
Record: 28-5
Leading Scorer: Zach Lofton (19.8 PPG)
Other Key Players: Jemerrio Jones (11.0 PPG, 13.2 RPG)
Key Stats: 15th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; Shoot just 64.3% from the free throw line (worst among Tournament teams)

New Mexico State has consistently been one of the top mid-major programs in recent history, and this year was no different. You don’t win 28 games by accident. Their coming out party was in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii over Christmas weekend. They knocked off Davidson in the first round, then upset Miami in the semifinals, knocking the Hurricanes from the ranks of the unbeaten. They came up just five points short in the finals against USC, but despite the loss, everyone knew the Aggies were for real. They were dominant in WAC play, losing just back-to-back road games in mid-February. Other than those two setbacks, that loss to USC was their only other once since Christmas Day. This is a fantastic defensive team, but on the offensive side of the ball, they really value possessions, a trait that could go a long way in the Tournament.

Matchup – This is game number 32 of the First Round, and it might be the most popular upset pick of the lot. The win over Miami will give this team the confidence needed to get a victory over Clemson. The Tigers not being at full strength is another reason a lot of people are putting their faith in the Aggies. This will be a great finale to two fantastic days of basketball.

2018 NCAA Tournament Preview: First Round – Thursday 3/15

If you don’t think the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament aren’t the two best days on the sports calendar, you are either a hockey fan or un-American (or maybe both).

I am kidding of course, but seriously, they are two of the most fun days of the year and I cannot wait! I am going to preview every First Round game, starting today with Thursday’s slate.

*Any statistics mentioned are courtesy of KenPom.com or ESPN*

Thursday, March 15th

Early Afternoon:

Pittsburgh, PA (Midwest Region)
#7 Rhode Island vs #10 Oklahoma
12:15 pm, CBS
Spread: 
Rhode Island (-1.5), O/U 158

Rhode Island v Creighton

Rhode Island Rams
Record: 25-7
Leading Scorer: Jared Terrell (17.2 PPG)
Other Key Players: E.C. Matthews (13.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG), Jeff Dowtin (9.7 PPG, 5.5 APG)
Key Stats: Average player experience of 2.19 years (3rd most experienced team in the Tournament); 55.9% of points come on 2-point shots (6th highest percentage among Tournament teams)

Rhode Island is back in the Tournament for the second straight season, nearly reaching the Sweet 16 last year, losing to eventual Final Four team Oregon 75-72. E.C. Matthews is a great senior leader for this team. His career has been marred by injuries, but when healthy, he’s been one of the best players in the Atlantic 10. The Rams had a 16-game winning streak at one point this season, but they’ve lost four of their last eight, including a 30 point home loss to Saint Joseph’s. When at their best, the Rams protect the ball well on offense and take it away at a very high rate on defense (3rd highest defensive TO rate among Tournament teams).

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Oklahoma Sooners
Record: 18-13
Leading Scorer: Trae Young (27.4 PPG, 8.8 APG, both lead the nation)
Other Key Players: Brady Manek (10.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG)
Key Stats: 4th in the nation in Adjusted Tempo (fastest playing team in the Tournament); Played the 2nd most difficult schedule in the nation this season

What a conundrum Oklahoma is this season. Freshman Trae Young is one of the best players in the country, and for a spell early in the season, he was single-handedly leading the Sooners to some fantastic wins over the likes of Wichita State, TCU (twice), Texas Tech and Kansas. However, as the season wore on, Young just couldn’t carry the team on his shoulders any longer, the team losing 11 of their final 15 games, including a loss to Oklahoma State in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament. If Trae Young gets really hot, this could be a dangerous team, but the way they are playing right now, it’s hard to have much faith in them.

Matchup – We’re going to kick off the Tournament in an exciting way. Many people are looking forward to seeing Trae Young play in the NCAA Tournament. He has been very susceptible to turnovers at times this season, and that’s going to make this a fun matchup against Rhode Island, one of the most tenacious defenses in the country. The Rams’ Stanford Robinson (2.2 steals per game) and Jared Terrell (1.5 steals per game) could give Young some fits. He’s going to have to be exceptional, because he doesn’t have much support from the rest of his team.

 

Dallas, TX (South Region)
#3 Tennessee vs #14 Wright State
12:40 pm, TruTV
Spread: 
Tennessee (-13.5), O/U 132.5

admiral schofield

Tennessee Volunteers
Record: 25-8
Leading Scorer: Grant Williams (15.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG)
Other Key Players: Admiral Schofield (13.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG)
Key Stats: 4th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; 6th in Assist Percentage (3rd among Tournament teams)

It was a great season for the SEC, and a big part of that was the success of Rick Barnes and his Tennessee Volunteers. It started in the Bahamas, where they knocked off Purdue and NC State, with a narrow loss to Villanova sandwiched between. Tennessee finished 2nd in the league in the regular season, and lost to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game. This team likes to slow the game down and beat you on the defensive end. They have capable scorers in Williams, Schofield and Lamonte Turner, but they’re not going to win a whole lot of shootouts. Luckily for them, they don’t get into many of them.

wright state

Wright State Raiders
Record: 25-9
Leading Scorer: Grant Benzinger (14.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG)
Other Key Players: Loudon Love (12.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG)
Key Stats: 248th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency (2nd worst among Tournament teams); Opponents shoot just 45.6% from 2-point range against them (27th in the nation)

Wright State tussled with Northern Kentucky at the top of the Horizon League standings all season long, but when the Norse were upset by Cleveland State in the Horizon Tournament, that opened the door for the Raiders, who defeated the aforementioned Cleveland State Vikings 74-57 in the title game to earn their berth. Leading scorer Grant Benzinger led the way in that game with 19 points and 9 rebounds, and he’ll look to lead his team to a huge upset early on in the NCAA Tournament.

Matchup – Both of these teams prefer to win with great defense, so this could be one of the lower scoring games in the First Round, especially when you also consider the start time. It always seems like higher seeded teams are more susceptible to upsets in the games with an early start time. That may make Wright State a popular upset pick, but they are going to have a difficult time scoring against the extremely athletic Tennessee defenders.

 

Boise, ID (West Region)
#4 Gonzaga vs #13 UNC Greensboro
1:30 pm, TNT
Spread: 
Gonzaga (-12), O/U 136

gonzaga

Gonzaga Bulldogs
Record: 30-4
Leading Scorer: Johnathan Williams (13.5 PPG, 8.3 RPG)
Other Key Players: Killian Tillie (13.4 PPG, 6.0 RPG), Josh Perkins (12.4 PPG, 5.4 APG)
Key Stats: One of just three teams in the Top-20 in Offensive and Defensive Efficiency; 5th in the nation in Offensive 2-point FG%, 6th in Defensive 2-point FG%

Once again, everybody is sleeping on Gonzaga. I thought maybe they’d get a little more love after finally reaching the National Championship Game last season, but Mark Few’s team is flying under the radar yet again. While true that they do not play in a difficult conference, they did test themselves in non-conference, defeating Ohio State, Texas and Creighton. They currently ride a 14-game winning streak, and are playing some of their best basketball all season. Despite being just a 4-seed, the Bulldogs are most definitely a title contender.

unc greensboro

UNC Greensboro Spartans
Record: 27-7
Leading Scorer: Francis Alonso (15.6 PPG)
Other Key Players: Marvin Smith (12.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG)
Key Stats: 40% of their points come from 3-point range (3rd highest percentage among Tournament teams); 30th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency

It has been a great season for Wes Miller and his Spartans, winning a school record 27 games and defeating East Tennessee State 62-47 in the SoCon title game. They aren’t a terrible offensive team, but they win most of their games with a tenacious defense that is one of the best among mid-major teams in this year’s Tournament field. They are in the Top-40 on KenPom in both steal percentage and block percentage. The Spartans lost by just 12 points at Virginia to open the season, which could give them some hope of pulling off the upset.

Matchup – Another early start could mean upset city, but Gonzaga is a dark horse title contender, so it’s going to take a great performance from UNC Greensboro. The one thing that will play into the Spartans’ favor is their 3-point shooting. They love to shoot it from deep, and we see every year at least one team get red-hot from the outside and pull off an improbably victory. Could UNC Greensboro get it done? Stranger things have happened, that’s all I’m saying.

 

Wichita, KS (Midwest Region)
#1 Kansas vs #16 Pennsylvania
2:00 pm, TBS
Spread: 
Kansas (-14.5), O/U 147

kansas

Kansas Jayhawks
Record: 27-7
Leading Scorer: Devonte’ Graham (17.3 PPG, 7.5 APG)
Other Key Players: Svi Mykhailiuk (15.1 PPG, 45.3% 3PT)
Key Stats: 6th in the nation in Effective FG%; 21.2% of minutes played by non-starters (2nd lowest among Tournament teams)

Somehow, someway, Kansas won their 14th straight Big 12 regular season championship. They went and added another Big 12 Tournament title as well. After early season home losses to Arizona State and Texas Tech, the Jayhawks figured things out and improbably won another championship. They are susceptible to an early exit from the Tournament though, having lost to Washington and twice to Oklahoma State this season. Depth is an issue for the Jayhawks, as is height. Starting center Udoka Azubuike did not play in the Big 12 Tournament, but says he will be ready for the game on Thursday. If his injury woes continue, Kansas could be in some trouble.

penn

Pennsylvania Quakers
Record: 24-8
Leading Scorer: Ryan Betley (14.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG)
Other Key Players: AJ Brodeur (13.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
Key Stats: Opponents shoot just 29.6% from 3-point range (best in the Tournament); No team in the Tournament gives up a lower rate of offensive rebounds than Penn

I would like to be on record saying that Penn might be the most talented 16-seed in Tournament history. We all know a 16 has never beaten a 1, but it’s going to happen one day. I was certainly shocked to see Penn as a 16-seed when the bracket was revealed, and that should have Kansas at least a little worried. Center AJ Brodeur has been on a hot streak, and he’ll look to keep it going in a good matchup with the undersized Jayhawks.

Matchup – Too many people are talking about the possibility of Penn actually beating Kansas. I mean, anything can happen, especially in sports, but could this finally be the year a 16-seed knocks off a 1-seed? Kansas is flawed and Penn is a solid team. The Quakers defend the 3-point line better than any team in the field, and having watched a lot of Kansas this year, I know that they beat a lot of teams by shooting the lights out. Holy crap, I am convincing myself that Penn is going to beat Kansas…

 

Late Afternoon:

Pittsburgh, PA (Midwest Region)
#2 Duke vs #15 Iona
Approx. 2:45 pm, CBS
Spread: 
Duke (-20), O/U 156

marvin bagley

Duke Blue Devils
Record: 26-7
Leading Scorer: Marvin Bagley III (21.1 PPG, 11.5 RPG)
Other Key Players: Grayson Allen (15.7 PPG), Wendell Carter Jr. (13.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.2 BPG)
Key Stats: One of two teams in the Top-10 in Offensive and Defensive Efficiency (Michigan State is the other); 1st in the nation in Offensive Rebounding percentage; 2nd youngest team on average in the Tournament

Just like every other year, Duke enters the Tournament as a clear title contender, but also one that is very flawed. I think this year more than ever, this is a Duke team that is just as likely to win the championship as they are to fail to reach the Sweet 16. Grayson Allen is a senior, and you know he’ll want to go out on top. Duke started the year 11-0, then heated up at the end of the season, but suffered late losses to Virginia Tech and rival North Carolina. Marvin Bagley is one of the best players in the country, and what the Blue Devils lack in experience, they more than make up for in sheer talent. I’d argue that this is one of the two most talented offensive teams in the Tournament.

iona

Iona Gaels
Record: 20-13
Leading Scorer: Rickey McGill (13.5 PPG, 5.6 APG)
Other Key Players: E.J. Crawford (12.9 PPG)
Key Stats: Opponents shoot just 66.2% from the free throw line (best among Tournament teams); 2nd most experienced team in the Tournament (behind only Wichita State)

I wasn’t expecting the Gaels to reach the Tournament this season, as they were the 4-seed in the MAAC Tournament, but a few upsets opened the door and Head Coach Tim Cluess was able to get his team back to the Dance for the second straight season. This team is very upperclassmen-led, with four key players from last season’s Tournament team returning this season. The Gaels win with offense, so this game could be a big time shootout.

Matchup – I think Duke is going to be one of the more popular National Championship picks this season, and I have a hard time seeing them get beat by Iona. That being said, the Blue Devils did lose in the First Round as a 15-seed one time before, falling to Lehigh back in 2012. If you like offense, this will be the game for you.

 

Dallas, TX (South Region)
#6 Miami FL vs #11 Loyola-Chicago
Approx. 3:10 pm, TruTV
Spread: 
Miami FL (-2.5), O/U 133.5

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Miami FL Hurricanes
Record: 22-9
Leading Scorer: Lonnie Walker IV (11.5 PPG)
Other Key Players: Dewan Huell (11.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG)
Key Stats: 66.3% from the free throw line (only three Tournament teams are worse)

Miami has been a hard team to gauge this season. At times, they’ve looked like one of the best teams in the ACC, with wins over Notre Dame, Virginia Tech (twice), NC State, Florida State and North Carolina. They’ve also looked rough at times, losing to Georgia Tech, Boston College and at home to Syracuse. Star freshman Lonnie Walker IV has been much improved as the season has progressed, and they’ll need him to step up in a big way without Bruce Brown. Brown has been out since late January, and the Hurricanes have played well at times without him (four straight wins to end the regular season), but the NCAA Tournament is a whole different animal.

loyola chicago

Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Record: 28-5
Leading Scorer: Clayton Custer (13.4 PPG)
Other Key Players: Donte Ingram (11.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG)
Key Stats: 5th among Tournament teams in Effective FG%; 2nd lowest Offensive Rebounding rate in the Tournament (only Creighton pulls down less offensive rebounds)

The Ramblers are the exact type of team that you love to see get to the NCAA Tournament. They are in the Big Dance for the first time since 1985, reaping the benefits of Wichita State’s move from the Missouri Valley to the American this year. But not only are they here, they are looking to make some noise, and by my estimation, they are very capable of that. This is one of the 25 best defensive teams in the country, but they are also great on offense, in the Top-15 in the nation in both 2-point and 3-point FG percentage. The Ramblers have a 65-59 win in Gainesville over Florida this season, and that win alone means that they are more than capable of pulling off a few upsets in this Tournament.

Matchup – A lot of years, there’s one upset pick that a large number of people like to take. Loyola-Chicago over Miami is going to be that upset. But a lot of times, the popular upset pick doesn’t pan out. That should give you at least a little bit of pause. However, I think Loyola-Chicago is a genuinely talented team on par with major conference teams like Miami, who has not impressed me all that much this season. What Miami has to do to avoid the upset is dominate the boards, and they are definitely capable of that. If they struggle, don’t be surprised to see Loyola-Chicago come out on top.

 

Boise, ID (West Region)
#5 Ohio State vs #12 South Dakota State
Approx. 4:00 pm, TNT
Spread: 
Ohio State (-8.5), O/U 147.5

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Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: 24-8
Leading Scorer: Keita Bates-Diop (19.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG)
Other Key Players: Jae’Sean Tate (12.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG)
Key Stats: 27th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; 16th in Defensive Efficiency

This Ohio State team is much better than many people realize. Chris Holtmann has proven that he is one of the best coaches in the country, and Keita Bates-Diop has taken a massive leap forward this season, leading the Buckeyes to an impressive 24-8 record, far exceeding most expectations. Just look at this, a list of the teams that have beaten OSU this season: Gonzaga, Butler, Clemson, North Carolina, Michigan, Penn State. Those are all very good teams, with the exception of Penn State (who is an NIT team), but the Nittany Lions just had Ohio State’s number, beating them three times. I think the Buckeyes were seeded properly, but I believe they are a better team than their 5-seed suggests.

south dak state

South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Record: 28-6
Leading Scorer: Mike Daum (23.8 PPG, 10.4 RPG)
Other Key Players: David Jenkins Jr. (16.1 PPG)
Key Stats: Commit turnovers at a lower rate than any team in the nation; Force turnovers at a lower rate than any team in the Tournament field

I like those key statistics that I discovered for the Jackrabbits. They take care of the basketball better than anybody, and that is why they are one of the most efficient offenses among mid-major teams. At the same time, there isn’t a team in this Tournament that is worse at forcing turnovers than SDSU. Despite that, there’s a lot to like about this team. Mike Daum is probably the best player that you’ve never heard of, and he’ll now get his third crack at an NCAA Tournament victory, with the Jackrabbits losing to Gonzaga last season and Maryland the year prior. They also shoot better than 39 percent from 3-point range and over 75 percent from the free throw line, and teams that shoot well from three and at the line tend to have success in the Tournament.

Matchup – Mike Daum is likely to be a NBA Draft pick, and it might be after this season, as his stock is the highest it’s ever been. He’s done a lot at South Dakota State, but the one thing he’s yet to accomplish in his three seasons is an NCAA Tournament victory. The Jackrabbits will be a popular upset pick, and I think they have a really good chance to get the win, but Ohio State is really good. The Buckeyes aren’t going to go down without a fight because I think they’d love to get another crack at Gonzaga in the Round of 32. OSU lost to the Zags 86-59 earlier this season.

 

Wichita, KS (Midwest Region)
#8 Seton Hall vs #9 NC State
Approx. 4:30 pm, TBS
Spread: 
Seton Hall (-2), O/U 157

Angel delgado.jpg

Seton Hall Pirates
Record: 21-11
Leading Scorer: Desi Rodriguez (17.8 PPG)
Other Key Players: Angel Delgado (13.3 PPG, 11.6 RPG), Khadeen Carrington (14.9 PPG, 4.5 APG)
Key Stats: 29th in the nation in Offensive Rebounding percentage; Shoot under 70% from the free throw line

Seton Hall was a very up and down team this year, picking up some great wins but also suffering some rough losses along the way. They beat Texas Tech and Louisville in non-conference and also scored Big East wins over Butler (twice), Providence (twice) and Creighton. They couldn’t beat the top teams in the league though, getting swept by both Xavier and Villanova, and they also lost to Rutgers, Marquette (twice) and Georgetown. Seton Hall’s Tournament success this season could hinge on the health of their leading scorer Desi Rodriguez. The talented senior wing missed the final three games of the regular season, and while he returned in the Pirates’ Big East Tournament loss to Butler, he only played 16 minutes. They’ll need the best out of Rodriguez if they’re going to make a run.

 

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NC State Wolfpack
Record: 21-11
Leading Scorer: Allerik Freeman (15.4 PPG)
Other Key Players: Omer Yurtseven (13.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG), Torin Dorn (13.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG)
Key Stats: 57.7% of points they give up come from 2-point range; Opposing teams shoot just 31.6% from 3-point range (14th best in the country)

It’s been a really successful debut season for Head Coach Kevin Keatts at NC State. They finished just 11-7 in the ACC, but as good as the league was this year, I’d say that’s pretty impressive. They also have a fantastic collection of wins that rivals maybe any, scoring wins against Arizona, Duke, Clemson and North Carolina. Baylor grad-transfer Al Freeman has been a huge boost to the Wolfpack this season, taking on the veteran leadership role that this team needed after a poor 2016-2017 season.

Matchup – If you like fast-paced offense, this will be a game for you. Seton Hall comes from the Big East, where everybody plays fast. NC State would have fit in great in the Big East this season with their fast-paced style. I’m interested to see how healthy Desi Rodriguez is going to be, because that will have a huge impact on this game. Kevin Keatts coached in the Tournament the last two seasons with UNC Wilmington, so he’ll have his Wolfpack well prepared for this one.

 

Early Evening:

Pittsburgh, PA (East Region)
#1 Villanova vs #16 Radford/LIU Brooklyn
6:50 pm, TNT
Spread: 
TBD

jalen brunson 2

Villanova Wildcats
Record: 30-4
Leading Scorer: Jalen Brunson (19.4 PPG, 4.7 APG)
Other Key Players: Mikal Bridges (18.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG), Omari Spellman (10.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG)
Key Stats: 1st in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; 1st in Effective FG%; 2nd in 2PT FG Percentage; 39.3% of points come from 3-point range (4th highest percentage among Tournament teams)

There are three certainties in life: Death, Taxes and Villanova being a 1 or 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament. We wondered who was going to lead this team last year after Ryan Arcidiacono’s departure, but Josh Hart stepped up and became one of the best players in the nation. We wondered who was going to lead this team this year after Josh Hart’s graduation, and Jalen Brunson stepped up and then some. I believe that he should be the Naismith Player of the Year. Brunson is easily the most improved player in the country, but he has lots of help. Mikal Bridges has turned himself into a future NBA Lottery pick, Eric Paschall has stepped up his game, Donte DiVincenzo is the best 6th man in the nation and Omari Spellman is the perfect big man for the modern game of basketball, able to block shots and rebound while stepping out and shooting the three with much success.

Matchup – Will be updated following the conclusion of Radford/LIU Brooklyn

 

Boise, ID (South Region)
#5 Kentucky vs #12 Davidson
7:10 pm, CBS
Spread: 
Kentucky (-6), O/U 143

kentucky

Kentucky Wildcats
Record: 24-10
Leading Scorer: Kevin Knox (15.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG)
Other Key Players: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (13.9 PPG, 5.0 APG)
Key Stats: Most inexperienced team in the country (entire roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores); Top-25 in the nation in both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency

The talent is immense, but I’d say it’s still extremely impressive what John Calipari was able to do with this team. Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones are sophomores that see significant playing time, but the rest of the rotation are all freshmen. Despite this, the Wildcats won 24 games, including a win at West Virginia and wins over Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee in consecutive days to win the SEC Tournament title. If there is a flaw other than inexperience that could do this team in, it’s free throw shooting. Kentucky shoots under 70 percent from the line, so if they end up in a close game, the advantage likely goes to their opponent.

davidson

Davidson Wildcats
Record: 21-11
Leading Scorer: Peyton Aldridge (21.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG)
Other Key Players: Kellan Grady (18.0 PPG), Jon Axel Gudmundsson (13.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 5.1 APG)
Key Stats: 18th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; 4th in Free Throw Percentage (79.7%); 41.9% of points come from 3-point range (highest percentage among Tournament teams)

The Davidson Wildcats are a great team that just didn’t have the resume needed to earn an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. Knowing this, Bob McKillop’s team defeated Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island in consecutive days to earn the A-10 title and an automatic bid to the Tournament. Now that they’re here, this is a dangerous team. Aldridge is a versatile big man that can score from anywhere on the floor, Grady is a fantastic freshman guard and Gudmundsson is a Swiss Army Knife for this team (he’s from Iceland, but I think that’s close enough to Switzerland for that comparison to count as clever!)

Matchup – There are a lot of fun First Round matchups this year, but I’m most excited for Kentucky-Davidson. The Wildcats are playing their best basketball this season right now, they enter the Tournament as conference champions and they are definitely a team you do not want to face right now. Wait, oh yeah, both of these teams are the Wildcats. Well, good thing that sentence can easily apply to both teams. If this game is close down the stretch, it could come down to free throw shooting, where Kentucky struggles and Davidson is the best in the field.

 

Wichita, KS (West Region)
#6 Houston vs #11 San Diego State
7:20 pm, TBS
Spread: 
Houston (-3.5), O/U 142.5

NCAA Basketball: Houston at Wichita State

Houston Cougars
Record: 26-7
Leading Scorer: Rob Gray (18.5 PPG, 4.5 APG)
Other Key Players: Devin Davis (10.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG)
Key Stats: Average height of 75.6 inches (only three teams are smaller on average in the Tournament field); 34.7% Offensive Rebounding rate (17th in the nation)

Houston spent the better part of this season just quietly putting together a fantastic season, but on January 20th, people became aware of the Cougars following their victory over Wichita State. Then they knocked off Cincinnati on February 15th, and everyone started to realize that this team was going to be a force to be reckoned with come March. The Cougars were just one point away from another victory over Cincy and an American Championship, but despite the loss, they carry a great deal of momentum into the NCAA Tournament. Head Coach Kelvin Sampson has now taken four different schools to the NCAA Tournament, cementing his spot among the great coaches in the game’s history.

san diego state

San Diego State Aztecs
Record: 22-10
Leading Scorer: Malik Pope (12.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG)
Other Key Players: Trey Kell (10.4 PPG, 4.1 APG, 4.0 RPG)
Key Stats: 36th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; 18th tallest team in the country on average (78.3 inches)

We had multiple bid stealers this year in the Tournament, and San Diego State was one of the most unexpected ones. The Aztecs scored a massive win over Gonzaga early on, so we should have expected them to be here. However, they started Mountain West play 5-7 and things looked bleak. Coach Brian Dutcher’s team went on to win their final six games of the regular season, knocked off Nevada in the Mountain West semis and then outlasted New Mexico in the title game to earn their automatic berth. Just like when Steve Fisher was at the helm, this team wins with defense. They have some crazy length and tons of athleticism making them extremely difficult to score on.

Matchup – Houston thinks they have a special thing going this year, but I think SDSU might be thinking the same thing right about now with their nine game winning streak. I’m excited to see how Houston’s guards deal with San Diego State’s length on the defensive end. Houston is a very good outside shooting team, but the Aztecs defend the arc pretty well. I think whichever team is better will win, as simple as that.

 

Dallas, TX (East Region)
#3 Texas Tech vs #14 Stephen F. Austin
7:27 pm, TruTV
Spread: 
Texas Tech (-11.5), O/U 138

keenan evans

Texas Tech Red Raiders
Record: 24-9
Leading Scorer: Keenan Evans (17.5 PPG)
Other Key Players: Zhaire Smith (11.2 PPG)
Key Stats: 3rd in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; 38.9% of minutes are played by non-starters (only two teams in the Tournament have a higher percentage of bench minutes)

Chris Beard is quickly climbing the ranks as one of the best coaches in the country. Texas Tech far exceeded expectations this season, and they might have finished even better had star Keenan Evans not gotten hurt late in the year. After he got hurt, the Red Raiders lost four games in a row, showing some weaknesses without Evans on the floor. His health could be the key to whether or not Texas Tech is able to make a deep run in this thing. He played 33 minutes in their Big 12 Tournament loss to West Virginia, and looked much more like himself, so I think Texas Tech is definitely a dangerous team.

sfa

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
Record: 28-6
Leading Scorer: Shannon Bogues (15.4 PPG)
Other Key Players: Kevon Harris (14.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG), TJ Holyfield (13.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG)
Key Stats: Force turnovers on 26.2% of opponents’ possessions (best in the country); 26.1% of opponents’ points come from the free throw line (highest percentage in the country)

These two key statistics go hand-in-hand perfectly. The Lumberjacks are the most aggressive defensive team outside of Press Virginia, and while it does help them force a ton of turnovers, it also makes them commit a lot of fouls, allowing their opponents to shoot a bunch of free throws. Stephen F. Austin is back in the Tournament for the first time since 2016 when they upset West Virginia in the First Round, and then were just one point away from advancing to the Sweet 16. They’d love to make another run like that this season.

Matchup – Stephen F. Austin is going to create some chaos on the defensive end, but the strongest part of Texas Tech is their guard play. A healthy Keenan Evans along with freshman Zhaire Smith should be able to handle the pressure and have some success. However, Texas Tech does struggle from the free throw line, so if the game is close, the Lumberjacks will have a shot to pull off the upset.

 

Late Evening:

Pittsburgh, PA (East Region)
#8 Virginia Tech vs #9 Alabama
Approx. 9:20 pm, TBS
Spread: 
Virginia Tech (-2), O/U 141.5

virginia tech

Virginia Tech Hokies
Record: 21-11
Leading Scorer: Justin Robinson (13.8 PPG, 5.6 APG)
Other Key Players: Kerry Blackshear Jr. (12.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG)
Key Stats: 12th in the nation in Effective FG%; 8th in 2-point FG% (57.3%, 4th among Tournament teams)

If you take every team in this Tournament and list their three best wins this season, nobody’s list would be better than Virginia Tech’s. They have wins at home over Duke and North Carolina, and they won in Charlottesville against #1 overall seed Virginia. That win at Virginia is the single best win by anybody this season, and it’s the only loss for Virginia over their last 24 games. With those victories, you’d think Virginia Tech would be much better than an 8-seed, but a smattering of losses over the course of the season puts them here. This is definitely a team to pay attention to though, because if they get hot, we already know they can beat anybody.

collin sexton

Alabama Crimson Tide
Record: 19-15
Leading Scorer: Collin Sexton (19.0 PPG)
Other Key Players: Donta Hall (10.9 PPG, 6.8 RPG)
Key Stats: 13th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; 32.4% from 3-point range (only two Tournament teams are worse)

Alabama entered SEC Tournament play squarely on the Bubble, needing at least one victory to ensure their spot in the Tournament. A miracle floater at the buzzer from super freshman Collin Sexton gave the Tide a 71-70 victory over Texas A&M, getting them to the quarterfinals against regular season champion Auburn. Sexton exploded for 31 points and the Tide knocked off their rivals, clinching their berth in the NCAA Tournament. Sexton is going to be a superstar in the NBA, and if he starts to feel good, this Alabama team could shock the world.

Matchup – This is the best 8/9 matchup in this year’s NCAA Tournament. A Virginia Tech team that is capable of beating anybody in the field versus an Alabama team led by one of the best players in the nation right now, Collin Sexton. Alabama is a fantastic defensive team, but Virginia Tech is one of the most efficient shooting teams in all the land. It will be a great clash of styles.

 

Boise, ID (South Region)
#4 Arizona vs #13 Buffalo
Approx. 9:40 pm, CBS
Spread: 
Arizona (-9), O/U 157.5

arizona

Arizona Wildcats
Record: 27-7
Leading Scorer: DeAndre Ayton (20.3 PPG, 11.5 RPG)
Other Key Players: Allonzo Trier (18.4 PPG), Dusan Ristic (12.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG)
Key Stats: 15th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; Average height of 78.6 inches (only five Tournament teams are bigger on average)

It has been some kind of season for the Arizona Wildcats. They were the preseason #1 team in the country, but dropped completely out of the rankings following an 0-3 record in the Battle 4 Atlantis. They responded by winning 16 of their next 17 games, reminding everyone why they were #1 to start the year. They only lost 4 games the rest of the season after the trip to the Bahamas, but they’ve dealt with more adversity than anybody. Allonzo Trier was suspended for two games because of a failed drug test (performance enhancers that he claims he took mistakenly) and Head Coach Sean Miller was reportedly caught discussing a $100,000 payment to star freshman DeAndre Ayton by an FBI wiretap. Ayton kept playing, and Miller did miss the loss to Oregon, but both are trying to put everything behind them and move on to winning a National Championship.

buffalo

Buffalo Bulls
Record: 26-8
Leading Scorer: CJ Massinburg (16.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG)
Other Key Players: Nick Perkins (16.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG), Wes Clark (14.6 PPG, 5.3 APG)
Key Stats: 15th in the nation in Adjusted Tempo (4th fastest playing team in the Tournament)

It’s a difficult draw for Buffalo, but you have to give this team a chance, because they are very good. The RPI is flawed, but Buffalo has had a great RPI all season long. This is a great offensive team, defeating Toledo 76-66 in the MAC Championship game. They have four players who average over 14.5 points a game, which is a lot for the college game. They are not very deep, so that could hurt them against a team like Arizona, and they don’t have a great interior presence, which could hurt them against a team like Arizona, but they are going to play the game, so Buffalo has a chance.

Matchup – Arizona is going to be an extremely popular pick to reach the Final Four out of the South Region, and that gives me pause. They are a very good team, but they played in the weakest major conference this season, so they are not nearly as battle tested as some other teams. That is a huge reason why Buffalo has a chance to shock the world and get the victory here. Is it likely? No, probably not, but that’s why we love March Madness, anything can happen!

 

Wichita, KS (West Region)
#3 Michigan vs #14 Montana
Approx. 9:50, TNT
Spread: 
Michigan (-12), O/U 135

mo wagner

Michigan Wolverines
Record: 28-7
Leading Scorer: Mo Wagner (14.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
Other Key Players: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (12.6 PPG)
Key Stats: 4th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; 2nd in Offensive Turnover% (only one Tournament team turns the ball over at a lower rate than UM)

Michigan quietly put together another great season, which is kind of how Head Coach John Beilein likes it. Only thing is when you win your last five regular season games and then win four games in four days, including wins over Michigan State and Purdue, to win a second consecutive Big Ten Tournament title, things tend to stop being so quiet. Regression was expected following the graduation of Derrick Walton and the departure of DJ Wilson, but this Wolverines team might actually be better than last year’s iteration. With the Big Ten Tournament taking place a week earlier than normal, Michigan has been on ice for over a week. Will they be rusty? I guess we’ll find out.

montana

Montana Grizzlies
Record: 26-7
Leading Scorer: Ahmaad Rorie (17.2 PPG)
Other Key Players: Michael Oguine (15.8 PPG), Jamar Akoh (13.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG)
Key Stats: 21.3% of points come from 3-point range (tied for lowest percentage among Tournament teams); 11th in the nation in Defensive Steal%

Montana led the Big Sky wire-to-wire this season, losing just two conference games back-to-back in mid-February. They easily defeated Eastern Washington in the championship game to earn their berth in the NCAA Tournament. Ahmaad Rorie is a fantastic shooting guard, and if he gets hot, I wouldn’t put it past Montana to be able to pull off an upset in the First Round. Heck, the Grizzlies have only lost two games since mid-December, they might not really know how to lose anymore.

Matchup – Michigan is going to be a very popular pick to advance to the Final Four, but I am very interested to see how they play in this game. I think it means something that they have not played since March 4th. If they come out flat, I could see Montana jumping on them and holding them off to shockingly advance. If Michigan wins this game, I like them to go really far this season.

 

Dallas, TX (East Region)
#6 Florida vs #11 St. Bonaventure/UCLA
Approx. 9:57, TruTV
Spread: 
TBD

chris chiozza

Florida Gators
Record: 20-12
Leading Scorer: Jalen Hudson (15.3 PPG)
Other Key Players: Egor Koulechov (13.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG), Chris Chiozza (11.2 PPG, 6.1 APG)
Key Stats: 25th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency; 6th in Offensive Turnover% (only four Tournament teams turn the ball over at a lower rate than UF)

It’s kind of shocking to see a team with 12 losses as a 6-seed, but when you look at their resume, the Gators definitely deserve it. They are not without blemishes, like a home loss to Loyola-Chicago and conference losses to Mississippi, Georgia (twice), Vanderbilt and South Carolina. However, they have neutral court wins over Gonzaga and Cincinnati, and they finished the regular season with consecutive wins over Auburn, Alabama (on the road) and Kentucky. They are the classic “lots of good wins, lots of bad losses” team. All that means is that they are probably just as likely to go to the Final Four as they are to lose their first game.

Matchup – Will update following the conclusion of St. Bonaventure/UCLA

2018 NCAA Tournament Preview: First Four

It has finally arrived ladies and gentlemen, the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament AKA The Big Dance AKA March Madness AKA my favorite sporting event of the year!

I’m going to separate my Tournament preview into three different posts, and I’m going to go chronologically, which means this first post is a look at the First Four games, taking place in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday and Wednesday night.

*Statistics mentioned are courtesy of KenPom.com and ESPN*

Tuesday, March 13th

Dayton, Ohio (East Region)
#16 Radford vs #16 LIU Brooklyn
6:40 pm, TruTV
Spread: Radford (-4)

Radford Highlanders
Record: 22-12
Leading Scorer: Ed Polite Jr. (13.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG)
Other Key Players: Carlik Jones (11.8 PPG, 3.0 APG)
Key Stats: Average height of 74.8 inches (346 out of 351 teams in DI, smallest team in Tournament); 346th in the nation in Adjusted Tempo (only Virginia is slower among Tournament teams)

Radford had one of the more exciting finishes of Championship week when Carlik Jones nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to defeat Liberty and punch the Highlanders’ ticket to the Dance. Radford likes to limit possessions and keep the game low scoring. They win with defense, which can sometimes be boring, but is often effective (Just ask Virginia). None of Radford’s three games in the Big South Tournament reached a point total of 115.

LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
Record: 18-16
Leading Scorer: Joel Hernandez (20.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG)
Other Key Players: Raiquan Clark (17.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
Key Stats: Average height of 75.2 inches (only Radford is smaller among Tournament teams); 39th in the nation in Adjusted Tempo

The Blackbirds have reached the Tournament after being just the 4-seed in the Northeast Tournament, defeating the league’s top team Wagner in the title game 71-61. Leading scorer Joel Hernandez did it all in that game, scoring 32 points on 10 of 16 shooting. Hernandez is the best player on the court in most of Brooklyn’s games. This team likes to play fast, they like to get out in transition and they like to attack the rim.

Matchup – This game will be a true clash of styles. The Blackbirds want to get out and run and speed the game up, while Radford will look to grind this game to a halt and limit Brooklyn’s possessions. These are the two smallest teams in the Tournament, so rebounding could be a major factor (Radford is the better rebounding team).

 

Dayton, Ohio (East Region)
#11 UCLA vs #11 St. Bonaventure
Approx. 9:10 pm, TruTV
Spread: UCLA (-3.5)

UCLA Bruins
Record: 21-11
Leading Scorer: Aaron Holiday (20.3 PPG, 5.8 APG)
Other Key Players: Thomas Welsh (13.0 PPG, 10.7 RPG), Kris Wilkes (13.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG)
Key Stats: 23rd in the nation in Offensive Efficiency

I was a little surprised to see UCLA make the Tournament (I did not have them making it in my prediction), but I don’t think anybody would deny the fact that the Bruins can beat anybody. They have wins over Kentucky and Arizona this season, and I think that’s the main reason they are here. Aaron Holiday is one of the best guards in the country, and if it wasn’t for DeAndre Ayton, he probably would have been the Player of the Year in the Pac-12. UCLA is great at protecting the ball on offense, but they do not force many turnovers on defense (only two Tournament teams have a lower defensive turnover rate).

St. Bonaventure Bonnies
Record: 25-7
Leading Scorer: Jaylen Adams (19.8 PPG, 5.4 APG)
Other Key Players: Matt Mobley (18.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG)
Key Stats: 19th in the nation in Offensive 3PT%, 23rd in Defensive 3PT%

The Bonnies are one of the hottest teams in the nation right now, having had a 13-game winning streak ended by Davidson in the A-10 semifinals. They boast an incredible backcourt led by seniors Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. Both guys are extremely talented scorers, each shooting better than 38% from 3-point range and over 85% from the free throw line. Free throw shooting can be a major factor in March, and it could be advantage Bonnies on that front.

Matchup – I think this is going to be the best game of the First Four, with both of these teams likely to feel a little disrespected by the Selection Committee. Both the Pac-12 and A-10 weren’t represented really well in this field of 68 teams, so both the Bruins and Bonnies will be out to prove that they belong. This is the first trip to the Tournament for St. Bonaventure’s seniors, so they will be very motivated in this one. Possibly of note, St. Bonaventure did play in Dayton Arena this season, losing to Dayton 82-72. Despite the loss, familiarity with the court and arena could play a factor for sure.

 

Wednesday, March 14th

Dayton, Ohio (West Region)
#16 Texas Southern vs #16 NC Central
6:40 pm, TruTV
Spread: Texas Southern (-4)

Texas Southern Tigers
Record: 15-19
Leading Scorer: Demontrae Jefferson (23.4 PPG, 4.5 APG)
Other Key Players: Donte Clark (18.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG), Trayvon Reed (9.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG)
Key Stats: Five players average over 9.5 PPG; 23.4% of points come from the free throw line (only two Tournament teams have a higher percentage)

I love when teams like Texas Southern are able to reach the NCAA Tournament. Don’t put a whole lot of stock in their 15-19 record. The Tigers played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation this season. They receive payment from higher profile schools to come to their gym and play them, using that money to fund their own basketball program. They went 0-13 in non-conference play (all road games), but they did play a few teams tough, losing by 6 to Oregon and by 7 to Clemson, a 5-seed in this year’s Tournament. Head Coach Mike Davis is very experienced, having coached at Indiana and UAB prior, and he’ll have his team ready to fight.

NC Central Eagles
Record: 19-15
Leading Scorer: Raasean Davis (15.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG)
Other Key Players: Pablo Rivas (11.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG)
Key Stats: 11.5% Minutes Continuity (this is a measurement that involves playing time for players who were on the team the previous season. In short, it tracks roster turnover from year-to-year. The national average is around 50%. Only Kentucky has had more roster turnover this season among Tournament teams)

I hope I explained that key statistic in a way that makes sense. I wanted to highlight that because it is the perfect example of why Head Coach LeVelle Moton could be in line for a much higher profile job in the very near future. To take a team that reached the Tournament last season and find a way to return despite the massive roster turnover at such a low profile university is simply amazing. The Eagles were the 6-seed in the MEAC Tournament, and despite losing seven of their last 12 games in the regular season, they were able to win four games in five days to earn this Tournament berth, upsetting Hampton 71-63 in the title game. NC Central played in the First Four last season, so Coach Moton can lean on his experience to get the most out of his club.

Matchup – NC Central is the lowest ranked team on KenPom to reach the Tournament this season (309 out of 351 teams), but you know what they say… “Anything can happen in March.” Texas Southern is the more battle-tested team, having played the likes of Gonzaga, Baylor, TCU, Kansas and Ohio State this season. Both coaches have coached in the First Four before, meaning they’ll have their teams well prepared for the pressure and excitement that comes with the NCAA Tournament.

 

Dayton, Ohio (Midwest Region)
#11 Syracuse vs #11 Arizona State
Approx. 9:10 pm, TruTV
Spread: Arizona State (-1.5)

Syracuse Orange
Record: 20-13
Leading Scorer: Tyus Battle (19.8 PPG)
Other Key Players: Frank Howard (15.0 PPG, 5.0 APG), Oshae Brissett (14.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG)
Key Stats: Average height of 80.1 inches (tallest team in Division I this season); 16.4% of minutes played by non-starters (least bench minutes in Division I this season)

I try not to get too angry at the decisions made by the Selection Committee because it is extremely difficult to come up with the 68 team field, but Syracuse just does not belong in this Tournament. Their resume does not stack up to some of the teams that were sent to the NIT. Nonetheless, they are here, and Coach Boeheim will have his team ready to go. You know about their vaunted 2-3 zone defense, made ever the more effective by their height (second highest defensive block percentage in the nation). In 2016, a lot of people didn’t think Syracuse deserved to make the Tournament, and they responded by reaching the Final Four. Could they do it again this year?

Arizona State Sun Devils
Record: 20-11
Leading Scorer: Tra Holder (18.4 PPG)
Other Key Players: Shannon Evans II (16.6 PPG)
Key Stats: 17th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency; 36th in Adjusted Tempo (only seven Tournament teams play faster)

Jay Bilas likes to say that the Selection Committee should not be in the business of sending messages, they should just pick the best teams. I tend to agree with him, but they sent a clear message by including Arizona State as an at-large selection, and that is that non-conference strength of schedule matters. The Sun Devils went a perfect 12-0 in non-conference play, including a neutral court win over 1-seed Xavier and a road win over 1-seed Kansas. Those are two of the best wins by any team this season, and that is why they got in despite an 8-10 record in Pac-12 play and a first round loss to Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament. Tra Holder is one of the most fun players to watch this season, and if he gets hot, the Sun Devils could make a run.

Matchup – The strongest opinions from the experts in the immediate aftermath of Selection Sunday are about these teams’ inclusion in the Tournament. One of them is going to get a win and face TCU on Friday night. Arizona State is not a fantastic 3-point shooting team, but they are capable of hitting outside shots, and they’ll have to if they’re going to have success against Syracuse’s zone defense. While I don’t think Syracuse should be here, I do think they have the edge in this game.

 

I will be back again tomorrow with a look at the First Round games taking place on Thursday. Enjoy the First Four, and happy March Madness!!!

Bracketology: 3/11/18

I’m going to try to keep this post short and sweet for you guys. IT’S SELECTION SUNDAY! Enough said.

I’ve put together one final bracket prediction, and you can see it by following the link below, and then it will be followed by a few notes.

*Teams in red are conference champions or projected conference champions*

Jayson’s Bracketology 3-11-18

Last Four Byes: Texas, Florida State, St. Bonaventure, USC

Last Four In: Arizona State, Oklahoma, Baylor, Louisville

First Four Out: Oklahoma State, Saint Mary’s, Middle Tennessee, Notre Dame

Next Four Out: UCLA, Marquette, Syracuse, Oregon

My bracket today includes who I believe will win today’s five conference title games, not necessarily who is favored to win. In fact, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Houston and UT Arlington are all the lower seeded team in their games today, but I expect all of them to come out victorious.

If Harvard beats Penn, they would be a lower seed in the NCAA Tournament (likely a 15-seed). Georgia State would slot right in where UT Arlington is as a 14-seed if they win the Sun Belt.

I do expect Rhode Island to defeat Davidson in the Atlantic 10 title game today, but this is the game today that could have the biggest impact on the bracket. The Selection Committee’s chairman Bruce Rasmussen said in an interview with NCAA.com’s Andy Katz that Davidson will not be an at-large team with a loss. If Davidson pulls off the upset, I believe they would be an 11-seed, pushing Louisville out of the field for me, and moving USC into the First Four.

You can watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show tonight at 6:00 pm on TBS, and be sure to stay tuned as I will have extensive, region-by-region Tournament previews early this coming week.