Final Four Preview: Villanova

In 2009, Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats made their first trip to the Final Four since winning the National Championship in 1985, riding a red hot point guard named Scotty Reynolds. Villanova has been one of the best programs in the nation in subsequent years, but they have been marred by postseason struggles.

Entering the 2016 Tournament, Villanova had failed to reach the second weekend of the Big Dance since that Final Four trip in ’09. Despite a very impressive season, many were writing off the Wildcats, citing their inability to win when it counts. Well, those people are eating their words now, as Villanova has silenced its critics, reaching the 2016 Final Four as the South Region Champions. Here is a look at how they got here, and why they might be the ones cutting down the nets on April 4.

First Round
Def. 15-seed UNC Asheville 86-56
Villanova has been a slow-starting team for much of this season, and they allowed UNC Asheville to stay in this one for a little while. But the Wildcats were able to pull away big time in the second half en route to a 30-point opening game victory. It was a very balanced effort from Nova, but they were led by senior big man Daniel Ochefu, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks.

Second Round
Def. 7-seed Iowa 87-68
Many were looking forward to a Villanova-Temple match-up here in the Second Round, but when Iowa knocked off the Owls at the buzzer, they moved on instead. As a Temple fan, I am glad they lost, because Iowa ran into a juggernaut in this game. Villanova went ahead early, and never looked back. They led 56-29 at halftime, putting it on cruise control in the second half, winning by 19 and finally getting back to the second weekend of the Tournament. They shot just under 60 percent from the field, including going 10-19 from 3-point range, and were led by 19 points from junior guard Josh Hart.

Sweet 16
Def. 3-seed Miami 92-69
While the Wildcats had cruised to this point, many expected them to at least have some difficulties with a very good Miami team. That was not the case, as this was the moment that Villanova cemented itself as a legitimate National Championship contender. Nova was the better team from the tip-off, and they dominated from start to finish, winning by 23. If you thought their 59 percent from the field against Iowa was good, wait til you hear what they did in this game. Villanova shot over 62.5 percent (!!!!!) from the field, including an astounding 10-15 from behind the arc (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Miami didn’t stand a chance in this one.

Elite Eight
Def. 1-seed Kansas 64-59
Villanova had been shooting the lights out to this point, but there were doubts about whether or not they could win a game in which they weren’t shooting well, especially against the #1 overall team in the field and the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing, the Kansas Jayhawks. The people doubting Villanova forgot just how tenacious they are on defense, as they held senior star Perry Ellis to just four points in a 64-59 victory, sending Nova back to the Final Four. Villanova shot just over 40 percent from the field in this one, and just 4-18 from 3-point range, but they got it done on the defensive end. Freshman Mikal Bridges had 5 steals, including a crucial one near the end of the game with Kansas looking to tie it up.

How They Got Here: Balance
In their first three games in this tournament, it was the offense and the impeccable shooting that was in the spotlight for the Wildcats. In the Elite Eight against Kansas, it was their smothering defense that got them the victory. You can look at a number of reasons why Villanova has made it this far, but it comes down to this: if they need to make shots to win, they can, and if they need to lock you down defensively to win, they still can. There aren’t many teams in college basketball this year that are capable of performing really well on both ends of the floor like Villanova can. KenPom has Villanova rated in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, one of only two teams that can boast that right now (Virginia is the other). This team is among the best in the nation on both ends of the floor, and they’ve showcased that during the first two weekends of this tournament.

Why They’ll be National Champions:
Top to bottom, I’d say the eye test would favor North Carolina as the favorite to win the National Championship, but if you look at all the factors, including (and most importantly in this case) the teams they’ve played so far, it’s hard not to choose Villanova as the favorite to cut down the nets in NRG Stadium. Not only have the Wildcats looked mighty impressive, but look at who they’ve beaten to get here. An Iowa team that was once ranked in the top-5 this season, a Miami team that was at the top of the ACC all year (a conference with two teams in the Final Four), and the undisputed Big 12 Champions, Kansas, who also entered their game with Nova riding a 17-game winning streak. They’ve proven that they belong here, and I have a hard time not pegging them the favorites. If they shoot the ball well, it’s hard to outscore them, and if they aren’t hitting their shots, a lot of times their defense is good enough to make sure you don’t hit yours either. They’ll cut down the nets because I believe that they are the best team in the Final Four.

Why They Won’t Win the Title: 
Despite everything that I just said in that last blurb, I’d imagine that the last team Villanova fans wanted to see in the National Semifinals was Oklahoma. These two teams played a non-conference game back on December 7 at Pearl Harbor, with Oklahoma absolutely dominating the game, winning by 23 points (and it wasn’t that close). The Sooners made everything and the Wildcats made nothing. Now, this Villanova team is vastly different from the one that played in that game on December 7, and they won’t have to travel quite as far for this one, but if Oklahoma has another thing going for them, it’s Buddy Hield. Hield is proving why he should be the Player of the Year, and there might not be anything Villanova can do to keep him from willing Oklahoma to victory on Saturday.

Final Four Preview: North Carolina

It doesn’t happen often, but all four 1-seeds in this year’s NCAA Men’s Tournament advanced to the Elite Eight, leaving many to believe that all four could improbably reach the Final Four. It was a crazy season, but it was looking like it could be a chalk finish.

As we should have expected, that didn’t happen. Instead, only one 1-seed was able to advance to the Final Four, and it was the North Carolina Tar Heels out of the East Region. We’re first going to look at how they got to this point, then we’ll discuss why they can win it all, as well as why they might not.

First Round
Def. 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast 83-67
It wasn’t a great start to the Tournament for the Tar Heels, as they led by just one point at halftime of their opener in Raleigh, 41-40. The FGCU Eagles, who defeated Fairleigh Dickinson in a First Four game, played inspired in the first half, looking far from a typical 16-seed. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the UNC locker room at halftime, because whatever Roy Williams said to his team definitely worked, as they opened the second half on fire, separating themselves en route to a 16-point victory. Brice Johnson dominated the game with 18 points and a season-high 8 blocks.

Second Round
Def. 9-seed Providence 85-66
It was another lackluster first half for the Tar Heels, as they led by just four points at the break. They again flipped a switch in the second half, distancing themselves and holding off the Friars despite a 29-point performance from Kris Dunn. Brice Johnson tallied a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and UNC got a big game off the bench from Isaiah Hicks, who scored 13 points with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks.

Sweet 16
Def. 5-seed Indiana 101-86
After struggling early in each of their first two tourney games, North Carolina came out firing in this one, and led wire-to-wire in a high-scoring affair with the Hoosiers. Many thought Indiana would give UNC a lot of problems, but the Tar Heels were well prepared for this one, getting great performances from their stars Brice Johnson (20 pts, 10 reb) and Marcus Paige (21 pts, 6-9 3pt, 6 ast).

Elite Eight
Def. 6-seed Notre Dame 88-74
Most experts said that Notre Dame would have to play one of their best games of the season if they were going to defeat North Carolina for a second time this season. Notre Dame might have played one of their best games of the season, but it still wasn’t enough to get them a victory. Brice Johnson had his best game of the tournament, scoring 25 points to go along with 12 rebounds, leading the Tar Heels to a 14-point win.

Why They Got Here: Paige and Johnson
The Tar Heels have been considered one of the deeper teams in basketball this season, but they become arguably the best team in the nation when seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson are at the top of their games. Paige missed the start of the season with an injured hand, and even after he came back, he struggled with his jump shot for much of the season. Luckily for UNC, Paige has figured out the issue. He’s averaging 14 points per game in this tournament, and he’s 13-27 from distance. He is a great floor general, and teams now have to worry about stopping him. They can’t worry too much about stopping him though, because the Tar Heels have Brice Johnson playing some of his best basketball of the season. The First Team AP All-American is averaging 21 points a game in the Tournament, and he has been a force in the paint and in the mid-range game. He’s becoming nearly impossible to stop, and he could definitely lead the Tar Heels to a title.

Why They’ll be National Champions:
North Carolina is the best team remaining, and it’s really hard to argue that. They have looked really good at times in all four of their tourney games, and it’s hard to see anybody being able to stop Brice Johnson enough to beat this team. Even if they can contain Johnson, North Carolina has so many other players who are capable of stepping up. Nate Britt, Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, all players who have stepped up for the Tar Heels at different points this season. Another reason they could win this thing, believe it or not, is the venue. In past Tournament games at Houston’s NRG Stadium, teams have had a very difficult time shooting the ball. One of the uglier National Championship games in recent memory, UConn versus Butler in 2011, was held in NRG Stadium. Of the four teams remaining, North Carolina is the one that is least dependent on outside shooting. That screams advantage Tar Heels.

Why They Won’t Win the Title: 
While North Carolina has looked very good in this tournament, they have had, without question, the easiest road of the four teams. The highest seed they played was 5-seed Indiana, benefiting from early losses for 2-seed Xavier, 3-seed West Virginia and 4-seed Kentucky. They get another low seed in the Final Four when they take on Midwest Regional winners, 10-seed Syracuse, a team that North Carolina beat twice this season. Many see that and think victory for the Tar Heels, but it is very difficult to beat a team three times in the same season, let alone a Syracuse team playing with a chip on their shoulder having barely made the field. Their second meeting came in the last week of the regular season in Chapel Hill, with North Carolina barely escaping with a 75-70 win. The Tar Heels are the clear favorite in this game, but Syracuse knows their playing with house money, and the pressure is totally on UNC. If they struggle under the pressure, the Orange could sneak up and pull off another upset.

NCAA Tournament Preview: Sweet 16

I hope everybody has recovered from one of the most incredible weekends in the history of sport. Every year, the NCAA Tournament delivers tons of heart-pounding action that even non-basketball fans can’t help but enjoy. This year, it upped the ante. A weekend filled with dramatic, emotional games, capped off by possibly the most improbable comeback in basketball history and a fall-away three from the corner as time expired to send a team to this second weekend of action. Those weren’t the only two amazing finishes though, as there were just too many to list. If you missed out, shame on you, but that’s okay, because there’ll hopefully be more this weekend!

Four games each on Thursday and Friday will decide who advances to the Regional Finals for a shot at reaching the Final Four next Saturday, April 2, in Houston. Here is a preview of the Sweet 16!

South Region
Thursday 3/24, Louisville

#3 Miami FL vs #2 Villanova
7:10 pm CBS
Villanova was finally able to exercise some of its demons, as they have reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009, when Scotty Reynolds led the Wildcats to the Final Four. They hope to make it back this year, led by Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono. Nova pretty well dominated 7-seed Iowa in the Second Round, winning 87-68. They look like they are clicking at the right time, but they’re going to have their hands full in this one with the Miami Hurricanes. After squeaking past 14-seed Buffalo in the First Round, Miami came out firing in the Second Round against 11-seed Wichita State, and led big in the first half. The Shockers came roaring back in the second half, but Miami was able to hold them off thanks to a big game from point guard Angel Rodriguez, who scored 28 points in the 65-57 victory. These two teams match up pretty well, with Villanova the better shooting team, and also better on the defensive end, but Miami is more experienced and definitely more athletic. This is a toss-up in my humble opinion, and it could come down to which team makes more shots. As they showed in the Wichita State game, if Miami gets hot, it doesn’t matter how good the defense is. That being said, I think Villanova is the better team, and I think they are on a mission to prove their doubters wrong. I like the Wildcats in a close one here.

#5 Maryland vs #1 Kansas
Approx. 9:40 pm CBS
Kansas is the #1 overall seed in this tournament, and they have proved why through the first two rounds. After easily dispatching 16-seed Austin Peay, the Jayhawks took on a red-hot UConn team, and handled them with relative ease, winning 73-61. This team doesn’t have a true superstar, but they are just solid across the board. Their weakness (if they have one) this year has been the lack of an interior presence, but Landen Lucas has really emerged here at the end of the season for them, giving them that inside presence they’ve been searching for. It hasn’t been quite as easy a trek to this point for the Maryland Terrapins, who were able to outlast 12-seed South Dakota State in the First Round, and then used a late-second half surge to defeat 13-seed Hawaii 73-60. Melo Trimble scored 24 points in that one, and it appears that he has saved his best basketball for the end of the season. Maryland is a really good team, and they could give Kansas some fits with their size, but if Kansas is going to lose, I don’t see it being to a team like Maryland. I think the Terrapins can keep this thing close in the first half, and maybe even into the second half, but Kansas will ultimately be too much, and they’ll advance to the Elite 8.

 

West Region
Thursday 3/24, Anaheim

#3 Texas A&M vs #2 Oklahoma
7:37 pm TBS
Remember that improbable comeback I talked about in the opening? The team that was able to make that comeback was Texas A&M, as they rallied from a 12-point deficit with just 44 seconds left in regulation to force overtime against 11-seed Northern Iowa. The Aggies would eventually win the game 92-88 in double OT to move on to the Sweet 16 and send the Panthers home. As amazing as it is to even just read about, it was one of the most mind-boggling things you could ever watch as a sports fan. Texas A&M will look to ride that momentum all the way to the Final Four, but standing in their way here is the 2-seed Oklahoma Sooners, who were able to fend off a strong performance from 10-seed VCU in the Second Round, winning 85-81. The Sooners gave up 50 second half points to the Rams, and that is definitely cause for concern heading into this match-up. Many people expect Texas A&M to use the momentum from their epic comeback on Sunday to propel them to Houston next weekend, but the fact that they needed a comeback like that against Northern Iowa doesn’t give me much faith that they’ll be able to hang with a team as talented as Oklahoma. It’s obvious that the Sooners have some issues on the defensive end right now, but I think they’re the better team, and they have Buddy Hield. That alone may be enough for them.

#4 Duke vs #1 Oregon
Approx. 10:07 pm TBS
Seed wise, Duke has had the easiest road to the Sweet 16 they could have possibly had. But as far as the games have gone, it has been far from easy. The Blue Devils were tested in the First Round by 13-seed UNC Wilmington, with Duke eventually coming out on top 93-85 in a high-scoring affair. In the Second Round, they’d have a re-match with 12-seed Yale, a team they beat by 19 in November. After trailing by 23 at halftime, the Bulldogs came all the way back in the second half, making the game really interesting. Yale just didn’t have enough though, as Duke was able to pull it out 71-64 and advance to Anaheim. Here they will take on the 1-seed in the West, the Oregon Ducks, who came out on top in a slugfest with 8-seed St. Joseph’s, 69-65. The Hawks had a chance at the end of the game, but DeAndre Bembry turned it over, allowing the Ducks to put the game away at the free throw line. Oregon is one of the most athletic teams in the country, and that can cause problems for anybody, but especially for a team as thin as Duke. Coach K has a very short bench, and I expect the Ducks to play a fast pace with that in mind. Duke is a good team, and they could absolutely win this game, but this is a terrible match-up for them, and I expect Oregon to move on to the Elite 8.

 

Midwest Region
Friday 3/25, Chicago

#4 Iowa State vs #1 Virginia
7:10 pm CBS
Many people believe that Virginia is the best team in the country, despite some questionable results during the regular season. They have looked very good through the first two rounds of this tournament though, as they easily defeated 16-seed Hampton, and then were able to grind out a victory over 9-seed Butler, 77-69. They have the ACC Player of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon, and they are arguably the best defensive team in the land. That defense will be put to the test in the Sweet 16 as they take on the Iowa State Cyclones, who scored a 94-81 win over 13-seed Iona in the First Round, and then were victorious over 12-seed Little Rock in the Second Round by a score of 78-61. The Cyclones are very well-rounded, and they look to be playing some of their best basketball when it matters the most. They like to play fast, and they are very efficient on the offensive end. That could definitely give Virginia some fits. This game could come down to Virginia’s offense and Iowa State’s defense, and which one of those can be stronger. I believe it is Virginia’s offense that will be able to do enough to score the victory here, putting the Cavaliers in the Regional Final.

#11 Gonzaga vs #10 Syracuse
Approx. 9:40 pm CBS
The only two double-digit seeds to advance to the Sweet 16 this year will face each other here in the Midwest Region, meaning we are guaranteed a double-digit seed in the Elite 8. One of these teams, Gonzaga, has looked much better than a double-digit seed so far in this tournament. They dominated one of the hottest teams in the country, Seton Hall, in the First Round, and then wiped 3-seed Utah off of the Pepsi Center floor in the Second Round, 82-59. Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis look really motivated to get this Zags team to Houston and the Final Four, something that looked far from realistic just a couple months ago. They’re going to take on the Syracuse Orange, who defeated 7-seed Dayton and 15-seed Middle Tennessee to get to this point. After losing five of six down the stretch, the Orange have looked much better in their two tourney wins, and they have a real shot at the Final Four if they can keep playing well. Their zone defense can give any team fits, but Gonzaga is a team built to do well against it. Sabonis is a force in the middle, and the Zags are shooting the ball really well from the perimeter in this tournament. If they keep playing the way they did last weekend, I like Gonzaga to win this one fairly easily, and move on to the Elite 8.

 

East Region
Friday 3/25, Philadelphia

#7 Wisconsin vs #6 Notre Dame
7:27 pm TBS
Each of these teams advanced to Philly in one of the most dramatic ways possible. The Badgers could barely score in their nail-biting First Round victory over 10-seed Pittsburgh, but in the last 15 seconds of their Second Round game with 2-seed Xavier, they got two three-pointers from point guard Bronson Koenig, including a fall-away in the corner at the buzzer to give them a 66-63 win, advancing them to the Sweet 16. Notre Dame meanwhile came back from a 12-point halftime deficit in the First Round to defeat 11-seed Michigan, and then they got a tip-in from freshman Rex Pflueger, his first field goal since March 5, with 1.2 seconds left to give them 76-75 win over 14-seed Stephen F. Austin in the Second Round. You could say that both of these teams are extremely lucky to be here, but that’s the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. One of these teams is going to have a shot at the Final Four, and I expect it to be Notre Dame. They are the better team, and if they are able to play at least a little bit of defense, their offense should then be able to do enough to push them past the Badgers and into the Regional Finals.

#5 Indiana vs #1 North Carolina
Approx. 9:57 pm TBS
Entering this tournament, North Carolina was a popular pick to cut down the nets in Houston. After the first weekend, that hasn’t changed much. They led 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast by just one point at halftime in the First Round, but routed them in the second half. They used another dominant second half performance to defeat 9-seed Providence 85-66 in the Second Round. They are going to need to have a better first half in their Sweet 16 game, as they take on 5-seed Indiana, who destroyed 12-seed Chattanooga in the First Round, and then outlasted 4-seed Kentucky in the Second Round, winning 73-67 behind 19 points from freshman Thomas Bryant. There aren’t many teams that can match up athletically with the Tar Heels, but Indiana is one of those teams. This might be the game I’m most looking forward to in the Sweet 16, because North Carolina is a title favorite, but Indiana is playing really good basketball right now. The loss to Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament may have been the best thing that could have happened to the Hoosiers. If they play like they did against Kentucky, I think they’ll upset North Carolina. And I do believe they’ll play that well again, and you’ll see a lot of brackets busted with North Carolina being the first 1-seed knocked out.

 

I can only hope that this weekend will provide action half as good as last weekend, but rest assured, it will be exciting no matter what. Enjoy it everybody!

NCAA Second Round Preview: Saturday 3/19

I hope some of you are still breathing after these first two days of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. I’m barely hanging on. I apologize for not posting the last couple days, but with all of the amazing action, I think you can understand why. Just last night, we saw one of the favorites to win the whole thing lose to a 15-seed in the First Round, Northern Iowa down Texas on a half-court heave at the buzzer, and Cincinnati lose in heartbreaking fashion as a buzzer-beating dunk was just a hair late.

It was quite a day, and I’m looking forward to another one today! Here is a quick preview of each Second Round game taking place today.

South Region
#11 Wichita State vs #3 Miami (FL)
Providence, 12:10 pm CBS
The Hurricanes are a popular pick to advance deep in this tournament, but it took a very valiant effort for them to hold off 14-seed Buffalo on Thursday, eventually winning 79-72. Angel Rodriguez was great for Miami, tallying 24 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. He could have a lot of trouble in this one though, as they take on Fred Van Vleet and the Wichita State Shockers, who dominated 6-seed Arizona on Thursday, winning by 10. Van Vleet led the way with 16 points and 5 steals, as the Shockers looked much better than an 11-seed. Wichita State is arguably the best defensive team in the country, and it’s going to take a great game from the Hurricanes for them to advance to Louisville next week. That being said, this Wichita State team looks really good right now, and I think they’ll knock off Miami and advance to the Sweet 16.

West Region
#12 Yale vs #4 Duke
Providence, approx. 2:40 pm CBS
One of the biggest shockers of the First Round was the performance by the Yale Bulldogs, dominating Baylor on the boards and winning 79-75 for their first Tournament win in school history. Makai Mason scored 31 points for Yale, as they held off a late surge by the Bears to pull off the upset. Duke was nearly the victim of a First Round upset as well, but Marshall Plumlee exploded in the second half, and they were able to outlast UNC Wilmington 93-85. Many people had visions of a Yale-Duke rematch when the bracket was revealed, and they’ll get it. The two teams played at Cameron Indoor on November 25, with Duke winning 80-61. Duke was only up two points at half though, and they had Amile Jefferson in that game. Without Jefferson, Duke is a much weaker team inside, and we just saw Yale dominate a good interior team in Baylor. I shudder to think what they may do to Duke on the boards. Yale is a confident team right now, and I like them to pull off the upset.

East Region
#5 Indiana vs #4 Kentucky
Des Moines, 5:15 pm CBS
This is another highly anticipated Second Round match-up, as the Hoosiers and the Wildcats will reignite a rivalry that the two schools refuse to take part in during the regular season (if you didn’t know, Tom Crean and John Calipari are two very stubborn individuals). Both of these teams rolled in the First Round, with Indiana topping Chattanooga 99-74 and Kentucky besting Stony Brook 85-57. This will be one of the best point guard battles you’ll see in this tournament, as Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis will go one-on-one, and it should be highly entertaining. The difference in this game will be in the paint, where Indiana has some talent, led by freshman Thomas Bryant, but where Kentucky overwhelms some teams with the triumvirate of Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere. I think Kentucky will be too much for Indiana down low, and they’ll head to Philly and the East regional semis.

Midwest Region
#12 Little Rock vs #4 Iowa State
Denver, 6:10 pm TNT
Another stunner on Thursday was the Little Rock Trojans taking Purdue to double-overtime before coming away with an improbable 85-83 victory. Purdue had a 12-point lead fairly late and coughed it up when Little Rock started to pressure full-court, bothering the Boilermakers. Iowa State meanwhile was able to outscore the Iona Gaels 94-81, getting a somewhat comfortable win. The Cyclones have very lofty expectations, and they’ll have to play a completely different type of game here in the Second Round. Iona plays very little defense, while Little Rock pressures teams heavily on the defensive end. The Trojans are a nice story, and if they play like they did on Thursday they’ll have a shot, but I think Iowa State is just too talented and too motivated, and they’ll advance to Anaheim.

Midwest Region
#9 Butler vs #1 Virginia
Raleigh, 7:10 pm TBS
Virginia made fairly easy work of 16-seed Hampton in the First Round, winning 81-45 behind 19 points from forward Anthony Gill. Butler was able to come away victorious in a back-and-forth battle with Texas Tech, pulling away at the end and winning 71-61. Kellen Dunham scored 23 points, including 5-9 from three-point range for the Bulldogs. Butler is a very good offensive team, led by seniors Dunham and Roosevelt Jones, who I’m sure will be motivated to keep their careers going. But I just don’t think the Bulldogs have enough firepower to contend with the tenacious defense of the Cavaliers. It’s been a crazy year, and anything can happen here, but I like Virginia to win this one going away.

South Region
#9 UConn vs #1 Kansas
Des Moines, approx. 7:45 pm CBS
Kansas is considered by many to be the best team in this tournament, and they gave us a glimpse as to why in their First Round victory over 16-seed Austin Peay. The Jayhawks put up 105 points, led by 23 off the bench for guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (last name pronunced: mick-hi-look). Devonte Graham didn’t score in the game, which shows you how deep this team is. UConn struggled both early and late in their First Round game, but a good run in the middle of the second half was able to help the Huskies to a 74-67 win over 8-seed Colorado. Based on everything that happened in the First Round, I’d say it wouldn’t be very shocking to see UConn pull off an upset here. Kevin Ollie is a great postseason coach, and UConn is one of the few teams that can actually match-up well with the guard play and depth of Kansas. UConn operates in a similar fashion to the Jayhawks. Kansas will be favored pretty heavily, and for good reason, and I think they will come out on top. But don’t be that surprised if UConn puts together a great performance and moves on to Louisville.

Midwest Region
#11 Gonzaga vs #3 Utah
Denver, approx. 8:40 pm TNT
One of the biggest shockers for me, maybe not for everyone, but for me was how easily Gonzaga dispatched of 6-seed Seton Hall in the First Round. The Pirates won the Big East Tournament and were a trendy pick to advance deep in the tourney. Domantas Sabonis had other ideas, going for 21 points and 16 rebounds, leading the Bulldogs to a 68-52 drubbing of Seton Hall. In the Second Round, they’ll take on a Utah team that got past 14-seed Fresno State 80-69 behind 16 points and 18 rebounds from center Jakob Poeltl. This will be a battle of the big men, as Poeltl, Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer of Gonzaga are all very skilled, and will likely be taken in the First Round of this year’s NBA Draft. Utah is the more talented team, but I was really impressed with how Gonzaga played on Thursday, and I think they’ll get the job done here with another upset.

East Region
#9 Providence vs #1 North Carolina
Raleigh, approx. 9:40 pm TBS
Providence is pretty lucky to be here. Reggie Bullock got wide open for a go-ahead layup, and USC’s Julian Jacobs missed a half court heave, giving Providence a 70-69 victory. North Carolina defeated 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast 83-67 in the First Round, but the final score doesn’t tell the story. The Eagles were right there with UNC for the entire first half, trailing by just a point at halftime. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall of the Tar Heel locker room at halftime, because they came out with a vengeance in the second half, taking the game over and winning fairly easily. Providence has two bonafide studs in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, and I expect them both to play well, but North Carolina has Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson to match up with Dunn and Bentil, and the Tar Heels have a much more talented supporting cast around their two superstars. Providence could absolutely win this game, but I expect UNC to come out on top and head to Philadelphia next week.

I’ll be back tomorrow with preview of Sunday’s Second Round games. Enjoy today’s action everybody!

 

NCAA Tournament Preview: West

The first two games in the 2016 NCAA Tournament took place last night in Dayton, with Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State advancing to the First Round. Bracketball has been previewing the First Round over the last few days, and today, we’ve reached the fourth and final region, the West Region, which will have its semifinals and finals in Anaheim, California.

The 1-seed in the West is the undisputed 2016 Pac 12 Champions, the Oregon Ducks. Some experts question whether the Ducks were deserved of a 1-seed over the likes of Michigan State, Oklahoma and Villanova. You know the Ducks will take that and play with a giant chip on their shoulder.

As with the rest of the previews, any statistics are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom. Here is one more look at the bracket in its entirety.

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West Region

Spokane, WA
#1 Oregon (28-6) vs #16 Holy Cross/Southern
Friday 3/18, 7:27 pm TruTV

Overview: What an end to the season for the Oregon Ducks. They played terrific in Pac 12 competition, winning the regular season title over Utah, then they went and just wiped the Utes off the MGM Grand Arena floor in the Pac 12 Title Game, winning 88-57, their third victory over Utah this year. This team likes to play fast, and the put up a ton of points. There a difficult match-up for almost any team, and certainly for either Holy Cross or Southern.

Key Players: You can look back to my First Four preview to see the key players for HC and Southern, but for Oregon, they don’t necessarily have a star player, just a lot of really good players. Guard/forward Dillon Brooks is the emotional leader for this group, and he’s their leading scorer at 15.7 points per game. Freshman guard Tyler Dorsey is their sharpshooter, shooting over 43 percent from long range while scoring over 13 a game. And JUCO-transfer forward Chris Boucher is a force defensively, as he blocks 3.1 shots per game, one of the best marks in the country.

Why ORE will Win: As I’ve said in my other previews, a 16 has never defeated a 1, and I don’t see it starting with a team as talented as Oregon.

 

Spokane, WA
#8 St. Joseph’s (27-7) vs #9 Cincinnati (22-10)
Friday 3/18, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV

Overview: St. Joe’s looked like a tournament team for much of the second half of the season, but they solidified their spot with a win over VCU in the A-10 Championship Game. This is arguably the most talented group Phil Martelli has had since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led the Hawks to an undefeated regular season in 2004. On the other side, you have a Cincinnati team that made the Tournament despite losing a thriller in four overtimes to UConn in the American quarterfinals. Many thought that might eliminate the Bearcats, but they’ve earned a 9-seed instead.

Key Players: The Hawks are led by a legit NBA prospect in forward DeAndre Bembry. Bembry is extremely athletic, and he averages 17.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game this season. Along with Isaiah Miles (18.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg), the Hawks have a really talented frontcourt. Junior guard Troy Caupain is the offensive star for Cincinnati. Caupain this season is averaging 13.2 points and 4.8 assists per game. If he struggles, the team usually does too.

Why SJU will Win: They are playing with all sorts of confidence right now. They were nearly defeated by George Washington in the A-10 quarterfinals, and then pretty easily handled Dayton and VCU. They are extremely athletic, and they value the basketball more than most teams. Cincinnati is very good defensively, especially in the paint, so for St. Joe’s to win, they’ll need to avoid turning the ball over, and they’ll need to make jump shots.

Why CIN will Win: As I just mentioned, Cincinnati has one of the best interior defenses in the nation, and that could cause some problems for the Hawks. St. Joe’s can make jump shots though, so Cincinnati needs to put a lot of pressure on the ball to force turnovers and contested jumpers. That will give them the best chance to come out on top. If Cincinnati can slow the game down to their pace, they’ll be in good shape.

 

Providence, RI
#5 Baylor (22-11) vs #12 Yale (22-6)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 2:45 pm CBS

Overview: What an incredible accomplishment it is for Coach James Jones and the Bulldogs to be able to get to this point. Yale is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1962, and they will take on the Baylor Bears out of the Big 12. Baylor is a very talented team, but they just couldn’t get past the class of the Big 12, going 0-7 against Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Key Players: Both teams have several talented players, but for the purposes of this game, the key is going to be on the glass. For Baylor, that is Rico Gathers’s department. Gathers, a 6-8 senior who has already made clear his intentions to pursue a career in the NFL after the season, leads the team in boards at 9.1 per game. He’ll be battling with 6-6 senior forward Brandon Sherrod for the Bulldogs. Sherrod is second on the team in rebounding with 7.1 per, but he is the biggest body on the team, so he’ll be the one banging with Gathers.

Why BAY will Win: These teams play a very similar style. They both want to play a slow pace, and they are both very good on the boards. The difference comes with Baylor being the better offensive team, while Yale is better on the defensive end. I think that is good news for Baylor. The Bears are the more athletic team, and they’re more talented. Yale defends the paint well, but they’ll have trouble with the size of the Bears’ frontcourt. If Rico Gathers and Johnathan Motley play well, Baylor wins this game.

Why Yale will Win: The thing Yale has going for them is that they have nothing to lose. They’re in the Tournament for the first time in over 50 years, so it’s a huge accomplishment just to be playing in this game. If Yale wants to move on to the Second Round, I think they’ll need to make shots. Baylor gives up a lot of open looks from three in their 1-3-1 zone defense, and Yale shoots a good percentage from distance. If they can make shots, they could very easily outscore Baylor and win this game.

 

Providence, RI
#4 Duke (23-10) vs #13 UNC Wilmington (25-7)
Thursday 3/17, 12:15 pm CBS

Overview: The First Round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament will kick off tomorrow on St. Patty’s Day with Duke and UNC Wilmington going at it in Providence. It’s been a strange season for the Blue Devils. They lost four of five games at one point, and people weren’t sure if they’d even make the Tournament, but they turned it on eventually. They do limp into the tourney though, having lost four of their last seven games. UNC Wilmington is a hot team on the other hand, having won 16 of their last 18 games, including a victory over top-seed Hofstra in the CAA finals.

Key Players: You probably hate him, but sophomore guard Grayson Allen is the whole show for Duke. Many expected freshman star Brandon Ingram to be that guy, but he’s been way too inconsistent for them to rely on him. Allen averages over 21 points a game for Duke, and he’ll have to shoulder the load if they’re going to make a run. Junior guard Chris Flemmings is the leader for the Seahawks, averaging 16.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. The Seahawks like to play small, and they spread the wealth among their guards.

Why Duke will Win: All season, this has felt like one of those Duke teams that will be overseeded in the Tournament (they are) and will probably go out early (we’ll see). That being said, Duke is just flat out more talented than UNC Wilmington. The Seahawks like to play small, and Marshall Plumlee has played better lately for Duke. I’d expect them to try to play in the paint to take advantage of UNC Wilmington’s lack of size. If they don’t, Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram will just probably take over this game.

Why UNCW will Win: Duke might be the worst defensive team in this tournament. There have been many games this year where it looks like they aren’t even trying to play defense. UNC Wilmington is a very efficient team offensively, and if they come out aggressive, they could get out in front of the Blue Devils. Duke lacks size as well, and they give up a lot of points inside the arc, where UNC Wilmington does most of their damage. They’ll need to be aggressive offensively if they want to pull off the upset.

 

Oklahoma City, OK
#6 Texas (20-12) vs #11 Northern Iowa (22-12)
Friday 3/18, approx. 9:50 pm TBS

Overview: Shaka Smart has done an incredible job in his first season at the helm of the Texas Longhorns. They don’t play as fast as his VCU teams did, but they are just as good defensively as those teams were. They have wins over North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia (twice), so they know how to beat the top teams. Another team that has some huge wins this year is the team they’re up against in the First Round, the Northern Iowa Panthers. Northern Iowa also defeated North Carolina this season, and they also have a win over Iowa State, as well as two victories over Wichita State. This will be a great game.

Key Players: The most talented player for Texas is junior guard Isaiah Taylor. Taylor is averaging 14.8 points per game, which leads the team, and he also posts 4.9 assists per contest. He is the straw that stirs the drink for the Longhorns. On the other side, Wes Washpun is a name you’ll want to become familiar with. Washpun averages 14.3 points and 5.2 assists per game for the Panthers, and he is extremely clutch. He hit a jumper from the top of the key as time expired to defeat Evansville in the MVC title game to get Northern Iowa to the Tournament.

Why TEX will Win: Texas played the toughest schedule in the nation according to KenPom, so they will be more than ready for the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament. This team is great defensively, and they don’t give up a lot from the perimeter. Prince Ibeh is a great interior presence, but Texas is best defending jump shooters. Northern Iowa likes to shoot a lot of jump shots, and that should play right into the hands of the Longhorns.

Why UNI will Win: Northern Iowa has lost to teams like Colorado State, New Mexico, Missouri State and Loyola-Chicago this season, but the Panthers play up to their competition. Texas is a really good team, and that means that Northern Iowa is likely to step it up because of that. The Panthers struggle on the offensive boards, so they’ll need to make shots if they’re going to win this game.

 

Oklahoma City, OK
#3 Texas A&M (26-8) vs #14 Green Bay (23-12)
Friday 3/18, 7:20 pm TBS

Overview: Texas A&M has had a terrific season, losing to Kentucky in the SEC Championship game, but earning a higher seed in the NCAA’s than the Wildcats. That shows you how good certain people think this team is. In the First Round, they’ll take on the Green Bay Phoenix, who are one of the most fun teams to watch in this field. Green Bay plays faster on offense than any team in the country according to KenPom, and they’ll look to turn this game into a track meet.

Key Players: A pair of transfers lead the way for the Aggies. Danuel House started his career at Houston, and now he is one of the leading scorers for Texas A&M at 15.5 points per game. Also averaging 15.5 points per game this year for the Aggies is SMU-transfer Jalen Jones. These two guys are really good, and they’ll look to lead Texas A&M deep into this tournament. On the other side, Green Bay is led by a couple seniors in guard Carrington Love and forward Jordan Fouse. Fouse scores 12.8 points and corrals 8.4 rebounds per game, while Love is terrific both offensively and defensively, scoring 17.7 points per game, and getting over 2.5 steals a game.

Why A&M will Win: Texas A&M is one of the best defensive teams in the country, and they’ll have to be on Friday if they’re going to slow down the Phoenix. Green Bay likes to play at the rim, and Texas A&M has some really good interior defenders in Jones and freshman Tyler Davis. If the Aggies can slow the game down a little, and force Green Bay into contested jump shots and not allow them to get into the lane, they should get the victory.

Why GB will Win: Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good the defense you’re playing is when you play at lightning speed like Green Bay does. They will take the first open shot they get, so it will be paramount for Texas A&M to keep the pressure on. If Green Bay can speed this game up and not turn the ball over, I could definitely see them pulling off the upset.

 

Oklahoma City, OK
#7 Oregon State (19-12) vs #10 VCU (24-10)
Friday 3/18, 1:30 pm TNT

Overview: The Selection Committee was very kind to the Pac 12 this year, and one of the biggest beneficiaries were the Oregon State Beavers. A team with 12 losses, that I had pegged as a true Bubble team ended up with a 7-seed, way out of Bubble territory. They’re a good team, but maybe not 7-seed good. They’ll take on the VCU Rams who haven’t skipped a beat after losing coach Shaka Smart to Texas. New head man Will Wade is bringing another really good defensive team into the Big Dance.

Key Players: The point guard for Oregon State has a name that may be familiar. Gary Payton II runs the show for the Beavers, and as you can tell by the name, he is the son of “The Glove.” Payton is a fantastic player across the board, averaging a team-leading 15.9 points per game to go along with 7.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.5 steals per game. For VCU, senior guard Melvin Johnson will be finishing off his stellar career in the NCAA Tournament, but he may be less than 100 percent, as he banged up his foot in the A-10 Tournament. Johnson leads the Rams in scoring at 17.4 points per game.

Why OSU will Win: Gary Payton II is more than capable of shouldering the load for the Beavers, and if he takes over this game, there might not be anything VCU can do. Oregon State may be without second leading-scorer Tres Tinkle, who has not played in the last four games. If Oregon State can take care of the ball and make threes, something that they are very efficient in doing, they can defeat VCU.

Why VCU will Win: If Oregon State is without Tinkle, the coach’s son, in this game, the pressure that VCU’s guards will put on Payton and Tinkle’s replacement could be too much to handle. Despite being 6-8, Tinkle is a great ball handler. VCU may be licking their chops if Tinkle doesn’t play, and that spells bad news for the Beavers. VCU likes to play at the rim, and Oregon State can struggle to defend the paint at times. That should be the gameplan for the Rams if they want to move on to the Second Round.

 

Oklahoma City, OK
#2 Oklahoma (25-7) vs #15 CSU Bakersfield (24-8)
Friday 3/18, approx. 4:00 pm TNT

Overview: Seniors and shooting. That is how Oklahoma has gotten it done this season, and they are National Championship or bust. An early season blowout of Villanova set the tone for how this season could be for the Sooners, and then wins over Iowa State, West Virginia and Baylor proved that this was one of the best teams in the nation. It has been a rough start in Division I basketball for D-II power CSU Bakersfield, but they have finally made the NCAA Tournament for the first time this year after knocking off New Mexico State in the WAC finals.

Key Players: Buddy Hield is likely the National Player of the Year, and for good reason. Hield averages 25 points per game for the Sooners, most of any major conference player. He also shoots an incredible 46.4 percent from three-point range. Along with fellow seniors Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler, this group is looking to make a deep run in the tourney this year. The Roadrunners are one of just a couple teams in the field who have five players averaging double-figures in scoring, led by senior forward Aly Ahmed at 12.9 points per game. 5-10 junior point guard Dedrick Basile was huge for the Roadrunners in the WAC final against NMSU, and he’ll need to be spectacular once again if Bakersfield has any shot in this game.

Why OU will Win: I just cannot imagine Buddy Hield losing the NCAA opener in his final season to a 15-seed. It just won’t happen. Oklahoma has too much firepower on offense for the Roadrunners to handle.

Why CSB will Win: While Oklahoma is a great team, all it will take is one off shooting night from the Sooners and they could be done. KenPom rates CSU Bakersfield as one of the top-30 defensive teams in the nation, but they are best at defending inside the arc. Oklahoma is deadly from behind the arc. If the Roadrunners can force some missed jumpers, they have a slight chance in this one.

 

And we have now previewed each of the First Round games in this year’s NCAA Tournament! Thursday and Friday are going to be jam packed with excitement, so make sure you have your sick voice ready when you call into work to get the day off! We’ll have another post on Friday with a preview of the 2nd round games taking place on Saturday.

 

NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest

We are halfway through our preview of the 2016 NCAA Basketball Tournament, kicking off with the First Four tonight and tomorrow. We’ve already looked at the South and East Regions, and next up is the Midwest Region, which will see its semis and final take place in Chicago. Maybe the most questionable 1-seed resides in this region, as Virginia earned a 1-seed despite not winning the ACC regular season or tournament title, while Michigan State, the 2-seed in this region, won the Big Ten Tournament and are considered one of the top-3 teams in the country.

Any statistics discussed in the previews are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom, and we’ll again first take a look at the complete bracket.

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Midwest Region

Raleigh, NC
#1 Virginia (26-7) vs #16 Hampton (21-10)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 3:10 pm TruTV

Overview: Maybe Virginia doesn’t deserve a 1-seed, but they are definitely one of the National Championship contenders in this field. Tony Bennett is one of the most underrated coaches in the nation, and it might not be that way for much longer. They’ll take on the Hampton Pirates in the First Round. Hampton is back in the tourney for the second consecutive year. They defeated Manhattan in a First Four game last season.

Key Players: Virginia has one of the best players in the country in senior guard Malcolm Brogdon. KenPom rates Brogdon as the 3rd best player in the country. He averages 18.7 points per game, and shoots over 40 percent from three-point range and over 88 percent from the free throw line. Along with guard London Perrantes and forward Anthony Gill, the Cavaliers have quite a trio. Hampton is one of the oldest teams in the country, and they are led by senior guards Quinton Chievous and Reginald Johnson. Johnson leads the team in scoring at 18.3 points per game, while Chievous scores 17 points per game and corrals 11 rebounds per game.

Why UVA will Win: Virginia plays at one of the slowest paces of any team in the land. They will look to slow this game down nearly to a halt, and limit Hampton’s possessions. Even when the Pirates have the ball, the Cavaliers are one of the best defensive teams in the country. They’ll be too much for Hampton.

Why HAMP will Win: They won’t, but if they can force some missed shots and get out in transition, they might be able to keep it respectable.

 

Raleigh, NC
#8 Texas Tech (19-12) vs #9 Butler (21-10)
Thursday 3/17, 12:40 pm TruTV

Overview: These are two teams that had similar seasons. Texas Tech started off fantastic, then scuffled a bit at the beginning of the Big 12 schedule. But they scored wins over Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma down the stretch, and that was enough to get them to this point. Butler also played really well in the early going, and then struggled early in conference play. They did score two wins over Seton Hall late in the season, and with the Pirates winning the Big East Tournament, those wins are starting to look better and better.

Key Players: Senior guards Devaugntah Williams and Toddrick Gotcher lead the way for the Red Raiders, with Gotcher averaging 11.1 points a game and Williams 10.6. For Butler, it’s sophomore guard Kelan Martin (16.1 ppg) and seniors Roosevelt Jones (14.0 ppg) and Kellen Dunham (16.3 ppg) that lead the way.

Why TTU will Win: These are two very good offensive teams, but Texas Tech is the better team on the defensive end. Butler protects the ball very well, so for Texas Tech to have a chance in this one, they need to force Butler into some bad shots and some turnovers. The Red Raiders also prefer to play slow, so they need to keep Butler from getting out in transition. They are good on the offensive boards, so that will help in that regard.

Why BUT will Win: Texas Tech struggles to defend the perimeter, and that is good news for a Bulldog team that is among the nation’s best from behind the arc. They’re going to have to make threes if they’re going to win this game. As noted before, Butler does not turn the ball over very much. They need to value their possessions because Texas Tech is going to try to limit them by slowing down the game.

 

Denver, CO
#5 Purdue (26-8) vs #12 Little Rock (29-4)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 4:30 pm TBS

Overview: Purdue is one of the biggest teams in the country, and that makes them not only fun to watch, but it gives them a huge (no pun intended) advantage over a lot of teams. They have given Michigan State two great battles this year, including coming out on top in overtime during the regular season. They are a sleeper team that I could see advancing to the Final Four. They’ll have a tough test in the First Round against the Little Rock Trojans, who have only lost four games all season. They have a win over San Diego State, who is another really big team. I don’t think they’ll be intimidated by the size of the Boilermakers.

Key Players: We know Purdue has size, as A.J. Hammons, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas all play major minutes, and are all 6-10 or taller. Despite that, the key player for Purdue might be senior guard Raphael Davis. Davis is one of the best individual on-ball defenders in the nation. He has given some of the top players in the country, including Denzel Valentine, all sorts of problems this year. Little Rock is led by senior guard Josh Hagins, who averages 12.8 points, 4.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game.

Why PUR will Win: This is just a tough draw for Little Rock. They beat a big team in San Diego State, but Purdue is a different animal. The Boilermakers dominate the boards on both ends, while the Trojans struggle on the boards on both ends. That isn’t a good combination. Little Rock is one of the slowest playing teams in the country, and Purdue is very comfortable playing that style as well. Purdue’s talent should allow them to come out on top.

Why UALR will Win: I think the only way for Little Rock to win this game will be to have success from the outside. They just won’t be able to do much in the paint. Little Rock does get a fairly large percentage of their points from three-point range, so if they get hot from distance, they could steal this game from Purdue.

 

Denver, CO
#4 Iowa State (21-11) vs #13 Iona (22-10)
Thursday 3/17, 2:00 pm TBS

Overview: Iowa State might be the best team in the nation that lost double-digit games. The Big 12 was brutal this year, and along with those losses were wins over Kansas and Oklahoma. They are looking to avoid a second straight early Tournament exit, after losing to 14-seed UAB in the First Round last season. It’s not going to be easy though, as they draw the Iona Gaels out of the MAAC. Iona didn’t win any big games out of conference, but they tested themselves against some really good teams, so they will be prepared for this match-up.

Key Players: This is the last chance for senior forward Georges Niang to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament. Niang is one of the best players in the country, averaging 19.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Another really good player in this game is Iona guard A.J. English. English, a senior, is one of the top scorers in the nation, averaging 22. 4 points to go along with 6.2 assists and 5.o rebounds a game.

Why ISU will Win: Both of these teams are great offensively, and both love to play fast. Iowa State is the more talented team, so that alone may be enough for them to get the victory. Niang will get his, but the area where Iowa State has a clear advantage in this one is on the perimeter. Iowa State shoots better from two-point range than from three-point range, but they have some good three-point shooters, and Iona really struggles to defend the perimeter. If the Cyclones make their threes, they’ll win.

Why Iona will Win: Iowa State does not foul much. They play decent defense, but they don’t like to be physical. That is fine with Iona, because they like to play on the perimeter. They want to get out in transition and get off a quick shot. They get more points from three-point range than a lot of teams. This game might come down to who makes more three pointers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the team that does that is Iona.

 

Denver, CO
#6 Seton Hall (25-8) vs #11 Gonzaga (26-7)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV

Overview: What a finish to the season for Seton Hall. They started off hot again, and then lost four of five early in conference play. But instead of collapsing like they did last season, Seton Hall won 12 of their last 14 games, including the Big East Championship over Villanova. Gonzaga is back in the NCAA Tournament for the 18th consecutive season, and they had to win the WCC to get here. They avenged two regular season losses to Saint Mary’s by defeating them to clinch their berth.

Key Players: Seton Hall has a young, talented team, and the most talented of the bunch is sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead. Whitehead had some struggles during his freshman year, but he’s really figured it out in his second season, averaging 18.4 points and 5.0 assists per game. Gonzaga is led by a couple pro prospects in forwards Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. Wiltjer, who won a National Title as a freshman at Kentucky, has experience in this tournament, and he is one of the best scorers in the country. Sabonis is a fantastic interior presence, and he is very efficient on the offensive end (61.7 FG).

Why SHU will Win: There will be a clash of styles in this one, and Seton Hall will have success if they can get out and run. They do a majority of their scoring from two-point range, and Gonzaga gives up a lot inside the arc. The one thing Seton Hall struggles with is protecting the ball, but Gonzaga does not force a lot of turnovers. As long as the Pirates do what they normally do, they should get a win.

Why GONZ will Win: Isaiah Whitehead is at the top of his game right now, but I’d argue that the Zags will have the two best players on the floor in Wiltjer and Sabonis. They can both play well enough to take over this game. Most of the numbers favor Seton Hall in this match-up, so I think they way Gonzaga wins this game is to rely on their stars. If Wiltjer and Sabonis play well, Gonzaga will win this game.

 

Denver, CO
#3 Utah (26-8) vs #14 Fresno State (25-9)
Thursday 3/17, 7:27 pm TruTV

Overview: Utah played their best basketball at the end of the season, earning a 2-seed in the Pac 12 Tournament and making it to the league title game, where they lost to Oregon. This is a balanced team that could absolutely make a run to the Final Four. Fresno State is the lone representative from the Mountain West after they upset traditional league power San Diego State in the MWC Championship Game.

Key Players: Jakob Poeltl, a sophomore for Utah, is probably the best true center in the nation. He is averaging 17.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game this season, and he has NBA scouts drooling. Fresno State has a super talented player as well in senior guard Marvelle Harris. He averages 20.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.2 steals per game this season. He’s fun to watch.

Why Utah will Win: Utah wins if they slow this game down and get the ball to Poeltl and company in the post. Fresno State likes to play a smaller lineup, and that’s hard to do against a team like Utah, who start two really good big men in Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma. The Utes shoot among the best percentages in the nation from inside the arc, and as long as they don’t settle for jump shots, they should be fine.

Why FRES will Win: Marvelle Harris is capable of taking over games, and if he gets hot, their might not be anything that Utah can do. If Fresno State can force some missed shots and get out in transition, they can have some success and give themselves a chance to get the win. A key for the Bulldogs will be protecting the ball. They’re one of the better possession teams in the country, and they’ll need to value possessions against a great offensive team like Utah.

 

St. Louis, MO
#7 Dayton (25-7) vs #10 Syracuse (19-13)
Friday 3/18, 12:15 pm CBS

Overview: Both of these teams have struggled entering the Tournament. Dayton has wins this season over Iowa, Monmouth and Vanderbilt, but they lost two of their last three home games, and were defeated in the A-10 semis by Saint Joseph’s. Syracuse has lost five of six games entering the Big Dance, and may didn’t even think they deserved to be here. They’ll look to prove the doubters wrong.

Key Players: Dayton’s most important player, especially in this match-up, will be senior forward Dyshawn Pierre. Despite being just 6-6, Pierre is often the tallest player on the floor for the Flyers, and they’ll need him to play big on offense and defense. Syracuse has one of the most underrated players in the nation in senior guard Michael Gbinije. The Duke-transfer is averaging 17.8 points per game while shooting over 40 percent from three-point range.

Why DAY will Win: Transition will be key for Dayton in this ballgame. You know all about Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense. The best way to beat the zone is to not allow the Orange to set it up. Dayton is an extremely good defensive team, and KenPom has them among the best defensive rebounding teams in the nation. They’re going to have to force missed shots and get out and run if they’re going to beat Syracuse.

Why CUSE will Win: One of the ways to beat a 2-3 zone is to get the ball into the paint, and then go from there. Dayton is undersized, and will have some trouble getting the ball inside. Dayton is not a great three-point shooting team, so if Syracuse can force a lot of jump shots, they’ll have success. They also will win this game by not giving Dayton anything easy. They Flyers are a poor free throw shooting team, so Syracuse should use fouls to its advantage.

 

St. Louis, MO
#2 Michigan State (29-5) vs #15 Middle Tennessee (24-9)
Friday 3/18, approx. 2:45 pm CBS

Overview: One of the biggest shockers on Selection Sunday was Michigan State not getting a 1-seed. Many people believe that they are the best team in the country, and they had just won the Big Ten Tournament title with a victory over Purdue. Tom Izzo doesn’t care what seed his Spartans are because he is one of the best postseason coaches in basketball history, and he has an unbelievably good team this year. They’ll face the C-USA Champions, Middle Tennessee, in the First Round. MTSU earned this bid with a victory over Old Dominion in the C-USA title game.

Key Players: Denzel Valentine would be my choice for National Player of the Year, and he recently guaranteed an National Championship for the Spartans. The senior guard is averaging 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. He also shoots over 44 percent from three-point range. He is the best all-around player in the nation, and he’s looking to further his superstar status here in the Tournament. Junior forward Reggie Upshaw is the best player on the other end of the floor. Upshaw averages 13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Blue Raiders this season.

Why MSU will Win: Because they will settle for nothing less than a National Title this season. No team with those aspirations is going to lose to Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders’ strengths, which include three-point shooting and defensive rebounding, just aren’t advantages against a Spartans team that defends the three-point arc really well, shoots threes really well themselves and gets a ton of offensive rebounds.

Why MTSU will Win: Refer above for why they won’t win.

 

That’s three regions down, just one more to go. Next up will be the fourth region in the NCAA Tournament, the West Region, headlined by the red hot Oregon Ducks. Look for that preview tomorrow.

 

 

 

NCAA Tournament Preview: East

So far we have previewed the First Four games, as well as the First Round games in the South Region, which will see the regional semifinals and finals take place in Louisville. Next up is the East Region, which will conclude in Philadelphia, and is headed by the Committee’s #2 overall team, the North Carolina Tar Heels, undisputed 2016 ACC Champions. The team that makes it to the Final Four from this region definitely will have earned it, as there are a few fantastic teams in this section of the bracket.

As with the other previews, any statistics are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom, and we will first give you a look at the entire bracket.

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East Region

Raleigh, NC
#1 North Carolina (28-6) vs #16 Florida Gulf Coast/Fairleigh Dickinson
Thursday 3/17, 7:20 pm TBS

Overview: It is quite the feat, even in a down year for the conference, for a team to win the ACC regular season and Tournament titles. North Carolina did just that this year. They were the consensus #1 team in the preseason, and despite some injuries and some hiccups, they are right at the top as we enter the postseason. They are definitely a team that many will pick to win this whole thing. They won’t know their opponent until after FGCU and FDU do battle Tuesday night, but it shouldn’t matter much.

Key Players: You can look back to the First Four preview to see who the key players are for the Eagles and the Knights, but for the Tar Heels, it’s seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson that make this team go. Paige averages 12.1 points and 3.7 assists per game, while Johnson leads the team with 16.6 points per game and 10.6 rebounds per game. Paige has struggled with his shot at times this year, so if he is making baskets, North Carolina is in good shape.

Why UNC will Win: No 16-seed has ever defeated a 1-seed, and it won’t start with North Carolina.

Why FGCU/FDU will Win: They won’t

 

Raleigh, NC
#8 USC (21-12) vs #9 Providence (23-10)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 9:50 pm TBS

Overview: USC started off red hot this season, going 11-2 in non-conference play with wins over Monmouth, Yale and Wichita State. They scuffled in Pac 12 play though, going just 9-9, but Andy Enfield will lead his Trojans to the Tournament for the first time, and it’s Enfield’s first trip to the Big Dance since leading Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 in 2013. It was a similar season for Providence, as they went 12-1 in non-conference with a win over Arizona, but limped to a 10-8 record in the Big East, leading to a 9-seed in the Tournament.

Key Players: The Trojans are led by backcourt pair Julian Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin. Jacobs, a junior, averages 11.8 points and 5.5 assists per game, and McLaughlin, a sophomore, leads USC in scoring at 13.4 points per game. Meanwhile, Providence may have the best point guard in the nation in two-time Big East Player of the Year Kris Dunn. Dunn has had quite a season, averaging 16 points, 6.4 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals a game. Dunn has a partner in crime as well, and that is forward Ben Bentil, who leads the Friars in scoring at over 21 points a game.

Why USC will Win: This game will be strength versus strength, as USC is a great offensive team and Providence is a great defensive team. USC likes to play fast, and that will be a good way for them to keep Providence from locking them down defensively. USC is also a much deeper team than Providence, so speeding up the game could cause the Friars to get tired, and have to go their bench more often. If USC can do that, they’ll have a good shot.

Why PROV will Win: It might just be because Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil take over the game and move on to a Tournament match-up with North Carolina for the second time in the last three years. The Friars do not shoot a great percentage from three-point range, and a lot of times are better off attacking the rim. USC does not defend the paint very well, and Providence shoots over 72 percent from the free throw line, so attacking the rim would be in Providence’s best interests.

 

Des Moines, IA
#5 Indiana (25-7) vs #12 Chattanooga (29-5)
Thursday 3/17, 7:10 pm CBS

Overview: Surprisingly, the Big Ten Regular Season champs this season were the Indiana Hoosiers. And they did it despite losing their second leading-scorer, James Blackmon, before the start of Big Ten play. They benefited from only having to play Michigan State, Maryland and Michigan once, but they are still a really good team. That being said, Chattanooga is a really good team as well. During the first half of Championship Week, Chattanooga was the only 1-seed to win their conference tournament. The Mocs lost just five games all year, and defeated the likes of Georgia and Dayton, so they’ll be prepared to face Indiana.

Key Players: Yogi Ferrell is the man for Indiana. The point guard is averaging 17 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting over 40 percent from three-point range. Another guy to watch for is freshman big man Thomas Bryant. The season started slow for Bryant, but he really started to come into his own down the stretch. The Tournament could be a coming out party for him. Chattanooga doesn’t have a “star,” but they are very good across the board. Their leading scorer is guard Tre’ McLean, who averages 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds a game this season.

Why IU will Win: The Hoosiers have a sour taste in their mouth after they were eliminated in the Big Ten quarterfinals by Michigan, and they are looking to go deep in the NCAA’s to make up for that. They are in the top-10 in the nation in 2-point percentage AND 3-point percentage, so you really have to do a great job defending them to beat them. I don’t know if Chattanooga is good enough to get it done.

Why CHATT will Win: They might be good enough to get it done though. They are a very good defensive team, and the biggest thing in their favor is their turnover percentage. According to KenPom, the Mocs turn their opponents over on more than 20 percent of possessions. The one thing Indiana struggles with, is turning the ball over. Indiana turns the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions. If Chattanooga can force turnovers, they have a great chance to pull off this upset.

 

Des Moines, IA
#4 Kentucky (26-8) vs #13 Stony Brook (26-6)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 9:40 pm CBS

Overview: It didn’t start all that great this year for Kentucky, and they have losses to the likes of Auburn, Tennessee, UCLA, Ohio State and LSU, but the season ended with an SEC Tournament Championship, and they enter the NCAA Tournament with a lot of momentum and playing their best basketball. But they are running into a Stony Brook team who is in the Tournament for the first time in school history, and they have a lot of momentum as well.

Key Players: The other thing that Stony Brook has is one of the top-10 players in the entire nation in senior forward Jameel Warney. Warney is an absolute force on the inside (6-8, 260 lbs), and I don’t know if there is a player in the country that can guard him one-on-one. He is coming off of a 43 point performance in the America East title game on Saturday. Kentucky has some really good players too, highlighted by their backcourt pair consisting of sophomore Tyler Ulis and freshman Jamal Murray. Ulis is one of the best point guards in the country (7.2 apg) and Murray is a sharpshooter (20.1 ppg, 42.1 3pt).

Why UK will Win: This looks like another Kentucky team that can absolutely contend for a National Championship with Ulis and Murray at the helm. KenPom rates Kentucky as the most efficient offensive team in the country. They don’t give up the ball and they shoot a really good clip from inside and outside the arc. I think if Kentucky just plays their game, and nobody has a terrible game, they’ll defeat Stony Brook.

Why SB will Win: That being said, there is something that feels special about Jameel Warney and this Seawolves team. If Kentucky has a weakness, it’s that they are susceptible to giving up second chances. That’s good news for Stony Brook, because they are among the top-50 offensive rebounding teams in the nation (Warney is the biggest reason for that). If Stony Brook is able to get second chances at the rim, they could absolutely defeat the Wildcats and ruin their season.

 

Brooklyn, NY
#6 Notre Dame (21-11) vs #11 Michigan/Tulsa
Friday 3/18, approx. 9:40 pm CBS

Overview: This is a team that has defeated Iowa, North Carolina, Louisville and Duke twice this season, yet Notre Dame just doesn’t feel like a serious contender to advance deep into this Tournament. They have struggled offensively down the stretch, but if they can get back to their mid-season form, there’s no reason they can’t make another long run in this tournament.

Key Players: The Irish have an NBA prospect at point guard in junior Demetrius Jackson. Jackson is averaging 15.5 points and 4.8 assists per game this year. Another guy who has started to play great for the Irish is senior forward Zach Auguste. Auguste had 19 points and a career high 22 rebounds in the ACC quarterfinals against Duke.

*The rest of the preview will be completed following the First Four game on Wednesday*

 

Brooklyn, NY
#3 West Virginia (26-8) vs #14 Stephen F. Austin (27-5)
Friday 3/18, 7:10 pm CBS

Overview: West Virginia was embarrassed in the Sweet 16 last year by Kentucky, and it appears that the Mountaineers have been playing with a chip on their shoulder all season. They were picked to finish 6th in the Big 12 in the preseason, and they proved all of their doubters wrong by finishing 2nd, picking up victories over Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma along the way. But they are running into the team with the longest current winning streak in the country, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. They have won 20 consecutive games entering the NCAA Tournament, and they’d love to make it 21 with an upset of the Mountaineers.

Key Players: West Virginia has a rotation of impressive guards that all average over nine points a game, but the key for West Virginia might be star forward Devin Williams. Williams has turned a corner this season for Bob Huggins, averaging 13.3 points and 9.3 rebounds a game. Despite all of West Virginia’s great players, Stephen F. Austin may have the best player on the floor in senior guard Thomas Walkup. This will be the 4th NCAA Tournament game in Walkup’s career, and he’s averaging just over 15 points and 10 rebounds a game in tourney action. He’ll be very important in this one.

Why WVU will Win: These are two similar teams, in that they both love to go full-court pressure to force turnovers, and nobody in the country is better at it than West Virginia. The Mountaineers are second in the nation in turnover percentage, and first in the nation in steal percentage. Stephen F. Austin struggles with turnovers on the offensive end, and that plays right into West Virginia’s hands.

Why SFA will Win: They have Tournament experience on their side, and it seems like they might not know how to lose. That’s a dangerous team to play this time of year. In addition, I mentioned that these two teams are similar. The Mountaineers are second in the country in turnover percentage. The number one team in that category? You guessed it, the Lumberjacks. I mentioned that Stephen F. Austin struggles with turnovers. You know who struggles with turnovers more? You guessed right again, West Virginia does. It could come down to which team turns the ball over less.

 

St. Louis, MO
#7 Wisconsin (20-12) vs #10 Pittsburgh (21-11)
Friday 3/18, 6:50 pm TNT

Overview: Not too long ago, Wisconsin was looking unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament. But they flipped a switch late in the season, winning 11 of their last 14 games to earn a berth in the field. The season went in reverse for the Panthers. Pitt went 12-1 in non-conference play, but limped to the finish line, losing seven of their last eleven. Both are struggling as they enter this match-up.

Key Players: Wisconsin lost the National Championship game last season, and their leaders this year, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, were there for it. Their experience will be key for Wisconsin as they look to make an unlikely run back to the Title game. For Pitt, it is senior point guard James Robinson who makes the car run. Robinson is one of the best floor generals in the nation, and he averages 10.3 points and 5.1 assists per game. Jamel Artis and Michael Young are great scorers, but Robinson sets them up to play well.

Why WIS will Win: This game will be slow and methodical, as neither team likes to get out and run. They’d much rather take their chances in the half court set. The one thing that Wisconsin needs to avoid in order to win this game is sending Pitt to the free throw line. The Panthers are one of the best foul shooting teams in the country. As long as the Badgers play smart defense, they should get the win.

Why Pitt will Win: We see free throw shooting decide a lot of games in March. If this game devolves into a free throw contest, Pitt will definitely have the advantage. A way that Pitt can make that happen is to attack the rim. The Panthers do most of their damage inside the arc, and the majority of points scored against Wisconsin come from inside the arc. If Pitt doesn’t settle for perimeter jumpers, they should get the victory.

 

St. Louis, MO
#2 Xavier (27-5) vs #15 Weber State (26-8)
Friday 3/18, approx. 9:20 pm TNT

Overview: One of the best teams in the country that not many people are putting in that elite category is Xavier. They have flown under the radar for most of this season, but if you watch them, they are without question a National Championship contender. They are very balanced, and definitely a team to look out for. In the First Round, they’ll take on the Weber State Wildcats, who are back in the Tournament for the first time since 2014, when they gave 1-seed Arizona a real run for their money.

Key Players: You don’t know who Joel Bolomboy is, but you might want to. He is a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award (Center of the Year), and no, he doesn’t play for Xavier. He is a senior at Weber State. Bolomboy averages a double-double this season, with 17.2 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. He’ll be a lot for Xavier to handle. The main player looking to stop him will be junior Jalen Reynolds. Reynolds is 6-10, 238 pounds, and he’ll need to step up his game to handle Bolomboy. Sophomore guard Trevon Bluiett is the scoring leader for the Musketeers at 15.5 points per game.

Why XAV will Win: Defensive rebounding could be a key for Xavier in this match-up. Weber State struggles on the offensive glass, so as long as the Musketeers clear the boards defensively, they should be able to get out in transition, where they are most effective. Weber State would rather play a slower game, so speeding up the contest will give Xavier the advantage.

Why WEB will Win: For Weber State to win, they’ll need to have success in the paint. They have a great paint presence in Joel Bolomboy, but he’ll have to have a really good game. The Wildcats are top-10 in the country in 2-point percentage, and Xavier is about average when it comes to 2-point defense. That’s the advantage that Weber State will have to exploit if they’re going to pull off the upset.

 

With that, you now know what to look for in each of the First Round games in the East Region. Next up will be a look at the Midwest Region, where 1-seed Virginia and 2-seed Michigan State could be on a crash course for their third straight meeting in the NCAA Tournament.