NCAA Tournament Preview: First Four

The picture above of Tulsa guard James Woodard represents what just about how all of America reacted when they saw that Tulsa made it into the NCAA Tournament. There isn’t a bracket expert in the country that had Tulsa making it into the field, yet here they are. There hasn’t been as much confusion or frustration about a specific team making it into the Tournament since VCU in 2011. Well, that team won their First Four game, and then rattled off another four wins to reach the Final Four as an 11-seed, silencing all of their critics. I don’t think Tulsa can do the same thing, but there is absolutely a chance, and that is what makes the NCAA Tournament the most exciting event in sports (in my opinion of course).

The Field of 68 teams was revealed yesterday, and Bracketball wants to make sure you are well informed as you fill out your bracket! Over the next couple days, we’ll be giving you an extensive look at all of the First Round match-ups, but we’re going to start it off with the First Four games. Two of these games are between conference champions, while the other two games are between the Committee’s final four at-large teams into the field.

Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom. First, here is a look at the entire bracket.

Image68 (49)

And now, here is a preview of the First Four games taking place in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday and Wednesday!

East Region
#16 Florida Gulf Coast (20-13) vs #16 Fairleigh Dickinson (18-14)
Tuesday 3/15, 6:40 pm TruTV

Overview: The opening game of the NCAA Tournament will see the Atlantic Sun Champions, Florida Gulf Coast take on the winners of the Northeast Conference, the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights. FGCU is back in the Tournament for the first time since their epic Sweet 16 run in 2013. If they’re going to get back there this season, they’ll have to win an extra game. It has been a long road back to success for Fairleigh Dickinson, but they were able to upset top-seed Wagner in the Northeast Championship, returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, when they lost to Illinois in the opening round. The winner of this game will head to Raleigh to take on the 1-seed in the East, North Carolina, on Thursday.

Key Players: Fairleigh Dickinson is a very young team, led by a pair of sophomores in guard Darian Anderson and forward Earl Potts Jr. Anderson averages over 15 points a game, while Potts scores 14.7 points per game to go along with 6.5 rebounds. Potts also shoots just under 40 percent from three-point range. Florida Gulf Coast is also a young team under former Kansas assistant Joe Dooley, and the clear leader for the Eagles is 6-8 junior forward Marc-Eddy Norelia, who averages 17.2 points and 9.2 rebounds a game.

Why FDU will Win: As I mentioned earlier, the Knights are an extremely young team, as the five players who average over 20 minutes a game are four sophomores and a freshman. This team may be ahead of schedule in making the NCAA Tournament, and the players are probably just happy to be here. They don’t have a lot of pressure on them, and that could help. The Knights like to play fast, something the Eagles do not. If FDU can speed up the game, they could be the ones heading to take on the Tar Heels.

Why FGCU will Win: Under former coach Andy Enfield, the Eagles were a team that loved to play at the rim, hence them being known as “Dunk City.” Under Joe Dooley, it’s not quite “Dunk City,” but they still do most of their damage from inside the arc. According to KenPom, the Eagles score over 60 percent of their points from 2-point range, which is among the highest percentages in the nation. Fortunately for the Eagles, FDU is among the country’s worst at defending the paint. They are one of the shorter teams in Division 1, and will likely have trouble with the size of Florida Gulf Coast.

 

South Region
#11 Vanderbilt (19-13) vs #11 Wichita State (24-8)
Tuesday 3/15, approx. 9:10 pm TruTV

Overview: This has the potential to be the best First Four match-up since its debut during the 2011 Tournament. Just an example of how many quality teams there are this season. Vanderbilt comes into the Tournament after a disappointing loss in the SEC Tournament to Tennessee. The Commodores played well down the stretch overall, but they limp into the NCAA’s. Wichita State is also coming off of a disappointing loss, losing to Northern Iowa in the MVC semifinals. The winner of this one will head to Providence to battle the 6-seed in the South, the Arizona Wildcats.

Key Players: This will be the swan song for Wichita State’s spectacular backcourt pair, seniors Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker. These two have been to the Final Four, they’ve been a 1-seed in this Tournament, and they upset in-state rival Kansas last year in the Round of 32. Baker is scoring just over 14 points a game this year to lead the team, while Van Vleet is averaging 12 points and 5.7 assists per contest. On the other side, this is a Vanderbilt team that features a pair of NBA prospects in guard Wade Baldwin IV and forward Damian Jones. Baldwin, a sophomore, leads the team in scoring at 14.3 points a game, while the junior Jones is just behind him at 14.2 ppg. Sophomore guard Matthew Fisher-Davis is another guy to watch for the Commodores. He averages just 9.9 points per game, but he is shooting over 45 percent from three-point range.

Why Vandy will Win: I wouldn’t call Vanderbilt an up-tempo team, but they can turn it up if they need to. Wichita State likes to play a slow, methodical pace. Wade Baldwin can be very good in transition, and he may need to look to get out and run if they want to defeat the Shockers. Another advantage for Vanderbilt is their size. Wichita State is a great defensive team (most efficient in the nation according to KenPom), but they play a rather small lineup. Damian Jones and Luke Kornet for Vanderbilt are 7-0 and 7-1 respectively, and that size could bother the Shockers.

Why WSU will Win: I kind of want to throw the stats out the window with this team, if only because it’s the end of the great careers of Van Vleet and Baker. They’ve made good runs in this tourney two of the three years they’ve been here, and the other year they had an undefeated regular season. This is their last chance to leave their mark on the game, and I could easily see them making one last deep run. As far as the stats go, with a team that plays slow like the Shockers do, you have to force turnovers to be successful. Despite Vanderbilt being a good defensive team, they don’t take the ball away very often. As long as Wichita State plays their game, they should get the victory.

 

West Region
#16 Holy Cross (14-19) vs #16 Southern (22-12)
Wednesday 3/16, 6:40 pm TruTV

Overview: Holy Cross is one of the most unlikely NCAA Tournament teams in history. During the regular season, the Crusaders went 0-9 in conference road games, and entered the Patriot League Tournament as the 9-seed. Holy Cross then pulled off something inconceivable, winning four straight road games to win the Patriot Championship and earn this spot in the Big Dance. In the First Four, they will take on the Southern Jaguars, who are in the Tournament for the first time since 2013, when they nearly did the unthinkable, coming within six points of being the first 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed in the Round of 64. One of these teams will travel to Spokane to take on the Oregon Ducks on Friday.

Key Players: For Holy Cross, they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for junior forward Malachi Alexander. In the Crusaders 59-56 win over Lehigh in the Patriot Championship, Alexander scored a season-high 26 points, including shooting 6-7 from 3-point range. On the season, Alexander averages 12 points and 5.5 rebounds a game, leading the team in both categories. For Southern, senior guard Adrian Rodgers makes them go. Rodgers averages 16.6 points per game for the Jaguars, and they’ll need him to play well if they’re going to move on.

Why HC will Win: If momentum is real, Holy Cross has it. They ended the regular season with five straight losses, but won four straight to win the Patriot League. They are playing out of their minds right now, and they’ll look to keep doing so in the tournament. This game is a clash of styles. Southern likes to play a little faster, while Holy Cross wants to slow it down. If you’re going to play slow, you have to protect the ball. Southern forces a lot of turnovers, so preventing turnovers will be key for Holy Cross.

Why Southern will Win: Simply put, Southern is the better team. They should win based on talent alone, but a key in this game is three-point shooting, on the defensive end mostly for the Jaguars. Holy Cross gets a fairly large percentage of their scoring from behind the arc, and Southern is one of the top-50 teams in the country at defending the perimeter. If they are able to force Holy Cross into forcing up shots from the outside, they will probably be victorious.

 

East Region
#11 Michigan (22-12) vs #11 Tulsa (20-11)
Wednesday 3/16, approx. 9:10 pm TruTV

Overview: I don’t want to sound harsh or bitter, but neither of these teams belong in this Tournament. Nobody in America thought Tulsa would be here. If you did, you’re lying. The head of the Committee said they got in because they had more Top-50 wins than the other teams they were considering. That is a complete failure. Michigan is another team that just doesn’t belong. We’re being told that they’re in because they have four Top-30 wins, but they went 4-11 overall against the Top-100, and they lost ten games by double digits. That is not a Tournament team, especially with teams like Monmouth, San Diego State and St. Bonaventure being left out. The winner of this game will meet the East’s 6-seed, Notre Dame, in Brooklyn on Friday.

Key Players: In the absence of star Caris LeVert, point guard Derrick Walton Jr. has picked up some of the slack for Michigan. Walton averages 11.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game, and the way he manages the game helps the Wolverines immensely. A pair of senior guards lead the way for Tulsa, and they are Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard, brother of Oklahoma guard Jordan Woodard. Woodard averages just over 15 points a game, with Harrison averaging just under 15 a game. We know how important guard play can be in the Tournament, so these two guys will need to have great performances to keep the season going.

Why UM will Win: They did just defeat Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament, so they are more than capable of winning games in this Tournament. The Wolverines do a majority of their damage from three-point range, with Walton, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman all being great perimeter shooters. Tulsa gives up a lot of points from behind the arc, and their opponents shoot over 35 percent from distance. That is advantage Michigan.

Why Tulsa will Win: Tulsa will win because nobody is expecting them to. Everybody is saying they don’t belong, and that will put a massive chip on their shoulder. In 2011, VCU got into the Tournament and everybody criticized the selection. The Rams wanted to prove they belonged, and they advanced to the Final Four. I don’t know if Tulsa is good enough to do the same, but they have a chance. Tulsa likes to speed the game up, while Michigan would rather slow it down. If Tulsa can get out in transition, they will give themselves a chance to get the win.

 

The Tournament kicks off tomorrow night, and now you know what to look for in the First Four games. Check back later today as we begin to look at the First Round games in each region, beginning with the South, headlined by overall #1 seed Kansas.

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