IT’S HERE! IT’S FINALLY HERE! The 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed on Sunday to much fanfare, and thankfully, to very little surprise. The 68 teams that made the field were the 68 teams that most expected, which is a welcome sight. I usually expect the Selection Committee to make a mistake or two, but they did an extremely good job this season.
Although, you could wait to see how it all plays out before you make that decision! The Tournament will kick off, as it has the last few seasons, with the First Four games in Dayton on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I am here to give you the lowdown on each of those four games. Let’s not waste any more time, here is a preview of this year’s First Four games.
*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom*
#16 Mount St. Mary’s (19-15) vs #16 New Orleans (20-11)
Tuesday 3/14, 6:40 pm TruTV
Overview: The first game of this year’s NCAA Tournament will see the Mountaineers of Mount St. Mary’s take on the Privateers of New Orleans. MSM really challenged themselves in their non-conference schedule this year, taking on teams like West Virginia, Iowa State, Arkansas, Michigan and Minnesota. They lost all of those games, but they’ve played good teams. New Orleans didn’t play quite as difficult a schedule, but they tested themselves a few times with games against USC, Northwestern and Oklahoma State. They also have a win over a power conference team, defeating Washington State 70-54 on December 3. Each of these teams is better on the defensive end, so it could come down to whichever team is able to make more stops.
Key Players: Each of these teams is led by a “mighty mite” if you will, Christavious Gill (5-8, 11.6 PPG) for New Orleans and Junior Robinson (5-5, 14.1 PPG) for MSM. They are two of the four shortest players in the Tournament this season, but they are joined by some really good taller players, guard Elijah Long for the Mountaineers (team leading 15.4 PPG) and forward Erik Thomas for New Orleans (19.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG).
Why MSM will Win: The Mountaineers have been playing great after starting their season playing really good teams on the road. Since Christmas, they are 17-4. They also are one of the better teams at forcing turnovers, while New Orleans can be susceptible to giving the ball away. The Mount forces enough turnovers to get the victory.
Why NO will Win: What a story this program is. Following Hurricane Katrina, monetary issues nearly forced them to leave Division I and head to Division III. Over 10 years later, and the Privateers are back in the Tournament for the first time since 1996. And you know who else is good at forcing turnovers? New Orleans is. In fact, they’re 12th in the country in opponent TO percentage. They win the turnover battle, and end up winning the game as well.
#11 Kansas State (20-13) vs #11 Wake Forest (19-13)
Tuesday 3/14, approx. 9:10 pm TruTV
Overview: Two teams that probably earned their way into the field thanks to big wins at the end of the season will battle it out to see who goes on to face 6-seed Cincinnati in the First Round. Kansas State struggled in Big 12 play, going 8-10, but a quarterfinal win over Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament likely pushed the Wildcats over the edge of the Bubble. On the flip-side, Wake Forest lost twice to Clemson and at Syracuse, but their other 10 losses were all to teams who reached the Tournament. The Demon Deacons beat Louisville at home and Virginia Tech on the road in the last week of the regular season, which was enough to earn this at-large bid.
Key Players: Wake is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, and they are led by 6-10 sophomore forward John Collins (18.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG), who may have improved his NBA Draft stock more than any player in the country this season. Kansas State is a more balanced offensive team, with five players averaging over 9 points per game. Seniors Wesley Iwundu (6.4 RPG) and D.J. Johnson (1.5 BPG) add a lot on the defensive end as well for the Wildcats.
Why KSU will Win: Kansas State struggled in the Big 12, but it was probably the toughest league top to bottom this season, so they are definitely battle tested. They are a very good defensive team, and they do a terrific job defending the paint. Wake Forest struggles to get good looks on the interior, and K-State does enough offensively to win a more low-scoring battle than many expect.
Why WAKE will Win: I mentioned that the Deacons are really good on the offensive end. KenPom has them rated as the 8th most efficient offensive team in the country. John Collins is the best player on the floor, and he’ll flex his muscle, going for over 20 points, and late success from the free throw line, where Wake shoots over 77 percent (12th in NCAA), keeps K-State from making a comeback. Wake Forest moves on to face Cincinnati.
#16 NC Central (25-8) vs #16 UC Davis (22-12)
Wednesday 3/15, 6:40 pm TruTV
Overview: UC Davis is one of five teams making their first trip to the NCAA Tournament this year, and the Aggies needed to upset UC Irvine in the Big West finals to get here. You might be surprised to see a 25-8 team in the First Four, but NC Central was the only team in the MEAC ranked inside of KenPom’s Top-300. There’s only 351 D-I teams, so the competition Central has faced this season has not been the best, hence their placement here.
Key Players: The best player on the court will be NC Central senior guard Patrick Cole, who does just about everything for the Eagles (19.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 5.7 APG). UC Davis is led by a senior guard as well, 6-4 Brynton Lamar (16.1 PPG). Lamar scored 20 points in the Big West final to get the Aggies to this point.
Why NCCU will Win: Don’t get stuck on the competition that the Eagles have faced this season, this is a pretty good team, and they deserve to be here. Head Coach LeVelle Moton has been discussed as a potential option for NC State’s coaching search, and he’ll have his team ready to go. They are one of the best teams in the nation at defending the 3-point arc (3rd in the nation according to KenPom), which is where UC Davis does most of their damage. Davis has trouble getting open looks from the perimeter, and NC Central is able to outscore them because of that and pick up the victory.
Why UCD will Win: Simply put, the Aggies have faced tougher competition this season, and that experience will do wonders for them here. They tend to struggle on offense, but they have a lot of size, which NC Central really does not. They have some height, but they don’t use it well. That advantage allows UC Davis to win a low-scoring affair.
#11 Providence (20-12) vs #11 USC (24-9)
Wednesday 3/15, approx. 9:10 pm TruTV
Overview: Talk about two teams that had polar opposite seasons. Providence was barely on the Tournament radar as recently as February 8, when they lost to Seton Hall in overtime, dropping them to 14-11 overall, 4-8 in the Big East. The Friars proceeded to rattle off six straight wins to end the regular season, including wins over Butler, Xavier, Marquette and Creighton, all Tournament teams. Meanwhile, it was a fantastic start to the season for the Trojans, going a perfect 13-0 in non-conference play, including wins over Texas A&M, BYU and SMU. However, USC struggled down the stretch, losing four of their last six, and going just 1-5 against the Pac-12’s other three Tourney teams.
Key Players: Providence is led by a pair of juniors with Tournament experience, point guard Kyron Cartwright (11.4 PPG, 6.7 APG) and forward Rodney Bullock (15.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG). The Friars are extremely athletic, but the Trojans might be even more athletic. They are led by a couple really long, talented sophomore forwards, 6-10 Bennie Boatwright and 6-11 Chimeize Metu, who both average over 14.5 PPG. Boatwright missed 17 games this season, but he is healthy now, and that is huge for USC.
Why PROV will Win: Momentum could play a huge factor in this game. It’s no question that Providence is the hotter team in this matchup. The Friars don’t have the size or length that USC has, so they will play this game on the perimeter. A good outside shooting team going up against a poor perimeter defense. Advantage Providence. They make enough shots to get the win and move on to the First Round.
Why USC will Win: You can easily argue that USC is the more talented team, and sometimes, that’s all it takes. But on top of that, the Trojans have a massive size advantage, and if they can post up their big men and attack with their guards, they can dominate Providence on the interior and get the victory.
That does it for my preview of the First Four games in this season’s NCAA Tournament. It’s looking like we may be snowed in here in Southeast PA on Tuesday, so there’s no excuse for you to not tune in to at least the games on Tuesday night. We usually get some pretty exciting games in the First Four, making it a perfect appetizer for the First Round on Thursday and Friday!
Be sure to stay tuned to the Facebook page as I’ll be posting previews for each Region of the Tournament over the next few days in anticipation of the First Round, which will kickoff Thursday at 12:15 pm!