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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 15th

Early Afternoon:

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

Rhode Island v Creighton

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

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

trae young 3

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

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

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

 

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

admiral schofield

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

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

wright state

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

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

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

 

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

gonzaga

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

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

unc greensboro

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

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

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

 

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

kansas

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

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

penn

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

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

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

 

Late Afternoon:

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

marvin bagley

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

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

iona

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

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

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

 

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

lonnie walker.jpg

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

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

loyola chicago

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

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

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

 

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

sp_osu_mbk_2_10_CRR13

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

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

south dak state

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

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

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

 

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

Angel delgado.jpg

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

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

 

kevin keatts.jpg

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

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

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

 

Early Evening:

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

jalen brunson 2

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

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

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

 

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

kentucky

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

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

davidson

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

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

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

 

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

NCAA Basketball: Houston at Wichita State

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

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

san diego state

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

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

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

 

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

keenan evans

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

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

sfa

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

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

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

 

Late Evening:

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

virginia tech

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

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

collin sexton

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

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

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

 

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

arizona

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

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

buffalo

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

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

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

 

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

mo wagner

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

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

montana

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

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

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

 

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

chris chiozza

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

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

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

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