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

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

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

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

Friday, March 16

Early Afternoon:

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

texas am.jpg

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

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

providence

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

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

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

 

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

purdue

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

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

BWest Cal State Fullerton UC Irvine Basketball

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

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

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

 

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

wichita state

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

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

jon elmore

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

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

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

 

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

cincinnati

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

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

ron hunter

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

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

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

 

Late Afternoon:

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

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Notre Dame

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

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

lipscomb

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

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

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

 

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

arkansas

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

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

kelan martin

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

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

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

 

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

jevon carter

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

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

murray state

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

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

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

 

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

nevada

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

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

Mo Bamba

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

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

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

 

Early Evening:

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

marcus foster

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

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

kansas state

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

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

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

 

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

Photo Copyright: Matt Mitchell/MSU Athletic Communications

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

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

bucknell

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

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

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

 

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

Naji Marshall

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

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

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

 

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

auburn

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

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

charleston

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

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

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

 

Late Evening:

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

virginia

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

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

umbc

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

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

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

 

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

TCU

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

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

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

 

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

michael porter jr

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

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

florida state

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

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

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

 

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

clemson

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

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

new mexico state 2

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

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

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

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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

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

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

south dak state

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

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

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

 

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

Angel delgado.jpg

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Early Evening:

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

jalen brunson 2

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

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

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

 

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

kentucky

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

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

davidson

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

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

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

 

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

NCAA Basketball: Houston at Wichita State

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

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

san diego state

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

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

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

 

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

keenan evans

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

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

sfa

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

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

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

 

Late Evening:

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

virginia tech

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

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

collin sexton

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

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

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

 

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

arizona

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

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

buffalo

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

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

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

 

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

mo wagner

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

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

montana

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

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

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

 

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

chris chiozza

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

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

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

2018 NCAA Tournament Preview: First Four

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 13th

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wednesday, March 14th

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Bracketology: 3/11/18

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

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

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

Jayson’s Bracketology 3-11-18

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

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

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

Next Four Out: UCLA, Marquette, Syracuse, Oregon

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

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

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

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

Conference Tournament Preview: 3/6/18

We are on the home stretch of the college basketball season, with most major conferences holding their conference tournaments this week, leading up to Selection Sunday, this coming Sunday, March 11 (The Big Ten is the one outlier, with Michigan winning their conference title last week).

Two more teams punched their tickets to the Big Dance last night, with Iona (MAAC) and UNC Greensboro (SoCon) winning their conference title games over Fairfield and East Tennessee State respectively. Seven total teams have now clinched their spot in the NCAA Tournament:

Murray State Racers (OVC)
Radford Highlanders (Big South)
Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (MVC)
Lipscomb Bison (A-Sun)
Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Iona Gaels (MAAC)
UNC Greensboro Spartans (SoCon)

Five more teams will add their names to that list tonight, with a sixth title game taking place Wednesday night. Here’s a quick look at those six conference championships.

Horizon League Championship
#8 Cleveland State vs #2 Wright State
Tuesday 3/6, 7:00 pm ESPN

Wright State jockeyed with Northern Kentucky atop the Horizon standings all season, with the Raiders missing out on the regular season crown by one game. But they have defeated Green Bay and Milwaukee to reach the title game, where they will meet a true Cinderella in the 12-22 Cleveland State Vikings. They have made it here by playing three vastly different games. They defeated Youngstown State by a point in the opening round, then outscored #1 Northern Kentucky 89-80, and followed that up by outlasting #4 Oakland in a defensive struggle, 44-43. The Vikings would be without question one of the worst teams (record wise) to reach the NCAA Tournament, but I think Wright State is too talented, and should get the job done. One thing that should give Cleveland State hope though is a 77-74 victory over the Raiders back on February 1st.

CAA Championship
#2 Northeastern vs #1 Charleston
Tuesday 3/6, 7:00 pm CBS Sports Network

The Huskies and the Cougars finished in a tie for the Colonial’s regular season crown, and I think it’s fitting that they will be able to decide which team is the true champion here tonight. Charleston was the 1-seed in the tournament by way of tiebreakers, and they defeated Drexel and William & Mary to reach this game. Northeastern has had an easy path, dismantling both Delaware and UNC Wilmington. Charleston swept the season series between these teams, and they say that it is extremely difficult to beat a team three times in one season. The Huskies played them close in the last meeting, so I don’t think it’s a case of the Cougars having their number. For that reason, I believe Northeastern will pull off the upset (they are 2.5 point underdogs) and move on to the NCAA Tournament.

Northeast Championship
#4 LIU Brooklyn vs #1 Wagner
Tuesday 3/6, 7:00 pm ESPN2

In what is most likely a battle for a 15 or 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Wagner Seahawks will host the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds. Brooklyn was 10-8 in NEC play this season, and they defeated St. Francis NY and Fairleigh Dickinson to reach the title game. Wagner has been the favorite to represent the NEC in the NCAA’s all season, and they have shown why in this tournament, easily dispatching Central Connecticut State and Robert Morris. The Blackbirds did score a win over Wagner in the regular season, but that was at home. The Seahawks get to host this game, and I think that makes the difference.

West Coast Championship
#3 BYU vs #1 Gonzaga
Tuesday 3/6, 9:00 pm ESPN

I was anticipating a third matchup between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in this WCC title game, but BYU had different ideas. The Cougars were quite simply the hungrier team last night, upsetting the Gaels 85-72 to earn a third crack at the Zags. Gonzaga has proved once again this season that they are a force to be reckoned with, and they are definitely a threat to reach the Final Four for a second consecutive season. The Zags dominated San Francisco last night 88-60 to get here. The Cougars have played Gonzaga tough in the past, but have not fared very well against them this season. The Zags are just too good, and they will win this game.

Summit League Championship
#2 South Dakota vs #1 South Dakota State
Tuesday 3/6, 9:00 pm ESPN2

As much as I love rooting for underdogs and seeing some crazy upsets, it’s always nice when we get to see the clear two best teams in a conference square off in the title game. That’s the case here in the Summit as it will be the battle for the Mount Rushmore State! The South Dakota Coyotes easily handled Omaha and Denver to get here, while the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State defeated Western Illinois and upended North Dakota State to reach another Summit title game, their fourth straight. SDSU’s Mike Daum is one of the best players that you don’t know anything about, and I think he could be the difference in this game. I’ll take the Jackrabbits to head to the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season.

Patriot League Championship
#2 Colgate vs #1 Bucknell
Wednesday 3/7, 7:30 pm CBS Sports Network

I have heard a few experts discussing Bucknell as a team with the potential to be this season’s Cinderella team in the NCAA Tournament, so this is surely a game that you’ll want to check out. The Bison struggled a little against Loyola MD in the quarterfinals, but responded with a 90-59 drubbing of Boston University in the semis. They’ll take on the Colgate Raiders here in the title game, a team that came within one point of beating them in Lewisburg back on February 12th. This game will take place on the same floor as that one. Colgate defeated Lafayette and Holy Cross to get here. I think Colgate could shock the system and pull off the upset here, but on their home floor, Bucknell is too good and should be able to score the Patriot title game victory.

Following the Patriot League title game Wednesday, we won’t see another ticket punched until Saturday, when a large number of conferences hold their championship games. A few will be contested Sunday as well in advance of the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, which will take place Sunday night at 6:00 pm on TBS.

Now, let’s take a look at the major conference tournaments kicking off over the next three days!

Atlantic-10

2018 Atlantic 10 Tournament for Blog

Rhode Island is the 1-seed here despite faltering down the stretch, losing their last two games of the season, including a 30-point home loss to 4-seed Saint Joseph’s. A potential Davidson-St. Bonaventure semifinal could be the game of this tournament, with those two teams just playing on February 27th, a 117-113 triple-overtime thriller that went to the Bonnies. Mark Schmidt’s team has won 12 games in a row to end the regular season, and they’ll look to cap it off with a conference title.

My A-10 Prediction:

Jayson's A10 Bracket

  • Early Rounds – Upsets could be aplenty in the A-10 Tournament, as the teams in the bottom half of the league are all very close in talent. I like UMass and Fordham to pull off First Round wins, and I like Duquesne to upset Richmond and move on to the Quarters.
  • Quarterfinals – Give me chalk here. I think St. Joe’s-George Mason could go either way (GM won both meetings this year by a combined five points), but the Hawks have been playing really good basketball down the stretch.
  • Semifinals – Chalk again. Following the 30-point loss on their own home floor to the Hawks last week, Rhode Island will be out for revenge, and I think they beat St. Joe’s easy. Davidson-St. Bonaventure will be a much closer game, and could come down to who has the ball last.
  • Finals – I believe St. Bonaventure will finish the season with 15 consecutive wins and a victory over Rhode Island in the title game, the Bonnies not leaving it up to the Selection Committee, instead securing the Atlantic-10’s automatic bid.

 

American

2018 AAC Tournament for Blog

The addition of Wichita State to the American this year was a great move, and I think it benefited both the team and the conference. The Shockers finished 2nd in the standings, behind only a really good Cincinnati team. The Bearcats are one of the best defensive teams in the nation, and they got a favorable draw here. Houston, along with Wichita and Cincy, are the only likely Tournament teams from the American, but there are a few teams that are capable of making a run and stealing a bid.

My AAC Prediction:

Jayson's AAC Bracket

  • First Round – Higher seeds should all win. UConn-SMU is a toss-up, but I like the Huskies. South Florida and ECU just aren’t good enough, and while Tulane has a win over Temple this season, the Owls are a different team now than they were in that game.
  • Quarterfinals – Temple should not beat Wichita State, but the Owls beat the Shockers in OT at home this year, and led them big in Wichita at halftime before a furious comeback from Gregg Marshall’s team. Temple has played their way out of Tournament contention, so it would be a very Temple thing for them to upset the Shockers here.
  • Semifinals – The run ends here for Temple, as they run into a Houston team that has been surging in the second half of the season, and are on their way to at least a 6 or 7-seed in the NCAA’s. Meanwhile, I think Cincy has too much defensively for Memphis to handle.
  • Finals – The Cougars and the Bearcats split the season series, so the rubber match would be a very exciting way to end Championship Week (schedule lines up for the American to be the last conference to crown their champion). I really like the way Houston is playing right now, and they’ve put up points on Cincinnati this year. I think they outscore the Bearcats and take the crown.

 

ACC

2018 ACC Tournament for Blog

The seeding in the ACC ended up strange. Virginia and Duke being 1 and 2 is no surprise, but you’d expect North Carolina to follow them. Instead, the Tar Heels are the 6-seed. Miami picked up wins over UNC and Virginia Tech to end the regular season, propelling them to the 3-seed. And then there’s Notre Dame, who just got Bonzie Colson back, and when totally healthy, is easily one of the top four teams in this conference. Yet, they are the 10-seed, and have to play in the First Round (they lead Pittsburgh in the 1st Half as I type this).

My ACC Prediction:

Jayson's ACC Bracket

  • Early Rounds – Boston College already defeated Georgia Tech, and I don’t think there’s any way ND and Syracuse don’t advance today as well. Louisville is fighting for their Tournament hopes, and I think that lifts them past FSU. Syracuse and Notre Dame could really use wins in the Second Round, but I think only the Fighting Irish get it done.
  • Quarterfinals – Louisville would love to get another crack at Virginia after the way they blew the game against them last week, but I think Virginia plays better this time and gets the job done. Clemson is not the same team without Donte Grantham, and NC State is good enough to knock them off. Miami just beat UNC last week, but I like the Tar Heels to get some revenge. A Duke-Notre Dame quarterfinal is something college basketball fans should pray for. The Irish will fight, and they will be in this game at the end, but ultimately, I think Duke has too much firepower and moves on.
  • Semifinals – I’m not sure what it is, but I like NC State and I think they have what it takes to knock off a Virginia team that has not played its best basketball down the stretch. The Wolfpack’s pressure will give UVA fits. Another fun game would be a rubber match between Duke and UNC. This would be a toss-up for sure, but the Blue Devils are playing some of their best basketball right now, and that gets them to the title game.
  • Finals – Duke-NC State probably isn’t the ACC final most people are expecting, but I think it would be an exciting game. The Wolfpack beat Duke 96-85 at home in the teams’ only meeting this season, but that was a long time ago. Duke is a better team now, and I like them to win the ACC and take a ton of momentum into the Big Dance.

 

Big 12

2018 Big 12 Tournament for Blog

Top to bottom, the Big 12 is without a doubt the strongest conference in the nation this season. I think an argument can be made that nine of the ten teams should reach the NCAA Tournament. I don’t think that will happen, but just look at Oklahoma. A Top-10 team in the country at one point this season, they finished 9th out of 10 teams in the standings. That is crazy. This conference tournament could be a lot of fun.

My Big 12 Prediction:

Jayson's Big 12 Bracket

  • First Round – The downfall of Trae Young and the Sooners continues, as they will lose to Oklahoma State in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament. This will leave Oklahoma seriously wondering if they are going to be one of the 36 at-large teams to make the Tournament. I think ultimately they do thanks to some great early season victories, but I would not be surprised to see them on the outside looking in.
  • Quarterfinals – OK State was the first team to sweep a season series from Kansas during Bill Self’s tenure. There’s no way they beat them a third time, right? Right. Kansas moves on. Texas Tech has not been the same team with Keenan Evans not at 100%, losing four of their last five games. This result hinges on the health of Texas’s Mo Bamba. If Bamba plays, I think Texas scores the upset and secures their spot in the Big Dance.
  • Semifinals – TCU was really close to beating Kansas this season, but fell just short on both occasions. Without Jaylen Fisher, I don’t think they can get it done the third time either. On the other side, West Virginia just lost to Texas to close out the regular season, but the Mountaineers are the better team, and they’ll exact some revenge on the Longhorns.
  • Finals – Kansas defeated West Virginia twice this season, coming from behind late in both games. West Virginia will not melt down this time. They finally put a full 40 minutes together against the Jayhawks and after losing two straight Big 12 title games, they get their first Big 12 Tournament Championship.

 

Big East

2018 Big East Tournament for Blog

If the Big 12 is the best conference top to bottom, then the Big East is second on that list. That’s the reputation you get when your 9-seed is able to boast back-to-back wins over Duke and Villanova this year. Xavier and the aforementioned Wildcats are both very likely to earn 1-seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and with at least four other teams likely to reach the Big Dance, this tournament could act as a gauntlet of sorts. It will be interesting to see who survives and earns a conference title.

My Big East Prediction:

Jayson's Big East Bracket

  • First Round – St. John’s has been such a strange team this season, losing their first 11 conference games before those wins over Duke and Villanova. They also defeated Marquette and Butler down the stretch. If star Shamorie Ponds plays on Wednesday, they beat Georgetown. If not, they lose. I think he plays and they defeat the Hoyas.
  • Quarterfinals – The Johnnies will not defeat Xavier though. Chris Mack probably has the best team he’s had at Xavier, and they are looking to make some major postseason noise. Providence is squarely on the Bubble, and I think they’ll play like they need some wins to secure their berth in the Tourney. That’s enough to get them past Creighton. Villanova always plays well in the Big East Tournament, so they’ll be too much for Marquette. Seton Hall-Butler is probably a toss-up, but the Pirates are close to home and they usually play well in this tournament. That will be enough for them to outscore the Bulldogs.
  • Semifinals – Xavier lost three Big East games this season: Villanova twice… and Providence. I don’t think the Musketeers would want to see a desperate Providence team. Give me the Friars to pull the upset and move on to the title game. Seton Hall took Nova to overtime just a week ago, but Big East Tournament Villanova is a different animal. Cats advance.
  • Finals – Providence reaching the finals would be a nice story, but they do not have enough to take the championship from the Wildcats. They beat Nova back on Valentine’s Day, but that was in the friendly confines of the Dunkin Donuts Center. In MSG, on the big stage, Villanova steps up and wins another Big East Championship.

 

Mountain West

2018 MW Tournament for Blog

It’s been a down year for the Mountain West. Nevada is one of the 20 best teams in the nation, and they have the talent to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA’s, if not further, but it’s a big drop off after the Wolfpack. Boise State is a Bubble team with an outside chance at earning an at-large bid. Everybody else needs to win this tournament to make their way to the Big Dance.

My Mountain West Prediction:

Jayson's MW Bracket

  • Quarterfinals – I’m expecting chalk in the First Round, so we’ll zip past that. UNLV does have a win over Nevada this year, but they played last week and the Wolfpack won 101-75. They’ll advance. San Diego State-Fresno State is a very even matchup, but the Bulldogs swept the season series. Remember how I mentioned earlier that it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season? That applies here. Aztecs move on.
  • Semifinals – With a win in the quarters, SDSU would have now won seven games in a row, including a win on Saturday over Nevada. They are peaking at the right time, and I think they knock off Nevada for the second time this year and move on to the title game. Meanwhile, Boise State knows their best chance at a berth in the NCAA Tournament is to secure the Mountain West’s auto-bid. They easily dispatch of New Mexico in search of that.
  • Finals – I think Boise State would be thrilled to see Nevada knocked off prior to the title game. The Broncos did just lose to San Diego State last week, but they split the season series, and Boise State will be extremely motivated to win this game. They refuse to leave their fate in the hands of the Selection Committee, end the Aztecs’ eight game winning streak and win the Mountain West title.

 

Pac 12

2018 Pac 12 Tournament for Blog

It’s also been a down year for the Pac 12. I guess outside of Gonzaga, it’s been rough for the entire West Coast. Arizona is a great team, but they have fallen well short of expectations. Outside of the Wildcats, there isn’t a single team who is a lock to reach the Tournament. Arizona State was a Top-10 team at one point, but they really struggled in conference play. Washington, USC, UCLA and Utah are all Bubble teams, and need wins in Las Vegas to improve their chances.

My Pac 12 Prediction:

Jayson's Pac 12 Bracket

  • First Round – I really wanted to take Colorado over Arizona State, but despite the Sun Devils’ struggles, I think they’re good enough to get the job done. Don’t be surprised if the Buffaloes move on though. They do have a victory over ASU this season. It should be chalk for the rest of the matchups.
  • Quarterfinals – The Sun Devils came up just short in both regular season meetings with Arizona, but I think that’s mostly because they are simply outmatched. Arizona makes it three victories over their in-state rivals. I do like one upset in this round, and it’s Oregon over Utah. The Ducks knew this year was going to be different than the last few, but I think they still expected to be better. They do have some potential, and could realize some of it in a victory over Utah, ending the Utes’ Tournament hopes.
  • Semifinals – Arizona has really rallied behind disgruntled coach Sean Miller, and they are playing some of their best basketball of the season right now, especially superstar freshman DeAndre Ayton. He dominates in a victory over UCLA, sending the Wildcats to the title game. USC is on the Bubble, but they could really use a trip to the Pac 12 Championship Game if they want to feel good about their Tourney hopes. The Trojans beat Oregon twice this season, but they were both close. I think the Ducks finally figure out USC and earn an unlikely trip to the title game.
  • Finals – This is where the adventure ends for the Ducks, as Arizona is just too good for them right now. Oregon needed overtime to defeat Arizona 98-93 on February 24th, but Sean Miller did not coach that game due to the FBI probe that he is involved in. With Miller on the sidelines, the Cats defeat Oregon and win the Pac 12 title.

 

SEC

2018 SEC Tournament for Blog

It’s been a fantastic year for SEC basketball, and it came from out of nowhere. Auburn was not expected to do anything of note this season, but Bruce Pearl has done a fantastic job, leading the Tigers to a regular season championship. They’ve struggled a little bit as of late, but they could do some damage in the postseason. Beyond them, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas A&M all look to be safely into the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State and Alabama could very well join them when all is said and done.

My SEC Prediction:

Jayson's SEC Bracket

  • Early Rounds – Alabama desperately needs a few wins if they want to feel safe about their Tournament chances. Unfortunately, they draw Texas A&M. The Aggies entered the season with lofty expectations and fell way short of those. They are very talented though, and if they figure it out, they can do great things. That begins with a win over Alabama. LSU is another team that did not reach expectations, but I like them to upset Mississippi State and end the Bulldogs’ dreams of reaching the Big Dance.
  • Quarterfinals – Texas A&M was the only team to beat Auburn in their house this season, and I think they can double-down and knock a reeling Tiger team out of the SEC Tournament. I think LSU can continue as well if they get past Mississippi State. Tennessee has struggled down the stretch, and I could easily see them failing to win a game in this tournament.
  • Semifinals – I guess I just have a good feeling about Texas A&M. I watched them open the season with an absolute drubbing of West Virginia in Germany, and thought they should have been so much better than they are. I’m thinking they solve their issues in the postseason, beating Kentucky and advancing to the title game. On the other hand, LSU’s run will end in the semis, falling to a much more talented Florida team.
  • Finals – Could Texas A&M actually win this thing as the 8-seed? I say yeah, why the heck not? The SEC has been a mixed bag this year, so a little March Madness makes a lot of sense to me. The Aggies win a seesaw battle with the Gators, entering the NCAA Tournament with a ton of momentum.

 

That’ll do it for my Conference Championship preview, I hope you all enjoyed! And I hope you enjoy watching all of the Championship Week action even more!

CBB Round-Up: 2/26/18

The calendar turns to March this week, which means the greatest time of year is upon us! March Madness baby! Some conferences kick off their postseason tournaments this week, while the rest are now in the final week of the regular season. With the sports world focused on college basketball for the better part of the next month, I have a packed post for the start of this week!

I want to start off with my thoughts on the FBI scandal that is rocking the landscape of Division I college basketball. I may have an extended post about this coming soon, but it’s something that I feel should be addressed at least in short.

To sum it all up, a report was released last week tying several high profile programs and players to an FBI investigation into improper benefits and illegal recruiting tactics. The biggest reveal was that an FBI wiretap caught Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller discussing a $100,000 payment to current player DeAndre Ayton. Miller did not coach in Arizona’s loss to Oregon on Saturday, while Ayton was allowed to play.

Most people know that this kind of thing happens in college athletics, as it’s no secret that money rules everything. It is unfortunate that there is now a black eye on the sport this season. It seems like everybody has an opinion as to how the NCAA should fix this issue. I have always been of the thought that these players are being paid, in the form of a college education, something that most of us have to pay for. That being said, the best and easiest way to solve this problem is to allow the players to be paid.

There are a lot of factors in play here. You could just allow the schools to pay the players, but that would open up a huge can of worms. You could allow the players to have agents and accept money through sponsorships, but they would no longer be amateur athletes, something the NCAA wants to hold onto.

It’s a really difficult situation, but the quickest way to end it would be to allow the players to receive money. I don’t think a lot of people would be a fan of that, but coaches and programs are going to continue to break the rules and hope to get away with it if it doesn’t happen.

That’s just my two cents, but we’ll move on to the more exciting stuff now. We’ll start with a new feature here on We Love Sportz, Dan’s Betting Corner! My brother Dan is an avid sports better, and he expressed interest in sharing some of his thoughts on games as we near the end of the season! For today’s edition, Dan would like to share his picks for three big games taking place tonight, Monday February 26th.

Dan’s Betting Corner

Duke (-5.5) @ Virginia Tech
7:00 pm, ESPN

This line interests me because in their previous game this season, Duke beat the Hokies by 22 at Cameron Indoor. Virginia Tech is better at home but they are a tough team to bet because they have been up and down all year. The line seems a bit low based on the previous result, so for that reason, I would lean towards Virginia Tech +5.5.

Texas Tech @ West Virginia (-7)
9:00 pm, ESPN2

This could go down as the most competitive game of the night but a tough one to bet on. Texas Tech is coming off a heartbreaking home loss to Kansas and West Virginia is riding a two game winning streak. Texas Tech secured a one point win in the previous meeting between these two. I would take the Mountaineers to win this one outright, but the line is inviting you to take Texas Tech. I see the game staying close the whole way, so I would lean towards the Red Raiders +7.

Texas @ Kansas (-10.5)
9:00 pm, ESPN

This line has already moved from where it started at Kansas -9.5. While the line is fairly high, everything points to Kansas winning with ease. They would secure the outright Big 12 regular season title with a victory, they rarely lose at home and superstar Texas freshman Mo Bamba may be out with a toe injury he suffered Saturday against Oklahoma State. Bamba was dominant in their previous meeting and the Jayhawks still won going away. If Bamba is ruled out I would definitely go with Kansas -10.5. If Bamba ends up playing I would still lean towards Kansas but it would certainly be a bit tougher.

Jayson’s Bracketology

One more week and March Madness will be in full swing. Our first automatic Tournament bids will be handed out this weekend, with the Ohio Valley title game on Saturday and the Atlantic Sun, Big South, Missouri Valley, and Big Ten title games on Sunday.

My #1 seeds remain unchanged from last week, with Kansas moving ahead of Xavier for the #3 overall seed. There was a lot of movement elsewhere though. Follow the link below to view this week’s Bracketology (teams in color are projected auto-bids):

Jayson’s Bracketology 2-26-18

Last Four Byes: Virginia Tech, Missouri, Louisville, Kansas State

Last Four In: Syracuse, Baylor, USC, Texas

First Four Out: Nebraska, St. Bonaventure, Washington, UCLA

Next Four Out: Mississippi State, Temple, Boise State, Notre Dame

Big Ten Tournament Predictions

Last but not least today, Dan and I have filled out our first brackets of the year! Yes, we realize the NCAA Tournament doesn’t start for a couple more weeks, but in order to hold the event at Madison Square Garden in NYC, the Big Ten has played a compressed regular season schedule and moved their conference tournament up a week this year. The Big Ten Tournament will kickoff on Wednesday evening, and here is the bracket:

2018 Big Ten Tournament for Blog

The Big Ten always has one of the more exciting tournaments of the college basketball postseason, and we get it a week early this year! Michigan is looking to repeat as champions, but they have a tough road, losing the tiebreaker with Nebraska for the last double-bye into the quarterfinals, meaning they’ll have to win four games instead of three in order to defend their crown.

Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and the aforementioned Wolverines are safely into the NCAA Tournament, while a number of teams in this conference are on the Bubble, and might need a deep run here to reach the Big Dance. That includes Nebraska, Penn State, Indiana and Maryland. The rest of the field will need an unlikely run to earn the Big Ten’s automatic bid.

Here is how Dan and I see the Big Ten Tournament playing out:

Dan's Big Ten Bracket Prediction

Jayson's Big Ten Bracket Prediction

Dan and I both believe that Purdue will end up winning the Big Ten Tournament, we just disagree on who they’ll beat in the Championship game. Purdue’s seniors have failed to win the Big Ten Tournament their first three years, including a quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Michigan last season. The leadership of those seniors is what I believe will lead the Boilermakers to a Big Ten title this year, getting revenge on Michigan in the title game. Dan likes them to triumph over regular season champs Michigan State in the championship game.

I’ll hopefully be back with another post around the end of the week, but in the meantime, enjoy the action! It’s time for some March Madness!!!

NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: South Region

In my fourth and final First Round Preview article for this year’s NCAA Tournament, I’ll now take a look at the South Region, featuring a gauntlet of historic men’s college basketball programs.

The 1-seed in the South is the ACC regular season champion North Carolina Tar Heels, who some believe did not deserve a 1-seed over teams like Duke and Arizona, but here they are. If they can reach the Elite Eight, they could have a really difficult opponent, either 2-seed Kentucky, the SEC regular season and tournament champs, or 3-seed UCLA, who failed to win either Pac-12 titles, but were ranked as high as 3rd in the nation down the stretch.

The popular opinion is that the South Region is the most difficult in this year’s bracket, so the team that gets out of Memphis will have certainly earned their trip to the Final Four. Here is my preview of the First Round in the South Region!

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of KenPom and ESPN*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

South Region

Greenville, SC
#1 North Carolina (27-7) vs #16 Texas Southern (23-11)
Friday 3/17, approx. 4:00 pm TNT

Overview: Despite seven losses, which ties the most losses ever for a 1-seed, North Carolina has an extremely impressive resume. They dominated Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in non-conference play, and then picked up wins over Florida State, Virginia, Louisville, Duke and Notre Dame in ACC play. For those keeping track at home, those are the teams who finished 2nd through 6th in the league, behind the Tar Heels. Texas Southern, under former Indiana and UAB coach Mike Davis, has been known to play a brutal out-of-conference schedule, earning money for the athletic department, and preparing the team for the postseason. Since conference play started, the Tigers are 19-2. UNC struggled against 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast last year, and Texas Southern will not be intimidated.

Key Players: Marcus Paige led this Tar Heel team on their run to the National Championship game last year, and junior guard Joel Berry has nicely taken over that role for this year’s team. Berry is averaging 14.8 points, 3.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Fellow junior Justin Jackson (18.1 PPG) is another very important player for UNC. The Tigers have one of the shortest players in the Tournament in 5-7 freshman Demontrae Jefferson, and he is second on the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game. The leading scorer for Texas Southern is junior guard Zach Lofton, who averages 17.0 points a contest.

Why UNC will Win: I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but a 16 has never beaten a 1, and it’s not going to happen here. North Carolina is a popular pick to go all the way, and I think that’s because they do everything well. This team does not have a weakness. Good guards, size, speed, shooting ability, they are the total package, and when they are clicking, their isn’t a team in the nation that can beat them.

Why TXSO will Win: I’m getting a little lazy at this point, but they won’t win. If the Tar Heels have a weakness, it’s that they are susceptible to being denied at the rim, and they struggle with fouls. If Texas Southern can attack the rim on the offensive end and defend the rim well on defense, maybe they can keep this game close.

 

Greenville, SC
#8 Arkansas (25-9) vs #9 Seton Hall (21-11)
Friday 3/17, 1:30 pm TNT

Overview: I must admit, I did not realize how good a season Arkansas was having until they reached the SEC title game as the 3-seed in the conference. I am still shocked that this team didn’t lose double digit games. Even I, a huge college basketball fan, had to look up their roster because I did not know a single player on their team. That’s about as innocuous a season you can have. Meanwhile, it was another really good season in the Big East for Seton Hall, coming on strong down the stretch winning four in a row to end the regular season before losing by two in the Big East Tournament to Villanova. The Pirates are a dangerous team.

Key Players: One of the biggest reasons Seton Hall is dangerous is their biggest player, 6-10 junior Angel Delgado. He is an absolute load to handle in the paint, averaging 15.3 points and a whopping 13.1 rebounds a game. He is one of the best rebounders in the nation. The Pirates have a couple talented perimeter scorers as well in fellow juniors Khadeen Carrington (16.9 PPG) and Desi Rodriguez (15.9 PPG). I said earlier that I didn’t know any of the Razorback players, but they are talented if the stats are to be believed. It would appear that the key players are a couple seniors, 6-3 guard Dusty Hannahs (14.6 PPG, 90.3 FT%) and 6-10 forward Moses Kingsley (11.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG). A couple juniors, guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, also average double-figures for Arkansas.

Why ARK will Win: Arkansas has a good record, but they have a spotty resume. They only have four wins against teams in the Field, and two of those games are against Vanderbilt, a 9-seed. If they are going to win this game against a hot Seton Hall team, they will need to stick with what they do best, and that is play up-tempo (which Seton Hall is not great at) and get to the free throw line (where they are one of the 25 best teams in the country in free throw percentage). Do that, and the Razorbacks should win.

Why SHU will Win: As you already know if you’ve been reading my preview articles, I am a believer in momentum this time of year. There are a lot of teams in this tournament that are better than Seton Hall, but there aren’t many playing with the momentum that they are. I believe that Seton Hall has better interior players than Arkansas, and they have better guards than Arkansas. If you make that into an equation, that equals a victory here. Run the offense through Angel Delgado and crash the boards, and the Pirates should have no issues moving on.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#5 Minnesota (24-9) vs #12 Middle Tennessee (30-4)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 4:00 pm TNT

Overview: Richard Pitino, son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, has done a fantastic job with this Golden Gopher team. The Pitino’s are now the first father-son duo to coach in the same NCAA Tournament. It’s been a great season for Minnesota, with wins over Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Maryland and Michigan. It’s one of the best seasons in Minneapolis in a very long time. But it could all go for naught considering the draw that they received in the Tournament, facing a Middle Tennessee team that people have been looking forward to seeing back in the Tournament since the season began. If you remember, the Blue Raiders knocked off national title favorite Michigan State last season in the First Round as a 15-seed. The stars from that game are back this year, and this team had an even better season, earning a 12-seed (and I thought they should have been higher). This will be a fun game.

Key Players: The Gophers have a nice blend of upperclassmen and underclassmen, led by junior guard Nate Mason (15.5 PPG, 5.0 APG) and freshman forward Amir Coffey (12.1 PPG). Those are the leading scorers for Minnesota, and they will need to play well for this team to win. I mentioned the stars for Middle Tennessee last year returning. They are senior forward Reggie Upshaw (21 points versus MSU last season) and junior guard Giddy Potts (19 points, 3-5 from 3PT range against MSU). Those guys are happy to be back, but neither of them are the Blue Raiders’ best player. That is senior Arkansas-transfer JaCorey Williams, who averages 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and had to watch the huge victory over Michigan State last year on the sidelines, sitting out a year due to transfer rules. He will be chomping at the bit for this game.

Why MINN will Win: Middle Tennessee is a great story, and a really good team, but it’s been a wonderful season for Minnesota, and with the Blue Raiders being a trendy upset pick, the Gophers will love to bust a few brackets. Minnesota will be one of the best defensive teams that MTSU will have played this season, so who knows how their talented offense will respond. The Gophers will need to play up-tempo and limit good looks from the perimeter (which Michigan State couldn’t do last year), but if they do those things, they’ll come out on top.

Why MTSU will Win: They beat a really good Michigan State team last year, and if nothing else, that experience will have this team believing that they can beat anybody in this Tournament. Potts and Upshaw know what it’s like to win games in this thing, and the addition of JaCorey Williams only makes them better. Minnesota is an over-seeded team in my estimation, and the Blue Raiders are good on both ends of the floor. As long as they don’t get caught playing the game Minnesota wants them to play, meaning they slow the game down and take good shots (and make them of course), I like the Blue Raiders to win a game for the second straight Tournament.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#4 Butler (23-8) vs #13 Winthrop (26-6)
Thursday 3/16, 1:30 pm TNT

Overview: Another year, another overachieving Butler team. I’m starting to think that Chris Holtmann is just a fantastic coach. This team was expected to be a fringe-Tournament team, possibly winning a few big games in Big East play. Instead, they finished second in the conference, sweeping the season series with the defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats. Their 8-point win in Philly on February 22 is one of the most impressive wins any team has this season. It was a very good season for the Winthrop Eagles as well, returning to the Tournament for the first time since 2010. Two of their six losses this year came in overtime, and they have a win over a major conference team in Illinois, a better win than a lot of 13-seeds or lower have this year.

Key Players: When it comes to short players in this Tournament, none are better than 5-7 senior guard Keon Johnson for the Eagles. Johnson is extremely talented, averaging 22.5 points a game, shooting better than 86 percent from the free throw line and 40.4 percent from 3-point range. He is one of the best scoring guards in this entire Tournament, and he could become a household name when this is all said and done. For Butler, it pretty much comes down to how 6-7 junior guard/forward Kelan Martin plays. He leads the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game, and in rebounding with 5.7 boards a game. If he plays well, they usually win. If he struggles, they struggle.

Why BUT will Win: Winthrop is a fun team to watch (trust me, this will be a game you’ll want to tune in to), but Butler is just too much for them. Butler is great at controlling the tempo of the game, protecting the ball, and they are very efficient on offense, especially inside the arc, where Winthrop just doesn’t have the size to compete with the Bulldogs. Some may pick this to be an upset, but I like Butler to advance fairly easily.

Why WU will Win: Crazy things happen in March, and really good players have been known to thrive in the spotlight that the NCAA Tournament provides. Winthrop will try to speed this game up and make Butler uncomfortable. If they can do that, they have a shot. Keon Johnson could also just go off, and there might not be anything Butler can do about it.

 

Sacramento, CA
#6 Cincinnati (29-5) vs #11 Kansas State (21-13)
Friday 3/17, 7:27 pm TruTV

Overview: Mick Cronin has led Cincinnati to the Tournament for the 7th consecutive season, and I honestly believe that this might be his best team yet. It was the Bearcats and SMU at the top of the American, and then it was everybody else. They did beat SMU once this season, and they also scored victories over Iowa State and Xavier along the way. They are a Top-10 defensive team, which gives them a chance in any game. Kansas State was able to get past Wake Forest in the First Four, winning 95-88. Since the start of the First Four in 2011, a team from those games has advanced to at least the Round of 32 every season. Could it be K-State?

Key Players: I cannot believe Troy Caupain is still at Cincinnati, because it feels like he’s been there forever, but he is still one of the most important players to the Bearcats’ success. He does a little bit of everything for the Cats, averaging 10.1 points, 4.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game, while leading the team in minutes. Junior forward Kyle Washington is another key player for Cincy, averaging 13.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. K-State has gotten here thanks to the efforts of senior Wesley Iwundu, who scored 24 points to go along with 7 assists and 6 rebounds in the win over Wake Forest. Sophomore guard Kamau Stokes played well also, tallying 22 points on 5-8 shooting from 3-point range.

Why CIN will Win: I mentioned that this is probably the best team Mick Cronin has had in his tenure at Cincinnati, and they will look to buck the trend of the Bearcats underwhelming in the NCAA Tournament. Cronin is due for a deep run in this thing, and this will be his best chance. They will win here if they can take care of the ball and get hot from 3-point range, as K-State really struggles to force turnovers and defend the arc. Cincinnati can win from inside or outside, so I think they focus on getting open perimeter shots, and shoot their way into the Second Round.

Why KSU will Win: History suggests that a First Four team will go onto the First Round and get a victory, and I really don’t like Providence or USC’s chances against SMU, so that leaves Kansas State to be the First Four’s representative in the Round of 32. They have a game under their belt, so the pressure is off. A team playing with no pressure in the Tournament is a dangerous team. The Wildcats had one of the best shooting performances in school history against Wake. If they can come close to that kind of performance here, they’ll get the victory.

 

Sacramento, CA
#3 UCLA (29-4) vs #14 Kent State (22-13)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV

Overview: This UCLA team is probably the most polarizing team in this entire field, and that may or may not be due to the outspokenness of one named LaVar Ball. I wish I could say he’s a player, but he’s actually the father of star freshman guard Lonzo Ball, and for me, his dad is wrongfully taking the attention away from the magnificence that is Lonzo on a basketball court. This is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, and they’ll look to shoot their way to a National Title. Kent State came from out of nowhere to win the MAC title as the 6-seed in the conference, winning four games total, three in three days, to earn their trip to the Dance. Despite their finish in the MAC regular season, this is one of the best teams in the conference, and they will not be a pushover for UCLA.

Key Players: Lonzo Ball has a chance to be the 1st overall pick in the NBA Draft, and for good reason. He does it all for the Bruins, averaging 14.6 points, 7.7 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. Fellow freshman T.J. Leaf is important for UCLA as well, averaging a team-leading 16.2 points per game. And don’t forget about the coach’s son, senior shooting guard Bryce Alford (15.8 PPG, 43.5% 3PT). Kent State has a star of their own in 6-8 senior forward Jimmy Hall. Hall leads the team 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, and he’ll need to have a great game if the Golden Flashes have a shot at the upset.

Why UCLA will Win: It’s going to take a really good defensive team to knock off the Bruins, and Kent State is not that team. UCLA likes to play fast, and they are extremely efficient. KenPom has them in the top-6 most efficient offenses inside and outside the arc. A team that plays fast and doesn’t miss is a team that is tough to beat. Way too tough for Kent State at least.

Why KENT will Win: It’s not impossible, believe it or not. 14-seeds have beaten 3-seeds before, and honestly, if UCLA struggles at all on offense, they can lose, because they don’t play a lick of defense. You need to outscore the Bruins to beat them, but Kent State is capable of that. They are a great offensive rebounding team, so if they can attack the offensive boards and get a lot of second chance points, they might be able to pull off the shocker.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#7 Dayton (24-7) vs #10 Wichita State (30-4)
Friday 3/17, 7:10 pm CBS

Overview: I feel so bad for Archie Miller and Dayton. They had a fantastic season, winning the A-10 regular season title while picking up great wins over Alabama, Vanderbilt, Rhode Island (twice) and VCU. They deserved a better draw than this. Wichita State has the resume of a 10-seed. They have just one win over Tournament teams, and that was against South Dakota State, a 16-seed. However, advanced analytics LOVE the Shockers. KenPom has Wichita State as the 8th best team in the nation. This team will fuel the argument for the Committee to use more advanced statistics in choosing the NCAA Tournament Field. Unfortunately, that won’t make Dayton feel any better.

Key Players: Don’t automatically count out the Flyers though. They are a very experienced team, led by a trio of seniors that want to go out on the right foot. Charles Cooke, Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard are three fantastic players, and they combine for over 43 points a game. They will not be scared of the Shockers. It’s a little strange to see a Wichita State team without Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, but Gregg Marshall has reloaded nicely. The Shockers have five players who average better than nine points a game, and they are led by 6-8 sophomore Markis McDuffie, who averages a team-leading 11.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He is key to Wichita’s success.

Why DAY will Win: I feel like there isn’t much pressure on Dayton in this game. The majority of people don’t expect them to win, and I think that actually will make them play with a little added motivation. Wichita State does not force many turnovers, so if Dayton can control the ball and play the game at their tempo, they can very easily win this game.

Why WSU will Win: There might be some pressure on the Shockers for the same reason that there isn’t much pressure on Dayton, but this team under Gregg Marshall has rarely buckled under any pressure. This team hasn’t beaten anybody of note, but they are extremely efficient on both ends of the floor. They are extremely good on the perimeter, so if they work the ball and don’t settle for bad shots, they will look like the Wichita State team that everybody expects, and they’ll move on to the next round.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#2 Kentucky (29-5) vs #15 Northern Kentucky (24-10)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:40 pm CBS

Overview: It’s the in-state battle that nobody knew they wanted until now! Okay, I joke a little bit, but maybe a little rivalry can be born from this matchup. John Calipari’s Wildcats went through a lot of growing pains this season, but they are rounding into form at the right time, winning the SEC regular season and tournament titles, and they enter the Dance riding an 11-game winning streak. Northern Kentucky, meanwhile, benefited from some big upsets in the Horizon League Tournament, defeating 5-seed Wright State, 9-seed Youngstown State and 10-seed Milwaukee to earn their spot in the Tournament.

Key Players: Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Edrice “Bam” Adebayo are the stars of this team, all freshmen, and all likely NBA lottery picks. They are the three leading scorers for this team (20.4, 16.1 and 13.3 PPG respectively), and they will be key to Kentucky’s success in this Tournament. For the Norse, it’s sophomore forward Drew McDonald who makes things go. He leads the team with 16.4 points and 7.7 boards a game, and he is talented inside and outside the arc. His floor spacing could open things up for the rest of the team.

Why UK will Win: Malik Monk is arguably the best pure scorer in this Tournament. When he is on, he scores in bunches, and he is extremely difficult to contain. But he is very streaky, and is just getting out of a really bad funk. As long as he doesn’t revert back to that, he will score at will against Northern Kentucky, and the Norse won’t stand a chance.

Why NKU will Win: 15-seeds beating 2-seeds, as I’ve mentioned before, is not unprecedented. Especially when the 15-seed is as good offensively as Northern Kentucky is. Kentucky will look to get out and run, but they won’t be successful with that if the Norse can make shots. Make some shots early, get Kentucky out of their comfort zone, and we could see a massive upset.