On Monday, we previewed the NCAA Tournament by giving you favorites, Cinderella picks and the Final Four prediction. That might help you select your winning teams, but you’ll need to get through the round of 64 above water to have a chance at your office pool. Here is your full list of games for Thursday and Friday.
#1 Kentucky vs. #16 Whoever – It really doesn’t matter who Kentucky plays in round one (or two, or three really). The real contest won’t be who advances in this game, but by how much Kentucky blows by the Vegas line in a dominant victory. Easiest pick of the day, Wildcats move on.
#8 Cincinnati vs. #9 Purdue – This is one of those games where if you don’t pick right, it won’t come back to haunt you, as neither team stands within a 20 point chance of Kentucky in the next round. Purdue had a rough stretch this season, loosing to little known Gardner-Webb and North Florida, before turning their season around in conference play. Cincinnati on the other hand, only scores 62 points per game. Fortunately, they only allow mid-50s on defense. The Boilermakers can score, however, and they have three wins over top 25 teams since the end of January. It will be a toss up in this match, so go with the better rebounding team, Purdue.
#5 West Virginia vs. #12 Buffalo – The full court press of the Mountaineers make for fun basketball to watch. The nation’s top team in steals and turnovers caused headaches for ball handlers all season, even as they finished the final month winners in only 5 of their last 11 games. They can easily put up 70, but their downfall truly is on the boards. The full court defense has it’s flaws and only pulling down 19 defensive rebounds per game is the most glaring one, especially going up against a Buffalo team who averages the 16th most boards in the country. At 23-9, the Buffalo Bulls ended their season winning eight in a row on the way to bringing home the MAC Championship. They can score mid 70s on any given night but they can also give up that many too. Buffalo has only lost by a combined 8 points in their last three defeats, making them a tough out for any team in the Tournament. If there was ever a time to take a flyer on a 12 seed, this is the one. Likely neither West Virginia nor Buffalo will beat Maryland in the second round, so you’re not risking a whole lot by taking the Bulls. This one will be close, and ugly, but come the weekend, Buffalo will still be dancing.
#4 Maryland vs. #13 Valparaiso – One of the sexier picks in this year’s Tournament is the Maryland Terrapins. 11-1 in close games should give you reason enough to believe. They get to the free throw line better than anyone in the country, and as we’ve seen in the past Tournaments, that could mean the difference between bowing out in Round 1 and streaking to the Final Four. They were winners of 8 in a row before running short of the Big Ten crown against Michigan State in the final minutes. The Valparaiso Crusaders can play defense, they pull down a lot of rebounds and they can score, but they just are not on the same level as Maryland. It will be over early in this one as the Terrapins jump out to a quick lead and never look back.
#6 Butler vs. #11 Texas – With three wins over ranked teams in the past 60 days, the Butler Bulldogs are a solid pick in round one. They barely allow 60 points on defense and this is a Texas Longhorn team who struggles to score above 65. Another team who is fortunate to be dancing in the NCAA Tournament, Texas squeaked in with an 8-10 Big-12 record, and an overall season just 7 games over .500. They have a good defense and can rebound better than just about any team in the region, but that is about it. They can grab all the boards they want, but if they continue to shoot 43% from the field, it’s going to be a quick exit for them. The Butler Bulldogs advance to round two.
#3 Notre Dame vs. #14 Northeastern – The ACC Champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish are one of the better stories in the NCAA field. They had a sensational run through their league finals, beating a tough Miami team before handing Duke and North Carolina their bus passes back to Tobacco Road. They beat three top 20 teams in ten days by a combined 29 points, and in doing so, became a fan favorite in the bigger tournament. They are 2nd in the nation in field goal percentage and 12th in scoring. Their weakness is on the other end of the court. They aren’t great at rebounding and allow mid-60’s per contest. Is that enough for the CAA Champion Northeastern Huskies? It would be a nice Cinderella tale, but it’s not likely. Northeastern is not a good rebounding team either and they don’t force enough turnovers to become an upset special. They will need to score in the 80s to have a chance at this one, something they have only accomplished four times in the New Year. Notre Dame wins this one two day’s after St. Patrick’s Day.
#7 Wichita State vs. #10 Indiana – The Wichita State Shockers enter the contest coming off a disappointing loss to Illinois State in the conference playoffs. Another mid-level conference team with good defense and an average offense. They only allow 55 points per game, but they only shoot 44% on the other end of the court. On the other side, where Indiana lacks on defense, 298th overall, they make up with scoring, 18th. They can give Wichita State shots knowing at least half won’t go in. The Hoosiers can rebound and are battle tested, limping into the playoffs, going 7-9 down the stretch, but their losses were all close. They hang around just long enough where a possession either way can be the difference. The Shockers won’t be able to keep up the scoring and Indiana won’t have to worry about a last minute shot to win this one. It won’t be a long post season for them, but they will at least finish .500 in the NCAA Tournament.
#2 Kansas vs. #15 New Mexico State – The Jayhawks have big wins this season and don’t feel the pressure in this round. With a solid rebounding core and a defense that forces turnovers, it will be a painful day for New Mexico State who has won their last 13 games convincingly. The WAC Champions allow the 19th fewest points per game (59.3) but give up a lot of rebounds. Kansas a team who will take advantage of those second chance opportunities. Expect the boards to be lopsided in Kansas’ favor, ultimately sending NMST home after only four quarters.
#1 Wisconsin vs. #16 Coastal Carolina – It’s the first time in school history the Badgers are a number 1 seed. There will surely be some jitters, but Coach Bo Ryan’s feisty bunch will be up for the challenge. They might not make it out of the region in the end, but they will fly by Coastal Carolina, torching the 20-point Vegas line.
#8 Oregon vs. #9 Oklahoma State – Oregon Ducks has put together a 24 win season and came down the stretch playing solid basketball. When they win, they look great, but when they loose, their defense looks like they aren’t even playing. Loosing efforts for the Ducks usually come with massive scoring nights for the opposing teams, such as Arizona’s 90 and 80 point nights, Washington State’s 108 and Washington’s 85. Fortunately, Oklahoma State is not one of those offensive powerhouses, averaging only 67 points per game on 43% shooting. The Cowboys limp into the postseason having lost 6 of their last 7. Ducks all day in this contest.
#5 Arkansas vs. #12 Wofford – The Arizona Razorbacks finished as runner-up in the SEC to Kentucky in a 12-point loss. They have dropped 3 of their last 6, although two of those were to Kentucky. With no wins against ranked teams on their schedule, this might appears to be another close 5/12 match-up. Arkansas can score close to 80 on any given night and they can force turnovers in key situations. The Wofford Terriers barely score over 65 per game in the Southern Conference and although they have won 15 of their last 16, don’t expect an upset here. Wofford can’t rebound nor force turnovers, and average shooting from long range won’t get it done against the Razorbacks. There will be a 12th seed moving on to the second round, but it won’t be Wofford.
#4 North Carolina vs. #13 Harvard – This is a scary match up for the Crimson. The Tar Heels rebound better than every other team in this tournament, and they can score too. If they get off to a hot start, it could be over quick in this first round. North Carolina used early leads to knock off Virginia and Louisville in the ACC Tournament and they boast an overall 6-7 record against top 25 teams. Harvard doesn’t score nearly as much, or as often, averaging 64 points per game on 43% shooting. While their defense has stifled Ivy League competition all season, it won’t be enough to slow down this North Carolina team. It’s a fun pick to take Harvard over North Carolina, but it’s not a logical one. Marcus Paige and company will pass the test against Harvard.
#6 Xavier vs. #11 BYU/ Ole Miss – First, expect BYU to sprint by the Ole Miss Rebels. While the Rebels came closer than any team to knocking off Kentucky during a perfect season, that was all they did all this year. BYU had a big win in late February at Gonzaga, which propelled them into the second post season. Xavier has had an up and down stretch run with wins at Georgetown and Butler (twice) and losses at Seton Hall and St. John’s (twice). It will be a fun game to watch, but BYU won’t be able to win twice in 48 hours. Take the Xavier Musketeers in this round, but only this round.
#3 Baylor vs. #14 Georgia State – Baylor enters the NCAA Tournament with seven wins over top 25 teams this season. Although they don’t get to the free throw line all too often, the Bears have the moxy to make some noise in the postseason. With an identical 24-9 record, the Georgia State Panthers, winners of the Sun Belt Conference, are one of the better teams in the country at forcing turnovers. Averaging just over 9 steals and 4 blocks per game, expect Baylor to have their hands full in this one. The Panthers have won shootouts, like the 83-79 win against Louisiana Lafayette, and they have won defensive battles, such as the 38-36 victory against Georgia Southern. It would be a nice story for Kevin Ware to make his return to the NCAA Tournament and pull off an upset as a #14 seed, but it won’t happen this season. The Baylor Bears move forward.
#7 VCU vs. #10 Ohio State – The Buckeyes have massive shoes to fill after their football team captured the first ever College Football Playoff Championship. Coach Urban Meyer let running back Ezekiel Elliott run loose and in return he brought back the trophy. Basketball coach Thad Matta will have to give freshman D’Angelo Russell the same running room and he should bring the team at least to the next round. The VCU Rams have had a rough ending to the season. Briante Weber was on the verge of breaking the all-time steal record until he suffered a season ending injury. That was over a month ago and the team hasn’t been the same since. Shaka Smart is a great coach, but his team isn’t good enough to beat the Buckeyes.
#2 Arizona vs. #15 Texas Southern – One of my favorite teams in the tournament, Arizona is playing as well as anybody in the country. Winners of 19 of their 21 games in 2015, the Wildcats torched Oregon in the Pac-10 Championship game by 28 points. They should beat Texas Southern by even more. Stanley Johnson is a player made for big moments and I believe he could be the most talked about player in this year’s tournament when it’s all over.
#1 Villanova #16 Lafayette – ‘Nova has not been a top seed since 2006. Of the #1’s, I think Villanova will have the closest game in the Round of 64, and it might be in single digits, but don’t expect the Leopards to be this year’s Cinderella. Jay Wright’s team wins in Round 1.
#8 NC State vs. #9 LSU – The NC State Wolfpack picked up road wins at Louisville and North Carolina, but sputtered in the end, going 9-10 in that stretch. LSU put together a 22 win season averaging 74 points per game in the SEC, but finishing up 6-6. The LSU Tigers lost a two-point game to Kentucky and in overtime to Auburn in the first round of the Conference playoffs. Neither team has had major success in the final two months of the season, so don’t expect either to make a major run in the Tournament. With that said, LSU is the better team and should move past NC State.
#5 Northern Iowa vs. #12 Wyoming – The Northern Iowa Panthers won the MVC Championship along with 19 of their last 20 games. Their offense is downright horrific at times, 223rd in the nation, but their defense is top notch, 2nd, allowing only 54 points per game. Even more impressive, they do this without forcing turnovers or rebounding well. They are a true product of the MVC league. You can hold a team to 50 points without rebounding or racking up steals when that opponent is Indiana St. or Bradford. The Wyoming Cowboys however are equally as stingy on defense, giving up only 56 points per contest, and just as bad with the ball, scoring 62 points per game, which is 308th in the nation. The MW Champion Cowboys had a nice overtime win against Boise State on March 13th and they bring momentum into this week’s first round. It will be low scoring with minimal turnovers, but I expect Wyoming to be this year’s #12 seed to get to the second round. The Cowboys move on to the round of 32.
#4 Louisville vs. #13 UCI – I’m still not sold on Rick Pitino’s Cardinals. They finished 24-8 but limped into the NCAA Tournament, winning only 5 of their last 10 games. Defeats at home to Pittsburgh and Miami, and on the road to Georgia Tech and Florida State, make Louisville one of the riskier picks in this year’s field. Sure their defense is stingy and only allows an average 60 points per game, but their offense only scored that many in their last ten games. The UC Irvine Anteaters are coming off a dominant win against Hawaii in the Big West Championship, but they are not playing the Rainbow Warriors here in round one. They have a top 70 defense, but that number was juiced up against teams such as Bradford and Cal State Fullerton. The Cardinals should still win this one, but I have a feeling we won’t be saying that often in the next week or so.
#6 Providence vs. #11 BSU or Dayton – Providence has the entire Ocean State of Rhode Island excited about basketball again. Their return to the NCAA Tournament comes with high expectations from the nation’s smallest state. Whether they can make a long run into the weekend or not, it has been fun to watch none the less. 9-6 in their last 15 contests, PC dropped three games to Villanova in a span of 5 weeks. They play average defense but have solid ball handlers who rarely turn the ball over. Boise State or Dayton have a chance, but it’s nothing more than that. The winner of the play-in game will have to win two playoff games in 48 hours to get the round of 32 and it won’t be easy. The Friars are rested and healthy, you should take them to the next round in your brackets.
#3 Oklahoma vs. #14 Albany – Oklahoma may be a benefactor of a good seeding here as they match up against 14th ranked the Albany Great Danes. Finishing the season on an 11-6 stretch, the Sooners enter the playoffs looking for momentum. They are one of the better rebounding teams in the country and that alone will be enough to stop Albany and their lack of second chances opportunites. The Great Danes are the ranked 179th in rebounding defense, so expect them to have a headache on the boards. They will need to make the most of their shots to have a chance to win, but with a 44% field goal percentage, don’t expect much out of the Great Danes. Assume the Sooners to the next round.
#7 Michigan State vs. #10 Georgia – The team that has the biggest gripe with this matchup might be Virginia. The #2 seeded Cavaliers will have to play the Michigan State Spartans in the next round and could possibly result in the first second seed to loose this year. The Spartans took Wisconsin to overtime this past weekend in the Big-Ten Championship and have played much better at the end of the season. Giving Coach Tom Izzo a 7th seed is lighting a fire and this could be quite the story if they can get past Virginia in the second round. Of course, they do still have to play this week against Georgia, who finished only 4 games over .500 in the SEC, but it shouldn’t be much of a contest. The Bulldogs muster up 68 points per game and allow just about as many. They can’t force the ball over enough and a 49-point loosing effort to Arkansas in the SEC tournament was laughable. Tom Izzo brings his Spartans to the next round to take on Virginia in possibly the best matchup of the weekend. Expect this contest against Georgia to be a statement game. Spartans will win this one big.
#2 Virginia vs. #15 Belmont – Justin Anderson was as unproductive as could be in the ACC Tournament, playing 26 minutes and missing all six shots. The Cavaliers need him to play well to advance throughout the tournament, but even without him, they should blow by Belmont. One of the top three teams in the tournament, Virginia takes this one easily.
#1 Duke vs. #16 UNF – Possibly the biggest threat to Kentucky’s throne is the Duke Blue Devils. With Jahil Okafor dominating offensively and Tyus Jones hitting big shots, Coach K’s bunch could jog into the Elite Eight and further. UNF’s only chance of winning this one is if the Blue Devils get lost on the way to the arena.
#8 San Diego State vs. #9 St John’s – The San Diego State Aztecs are one the most unbalanced teams in the Tournament. They are second in the nation in defense and 305th in offense. They have wins over then ranked Wyoming and against top 25 Utah, to go with a 2-point loss to Arizona. On the other side of the match up, St. John’s brings a higher scoring offense but also a weaker defense. Where the Aztecs have stepped up against ranked opponents, the Red Storm has not, loosing to all four of them. San Diego wins this one by shutting down St. John’s offense.
#5 Utah vs #12 SF Austin – Another 12 seed upset in the first round? Not in this region at least. A top 50 offense and defense brings a balanced Utes team into the Tournament against SF Austin. Their half court defense will be too much for the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. The Southland Conference Champions average just under 80 points per contest, and are tops in the nation in assists per game, but Utah isn’t Sam Houston St. or Houston Baptist. While their 56 rebounds per game gets it done in the regular season, expect the Lumberjacks to get chopped down in round one by the Utah Utes.
#4 Georgetown vs #13 Eastern Washington – Georgetown is that team when you go to write their name into the second round of the bracket and your hand just won’t move. They are as risky of a playoff team as we’ve seen in the past decade. Last year they lost to Florida Gulf Coast, three years ago to VCU and the year before that to Ohio (not Ohio State). Since 2008, the Hoyas are 2-5 in the Tournament. Now do you understand why your hand won’t write? With a defense that allows only 6 points less than their offense scores on average, G’Town is going to have channel that team that beat Butler by 6 last week, or the team that dropped Villanova by 20 in mid January. The Eastern Washington Eagles look to soar into the second round, and why not? They score over 80 points a game and hold opponents to low 70s with big blocks and timely turnovers. From long range they hit 40% of their shots and overall, just under 50%. They have the make up for a first round win and the Hoyas have the history of a first round exit. Take Eastern Washington for the win and don’t be shy about moving them into the Sweet 16.
#6 SMU vs #11 UCLA – Larry Brown is no stranger to the tournament and he knows how to focus teams on their first round match ups. Good defense and timely buckets have gotten them this far, so expect them to cruise by UCLA, who should be happy they even got a ticket to the Tournament. The Bruins finished the season on a 9-6 path allowing only four points less than they scored. It could be an ugly first round for one of the sports most historic basketball schools. SMU takes this one to round two.
#3 Iowa State vs #14 UAB – They Cyclones are my favorite team to watch in this tournament. In the past month it has been the same storyline; they trail, they come back, they win. The Big 12 Champions are 14th in the nation in scoring and make big shots down the stretch. They have the line-up for a good run in this tournament. In their last five games, they have trailed by a combined 75 points, yet managed to come back and win all five. Those contests include wins against top 15 ranked Kansas and Oklahoma, twice. The UAB Blazers are the C-USA Champions after defeating Middle Tennessee this past weekend. That will likely be their last win of the season. One of the only teams in the tournament who gives up as many points as they score, their 206th ranked defense is going to get torched by the Cyclones. This one won’t be close.
#7 Iowa vs #10 Davidson – Davidson alumni Stephen Curry isn’t walking through that door, and no one is happier than Iowa. Davidson is another Tournament team that scores a lot of points, but gives up a bunch too. On a good night, the Wildcats can put up between 80 to 90 points. On a bad night, they flounder in the 70’s, and with the nation’s 248th ranked defense, that doesn’t get the job done. They take a lot of three pointers and score on two-third’s of their possessions, and they will need to do both to beat this Hawkeye team who allows just over 60 points per game. The problem for Iowa is they won’t win this in a shootout. They need to play as stout of defense as they can. They have not allowed over 80 points since their January 20th loss to Wisconsin, and in their last 11 games they have only allowed an average of 58 points. The winner of this contest has a real shot against Gonzaga in the next round, and although they are playing great defense as of late, I think Iowa will fall short of Davidson in this match up.
#2 Gonzaga vs. #15 North Dakota State - Bracket fillers everywhere have moved Gonzaga straight through a round or two based solely on their reputation. It hasn’t panned out, and I don’t think it will this year either. With that said, they do score on over 50% of their shots, and they are top ten in the country in scoring (79ppg). They have won 32 of their 34 games this season, so a two seed is justifiable. They will run into a good North Dakota St. defense, but good isn’t enough in this one. The ‘Zags cruise through Round 1.
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