Now that there’s a bracket, which games to go to this week? Matter of fact, why don’t we plug in the virtual reality transporter and just go to all of them?
And so, 36 First Four and opening round games, and 36 reasons to go watch them. Pack lightly.
Fairleigh Dickinson vs. Prairie View A&M. It’s a clash of rebooted seasons. Prairie View A&M started 1-11, Fairleigh Dickinson had a 3-10 stretch.
Belmont vs. Temple. Belmont’s at-large bid was a victory for the common man, and Fran Dunphy is retiring at Temple after a long and honorable career, so it’s a feel-good story no matter who wins.
North Carolina Central vs. North Dakota State. Apparently, you can’t have a First Four without North Carolina Central. Three consecutive MEAC titles for the Eagles, three First Fours. They’re 0-2, so maybe the third trip to Dayton is the charm.
Arizona State vs. St. John’s. Who can resist a match of two Final Four coaches? Make that two Final Four players who now coach. Maybe at halftime, Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley and St. John’s Chris Mullin can go one-on-one. Or given the fact they played last century, make that a game of HORSE. More pertinent may be the fact St. John’s started 14-1 but is 7-11 since, with seven of the losses by double digits and its last appearance an 86-54 mashing by Marquette in the Big East tournament.
Maryland vs. Belmont-Temple winner. You can look it up. There never has been a year the First Four did not have a winner advance past the next game. And this looks like as good a chance as any.
LSU vs. Yale. Ivy League teams have made plucky underdogs lately, and the last time the tournament saw Yale, the Bulldogs promptly took down Baylor, and nearly Duke. Think LSU might be slowed by a last-minute interim coach? This is the 30th anniversary of the Michigan team that got Steve Fisher as interim just before the NCAA tournament. Next thing anybody knew, Fisher was holding the national championship trophy.
Louisville vs. Minnesota. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino against the team that used to be coached by Rick Pitino. Yeah, that’ll get some talk.
Michigan State vs. Bradley. Bradley started the Missouri Valley Conference season 0-5 and was 18 points down to Northern Iowa in the league tournament championship game, so the Braves are hard to kill. But Michigan State is a stat wonder; third in the nation in assists and field goal defense, fourth in rebound margin, fifth in blocked shots. The Spartans shared the Big Ten season title, won the league tournament and just beat Michigan three times in 15 days. And did a lot of that with two of their top scorers missing. They’re kind of steely themselves.
Gonzaga vs. Fairleigh Dickinson-Prairie View A&M winner. The Zags will have had eight days to ponder, study and no doubt seethe about whatever happened against Saint Mary’s. Bad news for the No. 16 seed in this game.
Baylor vs. Syracuse. OK, who’s better at form reversal? Baylor has lost four in a row, Syracuse has dropped seven of its last 11. Then again, the Orange are old hands at flipping the switch in March. They lost five of their last six in 2016 and ended up in the Final Four. They dropped five of their last eight in 2018, and went to the Sweet 16.
Marquette vs. Murray State. Surely, the selection committee folks had to gleefully giggle when they put this one up. Marquette’s Markus Howard was sixth in the nation in scoring this season and Murray State’s Ja Morant was eighth. They’re the two top scorers in the tournament, and now they’ll be in the same game.
Florida State vs. Vermont. Two teams on a roll, just in different universes. Florida State is 14-2 since Jan. 20, with the only losses to Duke and North Carolina. Vermont is 18-2 since Dec. 21, with both defeats by UMBC.
Nevada vs. Florida. The Gators held 11 major college opponents at least 19 points under their average. Nevada has the same bunch who put 87 points on Texas and 75 on Cincinnati last March to get to the Sweet 16.
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Michigan vs. Montana. Montana is eighth in the country in field goal percentage and scores 77 points a game. Michigan is second in the nation in scoring defense and has allowed the opponent to break 70 only five times. The Wolverines just have to be glad Montana’s school color is not green. They’re 28-3 against everyone in the world not named Michigan State.
Villanova vs. Saint Mary’s. Opportunity, the name is Saint Mary’s. What kind of March would it be to beat the No. 1 ranked team, and then the defending national champion in two gulps?
Purdue vs. Old Dominion. Carsen Edwards has shot under 33 percent since the beginning of February, and now he says his back is hurting, and if both of that continues, this could be big trouble for the Boilermakers. Old Dominion is a study in contrast — seventh in the nation in scoring defense and 10th in field goal percentage defense, but 313th in scoring and 320th in shooting. The Monarchs should get a lot of sentimental backing, with coach Jeff Jones battling prostate cancer.
Auburn vs. New Mexico State. Auburn appears to be peaking, coming off pounding Tennessee for its first SEC tournament championship in 34 years. But beware the silent power of New Mexico State, which has gotten scant attention for a 30-4 record, or 19-game winning streak, or losing by only three at Kansas.
Kansas vs. Northeastern. Northeastern has won 16 of 18, has five different players get double-doubles this season, beat Alabama by 16 and went 14-4 in the Colonial with two of its losses in overtime and the other two by three points each. If that hasn’t gotten the attention of Kansas, which will be pinning a lot of its tournament hopes on freshmen, it should.
Wofford vs. Seton Hall. Well, Wofford, it’s time. The Terriers own the nation’s longest winning streak at 20 games, are ranked, and have only been beaten by North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State — NCAA tournament teams all. This has made them the flavor of the month for Cinderella story lovers. Thing is, Seton Hall is playing pretty well, especially Myles Powell, one of the Big East’s best.
Kentucky vs. Abilene Christian. A game that proves that bracket teams come in all shapes and sizes. Abilene Christian is in its first NCAA tournament. Kentucky is in its 59th.
Duke vs. North Carolina Central-North Dakota State winner. If it’s North Carolina Central, it’ll be a game between two teams only three miles apart. Just like Duke-North Carolina. Sort of.
VCU vs. UCF. The alphabet bowl, heavy on the defense. VCU is sixth in the nation in field goal defense, UCF is 13th... First team to 50 wins.
Mississippi State vs. Liberty. You can’t look at this game without thinking of UCLA, can you? Liberty beat the Bruins by 15 points, so its flashiest win of the season was in Pauley Pavilion. Then again, so were a lot of Mississippi State coach Ben Howland’s best wins, since he took the Bruins to three Final Fours.
Virginia Tech vs. Saint Louis. The big news is the return – timing is everything – of Virginia Tech guard Justin Robinson. The Hokies have missed him.
Buffalo vs. Arizona State-St.John’s winner. The Bulls had the Mid-American Conference’s coach of the year, player of the year, defensive player of the year, sixth man of the year. Notice a trend? At No. 6, they are the highest seeded MAC team since 1979.
Texas Tech vs. Northern Kentucky. Might be a chance to see Texas Tech’s Davide Moretti shoot free throws. He’s taken 90 and only missed six 84 this season, went 33-for-34 during a recent nine-game winning streak and leads the nation in free throw percentage. He must have shot a lot of them growing up in Bologna, Italy.
Virginia vs. Gardner-Webb. This will be played 371 days after Virginia took the court against UMBC. But nobody will mention that game this week, right?
Mississippi vs. Oklahoma. Mississippi has lost five of seven, Oklahoma has dropped eight of 12, so each probably relishes a new beginning, so to speak. Mississippi’s last six games have been settled by a combined 18 points. So chances are it’ll be close, anyway.
Wisconsin vs. Oregon. One minute Oregon was 6-8 in the Pac-12, the next the Ducks had won six in a row, holding five consecutive opponents under 62 points for the first time in the shot clock era, going back to 1984. Now they’ll take aim at Ethan Happ.
Kansas State vs. UC Irvine. Kansas State might be without one of its key players, Dean Wade, and being shorthanded is no way to be playing a UC Irvine team that has won 16 in a row and is fifth in the nation in field goal percentage defense.
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Cincinnati vs. Iowa. The game is in Columbus, which is under two hours from Cincinnati. If Iowa didn’t know that, the Hawkeyes will Friday.
Tennessee vs. Colgate. Colgate has won 11 in a row while averaging 81 points, and that surge produced the school’s first NCAA tournament bid in 23 years. Preparing to stop that offense will presumably help the Vols forget what just happened against Auburn.
North Carolina vs. Iona. According to Iona figures, since 1996, its 452 victories are more than any other Division I school within 30 miles of Madison Square Garden. So the Gaels are kings of New York. Unfortunately, the Tar Heels are a little outside that ring.
Utah State vs. Washington. It says something for the Pac-12 that its season champion is seeded ninth. But then, in their last seven games, the Huskies have scored 47 and 48 points in losses to Oregon, were beaten by last-place California, and won four games by a combined 14 points. And now here’s Utah State, winner of 17 of 18.
Iowa State vs. Ohio State. Ohio State better not count on much help from Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton, who has 124 assists to go with only 27 turnovers.
Houston vs. Georgia State. Georgia State thrashed Georgia by 24 points, beat Alabama and played Kansas State tough in Manhattan. And the Panthers still have coach Ron Hunter, whose tumble off his chair after his son beat Baylor in 2015 lives on forever in tournament lore. Then again, Houston is 31-3 and leads the nation in field goal defense. Georgia State wins this one, and it won’t just be the coach falling off chair.
SECOND ROUND GAMES IT’D BE GREAT TO SEE
Gonzaga vs. Syracuse. Zags’ high octane offense, meet Jim Boeheim’s zone.
Murray State vs. Florida State. Actually, Ja Morant against anyone.
Buffalo vs. Texas Tech. Want relentless offense? Buffalo averaged 83 points in the games it lost. So a match against the Texas Tech defense should be intriguing.
Villanova vs. Purdue. Both sides have departing stars who don’t want to see it end.
Tennessee vs. Cincinnati. Cincinnati would be dangerous anywhere, but in Ohio? It’d be a moment of truth for the Vols.
North Carolina vs. Utah State. Utah State has the look of a serious trouble-maker.
Auburn vs. Kansas. Auburn is hot. Nobody really is sure about Kansas.
Wofford vs. Kentucky. It’d be Big Blue Nation against every other living, breathing college basketball fan in the world.
AND DOWN THE ROAD . . .
Would you believe Duke against Michigan State in the East? Think Tom Izzo would be asked about his 1-11 record against Mike Krzyzewski?
Would you believe Michigan and Texas Tech in a West semifinal, throwing defense at one another, trying to earn the right to take a crack at stopping Gonzaga’s scorers?
Would you believe Virginia and Tennessee in the South, one team that has waited three decades to get back to the Final Four, and the other who has waited forever?
Would you believe North Carolina and Kentucky in the Midwest, but maybe also having to deal with Kansas playing in Kansas City?
So many possibilities. But Fairleigh Dickinson and Prairie View A&M, you’re up first. The tee is open.
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