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Mike Lopresti | | March 15, 2018

Breaking down the best opening-week matchups

Bryce Drew Buzzer Beater

The bracket is ready. Our transporter is ready. Beam us up to any arena we want. So here’s a virtual tour of the best of what the first week of the NCAA Tournament has to offer. Pack lightly.

MORE: View the 2018 NCAA tournament bracket  | Printable bracket 

First Four: Wednesday, March 14

Arizona State vs. Syracuse in Dayton.

Lots of people wonder if the Sun Devils, losers of five of their last six, should even be in the field. This will be their chance to answer. It’ll be tricky. The highest scoring offense in the Pac-12 – Arizona State put up 83.5 points a game – meets the Syracuse zone, with barely 72 hours to prepare for it.

First Round: Thursday, March 15

Kentucky vs. Davidson in Boise.

Yeah, we’ll have to contend with Big Blue Nation. Make that Big Blue Relieved Nation, now that the Wildcats have reestablished the laws of nature in the SEC tournament and look March-ready. Finally. It’ll be interesting to see if Davidson can come up with a Cinderella sequel, on the 10-year anniversary of Stephen Curry’s Elite Eight saga. Davidson has already knocked one team out of the tournament. Its upset of Rhode Island in Sunday’s Atlantic-10 title game booted Notre Dame from the bracket.

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Arizona vs. Buffalo in Boise.

We can’t turn down a chance to see Deandre Ayton, who had 64 points and 32 rebounds his two last Pac-12 tournament games. Arizona will be a trendy pick to go far, and with reason. But notice, please. Buffalo has won 19 of 22 games, with the three losses by eight points.

Rhode Island vs. Oklahoma in Pittsburgh.

Trae Young, you’re on. The 2-8 finish has drawn mass indignation about the Sooners’ bid. Nothing one of those 28-point, 11-assist games and an Oklahoma victory can’t quell.

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Kansas vs. Penn in Wichita.

No reason to expect trouble for the hot Jayhawks, right? Well, a brief recent history lesson of the Ivy League in the tournament is in order. In the past eight years, its representatives have knocked off three No. 5 seeds, a No. 4 and a No. 3, and played North Carolina, Kentucky and Notre Dame to two points, and Duke and Michigan State to seven. You’ve been warned, Kansas.

Virginia Tech vs. Alabama in Pittsburgh.

Lots of entertaining offense. Alabama has Collin Sexton. Virginia Tech actually scored 60 points on Virginia. That’s like, 80 against normal defenses. The Tide’s 15 losses matches the record most for an at-large team.

Ohio State vs. South Dakota State in Boise.

POY meets POY. The Big Ten’s player of the year Keita Bates-Diop for Ohio State and the Summit’s Mike Daum for South Dakota State. This looks dangerous for the Buckeyes, whose marvelously surprising season began to leak a bit at the end. South Dakota State has won 11 in a row, and 19 of 20.

First Round: Friday, March 16

Clemson vs. New Mexico State in San Diego.

Somewhere in the NCAA bylaws is a rule that says at least one No. 5 seed has to lose to a No. 12 seed every March. This could be the one. New Mexico State has won 17 of 19, and already has taken a chunk out of the ACC, beating Miami. The Aggies would like to reverse one trend; they’ve lost nine NCAA Tournament games in a row going back to 1993.

Texas A&M vs. Providence in Charlotte.

Providence is never boring. Not lately, anyway. The Friars played three overtime games in the Big East tournament, and Ed Cooley had to wear a towel to cover up his split pants. Or else he might have had his own one shining moment.

North Carolina vs. Lipscomb in Charlotte.

The Tar Heels are 33-1 in NCAA Tournament games played in their state. Be brave, Lipscomb. Be brave.

TCU vs. the Arizona State-Syracuse winner in Detroit.

If Jamie Dixon coaches the Horned Frogs to a win, it’ll be TCU’s first win the tournament since 1987. When he was playing guard.

Arkansas vs. Butler in Detroit.

Arkansas has beaten five ranked teams this season. Butler has won six NCAA tournament first round games in a row.

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Missouri vs. Florida State in Nashville.

The uncertainty of the Michael Porter Jr. effect – thumbs up or down – makes Missouri a fascinating study. We’ve just never seen a pre-season national player of the year candidate go into the NCAA Tournament with 25 minutes of court experience.

And some possibles for the weekend . . .

Arizona vs. Kentucky. A freshman-a-palooza, with Ayton against all the Kentucky kids.

Missouri vs. Xavier. If Porter happens to have started finding his form by then, would Xavier curse the basketball gods for Missouri being a No. 8 seed in their path?

Purdue vs. Butler. They did that in December, and the Boilermakers won big.

Duke vs. Rhode Island. Mike Krzyzewski against Dan Hurley, the brother of Bobby, who won so many games for Duke.

Michigan vs. Houston. Two teams lost most of the season in the glare from other teams in their leagues, but shouldn’t be any more. Michigan has won nine in a row, Houston 10 of 12.

Auburn vs. Clemson. It’ll probably come down to the best quarterback. Wait, wrong sport. These two playing for the Sweet 16? It would show how times have changed.

Wichita State vs. West Virginia. The team that likes to play angry against the team that likes to press angry.

Virginia Tech vs. Villanova. The Hokies have already beaten No. 2 Virginia and No. 5 Duke. Care to take a crack at another top-five victim?

Of course, none of those might happened. This is the season that saw Notre Dame, USC and Saint Mary’s all ranked in the top-11 . . . and none are even in the NCAA Tournament. Impossible to know what comes next.

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